Former governor entertains with 'More Tales'

Posted: Thursday, January 24, 2002

"Chips from the Chopping Block -- More Tales from Alaska's Bush Rat Governor"

By Jay Hammond

Epicenter Press

190 pages, $14.95

From the laughter sparked by the dedication page to the moist-eyed smile shadowing the closing paragraph, the reader can't escape being pulled into the swirling rhythm of former Alaska Gov. Jay Hammond's newest book.

His sharp wit, unwavering humor, colorful descriptions and insights prove a high-powered microscope through which are viewed individuals, locations, issues and events familiar to Alaskans and part of Alaska history.

Photos have an important role in this memoir. A 1941 picture of Hammond as a weight-lifting enthusiastic student at Penn State is matched with a hilarious accounting of the stir raised by the photo. There are snapshots taken near the Lake Clark home belonging to Hammond and his wife, Bella. Photos of fellow legislators -- Hammond served in both Alaska's House of Representatives and the Senate before serving as the state's governor beginning in 1974 -- are accompanied by good-natured jabs at his colleagues, as well as himself.

Whether describing the horrific misadventure he and his friend Nip endured when they were held captive by a knife-wielding lunatic or the razor-edged prose he used to get his message across to fellow legislators, Hammond keeps the focus sharp and to the point.

Hair-raising close calls with bears produce images of a Hammond far-removed from the governor's office. After he and two friends suddenly found themselves nose-to-nose with a pair of grizzlies, a sudden charge by the lead animal caused Hammond to abandon his camera and run for his life, while the second member of the party executed a classic matador-type twirl as the bear charged past. When the third person in the group launched a fistful of Roman candles, Hammond writes that "rocketing great balls of fire accompanied the shower of verbal abuse hurled at the charging bear. Small wonder that both bears turned tail and fled. I'd not be surprised if they're still running!"

A sobering balance is offered by tributes to other friends who were seriously injured by similar encounters or, even worse, did not survive.

Then there's the not-so-perfect landing of his Cessna 180. The "screaming silence" of an engine no longer running. The ice on Lake Ugashik that gave way beneath the weight of a Piper PA 14. And the near head-on while flying through Lake Clark Pass, on the way home.

Bringing Part One -- "close encounters of the absurd kind" -- to a close is the dramatic entrance Hammond and Bella made at Blaine's paint store in Spenard, an incident that left the owner, the customers and Hammond's automobile in an altered state.

And then begins Part Two -- "rocking the ship of state" -- the author's entry into the Legislature and his role as governor:

"Be forewarned, all ye who enter this section of the book; those seeking insight, uplift or intellectual stimulation will find little sustenance . Besides, in the world of politics, things simply have not changed that much."

From a naive legislator in 1959, who believed that "most legislators placed the public interest paramount" to his departure after two terms as governor, Hammond was on the front row during some of the biggest changes Alaska has faced. Fish and game issues, the impact of North Slope oil and the permanent fund were but a few of the challenges encountered. These are mixed with his thoughts on lobbyists, the length of legislative sessions and the art of campaigning.

More than once Hammond suggested a course of action that found favor with opposing sides. One such instance prompted former legislator Clem Tillion to comment, "Hammond, you did it again. You said absolutely nothing -- but beautifully."

His commitment to the "great lands of Alaska" is spread across the book's pages. His respect for the commitment of his old foes is summed up in the tongue-on-cheek conditions under which Hammond would consider running once again for office. And the secret to his popularity is shared in the same eye-twinkling manner.

Turning the lens on himself, he openly writes about his exploration of alternative medicine, a journey that forced him to leave his Lake Clark home and travel across the United States before returning to Alaska.

"I once swore I'd never inflict on others clinical dissertations on the state of my gastrointestinal tract or which creaking joint most commanded attention. Yet of late, I dwell overmuch on these sorry issues."

In the face of growing pain that threatened a wheelchair-bound future, his humor remains unshakeable and surfaces amid colorful descriptions of probing doctors and humiliating medical tests.

The book's 190 pages are a full meal and an entertaining read. But for all it discloses, there are suggestive hints of details left out and stories untold.

And in the end, there's a gnawing hunger for Hammond's storytelling to continue.

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