Anthony J. Mohr's work has appeared in the 2013 California Prose Directory, DIAGRAM, Compose, Eclectica, Front Porch Journal, Hippocampus Magazine, The MacGuffin, Word Riot, War, Literature, and the Arts, ZYZZYVA, and elsewhere. His work has been nominated four times for the Pushcart Prize and received honorable mention from Sequestrum's Editor's Reprint Award. He is a reader for Hippocampus and an assistant editor of Fifth Wednesday Journal. Once upon a time, he was a member of the L.A. Connection, an improv theater group. By day he is a judge on the Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles.
The object of the game is to conquer the world by occupying every territory on the board, thus eliminating all your opponents.
—Rules of Play for Risk, Parker Brothers’ Continental Game
I cringed with my soldiers in Australia. There was only one way in and one way out—through Indonesia. With each turn, I added more troops to my fortress and watched Bobby, Joe, and Gary’s armies oscillate across the rest of the planet. I was as hesitant to attack them as I was to ask out Lynn—the girl in my class whose face, if I wasn’t careful, could rule the rest of my life.
We were playing Risk on Bobby’s bedroom floor, and each time he took over a country, he acquired more armies—Parker Brothers depicted them with little colored cubes. By the time Bobby reached my continent, he controlled over a hundred troops, far more than I.
Two years from then, Beverly Hills High School’s Class of 1965 would vote Bobby the “brainiest” and “most likely to succeed.” He looked shorter than he was. His smile ranged from adorable to mischievous. His voice, mellifluous, modulated, and always powerful, would win a speech championship.
“I’m attacking Indonesia from Siam with three dice,” Bobby said. The Rules of Play required him to make such an announcement before starting a fight.
He threw a 6-3-2. As the defender, I could only roll two dice. 5-3. We each lost an army.
Another roll. 5-5-2 for Bobby; 4-3 for me.
“Beat you both times,” Bobby said. He plucked two of my cubes off the board.
As Bobby overran my redoubt, I retreated again into thoughts of Lynn. Her tan accentuated her sandy hair, which she wore in a flip. She had wide, lively eyes and a complexion approaching perfection. The school newspaper labeled her a “teen beauty.” In October 1964, she’d become a semifinalist for Miss Teenage Los Angeles. I hesitated to take even one step toward Lynn. Half the football team must have been chasing her. Once after touring her future college, the University of California at Santa Barbara, a convertible full of boys followed her home. I’d have had a better chance with Helen of Troy.
It wasn’t late yet, maybe 8:30 p.m. on that Saturday night. Bobby had won quickly. He stood, stretched, and gazed at the board, now awash in his green cubes. “It’s quite a feeling, to conquer the world,” he said calmly.
“Gotta feel bitchin’,” Gary said with genuine respect for Bobby. Gary had a carefree attitude. In two years he’d appear on Shindig!, a television show featuring rock bands and dancing teenagers, because unlike the rest of us, when Gary moved, his body flowed. He was months away from losing his virginity, with a neighbor, in her parents’ swimming pool. The rest of us would have to wait for college.
Joe said something similar, but in a complete sentence. He had curly black hair and a hooknose. His understated demeanor masked an intelligence that was earning him a 4.0 grade point average and would make him one of our class valedictorians.
I didn’t say what I thought—that I should have attacked my friends sooner. I should have opened a second front in the Eastern United States. I should have invaded North Africa while I still had a few armies in the Congo. I should have done a lot of things, but since I’d waited too long, I had yet to feel the heady lift that came in when you turned the Earth into your color.
One of the most important things to remember in playing this game is to keep moving into your forward areas as many of your armies as possible.
—Rules of Play
While I ate the carrots, celery, and too many of the Triscuits Bobby’s mother had laid out for us—there was a reason I looked pudgy—I shook my head and told him, “I was sure I could hold you off in Australia.”
“Australia is a rat hole,” Bobby said, because from there you could only invade Asia. Bobby preferred to start in South America, strategically placed with access to Africa and North America.
Bobby may have been right, but I liked Australia in part because I’d heard that Lynn came from there. Not true, it turned out, but Lynn’s family had close friends in Sydney, and they—husband, wife, kids—were staying with them for a couple of weeks. I didn’t say this. I was fighting not to develop a full-bloom crush on Lynn. We rarely talked. I tried not to visualize us holding hands at the ball game and cooing to each other while KRLA played the hits. But I imagined us making out.
Bobby’s father limped in to greet us. He had an open, friendly face with thick eyebrows and gray hair. At times he could assume an expression that conveyed awe at the world. As Bobby’s father looked at the board, covered with his son’s armies, I wonder if he flashed back to the day in Italy when enemy ordnance—they think a mine—had blown him apart in a jeep. He lay immobilized for eight months.
“Tony, my boy,” Bobby’s father said in a voice that, while powerful, exuded affection. Because he was a solidly built man whose 5’11” height exceeded mine by four inches, his pat on my back jolted me forward.
