by Herschel Cozine
This story was previously published in Shred Of Evidence.
Sam didn’t come to San Francisco for its spectacular scenery, its hills, its cable cars or any of the countless attractions that made the city unique. He didn’t even want to come, had fought the urge for years. But now, despite his reluctance, he found himself on a boat in San Francisco Bay as it made its way slowly through the gently rolling water. The water’s calmness was deceptive. It was a treacherous bay, Sam knew, with undertows and currents that could overwhelm the strongest swimmer.
It was a short trip to the island, much shorter than Sam had imagined it would be. The ship’s captain cut the engine and guided the free floating boat toward the pier. The hull gently nudged the rubber covered pilings and shuddered to a halt.
Sam stood up, wincing as the pain in his right leg, the lingering result of an old injury, shot from his ankle to his knee. He waited while the crew secured the ship. Joining the bright shirted tourists, he stepped out into the weak San Francisco sun.
He glanced at the sign on the wall of a building:
United States Penitentiary
Below the sign was a printed warning to unauthorized vessels to stay beyond the buoys or risk the possibility of being fired upon. Those days were gone, along with the buoys. But the sign remained, preserved by federal decree as a historical landmark.
High on the hill Sam could see the stark dun colored walls of the prison. To the right of him the old guard tower stood, leaning slightly to one side, its iron legs corroded by the relentless sea air. The rotting structure, with its catwalk and square guard shack silhouetted against a pale sky, was easily recognizable to the most casual observers. Unused for forty years, it remained a grim reminder of the island’s more infamous days.
A uniformed guide stepped forward and welcomed the group to the island. It was a National Park now, open to tourists who, seeking the vicarious thrill of prison adventure, thronged by the thousands to The Rock with cameras and guide books in hand.
Sam didn’t have a camera, didn’t even own one. He had decided at the last moment to take the tour, and was already having second thoughts. But having come this far, he was determined to go through with it. He didn’t know what led him here. It certainly wasn’t curiosity or a desire to see inside a prison wall. It was more a compulsion, not based on reason, that urged him to put down ten dollars for a ticket to The Rock.
A thin fog blanketed the island and a chill wind blew off the bay. Sam pulled his jacket around his neck and hunched his shoulders against the cold. He joined one of the smaller groups at the foot of the steep path leading up to the prison.
A youthful guide, clear eyed and fuzzy cheeked, introduced himself as Ernest. He was to be their guide, he told them, and admonishing them to stay on the path, he led them up the hill to a point just below the prison.
Sam paid little attention as Ernest went through his carefully rehearsed spiel about the history of The Rock. He little cared that during the Civil War, Alcatraz had been a fortress, later to become a convalescent station for military personnel, and still later a stockade for wayward servicemen. But his interest piqued when Ernest started talking about the prison years.
“In 1934, Alcatraz became a Federal Prison for incorrigible prisoners. For the next twenty-nine years it housed such notorious gangsters as Al Capone, Mickey Cohen, Machine Gun Kelly and Robert Stroud, the ‘Birdman’.”
Sam grunted as he remembered Stroud’s pronouncement of The Rock. “They should give it back to the pelicans.”
Ernest was warming to his subject. “But the majority of the prison population were unknowns who had one thing in common: lack of respect for law and rules. They were unmanageable in other penitentiaries and were here to learn to adapt to prison life.”
Unknown, yes, Sam thought. But regardless of their lack of notoriety, they were all flesh and blood. And life at Alcatraz, if it could be called that, spawned hatred in an already rebellious soul.
The group made their way past the shell of the warden’s house, gutted by fire during the Indian occupation in 1969, to the flat paved area where the old prison stood. An air of expectation came over the crowd as they neared the entrance.
Sam held back for a brief moment. Looking at the forbidding steel door that guarded the entrance, he fought a fleeting surge of panic. He rubbed his right leg and stepped along the path. He paused again, then hurried to catch up with the group.
They walked through the door into a dark arched hallway that led to a high ceilinged receiving area as bleak as the prison itself. Straight ahead Sam could see the barred cubicles, three tiers of them; small, dark and bare of any furniture save a commode and bunk. The doors were shut and locked, empty now, although at one time not too long ago they contained human debris, forgotten and forsaken by the outside world.
