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Wayne Anthony Ross's new memoir, fun read despite rough edges

Craig Medred
With a paper Burger King crown, Anchorage attorney Wayne Anthony Ross lightens the mood at a tense Alaska Republican Party executive meeting. Jan 31, 2013 Loren Holmes photo

Once more Wayne Anthony Ross -- or WAR as he is known to his friends and enemies, although the latter appear to be few in number -- is back in the news. This time he has popped up as the unpaid counsel for Russ Millette, the one-time Alaska Republican Party chairman-elect who never actually made it into office. WAR contends he volunteered for the job in the name of party unity, though there are those who would argue the acronym he wears so well would not exactly paint the soon to be 70-year-old barrister as a unity kind of guy. Not that anyone should hold that against him.

WAR might have a lot of critics, but as far as can be determined he doesn't have a lot of true enemies. Much of this might be due to the fact that he loves to talk, which has both an upside and a downside. The upside is that because he likes to talk he'll talk to almost anyone about almost anything, which makes him hard to hate. The downside is that because he likes to talk he is destined to say something that will upset someone.

Flapping lips are what made WAR the shortest-lived attorney general in the state of Alaska. Former Gov. Sarah Palin appointed him to the post in March 2009. The Alaska Legislature, which must approve such appointments, took only about two weeks to throw him out. He came under fire for all kinds of reasons, among them having once written a column defending a statue of a KKK figure as an expression of free speech, as if there is something wrong with free speech. His column, The Huffington Post reported, "was filled with racial and political insensitivities that, even in the relatively homogeneous Alaska, were bound (perhaps designed) to stir the pot."

Pot-stirrer would be Ross. As his newly published memoir details, he's been stirring the pot for a long, long time, often with a lovely sense of humor. At one point in the Millette hearings, Ross’ client was coming under fire for an apparent inability to figure out how to use the Internet. This led Ross to mockingly express his ignorance of all things technological, saying, “I don't have a Blueberry. I don't have a Walkboy.”

The comment drew a lot of laughs, but let there be no doubt here: Ross knows well the functions of a Blackberry and Walkman MP3 player. The comment was WAR being WAR, which leads all of this into a review of the aforementioned book.

And let me start that review by saying this: I'm not going to write about how I read WAR's memoirs while I was on an airplane flying to Dallas where I was going to a wedding. Nor am I going to write about how I found myself interested in the book after all my years in Alaska because I knew, or I knew of, many of the characters I read about in the book. Why am I not going to do this? As in why am I not going to write about what I was thinking while I was reading Ross's book while I was flying south in that airplane? Because I think I've made my point by now. And the point is nothing fouls up a narrative much better than the I-me-my writing style so prevalent in so many memoirs these days, most especially those written by first-time authors.

Ross's book -- "Courtrooms, Cartridges and Campfires -- Lawyering on the Last Frontier" -- is not a bad book. He has an interesting past and has lived a colorful life. Old Alaskans familiar with even a slice of his Alaska life are likely to enjoy learning more about his background, but the book could have been so much better without the over-indulgence in personal pronouns which tend to make Ross look ridiculously full of himself.

In the first two pages of the book alone, there are two dozen I's, my's and me's. There is, in fact, scarcely a line of copy in the first chapter that doesn't contain one of those words.

Editorial malpractice

Ross has said he paid an editor to help him get the book in shape for publication. He should ask for his money back. What the book needs, to make it more readable for the general public, is a rewrite aimed at taking out as many of those personal pronouns as possible.

Some advice here to others writing their memoirs, something a fair number of older Alaskans seem to be up to do these days: When you get the first draft done, go back and review the personal references for their meaning to others. Then write the personal pronouns out of the story as much much as possible. Don't worry. There will be plenty left. There always are when one writes about oneself.

Just try not to over-indulge. This is over-indulgence: "I believe my first conscious memory was VJ Day," Ross writes. "I have dim memories of walking along the bluff overlooking Lake Michigan in downtown Milwaukee with a lot of happy people, sunshine and flags. I would have been about two and a half years old."

Who cares? Maybe it is meant to illustrate Ross's remarkable memory, though scientists now agree that while memory starts by about age 2, autobiographical memory -- the ability to recall the past events in our personal histories -- probably doesn't start until near the end of the preschool years.

A smart and capable barrister, Ross is smarter than most of us, but his memories of a 2 1/2-year-old really aren't of much interest to anyone. These are the kind of observations that make people who don't know Ross, or any of his Alaska history, put down a book never to come back. Those who do that would never discover the more interesting oddities in Ross's background.

His sister, Kay, was "Miss Wisconsin and went to Atlantic City and was on TV in the Miss America Pageant with Anita Bryant in 1958." Who would have thunk it?

Or thunk that the conservative Republican has "always been against the death penalty," for reasons a little hard to fathom. He explains them this way:

My mother used to tell me the old western program "Gunsmoke" was being broadcast on the car radio as Dad drove Mom to the hospital to give birth to me. Mom aid that some poor fellow was about to be hanged, and she never did find out whether or not he survived. Maybe that's the reason why I always like cowboys and why I've always been against the death penalty.

Wayne Anthony Ross -- WAR as he is known to many -- is against the death penalty because his mother saw a reference to a hanging on "Gunsmoke" when he was still in utero? On first reading, that passage just seemed folksy. Reading it a second time, one can only go "what the hell?" The lawyer whom former Palin nominated to be AG was against the death penalty because of of a TV show his mother watched.

