You can almost forget for a moment then, that across the narrow road winding up the hill, there sits "a federal penitentiary housing some of the most dangerous criminals." You imagine the aroma of the stew and the sound of those childrens' laughter must have reached some of the cells facing the right directions.
Then you'd walk up around the bend to enter the prison. You stop for a moment to question the wisdom of this decision as the structure swallows you with its weight and sturdiness, impressing upon you the one way nature of its design. You steel yourself for a second or so, then you walk in to hear the babbles of languages of the world echoed throughout the brick and stone surroundings. It nearly takes you out of the moment, reminding you this is but a tour, and you paid for the privilege of coming in and going out at will. Then you are handed an audio guide with instructions of how, where and when you shall visit each site within the building, with a voice that didn't invite questioning or disobedience.
So you follow, a tinge of reluctance tarnishing the excitement and curiosity swelling at the sight of cells, photos, and the authentic period voices that told the stories. Walking down "Broadway", you jump at the photos of young and tender faces in prison uniforms -- they could be college students, or someone's high school sweetheart or brother, they are sons and fathers of the family they belong. They could be that friendly but shy neighbor next door who doesn't talk much but seems completely harmless, if only you lived in their neighborhoods fifty somewhat years ago. You come up close, as you are told, to those iron bars painted pink but emits nothing warm and fuzzy, and see a coverless toilet sitting next to the head of that single bed, marking the loss of freedom for something so basic as a bathroom break outside, a privilege enjoyed by a first grade child when he asks. There isn't room for anything else in this five feet by nine feet space, but an air of desolation, hair raising eeriness, filled with silent screams of all its occupants that seem imprinted on the walls, like desperate claw marks of caged animals.
|Courtesy of Alcatraz History (linked)|
These cells face windows that look out across the water onto San Francisco. It's so close that on new years eve, you hear on the audio, music and laughter of girls would float across the water into the ears of prisoners on the wings of wind. Darkness then becomes all the more unbearable at this, tears would well up into the eyes of those with the most hardened hearts, sitting alone, allowing a needle of light and songs to penetrate, piercing that spot of vulnerability in them that was buried so deep they were all but forgotten.
You can't help but wonder why?
How can we - a civilized culture, build such a barbaric instrument of torture for our fellow beings?
Then you hear shots fired, sharp and crisp, like fire crackers exploding against all the concrete and irons. You hear people shouting, first the surprised shrieks of guards rushing in to find prisoners with guns on their hands, then the low and menacing commands from the prisoners demanding the final key to their freedom.
"Give the key or some people are gonna die!
Then another shot. And just like that, they'd taken the life of a son, a friend and a father.
The tender young face you saw earlier suddenly contorted into the face of a murderer as you hear his quickened breath and you recognize the hunger in his demands - so knife like that you shiver from hair to spine. You catch a glimpse of this violent escape attempt on the audio guide, happened over sixty years ago right here on the patch of concrete you are standing. All you want to do then is to withdraw from that dark thought, conceding there is no easy answer here as you move away from the leaden doors and the smell of harsh soaps still floating off of those cell blocks.
You turn off the audio guide then, and along with it all those gloomy voices and piercing stories floating in your head for the past hour and half. Walking back out into the open, filling your lungs with the cold but refreshing wind and warming your skin under the blazing sun, you smile at the sight of your return cruise ship moving into the dock.
A pelican flies by, neck bent into an S, wings extended to float him above the sea breeze. He lowers down and makes a dive into the swell but comes up empty. A hungry nest at the pelican's tonight. A fish's life spared.