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Escape To Alcatraz

Personal Business: ISLAND TRAVEL


When I was growing up in San Francisco in the 1960s, you would have drawn funny looks had you asked where to get the boat to Alcatraz, the island prison that once was home to Al Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, and Robert "Birdman" Stroud. Back then, the prison was an abandoned, decaying wreck. Local kids told tall tales about "the Rock," my favorite being the one about guards chopping a side fin off each shark so they'd endlessly circle the island to scare prisoners. In 1969, Alcatraz became infamous again when a group of Native Americans occupied the building and spray-painted "Indian land" on its walls. The siege lasted almost two years.

INCORRIGIBLE. In 1972, Alcatraz became part of the U.S. national park system. Today, more than 1 million visitors a year take the 1.5-mile ferry ride that leaves San Francisco's waterfront every half hour starting at about 9:30 a.m. daily--and learn the fascinating and often bizarre history of this craggy perch. The initial developer was the U.S. Army, which built the first lighthouse on the Pacific Coast there in 1854, and a fortress five years later. In 1915, the isolation and chilly, treacherous currents prompted the Army to convert the fortress to a military prison. Alcatraz was transferred to the Bureau of Prisons in 1934, when its huge cell house was renovated to hold the most incorrigible inmates in the federal system. Designed to be escape-proof (and nobody is believed to have ever escaped alive), "you came to Alcatraz for your behavior, not your crime," says Jolene Babyak, daughter of a former associate warden and author of a fascinating oral history, Eyewitness to Alcatraz (Ariel Vamp Press, $11.95).

Rangers lead tours focusing on the military building, the island's natural history, and other subjects. But don't miss the 35-minute audio tour. You can reserve it by phone with your $9.75 ferry ticket for an extra $3.25. As you walk the crumbling, cold cell blocks, you'll hear the eerie slam of the doors, and in the "gun gallery," a former guard brags on the tape that he could spot trouble, rack his weapon, and shoot in six seconds. Former guards and prisoners describe bloody, usually deadly escape attempts and the maddening darkness of solitary confinement. With sailboats zipping by and the sounds of partying wafting over from San Francisco, "there was never a day you didn't see what the hell you were missing," says convicted kidnapper and former inmate Jim Quillen.

The tape clears up some fictional lore, too: Unlike Burt Lancaster in the movie, Stroud never kept birds on Alcatraz. Rather, he was a prison-taught bird expert who had to leave his avian companions behind when he was transferred from Leavenworth Prison. The movie also made Stroud seem a gentle genius. But former Alcatraz denizens recall him as an obnoxious sociopath.

ROLLER SKATES. Visitors are amazed to learn that a community of nonprisoners lived on Alcatraz in converted barracks, including up to 100 children and spouses of employees. They were forbidden to speak with their imprisoned neighbors, but Babyak says she and her island-mates loved living on Alcatraz. They commuted to school in the city on prison boats, roller-skated on the old parade ground, and invited mainland guests over for dances.

Some important tips: Alcatraz' calm, sunny days are spectacular, but rare. The fog is often thick, and the wind gets fierce, so dress warmly and in layers. Call 415 705-5555 for Blue & Gold ferry departure times, which vary by season. Try to book ahead, especially in summer, when ferries sell out as much as a week in advance. Also, get to Pier 41 early: Traffic is congested, and parking can be hard to find. Food is sold on the ferry but not on the island, nor is eating permitted anywhere but near the dock. Allow at least two hours for the island; you may spend the whole day there. And wear comfortable shoes. The climb to the cell house is steep. Unlike Capone, though, you can catch the next boat home.Joan Hamilton

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