Wednesday, May 1, 2013

A jail with a view: Allure of Alcatraz blends nature, history

Behind bars: Keller tours prison.

Who knew that Burt Lancaster's "Bird Man" character never tended his feathered friends on Alcatraz?
That's the stuff of movies.  The famous, Oscar winning performance by the great actor told the story of Robert Stroud who actually tended his birds at Leavenworth, not on a remote island off the picturesque city of San Francisco.  An eccentric, not particularly pleasant man (according to our guides), Stroud had murdered a man before he was transferred to Alcatraz in 1942.  Apparently his hobby was getting out of control.  He was never allowed to pursue his passion in California.
Ah, that's the stuff of movies, though.

The island of Alcatraz lives on
as thousands learn history of
its tenure as a prison
 and now a bird sanctuary,
home to gorgeous iris
and many other blooms

with stunning views of San Francisco.
Inmates could view the city, a symbol of the pleasures they could not have as prisoners.
Because "The Bird Man of Alcatraz" had a catchy sound, that became the movie's title, despite the fact that Stroud was never allowed to tend birds on the island.
That film, though, continues to draw folks to the beauty, solitude and history of this little island a mile from San Francisco.
The prison's water tower still sports writing from the
Indian take-over of 1969 which lasted 19 months.
We recently played tourist to take it all in. Besides the "Bird Man" trivia, here are a few "did you know" tidbits we discovered on our pleasant day there:
*The island's history goes back to native people, but record keeping shows it was purchased by California from Mexico in 1847.  Its prison status dates to the Civil War when 11 soldiers arrived. Soldiers convicted of desertion, theft, assault, rape and murder were also sent to Alcatraz, along with the crew of a Confederate ship. Sadly, Alcatraz was also a place of incarceration for Hopi, Apache and Modoc Indians captured during the Indian wars, and military convicts were sent there during the Spanish-American War.
The warden's family lived in this large home which is kept for touring.
*The Alcatraz of more recent times came about after the 1930s Great Depression when the government was looking for a high-profile, maximum-security facility. Al Capone did time there, from 1934 to 1938.  He was transferred to a medical prison facility after a few fist fights with other inmates. Eight prisoners were murdered by other inmates and five committed suicide.
*Alcatraz inmates numbered a total of 1,545.  Besides Capone and "Birdman," a few other notorious fellas did time there:  Doc Barker, Machine Gun Kelly and Creepy Karpis for three. The island was a federal penitentiary for 29 years during which time 36 prisoners tried to escape.  All but five were
Inmates and families worked together
to landscape Alcatraz. Now
thousands of tourists enjoy.
recaptured.  Three were unaccounted for and may have survived. Their June 1962 escape was immortalized in the movie, "Escape from Alcatraz" with Clint Eastwood.
*An average of 260 bad guys were housed in the four cell blocks, with a high of 320 prisoners. Unruly inmates were sent to D block, whose 42 cells were known as the Isolation Unit. We toured the entire complex and heard many stories!
*Some of the correctional officers and their families stayed on the island. The warden and his wife and family lived in a large house near the prison building and never locked their doors! Some of the families grew lovely gardens which are still kept up today.  A few of the prisoners had green thumbs, too, and were allowed to contribute to the beautification. There were no women prisoners or guards.
*Besides the famous films, Alcatraz came to the public eye through the 1969-70 occupation by activists. A small group landed on the island the claimed it in the name of  "Indians of All Tribes."  The occupation followed, lasted 19 months.
Interestingly, the National Park Service has kept some of the signs and banners up, dutifully noting the occupation and its symbolism.
Birds are protected on Alcatraz and have no natural predators.
Here a pair of gulls appear to be mating.
*The gardens and birds of Alcatraz fascinated us as much as the guard towers and escape lore. We saw hundreds of birds, including mating gull and heron, cormorants, hawks and hummingbirds. Tide pools are home to crabs, sea stars and other marine animals.
*Alcatraz can be enjoyed at your leisure with many ferry departures and returns nearly each day. It's part of  the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. You'll take a short, pretty ferry ride from Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing. The ticket includes a well done audio tour, lectures and plenty of friendly guides to answer questions. 
415 981-7625.

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We'll give a first-edition autographed book of poems by the late poet Bruce Kemp Meyers to the winning suggestion.  And we continue our exploration of the great city of San Diego with a look at the hip pleasures of Hotel Diva, Union Square, a little known hike to Coit Tower and a Hornblower cruise. The hotel's hip art, location in downtown San Francisco, amenities, friendly staff and dog-welcoming service make it an appealing hotel for Keller, Cookie and yorkies Nick and Nora. So our exploration of one of the world's great cities continues, complete with the painted heart left in San Francisco by singer Tony Bennett.  Remember to explore, learn and live, at
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