Tweetspeak’s virtual Literary Tours take us to destinations of all kinds, finding inspiration in places such as art museums, libraries, and natural settings. Today, we visit Alcatraz.
On an unusually sunny spring day in San Francisco, we ride a ferry to “The Rock, ” the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. It closed in May 1963, so these days only tourists and locals visit the island.
As we near, I’m struck by the number of buildings. I forgot prison staff, such as correctional officers and their families, also lived here. Children once played on one end of the island and rode a ferry to San Francisco to attend school.
Once we land, we wind up a steep hill to reach the Cell House, where most of the prisoners lived. We pick up our audio tour equipment and stand outside cell numbers 404 and 403, where we learn how six convicts, led by Bernie Coy, held William Miller and five other officers as hostages for two days in an escape attempt known as The Battle of Alcatraz (1946). A large black-and-white photograph of slain officer William Miller in his cap and uniform in one of the cells commemorates his foresight and courage. The escape failed because Officer Miller hid the Rec Yard key in the cell’s toilet.
When the prisoners knew their escape attempt would fail, convict J. Cretzer shot the six correctional officers to eliminate witnesses. I peer through metal bars, pondering the officers’ defenselessness. My shoulders shudder.
The voice in our headphones instructs us to open a cell house door to walk outside to the Recreation Yard. We push against a heavy metal door and cold air assaults me. Wind whips my hair over my eyes, plastering strands against my face as I step outside. The pungent scent of salty seawater and rusty decay hits me. The bright sunshine doesn’t warm. I walk onto a concrete walkway leading to stadium-style seating and a ledge marked “off limits.” To my left, I see concrete steps descending to the Yard, where general population convicts were allowed to roam for 2.5 hours each Saturday and Sunday.
The wind thrashes around me as I grip the metal rail to step down to the Yard. I see a concrete floor, cracked in places, enclosed by towering concrete walls on all sides except for an open doorway near the farthest corner from the stairs. Where does that doorway lead? As I look back at the concrete stadium “seats” and oversized windows in the cell house, it feels more like a movie set than history. In a far corner, tall flax colored dead grass and weeds wave. A western gull flies overhead.
Gazing up at the sapphire-blue sky with its few white stringy clouds beyond the immense concrete walls, I try to imagine what it was like when Alcatraz bristled with convicts and their guards—a few officers watching hundreds of men mingle in the Yard.
I look through the Yard’s open doorway and find more concrete stairs leading to another landing with a few shrubs. The wind bites harder without the high concrete walls to partially block it. I see the Pacific Ocean’s choppy gray-green waves and the San Francisco skyline, which is only a mile and a quarter away.
My mind wanders back to when we toured D Block, where the special case criminals stayed, sometimes in isolation. On one wall, black and white photos of some of D Block’s most infamous residents hung, such as mobster Al Capone and “The Bird Man, ” murderer Brian Stroud. D Block convicts were allowed only one hour a week in the Rec Yard.
Surprisingly, one of D Block’s doors led directly into Alcatraz’s library. A giant wall placard stated all library books were screened to remove any “sexual, violent or criminal” references. We learned that Bernie Coy, the mastermind behind The Battle of Alcatraz, used his job at the library to hide his pre-escape planning.
After we return our headsets and leave the cell house, we explore other areas around the island, such as the Model Industries Building where convicts were taught a trade. We walk past the Officers’ Hall which served as a social hub for prison staff and their families. I am surprised to see, on a bulletin board outside the Officers’ Hall, a photo of teenagers—children of prison staff—posing at a formal dance. The young men wear crisp suits, standing in a row behind their respective dates. The ladies wear elegant formal dresses and corsages. This image of civilian life, a short walk from some of history’s most violent criminals, startles me.
After exploring most of the island, we climb aboard the ferry. As we view the island from the deck, I carry with me images of prison staff’s spouses and children playing, climbing, and dancing—living out their lives in the shadow of The Rock.
Featured image by John Curley, photo of bridge by Daniel, and photo of stairs by Nicolas Vollmer. Used with permission. Post by Dolly Lee.
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Maureen Doallas says
This takes me back. I visited Alcatraz in the ’70s and found it fascinating, especially the info about “The Birdman”. We had a tour guide then, no headsets. I’ve never forgotten the demonstrated sound of the cell bars closing, or the sound of the water in a storm.
The stories about “The Birdman” are fascinating…especially the part about how the movie made of him wasn’t factually accurate because most of his bird studies occurred in Leavensworth. I can imagine how chilling it must have been to hear the sound of the cell bars closing…you reminded me I forgot to mention how the sound was demonstrated on the audio tour. Thanks for sharing your memories 🙂
Charity Singleton Craig says
My husband and I saw Alcatraz from Fisherman’s Wharf last year, but we didn’t get a chance to tour. Oh, the stories that place could tell!
You’re so right about the stories…there wasn’t space to write about all the stories we heard during the audio tour. Hope you and your husband can visit one of these days 🙂
L. L. Barkat says
I like the way this is simply reported, letting the images speak.
What a visit.
Thanks, Laura 🙂
However stark these images, one can see traces of hope – the first with its tint of green (maybe moss on the wall) and the second with its hint of blue water beyond.
I’ve seen it from afar… had no idea about the families that once lived there. That is interesting.
I love how you can see hope…thank you 🙂 If there was an emergency or problems at Alcatraz, there was a chain link fence the officials would lock to try to protect the families…it is wild to think of kids playing in the shadow of the Rock.
History is intriguing to me. That is so cool you got to see Alcatraz. I’d never thought about the people living there, I guess I assumed that they didn’t, that they commuted via ferry. Good and wholesome living so close to sinister… I guess none of us really know how close we are to it at certain times in our lives… at least they knew…
If you like history, you would have loved the audio tour as there were many stories, such as two other escape attempts that I didn’t mention so the post wouldn’t be too long…hope you get to visit one day 🙂
Sandra Heska King says
We honeymooned in San Francisco in 1971. Alcatraz was closed much to my husband’s dismay. I remember him gazing longingly through those viewer thingies. I felt like I was there through your words. My husband will enjoy reading it… and maybe it’ll inspire him to take me west again. 🙂
Oh, Sandra, I love learning more about your story as I imagine you and your hubby exploring SF as newly weds… glad you were able to vicariously be there and I do hope, fingers crossed, your hubby is inspired to take you out west again 🙂 Thanks for coming with me 🙂