December 2002 - January 2003
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Are We There Yet?
Escape to Alcatraz: Visiting the Rock at Night
By Janis Cooke Newman
Alcatraz is a different place at night. When the sun sets and clouds of fog spread over the sky like lethal gas, it's easy to imagine the bent-nosed profile of an Al Capone or Doc Barker sliding past the barred windows of the massive stone cellhouse. At night, when the barbed-wire fences and looming guard tower turn into shadows, the island seems once more the haunt of notorious criminals like Alvin "Creepy" Karpis and Robert Stroud (the Birdman of Alcatraz). Take away the sunshine and blue skies, or even the bright daytime fog, and the Rock reverts to its more sinister incarnation.
In the 20 or so years I've lived in the Bay Area, a steady stream of visiting family members from New Jersey has ensured that I take plenty of trips to Alcatraz during daylight hours. But until now, I've never paid a visit to the prison at night. As I disembark from the evening ferry with my husband and 7-year-old son Alex, I catch sight of the burned shell of the warden's residence, the bleak cellhouse growing dim in the fading light, and I have no trouble believing that this was the scene of five suicides and eight murders.
"An intimate experience designed especially for locals" is what the National Park Service promises guests on its Alcatraz Night Tour, operated year-round with the Blue & Gold Fleet. "Beautiful city views and a spooky atmosphere."
The experience is more intimate than the day tours because Blue & Gold runs only one ferryload of people to and from Alcatraz at night. It's designed for locals because they can plan their visit to coincide with one of the National Park Service's special monthly programs. And the atmosphere is spooky because of the nearly 30 years the island spent as a maximum-security prison (193463). The convicts locked up on Alcatraz were considered "incorrigibles," or as I explain to my son, "really bad guys."
We're met at the dock by a 20-something park ranger who sports a pair of muttonchops reminiscent of certain members of Credence Clearwater Revival. As the sky grows dark, our muttonchopped guide tells us the history of Alcatraz Island, from its days as a Civil War fort meant to protect San Francisco from itself (the city was home to both Union and Confederate sympathizers), to the 19-month Indian occupation (196971), during which Native American leaders offered to buy back the island for the same amount Dutch settlers paid for Manhattan in the 1600s.
As our guide talks, we follow him up a winding path past chainlink fences to the cellhouse entrance. Once there, he bids us farewell, and we file into the dimly lit building like newly convicted felons. However, instead of being issued striped suits, we're given a digital cassette player and a pair of headphones.
The audio tour of the Alcatraz cellhouse was created by Marin-based Antenna Theater and tells the story of Alcatraz's days as a prison in the words and voices of the guards and inmates who lived there. We slip on our earphones and walk down a wide hallway that the prisoners once dubbed Broadway. On the audio tour, a prison guard explains the rules: "You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention. Anything else you get is a privilege." As we make our way past a double row of cells, we hear the sound of shuffling footsteps and the catcalls and whistles of invisible prisoners.
In the prison library, the audio tour describes the escape attempt of a convict named Bernie Coy, who was employed delivering books to the other inmates. At the point in the story where Bernie assassinates a guard, we hear gunshots followed by peals of demonic laughter.
In the dining hall, we learn about the big spaghetti riot, which was sparked by the deteriorating quality of the prison kitchen's tomato sauce. Outside the wire-covered windows, it's pitch dark and the cavernous dining hall is dim and shadowy. I'm listening to the clinking of metal forks and knives, and I believe I can almost see the ghostly eaters sitting shoulder to shoulder on the long benches.
Now as we walk past the prison cells, their dark corners seem to hide the hunched figure of a convicted murderer or guilty kidnapper. Peeking into one cell, I see the head of a sleeping prisoner and yank away my son, who has been running his hand along the bars.
"Cut it out!" he says.
Having started his audio tour a minute before me, he already knows that what I have just rescued him from is a dummy head, much like the ones used in the successful prison break of Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers.
As my tape catches up with his, I learn how in June 1962, Morris and John and Clarence Anglin dug their way out of their cells with metal spoons. Before they escaped into the prison's ventilation system, they stuffed clothes beneath their blankets and covered their pillows with dummy heads, topped with real hair collected from the prison barbershop. Using raincoats for flotation devices, the three prisoners jumped into the bay, bound for San Francisco. Their bodies were never found, and although prison officials assume the men drowned, nobody knows for sure.
After our audio tour, we have a little time to poke around the gift shop. Alex spends his allowance on a metal digging spoon just like the one the Anglin brothers used. I peruse the National Park Cookbook, which features recipes for Point Reyes Scampi and Yosemite Chicken Parmesan. Then it's time for tonight's special program, which is titled, "Genius or Madman? Robert (The Birdman) Stroud."
We head back into the darkness, walking down the path to the foot of the water tower, where the Park Service conducts most of its special programs.
"Robert Stroud," a ranger informs us, "was more Hannibal Lecter than Burt Lancaster."
We huddle together as he tells us the story of the convict whose actual nickname was "Bird Doctor of Leavenworth" (Stroud never actually kept birds when he was at Alcatraz), a man who stabbed and murdered more people in prison than out of it.
As we stand there listening, the fog hanging over the bay lifts just enough to reveal the cold white light of a full moon. Above us, the water tower mysteriously lights up and then goes dark, illuminated by the circling beam of the Alcatraz lighthouse. Behind the blackened windows of the cellhouse, I imagine I can hear the ghostly exhalations of three decades of sleeping convicts deemed too dangerous for anyplace but this isolated island.
Alex inches closer and slides his hand into mine. I shiver and think, No doubt about it, this is not your tourist's tour of Alcatraz.
Escaping to Alcatraz
The Blue & Gold Fleet and the National Park Service run night tours to Alcatraz Thursday through Sunday. From now until March 30, the night tour ferry leaves Pier 41 at 4:20 p.m. and leaves Alcatraz for the return trip at 7 p.m. There's an additional ferry Dec. 26 30, which leaves Pier 41 at 5:10 and leaves Alcatraz at 7:50. (When the days get longer, the tour leaves later.)
This tour frequently sells out, so buy tickets in advance. Tickets, which include the audio tour and any special programs the Park Service is running, are $20.75 for adults, $18 for kids 12 to 17 and seniors over 62, and $11.50 for kids 5 to 11. Proceeds benefit the National Park Service. To buy tickets, phone 415-705-5555, or visit www.blueandgoldfleet.com.
For more information on the Park Service's monthly special programs, phone 415-561-4926 or visit www.nps.gov/goga/parknews and check out the calendar. Past programs have included talks on Robert Stroud, the life of a prison guard, and solitary confinement.
Parking around Pier 41 can be expensive -- steer clear of the big Pier 39 lot on the Embarcadero. Better parking deals can be had by driving a few blocks away from the wharf. Better yet, take the historic F streetcar down Market Street to the Embarcadero.
Are We There Yet? is a Noe Valley Voice feature about places to go and things to do with your kids. If there's an activity or outing you'd like to see explored, please e-mail Janis Cooke Newman at thereyet@ noevalleyvoice.com.