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Reflections on a Trip to the Rock

July 20, 1986|DAVID LAMB | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Alcatraz always seemed to me to be a monument to the destructibility of man's spirit. The Rock sits out there in the bay, defiant-like, fortress-tough, and you know the nastiest rogues on earth were defeated by it. "Yes," said Al Capone, "it looks like Alcatraz got me licked."

I used to gaze out at Alcatraz from the restaurants along Fisherman's Wharf in the early 1960s, before the prison was closed, and wonder what it would be like to walk down a populated cell block, to stand in the recreation yard and see the lights of San Francisco within arm's reach and know you could never touch them.

In the fog that swept over the Golden Gate Bridge and swirled around the tiny island, I'd swear I could hear the faint banging of steel doors and the muffled steps of guards.

The ferry ride from Pier 41 to the Rock, through the cold, swift currents of San Francisco Bay, takes only 15 minutes.

A stiff breeze was blowing the other day and I zippered up my Windbreaker as the 12-acre island grew close. The place looked as forlorn and austere as I had imagined, and I did not doubt the words of inmate Bryan Conway who once made this same journey and wrote: "The first glimpse of Alcatraz fills a convict with grim foreboding."

Exiles From Other Prisons

Over the years a sort of romantic mystique developed around the 1,600 inmates who served time at Alcatraz between 1934 and 1963, but surely these were rotten people. They were the incorrigibles, the unruly scoundrels exiled from other prisons.

No one was sentenced directly to Alcatraz, and the Rock's only function was to keep them securely locked up, not to rehabilitate them. Such a policy produced little humility and even less remorse.

"I have no quarrel with society," convict Jose Cretzer said several years before he was killed trying to escape in 1946. "It ought not have none with me. I only want what's coming to me.

"I've been wrong all my life, but I ain't bad. Now, in this hole, I fight the atmosphere, the silence, the bodies. No one feels the hard misery inside me."

It seems I am not the only one stirred by some morbid curiosity about this federal penitentiary turned national park, for Alcatraz now attracts half a million visitors a year. The late George "Machine Gun" Kelly, Robert "Bird Man" Stroud, Alvin "Creepy" Karpis and Arthur "Doc" Barker would, no doubt, have been startled to know that one day they'd rank with Carol Doda, Nob Hill and the Buena Vista Cafe as leading luminaries of San Francisco's tourist industry.

Stroud spent 17 years at Alcatraz. I spent three hours, but that was enough to meander through the three-tier cell-house where a National Park Service guide spun wonderful anecdotes about the prisoners and their lives on the Rock. Time to poke through the library, dispensary and museum, to peer into the closet-size, windowless cells, to see the cheerless dining room that had gas canisters positioned overhead for the guards, and the "adjustment center" where recalcitrants spent days locked in total silence and darkness.

Escape Lore

In normal periods, Alcatraz had 120 guards for its 263 prisoners. Inmates were counted every 30 minutes during the day, and although 36 men tried to escape in 14 attempts, none ever made it safely to the city across the bay.

"I was a fool to try it; I'm shot all to hell," Doc Baker said as he lay dying after a failed escape attempt in 1939.

For Baker, though, death was perhaps preferable to the numbing isolation and uncompromising discipline of Alcatraz. For me, after just three hours, there was a sense of appreciated freedom to reboard the ferry and to see San Francisco beckoning hardly more than a mile away.

Two other men made the same crossing after Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy closed the penitentiary in 1963, and their words spoke volumes about what life was like on different sides of the bars at Alcatraz:

Olin Blackwell, the warden: "I am going to miss the Rock. It's been a very pleasant assignment. I like San Francisco."

Frank Watherman, the last prisoner, leaving in leg-irons: "Alcatraz never was no good for anybody."

The excursion to Alcatraz costs $4, and tickets may be bought in advance from any Ticketron outlet. They also are available daily on a first-come, first-served basis at Pier 41--telephone (415) 546-2805 for a recorded message of departure times.

Ferries leave hourly during summer. You can return to San Francisco on any ferry. The last boat leaves Alcatraz at 7 p.m.

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