Just a thought… Break the rules and you go to prison. Break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz. [Anonymous]
Before I get to today’s journal, as I lie in bed here in Oregon trying to sort through pictures to share with you, researching things about our trip so that I can pass on facts instead of just thoughts, I am reflecting on the heavy rains that hit so many parts of my former “hometown” last night. I am hoping you were spared the ravages of such a torrential downpour yesterday and if not, that you have the help you need to recover.
Today’s journal is about a place surrounded by water, by design: Alcatraz.
The name comes from the Spanish “Isla de los Alcatraces” – Island of the Pelicans – and those big prehistoric-looking birds sure do make themselves known. In fact, with no known predators, birds (mostly gulls, herons and cormorants) on this famous rock in the San Francisco Bay really do have the run of the place! It was wonderful to watch them and dodge their missiles. Here you see them just hanging out on the rock below.
Of course, the main attraction for some one million visitors annually to this national park is the maximum-security jail that housed prisoners (including Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly) between the years 1934 and 1963. It was a military installation and lighthouse in the 19th century, but when it became too costly to maintain as such, was converted to the famous prison that we’ve seen in so many movies.
Rob and I “crammed” for our visit by watching The Rock with Sean Connery, Nic Cage and Ed Harris (an over-the-top shoot-em-up from 1996 with far too thin a plot and no real resemblance to the prison itself), and Escape From Alcatraz, definitely shot on the island and in the actual prison, and starring Clint Eastwood from 1979.
I didn’t get a chance to ask, but it would seem the Eastwood movie was an excuse for Alcatraz to get a bit of a sprucing up with a fresh coat of cream and green paint, to look as it would have in 1962. (An occupation by Native Americans reclaiming their land from 1969 to 1971 likely also changed the inside of the prison, as well as the outside, where Parks personnel have made sure that their markings and painted statements have been maintained and restored over the years). But to our eyes, the Alcatraz we saw in the 1979 movie was very much like the one we saw in 2018.
I can’t imagine anyone – including those protestors – choosing to make that wind-buffeted island their home. The prison was cold and inhospitable – inside and out – even on a perfect August day. As birds hung on stiff breezes like socks on a clothesline, we shivered in the same prison yard where inmates would play baseball and otherwise kill time during their precious outdoor hours.
Included in the $39 cost of admission were boat transportation and a fascinating guided audio tour, available through headsets and in several languages. It was some of the best money we’ve spent as tourists; way better than the $10 we paid to drive through a tree (!) and we’ll show you that later this week or early next.
Through this narration (which followed a short Discovery Channel film we were offered the opportunity to watch upon entering Alcatraz) we learned of uprisings and murders, thwarted escapes and the dreadful daily rituals and details of life on The Rock. Some of the cells were furnished as they would have been at the time of the prison’s operation, from the trappings of music nights (including the accordion you see on the bed)…
…to the tools of a would-be artist allowed to indulge in his hobby of painting. (I say “his” because no female prisoners or guards were on the island.)
A glimpse into a solitary confinement cell, as well as narration describing how one survived it, was certainly disconcerting. Me, I prefer the airiness of a nice, regular cell, thanks.
As for privacy, how about these for showers twice a week? In that cold air (and you can bet the water wasn’t much warmer) I don’t know how much I’d look forward to that. Especially when a knife went missing from the kitchen and, oh yes, they most certainly did, on occasion.
Fascinatingly, we were informed that for families of the wardens and staff who resided there, life was somewhat idyllic: children took a boat back to the mainland for school every day and enjoyed a unique upbringing on that most infamous island. Now, the warden’s home is in ruins, a victim of neglect and nasty weather.
There’s no doubt that Alcatraz is as haunting today as it probably was the day they closed it due to the ravages of time and weather on its structure in 1963 – especially in the lower level where Rob and I wandered while others took tours.
Kudos to the US National Parks Service, its employees and volunteers for the work they do keeping the area beautiful, right down to its gardens.
If you do decide to go to Alcatraz, be sure to book months in advance; we reserved our spots three months ago. During our last trip to San Francisco in 2012, we couldn’t get on the island, but took a boat tour around it. This was so much better and I encourage you to see it for yourself if you get a chance, if only for the view of San Francisco! (Inmates said that some nights, if the winds were right, you could hear the laughter and parties happening back in the city, especially on New Year’s Eve. Imagine the loneliness that would invoke!)
Tomorrow: a chance encounter in the dining hall for Rob and me (a small world story to be sure) plus some favourite photos from San Francisco to share with you. Come on back – enjoy the free tours!