Friday, August 15, 2008

What could be better than San Francisco on a rare warm summer day? I'll tell you what's better. Being in the middle of the bay on Alcatraz Island for the annual alumni day.



Once a year, the prison holds an anniversary party for the guards, children brought up on the twelve-acre island, and inmates. National Park Rangers and volunteers swarm the island. They treat the returning occupants like royalty. The Alcatraz alum make themselves available for questions and special lectures are scheduled throughout the day.



From 1934 until 1963, Alcatraz was a federal penitentiary, home to rapists, murderers and kidnappers. Incorrigibles who got into trouble in other prisons were sent here. The famous, like Machine Gun Kelly, and Al Capone and the Birdman, Robert Stroud, and the just infamous, like Doc Barker, one of Ma Barker’s boys.


The guards, wardens, and prison doctors and their families lived on the Island. Children were sent to school in San Francisco by boat. We were given a tour of Building 64, where most of the civilians lived. The buildings are in grave disrepair but the feeling of a bustling neighborhood still exists.



Yes, inmates do come back. I watched one former inmate and his grandson being interviewed by the local TV station on the second tier of C block. The inmate seemed nonplussed about standing outside the 5x9 cell he once lived in. You haven't seen anything until you see a former guard and a former bank robber, both now well into their eighties, exchanging phone numbers. Talk about bygones. This is John Dekker, an inmate talking about the "screws". His take, vehemently disputed by the guards, was that they weren’t so tough.



San Francisco is a short ferry ride away. The city seems close enough to touch.



Walking down the steep steps into the exercise yard, the wind is fierce as it blows through the Golden Gate. Fog obscures most of the bridge, but the famous towers are visible.


This piece of real estate has million dollar views.



John Hernan, a former guard, told us a story of seeking out the source of music one night. He thought one of the inmates had made a crude radio. He finally realized the music was coming from a band at an elite country club across the bay.



As with any historical building, the most fascinating aspect is the people who lived and worked there. Guards, and inmates and children were available all day to answer questions. Their love for the place and their place in history was evident. I talked to Bob Stites, whose father was killed on duty in 1946. Bob was fifteen at the time. He was forever tied to this island. He and his wife of 53 years were on their last visit to Alcatraz.



The writer in me was thrilled to find out that it's possible to spend a night at the prison, sleeping in D block. What a great place for a retreat. And a murder mystery.



Care to join me?

9 comments:

beckylevine said...

How very cool. You bet I'll join you. And I'm bringing you my copy of Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko--it's about some of those kids who's parents worked on the island and who took the ferry across to SF for school.

Terri Thayer said...

Awesome! I don't know if she was there that day.

Terri Thayer said...

Blogger keeps kicking me as I try to edit my post to thank Kevin and David for their pictures.

Thanks, guys!

Camille Minichino said...

Absolutely fascinating, Terri!
Maybe we'll see an Alcatraz inspired quilt story?

Kathryn Lilley said...

A quilt could be present an awesome take on the Birdman of Alcatraz (grin).

Terri Thayer said...

The Birdman had no birds on Alcatraz. So much hype. He kept birds when he was at Leavenworth. Had to leave them behind when he killed a guard there. He's not the most loved prisoner. He made a lot of trouble for the guards, always angling to get more comfortable digs.

But I do see quilters or stampers having quite a time on the Rock. And perhaps a very helpful volunteer...

Kathryn Lilley said...

Hmm...somehow the "Birdman of Leavenworth" doesn't have the same ring to it...

Betty Hechtman said...

Maybe we can have a Killerhobbies retreat on Alcatraz. Plus Becky.

I'm in.

Jessica said...

For a scary jail, I suggest you check out the Old Salem Jail in Salem, Mass. I have never been in a scarier place in all of my life. It was so scary my 14 year old son peed in his pants while we were there! HA!