Saturday, 10 January 2009

Welcome to Alcatraz - Part 2

The prison officers on Alcatraz had escape response plans locked in a safe in the control room to counteract any contingency. The control room gives me the creeps. The place would generally have been very quiet but when the phone rang, it would have filled them with dread. The officers lived on the island with their wives and children – there was a grocery store and a bowling alley, and it was only twelve minutes to San Francisco – but the kids could hear the prisoners ‘letting off steam’ when they got riotous.

These men lived here for a long time and they got used to routine and rules. The prisoners got a rulebook when they arrived. If they abided by these it was much better than if they didn’t (the isolation cells were very unpleasant). The two I like:

  • #5 ‘You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. Anything else that you get is a privilege’ (Every parent should have this handbook)

  • #30 ‘Loud talking, shouting, whistling, singing or other unnecessary noises are not permitted.’
There is a sunny area on C Block which was the most desirable area in the prison. Inmates played bridge, painted oil colours, listened to the radio, played draughts and dominoes, and even crocheted – one prisoner, whose mother taught him, taught the rest of the prisoners; a great example of skills being passed on.

They had a music hour when prisoners played any instrument they had – guitars; harmonicas; trombones (one guy played three notes repeatedly for an hour – how annoying would that be?!) – or rattling their tin cups on lieu of any other instrument. They could take out books from their library (which contained 15,000 books – heavy readers read between 75 and 100 books a year), and the most popular titles included the philosophy of Kant, Schopenhauer and Hegel.

They could hear the sounds floating across the harbour from parties at the San Francisco Yacht Club (particularly at New Year); they could see the delights of the town from the exercise yard. It must almost have been an extra torment to ‘look at what you could have won.’ They called the areas of the cell block names such as Seedy Street, Times Square, Broadway, or Michigan Avenue – maybe to be ironic, or to give it a sense of connection to the outside.

Alcatraz was never integrated – Mexicans, Indians, Hispanics and whites were all put together, but blacks were segregated – apparently more for their own protection from the rednecks. Over 1,500 men served time in Alcatraz but in 1963 Kennedy ordered it closed. The mentality had moved from punishment to rehabilitation, but one prisoner who was released was worried that he was too different – he envied others who seemed to have purpose and moved too fast.

Outside the Blue Angels were flying overhead, practicing for an air show at the weekend. They are like the Red Arrows, but blue (obviously) and they’re not part of the Royal Air Force. They were swooping, twisting, flying in formation, buzzing the island and turning on and off their vapour trails. It was impressive stuff and the freedom of flight provided the ultimate contrast to the island incarceration.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Welcome to Alcatraz - Part 1

The sky is blue, the sun is shining merrily and all seems right with the bright, clear world as we board our boat to Alcatraz. If you lived here, you might want to visit when the mist and fog rolls in from the Pacific Ocean for a contrast and an eerie sense of atmosphere, but for a first-timer, the weather couldn’t be more perfect.

Arriving at the island, a sign announcing United States Penitentiary has been doctored to read ‘Indians Welcome, Indian Land’. I thought this was just a piece of graffito, but it turns out that Native Americans have occupied Alcatraz three times – the most effective beginning on November 20th 1969 and lasting for 19 months.

The Welcome to Alcatraz Island booklet explains, “Echoing the 1626 purchase of Manhattan Island, the Indians of All Tribes offered to buy Alcatraz from the federal government for $24 in beads, colored cloth and other trade goods. In The Proclamation to the Great White Father and all His People they noted that Alcatraz reminded them of an Indian reservation because, among other things, ‘it is isolated from modern facilities, the soil is rocky and unproductive, and the land does not support game’.”

We walk around the island – many areas are cordoned off to protect the seabirds. Some areas are rubble or burned – after the Indian occupation the government’s General Services Administration began bulldozing buildings, but this was stopped in 1972 when Alcatraz became part of the Golden Gate Nation Recreation Area.

There are gardens and plants flourishing which seems incongruous in such a hostile environment, but there are no rodents or other mammals to eat the vegetation. Before it was a prison, Alcatraz was a fort and then a military guard – the military planted things to keep the island’s new soil (especially imported from Angel Island) from sliding away. Later, garden privileges were highly sought after by the prisoners at Alcatraz.

I really like the lighthouse (that’s another one bagged!) which was the first on the Pacific Coast and has been in operation since 1854. From the top of ‘the rock’, there are great views over the harbour, back towards San Francisco and over the Golden Gate Bridge.

The audio tour is excellent, narrated by several of the prison guards and a handful of former inmates – one of whom came back to take a tour, just to see the warden’s house. Of course, the inmates believed in the escape-proof myth; the combination of tides and temperature made the water so treacherous. One of the inmates said, ‘Everything I want is a mile and a half away and I can’t get to it.’ But when they had been locked up for 15 years without visits or letters, what did they have to lose?

The audio tour describes many attempted escapes. Perhaps the most dramatic was that of the men who dug out of their cells with spoons and left heads made up of soap and hair on their pillows, which fell off when the officers touched them. These escapees were never found but presumed dead.

The officers claimed their days were boring, although a little eerie when patrolling the cells after lights out (9.30pm) with the sound of tears, grinding teeth, tossing and turning. The only guns were on the gun alley, not on the floor – even so, many officers were shot when an escape plan went wrong.