A hush fell over the group as one by one they began to grasp the grim reality of prison life. Sam shuddered. Ernest, obviously a showman, called for complete silence. After several seconds, he said, “That is what you would hear if you were an inmate. Silence. Even talking was forbidden in Alcatraz. Prisoners had only three rights: food, shelter and medical care. Anything else, including talking, was a privilege, and had to be earned.”
Someone toward the back of the group giggled nervously.
Ernest, primed for the question, smiled tolerantly. “Thirty-six tried. Of these, ten paid with their lives–six by shooting, two by drowning and two presumed with certainty to have drowned, although their bodies were never found. Twenty-two were recaptured before they got off the island. One managed to swim ashore only to be picked up, exhausted and in shock, at Fort Point. He was returned after a brief stay in the hospital.” He paused and waited for the inevitable question. It came from a girl standing next to Sam.
“What about the other three?”
Ernest took a deep breath. “Clint Eastwood helped make them famous in his movie, Escape From Alcatraz. Hollywood, as it is wont to do, took liberties with the facts, but it is true that three men did manage a rather spectacular escape. They burrowed through the vents in their cells. They had made a raft out of raincoats–fifty-five by official count. No one knows exactly how they planned and executed their escape. They were extremely clever about it, arranging their digging around bed check schedules, using fake heads in their bunks to fool the guards into thinking they were in bed while actually they were burrowing through the rotting walls. One night, after many weeks of careful digging, they went up the vent to the roof, over the wall and into the water.”
He pointed to a cell behind Sam. “One of the escapees occupied that very cell. If you look, you can see that the vent has been sealed over.”
Several heads turned and there was a stir of movement as they strained to see inside the cell.
“They actually escaped?” someone asked.
Ernest shrugged. “It’s highly doubtful. Pieces of the raft were found floating in the bay, along with a homemade paddle. The men were never found, but it’s believed that they were all drowned. We are convinced they never made it to shore. The swift currents, cold water and long distance to shore made survival virtually impossible.”
Sam tensed at the word. He studied the young guide through half closed eyes. Ernest hadn’t even been born when Alcatraz closed it doors, and was only mouthing words that he had been told to say. Sam started to speak, thought better of it, and remained silent.
Ernest waited a few seconds for further questions. Hearing none, he turned and motioned toward the door at the end of the corridor. “Shall we move on to the dining area?”
The group moved forward. Sam lingered behind, staring blankly into the cell Ernest had pointed out in his talk. The vent was indeed sealed off. But beyond the vent, Sam could picture the narrow twisting shaft. He closed his eyes and imagined the three desperate men scrambling quickly and quietly over the roof, dodging into the shadows as the probing searchlight swept over them. He could see the high wall looming ominously in front of the men. One by one they climbed it and dropped to the other side, pushing the homemade raft before them.
The last man over the wall caught his foot on the ledge and fell to the ground. He grimaced in pain as his right leg buckled and snapped. Dragging his leg, he rolled into the raft and grimaced again as the frigid salt water soaked through his thin prison clothing and stung the open cuts of his arms, worn raw from scraping over jagged concrete and steel.
The raft lurched violently, throwing the men into the deadly water. First one, then another, disappeared into the blackness until only one remained. Desperation gave him the strength to paddle the disintegrating raft through the water, fighting fatigue and cold.
The raft, buffeted by the current, broke into pieces within minutes. His homemade life vest, nothing more than a raincoat partially inflated for buoyancy, kept him afloat. Half conscious from the pain in his leg, he drifted through the swirling water, chilled and exhausted. With nothing left but a powerful desire to live, he swam the last agonizing yards to the boat waiting just outside the warning buoys of the island. Semi-conscious and near death, he felt a pair of hands grab him by the collar and pull him into the boat.
Sam’s thoughts were interrupted by Ernest’s voice.
“Come along, Sir.”
Sam took a last thoughtful look into the cubicle. He shook his head and allowed a wistful smile to cross his face.
“Not impossible,” he mumbled. He rubbed his throbbing leg and limped painfully up the narrow aisle to the dining area.
Check out another of Herschel’s short stories right here in KRL.