My father had been luckier. Since he was an actor, the Army decided that my father could do more for his country by entertaining the troops than by carrying a weapon, and so they sent him to the Santa Ana Army Air Base to tape radio shows like Wings to Victory. He remained as safe as Bobby, Gary, Joe, and I were in Beverly Hills, rolling the iron dice. (Actually, our dice were not iron at all. Parker Brothers had furnished plastic dice, most likely thermoset, which had been submerged in a dye and polished via a tumble finishing process. They were not precision dice, like the kind casinos used. Risk dice were non-precision, unpredictable. Like war.)
In a way, my father’s role in World War II was ironic because, unlike me, he enjoyed risk. I’m not saying he wanted to see combat—he never told me one way or the other—but when he acted in Westerns, he performed his own stunts. He flirted with skydiving. In 1954, my father accepted the lead in season three of a fading television series, Foreign Intrigue, because he wanted to live in Cold War Europe.
Risk never reminded me of real war. The game provided too much pleasure. Risk became an escape valve, a time to forget our studies and for me to forget that as usual, I didn’t have a date. Sometimes while a battle raged, we laughed and talked about nothing, banter I wanted to last and last. But every match contained a decision point when, to win, I had to array my armies, roll the dice, and chance a total loss. I had trouble doing that, which meant that even if I amassed lots of blue cubes (I always picked blue), I’d ultimately lose.
In one of the halls the following week, I managed a “Hi” to Lynn. She said something I’m sure was meant to sound funny, but the details vanished among the voices and sounds of slamming lockers, and now they’re lost in time.
This is not a short game but it need not be an unusually long one.
—Rules of Play
Gary and I wanted Bobby out of Asia and off the board. The moment Bobby saw our peaceful line between Europe and Africa, he glared at me.
“Okay, Tony, you’ve just assured yourself second place.”
I didn’t care. I feared a quick loss the way I feared asking out girls, let alone Lynn, and so I chose the uncertainty of an alliance—which the rules neither allowed nor barred— that would make our contest outlast the Peloponnesian War. Sometimes our games ran past midnight, until, too sleepy to go on, we documented our positions on the board and planned to finish the next day or the next week. Nine such “write-ups” remain in my game box, some in our bold adolescent handwriting, others in the faded ink of a typewriter ribbon. Two include the dates of the Saturday nights we played.
Eventually our games reached an end, as did our junior year. Beverly High’s yearbook, The Watchtower, included a photo of Lynn, laughing at something while wearing a letterman’s jacket that belonged to Joel (not straight-A Joe). Joel was a varsity swimmer with a wild sense of humor. Three months earlier, just for fun, some goof had spearheaded a write-in campaign to make Joel the class’s basketball homecoming princess, a shocking concept to choose a boy. Joel seized the moment and gathered up votes.
“All right, you birds,” our history teacher said during sixth period as he handed out the ballots. If he knew what Joel and his pal were doing, he never let on. Mr. Fish possessed the sweet air of the Midwest farm boy he was—close-cropped hair, an aw-shucks voice, and an easy grin to match his avuncular ways.
The voting may have been secret, but I felt a sense of daring, and also of belonging, when I wrote in Joel’s name.
Joel won. Eighty-two percent of the vote. Furious, the administration kicked Joel off the cheerleading squad, kicked him off the yearbook staff, and barred him from a swim meet. Of course they voided the election. They gave the title to a girl who’d received thirty-six votes out of a class of four hundred sixty-nine. When I learned what these martinets had done to Joel, I tried to act with decorum for the rest of the term. Quite simply, I wanted good college recommendations.
The following year, Lynn became a finalist for basketball homecoming queen. She was too good to be a princess.
It is better to concentrate on one area, advance slowly, and forget about those armies which are far from your main lines.
—Rules of Play
When representatives from the military visited Beverly Hills High School, Joe and Gary and Bobby and I trooped into the auditorium without a sliver of worry—or so it seemed.
I think the Marine started the program. “Man to man, eyeball to eyeball,” he said, “it is the law of the land that you will serve.”
He had a steely bearing, which the stage lights accentuated, and he caused a thunder-roll of fear to pass through me. Joe suppressed a grin, which made me feel better. We were the Beverly High Normans. Ninety-seven percent of the school went on to college, and one hundred percent of my crowd would. We took honors classes. We’d joined the Knights, the honor service club whose members wore black sweaters with a white Maltese cross sewn onto the right side of our chests. No one would draft us. The Boys’ Vice-Principal had said in writing that student deferments would protect us through college and graduate school, an infinity of years. I settled back in my seat.
The big Army sergeant spoke next. He had a stentorian voice and a body that was inflated like a balloon figure floating over a used car lot. He promised that if we joined his branch of the Armed Forces, we’d learn to drive a tank.