Even kitchenware was a murder weapon; three men got killed with kitchen knives (with a sound rather graphically described as ‘popslap’). The canteen or dining room was potentially the most dangerous place in the prison. The prisoners got (in addition to a roof over their heads) three meals a day – they were palatable, healthy, attractively served, and often spaghetti. Just in case the prisoners got sick of spaghetti, there were canisters of tear gas on hand.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Travels and Tribulations 4

Now that things are sort of back to normal and the holiday period is over, I shall break up the working week with continued reminisces of our overseas trip. And we are now up to the good ole U S of A...

A long day of flying starts at 3am when we get up to leave the hotel and head for the airport. Being in enforced proximity to people is horrible; you see how selfish, rude and insular most people are. I get constantly irritated by them. Oscar was right, as ever. Hell really is other people.

Unbelievably we collect our luggage, get through customs and pick up a hire car with no problems at all. San Francisco is an infinitely friendlier airport than LAX. I swear they play good cop; bad cop – San Francisco is, ‘Welcome to America; enjoy your stay’ – LAX is, ‘what do you want, alien; don’t step out of line; when are you going home?’

We pick up our 2l-engined, big-boot-spaced ‘small car’ (everything is, of course, bigger in America, even the toilet rolls – as Him Outdoors observed) and set off. Except, we have no map, no money and no cell phone reception. I can’t phone my friend (Our Gracious Hostess) with whom we’re meant to be staying for directions as arranged, so we just get on the freeway and head south.

Despite an overheating car, we do quite well, managing to pull off the freeway at Redwoods and, thanks to some friendly car wax salesmen, an ATM at a petrol station, a hurriedly-purchased map and some dubious navigation, we arrive at Our Gracious Hosts’ place in the late afternoon.

We wander about in a jetlagged haze admiring the Halloween decorations (pumpkins and black cats everywhere!) and eating grapes on the patio overlooking their little lake. Their house features a sort of courtyard surrounding a nut tree. As I peer out of the windows, I see squirrels digging holes (black ones as well as greys – the blacks are sleeker with less fluffy tails and actually look quite rat-like).

A deer comes down to the lake to eat the grass and shake its long floppy ears. Our Gracious Hostess says they’re all pests as they nibble the roses and all other plants. I’m sure they are, but they’re so cute! ‘I’ve seen cuter things,’ she says laconically. She is not alone in this viewpoint.

Our Gracious Hostess keeps prodding us awake and won’t let us fall asleep until Our Gracious Host comes home with Mexican takeaways. When he goes back out to play football, we gratefully collapse into bed in the guest wing.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

New Years Resolutions

Happy New Year everybody.

So, did you make any New Year resolutions? That's what my sister asked when she phoned me this morning. I don't really 'do' New Year resolutions, which I think disappointed her somewhat. She, incidentally, has resolved to wear more perfume. That's one of the best New Year's resolutions I've ever heard!

I would like to get my novel finished. I am about five full days' writing away from finishing the first draft after this stint over the holidays, so I think that should be highly achievable. I don't want to put undue pressure on myself, however. I have Him Outdoors for that.

I also aim to do more with photography. This is a little bit vague, I realise, which can be the problem with New Year's resolutions. I have a friend who once resolved to 'be nicer to people'. I'm not entirely convinced that she achieved this aim, as I don't know what her benchmark was. I have another friend who makes a resolution to give up smoking every year. He doesn't smoke, so he says he will always feel a sense of achievement.

Perhaps I need some goal to aim for with the photography. We bought me a camera over the holiday period and I have been practicing with various settings. So far I have got lots of photos of the cat. I haven't read the section on how to download them from the memory card yet though (I hate reading instructions) so they remain in the camera for now.

I have also resolved not to use phrases like 'credit crunch' and talk about things I know nothing about. If I'm interested, I will do some reading around the subject. If not, I will just shut up and avoid conversations with people who know equally little but have seen an item on the news and so are aping all the latest soundbites with nothing fresh to add of their own.

Neither am I going to read women's magazines about how someone is too thin/not thin enough/ pregnant/ engaged/ divorced. Those magazines are entirely aimed at making real women feel inadequate and I won't allow myself to feel like that just because I haven't got a multi-million dollar house and husband, cosmetic surgery, my own design label, and an array of adopted children from impoverished nations.

Finally, I would like to see Liverpool lift the Premier League Trophy. I can't do much about that apart from offer my wholehearted support. It's all yours, boys. I'm pretty sure you can't make New Year's Resolutions on the behalf of others, so maybe it's more like a New Year's Wish then.

We're four days into the year already, so many resolutions will be broken by now. A study by psychologists at the University of Hertfordshire (previously Hatfield Poly) of more than 3,000 people who made New Year's resolutions, found that only 12% achieved their goals. Who are these people, and would you trust them? If they can't even keep a promise to themselves, how can they expected to keep one to anyone else? Perhaps that's a question that should be asked of prospective employees or partners. It could save a lot of heartache. Just for the record, Him Outdoors doesn't make them either.

If you have made resolutions of your own, I hope you achieve them, or at least have a lot of fun trying.