I heard the chains slowly drip onto the grating, one link at a link. My teeth clenched with every clink. The boat was ready to depart. I gnashed my teeth and bit down on my cheek. Even the coppery taste and trickle of blood in my mouth was welcome than this. Anything but this. There was no other means of transportation to where I was going. There was no other way to get to where we were going. Helicopters were out of the question; I suggested a catapult or a trebuchet. My suggestions were met with weak laughter before the roar of the boats engines drowned out every sound except those in my mind. This was it. The end of the beginning.
To where we were headed was no longer an island but an ideal. The island’s edifices stood as a solitary soldier set to guard the beasts within. Surrounding the island was not water but a wonderfully chilled elixir with the manic potency of killing a man in minutes. To the rear, a grand and celebrate metropolis hummed and tittered with life and trolley cars. To the front, a tiny sliver of freedom gapped by two sheer cliffs conjoined by an orange bridge. To where I was traveling was not an island but a monster hiding in plain sight, and I was its offering. The soldier did everything in its power to repel and caution curious visitors but in the end, people were receptive to the siren calls of the beast, and came we did.
The day within the bay and its weather was to be expected. A gray, heavy mist drenched us as we trudged along the stern to starboard of the boat. My reservations about this particular form of travel were renowned within my own community back home; I was neither in my community nor back home. My distaste for boats could be traced back to childhood when a canoe I paddled sank, nearly drowning me. My fear for boats and the elixir providing buoyancy would continue to cause me endless anxiety. I closed my eyes after the roar of the engines had died down. We were shoulder to shoulder on the outside of the ship. When it was time to move, I would know.
Rough choppy white caps greeted the bow with every undulation. For every meter fought for, the boat was pushed back two. The boat would shoot up then down then back up with every meter won. The fifteen minute trip soon turned to thirty, doubling my anxiety in the process. With my eyes still closed, I could hear the faint retching of my fellow passengers; were they vomiting at the sight of our destination or was it mere seasickness. To this day, I believe it was the former. To where we were headed once housed some of the world’s most notorious criminals, the worse of the worse. For a period of time, we too were to become residents of this village of the villainous, this domicile for the deranged and dangerous. Alcatraz Penitentiary, 12.5 acres of pure, unadulterated hell.
Goosebumps pricked my skin. One could argue it was from the cold and wet that satiated my clothing but I knew better; it was from excitement. All my life I had heard about this monument of the maligned and had wanted to visit with such a passion it was borderline obsession. I traveled to San Francisco with the sole purpose to putting myself onto that island and regale in its mysterious and infamous history.
Alcatraz was less an island than a feral beast destined and doomed to keep vigil over several hundred inmates over dozens of years. Though contested later, the island was often thought impossible from which an inmate may escape. The brisk elixir surrounding the island often kept a temperature a few degrees above freezing in some seasons. A man daring enough to take a swim would soon regret his decision to do so or he would be greeted with open arms by Death. Though a few prisoners were able to escape the confines of Alcatraz, they certainly could not escape the icy grip of death.
Decommissioned in 1963, the island lay fallow for a decade before commandeered by Native Americans claiming their right to the title of the island. Several destructive conflicts later, the pseudo-residents were expelled; the island’s aggressive and legendary penchant for death and destruction held true. While the prison protected society from the awesome scum it produced for three decades and later relieved of its duties, Alcatraz became the protector for a different species. Upon its dedication as a state park of California, it was determined to be an ideal spot for an aviary.
I was not to be bothered by its modern history; I wanted to know more about the lives, the conditions that the inmates were subjected to, the food they ate, and the entertainment. I wanted to know everything about Alcatraz. Alcatraz to me holds a special position within my life; it was on that island that I was struck with a revelation. I spent as much time as legal that day on the island. I perused every cell, every room and every inch permissible by law. I even ducked under some chains for a behind-the-scenes look at a boiler room. SPOILERS: you’re not missing much.
The sweet, salty air and the acrid rusting smell of metal on the island are forever burned in my brain. I can still taste the salty ocean air on the tip of my tongue; I can taste the rain washing away the saltiness. The seas did never calm that day even on my return to the mainland. That day I stood in the gray mist, shivering and cold, was the day I decided that I wanted to write. How am I doing so far?