There are plenty of sound, intellectual reasons to be against the death penalty -- the best being that too many innocent men have been put to death in this country over the years. But the influence of "Gunsmoke" on your mother? That doesn't seem the best of reasons. It's hard to avoid wondering if Ross was just being cute when he wrote the book, or if this is truly how he came to his opinion on the death penalty. Possibly it is.

One thing to be said in favor of this book is that Ross doesn't try to polish his intellectual image. He is refreshingly frank about his blue-collar roots, his early and lifelong fascination with firearms, and his intellectual mediocrity as a young man. He transferred from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to Marquette University as a junior, he writes, because "with two years of Marquette under my belt, it might be easier to get into its law school than if I tried to get in straight from UW-M. And besides, unlike UW-M, I didn't need a 2.3 grade point to get into Marquette's School of Business. My 2.1 grade point would do just fine."

Or, as he later observes, "I needed a 2.0 grade point to graduate. My A grades in speech and parliamentary procedure gave me a total of four credits of As while my F grade in logic gave me a total of three credits of Fs. That extra credit of an A allowed me to graduate with a 2.09 cumulative grade-point average."

Despite the grades, he eventually did get into law school, but as he writes, "I didn't get asked to join the law review staff because I wasn't in the top 10 percent of my class. In fact, I wasn't even in the top 50 percent of my class. I think that one time I calculated that I was the top man of the bottom third of my class." He confesses to later failing the Alaska bar exam as well.

Give Ross an A for brutal honesty now, and thank him for showing that school grades are vastly overrated. As with many others who struggled through school, or spent that period more interested in partying than studying, he has gone on to considerable success in life, driven in large part by that zest for adventure and spunk that characterize so many who migrate to the Last Frontier in their 20s.

Tales from a bygone Alaska

Ross was living in a tent in the Russian Jack Springs campground in the summer of 1967 when he decided to visit the Alaska Bar Association office to see if he could find a job. He ended up at lunch with John Havelock, a future state attorney general, and eventually got a job as a law clerk in Anchorage. The next year he was hired as an assistant attorney general for the state primarily because he was in Alaska and available, and because his chutzpah played well here:

I was introduced to Attorney General G. Kent Edwards as he got off the plane. Edwards said hello and I told him: "You're the first guy I've decided I dislike, even before meeting you!"

Obviously taken aback, Edwards asked me what I meant.

"Here you are...flying around the country at taxpayers' expense, looking for attorneys to hire for your office, while I'm sitting here in your Anchorage office ready to go to work....and I get sent home!" I told him, "That really pissed me off!"

"Let's go have a drink!" said AG Edwards, and we did.

In most places, that sort of behavior wouldn't land you a job. But in Alaska, back in the day, bluntness was often rewarded. Edwards would be the first dinner guest Ross and his new young wife, Barbara, hosted at their Anchorage apartment. And the part of Ross's life of most interest to Alaskans started in the years that followed, about halfway through the memoir.

Some of the stories he tells of the earlier Alaska are gems. He faced the late and legendary attorney Edgar Paul Boyko, "The Snow Tiger," in his first courtroom appearance. Ross thought he had an open-and-shut adoption case involving a doctor who'd run away to Alaska with his 18-year-old mistress and then adopted a child claiming her his "wife," although he was still married to a woman in Colorado.

"I knew there was no way I could lose!" Ross wrote. "(But) Ed Boyko came up with something I had never heard of, a principle called 'the best interests of the child.' To Boyko, it mattered naught that there had been a 'mistake' in the doctor's affidavit; what mattered was that the infant child now had a good home with loving parents. According to Boyko, I was 'Victorian' in my beliefs in the importance of marriage, I was 'tinged with purple' in my moral philosophy, and I was 'puerile' in my arguments."

Ross lost the case. "Although I did my best, it was like Tom Thumb versus The Incredible Hulk," he writes.

Welcome to Alaska, Mr. Ross. Or welcome to the live-and-let-live Alaska of the late '60s through the 1970s, before the state began to take a more conservative turn. Ross might find his "Victorian" beliefs more saleable today than back then, which is the most interesting part of his book. The latter half, which sadly ends in 1977 (Ross says he's working on part two now), in some ways tracks the history of how Alaska has changed. And how it hasn't.

WAR and the three bears

On a deer hunt near Cordova in '72, Ross walked into the proverbial three bears. What followed was one of those only-in-Alaska stories of the type that continue being told to this day:

One bear was 60 feet away looking at me. The second bear was 50 feet away, also looking at me. The third bear was 40 feet away and coming right at me. Instinctively, I raised my rifle.

As the gun came up, I can recall three distinct thoughts. The first was, "This can't be happening to me! This only happens in 'Field and Stream' magazine!"The second thought was, "There are three bears and I have only three cartridges in this rifle!" And the third thought was a remember of a picture hanging in a friend's office. It's a Charles Russel print of a cowboy who had been leading some horses along the rim of an arroyo. The horses are bucking. One bear is dead at the cowboy's feet. The second has a hold of his boot as the cowboy fires his Winchester at the bear, and the third bear is still coming.

Those three thoughts raced through my mind in far less time than it takes to tell. The .458 (-caliber Magnum) went off. I never felt the recoil. All I knew was one minute the bear was coming at me full tilt; the next the bear had cartwheeled over backwards just as if it had run full speed into a brick wall.

To find out what happened after that, not to mention the interesting history on the .458 Ross was carrying at the time, you'll have to buy the book. It might not be the best ever written, but one author to another, I empathize with how difficult it is to sell books these days.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com