“Thrill,” Joe whispered to me. No tank would block Joe’s road to Yale. The auditorium bubbled with the titters of the immune, sounds that conveyed no concern, only solid privilege, and segued into sighs as the balloon finished his remarks and introduced “Radarman First Class Thompson” to pitch the Navy.
Radarman First Class Thompson knew his audience. “I’m supposed to give you this spiel about the Navy,” he said in a reedy voice that sounded sarcastic enough to earn him a laugh. Who remembers what he said next, or what the Air Force representative said when his turn came? By then we were too lost in our quips and jokes to pay attention.
At lunchtime, we headed out to our normal eating spot on the upper tier of the front lawn, acres of grass atop a hill high enough to provide a rooftop-level view of our town and the Hollywood Hills beyond. The lawn rolled downward, eventually reaching the street below.
None of us talked about the draft. We scheduled a Risk game for the weekend. Gary said he’d play unless his neighbor and her swimming pool were free. Bobby may have said something about fencing or existentialism. Two other boys—part of my crowd although they didn’t play Risk—probably made plans for their Saturday golf game.
Lynn and another girl walked by. Lynn wore a dark, long sleeved blouse, a plaid skirt, and tennis shoes. Under her arm, she carried a small purse. She asked what had happened during the “military assembly.”
“Not much,” someone said, while I ran a hand through my messy black hair and remained quiet, the diffident boy gaping at Lynn.
Remember, the dangers, as well as the rewards, are high. Just when the world is within your grasp, your opponent might strike and take it all away.
—Rules of Play
A jaunty looking man, tan and rugged with angular features, was showing my father and me around the Conejo Valley Airport in Thousand Oaks. The facility was small, with a few one-story buildings that served as hangars. The dry air smelled pleasantly of chaparral and soil.
A group of men wearing parachutes laughed as they climbed into a plane.
“I don’t see you parachuting,” my father said after the plane took off. He stood six-foot-two, handsome, with perfectly combed hair. “You’ve always been cautious.” He didn’t have to say “too cautious.” The adverb was implied.
My father puffed on his cigarette and fixed me with the same stare he’d used the time he’d played Doc Holliday on the television series Maverick. A dying gambler, Holliday kept trying to get himself killed by playing reckless games like drop the handkerchief—"When I drop my handkerchief, you go for your gun.”
I asked what my father meant.
In his deep voice, my father said, “You never broke any bones, did you, Tony?”
“No,” I said.
The skydivers’ plane flew into position. Out came the first jumper.
My father said, “I remember the day you started to crawl. You got to the head of the stairs and your mother wanted to stop you. I told her to wait because I saw you hesitate. Then you tested the step before you lowered yourself onto it. You did that all the way down—tested each step.”
As my father lit another cigarette, I thought about what he’d said to his second wife a few weeks earlier, when, in her Swedish accent, she’d warned him about smoking.
“I like smoking,” he said. “I also like my eggs and bacon, and you know what? If I die early because of it, that’s the way it goes.”
As the game progresses, one player will inevitably reach a point where he is slightly stronger than the others. When this point is reached the stronger player should attempt to occupy every space on the board on one turn and win the game. There is, of course, a certain chance involved, for if the player should fail by even a few territories he would be eliminated very quickly.
—Rules of Play
Toward the end of lunch period a week or two before graduation, on the second story breezeway between the foreign language wing and the main building, Lynn glided toward me. They should have crowned her Basketball Queen. They should have made her Miss Teenage Los Angeles. Heck, they should have made her Miss Teenage America.
I stuttered out the question, grammar nit and all. “Can you sign my Watchtower?” The 1965 yearbook had appeared a few days earlier.
Lynn steadied my volume on the white stucco rail. As she wrote, I looked away, down at the Fords and Falcons and Tempests in the student parking lot, then over the school fence to the back lot of Twentieth Century Fox.
“Okay,” Lynn said when she’d finished.
I waited until study hall before I paged to Lynn’s autograph. She’d signed opposite a picture of herself, dressed in a sweater and the same plaid dress she’d worn the year before on the front lawn. She was playing patty-cake with a wispy little boy with a big nose who, along with her, held a student government sinecure, Co-Commissioner of Recreation. But Lynn’s recreation had taken place on tennis courts, on water skis, and at the Broadway where she modeled and belonged to the store’s Hi-Deb Fashion Council—in short, at places where California was happening. My recreation had consisted of wars.
Lynn closed with the word “Love,” so customary when kids signed each other’s yearbooks. In large handwriting, she wrote her name twice—“Lynn-Lynn.” But she’d printed the rest, a message that confused and saddened me. Confused because I wondered how she knew, saddened because I knew she was right. Her note produced the same hangdog sensation as the times that Bobby had expelled me from the world during our Risk games:
Toni (sic), Thanks for understanding my often cutting jokes. You are really a cool guy deep down—just too inhibited. Much luck.