Do you remember what it was like to travel before Covid? I’m looking forward to flying somewhere—anywhere—when this pandemic is over. Today’s story will take you back to June 25, 2019, a time when my adult son, Matthew Kovacs, and I took a whirlwind vacation to the west coast of the US. Taking charge, my smart son prearranged and mapped our entire 10-day road trip—100 percent of our itinerary.
To get to this “home,” I had to take an 8-hour flight, a tram, a rental car, uber, and a ferry boat. I often write about homes that are transformed into a dreamy oasis. But this story is not one of those.
Shortly after the crack of dawn, Matthew and I stood in line at Pier 33 in flourishing San Francisco, California. My son knew no trip to San Francisco is possibly complete without visiting Alcatraz. Matthew had pre-purchased our tickets since they were known to sell out weeks in advance, due to limited capacity. Even though the weather forecast was a high of 72-degrees with passing clouds, Matthew advised me to bring a jacket. It seemed a little ridiculous to have to tote a jacket in the middle of summer. But I took my son’s advice and brought one with me, “just in case.”
From the shores, Alcatraz Island didn’t look too far away. We soon boarded a ferry boat that whisked us away to our remote and mysterious destination. The boat trip to the island turned out to be a brief 15 minutes, but it got very windy and cold, despite the sun. Huddled in my thin jacket, I shivered in anticipation. This definitely would be one of the most unique, captivating, and fascinating homes I would ever experience. After all, we were headed toward the former home of notorious criminals: Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, and Birdman Robert Stroud. My son and I were curious thrill seekers. We wanted to know more about the secrets and mysteries lurking inside those cells.
Upon docking, as soon as we disembarked the ferry, I noticed the high fences with barbed wire that surrounded the compound. All the sightseers were gathered together to listen to a National Park Serviceman speak on a microphone. He gave visitors the dos and don’ts of visiting. We were told we could take a 2-3 hour audio tour at our own leisure. Next he made another announcement. William G Baker, the last of the living prisoners from Alcatraz, had written a book. It was our lucky day! Because Bill was inside the bookstore and would be available to answer questions and sign a copy of his book. I immediately had a “Eureka moment!”
I quickly made my way through the crowd of tourists to the bookstore. I purchased a paperback copy of Bill’s book. The book is named after his prison number, Alcatraz #1259. Bill was very cordial as he autographed my book. In fact he personalized it with the correct spelling of my first name, which is hardly ever done. Afterwards we had a few photos taken of us together. I honestly didn’t feel nervous about standing so close to a real former Alcatraz prisoner, or to have my picture taken with him.
Now we were off to our tour. After we entered the prison, we were promptly stamped and frisked, and then the gates shut behind us with a conclusive clang. It sounded quite creepy, and I could almost feel the horrible things that used to go down inside this place. Within these walls lived the country’s toughest, most dangerous and most famous prisoners. The self-guided audio tour of Alcatraz meant we could go as fast or as slow as we liked. Matthew stepped aside to notify the tour guide that I was hearing impaired. The guide was quick to locate a booklet copy of the audio guide that was narrated by former inmates and guards of Alcatraz. Thanks to my empathetic son, I was able to follow along and read the guide that was peppered with first-hand accounts from guards, and they offered some truly fascinating insights into their lives.
The peeling paint and dimly-lit cell blocks further added to the creepy vibe of this notorious prison. These prisoners’ “homes” were 7-foot by 13-foot cells with a 10-foot ceiling. Each one of the cell houses were exactly alike. Each one had a metal table-top, a little chair, a bed, and a toilet. The cells were pretty barren. No decorations were allowed. Prisoners were not allowed to paste anything on the walls. When I stood inside a cell it felt like it was a place full of pain and sorrow.
As we wandered the empty rows of cells, the guide booklet told me about what it was like for inmates who were behind these bars. So whether they committed a crime or maybe they were just accused of one, this was now their home. Waiting on the bed for each new prisoner was a copy of the official rules and regulations. Prisoners had a decision to make. Whether to obey the rules or not: to do “good time” or “bad time.” That decision affected their lives dramatically.
A cell could be searched at any time. A prisoner’s towel had to be folded and placed on a shelf, along with their toothpaste (which was tooth powder in a little green container). A pack of cigarettes were issued every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to every inmate, whether he smoked or not.
An inmate was given housing, good food, medical attention, and all the necessities of life. Everything else was a privilege: time outside to exercise, getting books and mail, all had to be earned. One of their favorite privileges was the recreation yard. There was a handball court, a horseshoe court, a baseball diamond, and shuffleboard courts.
Every morning a wake-up bell rang out and the prisoners began to stir. They had 15 minutes to get out of bed, go to the bathroom, and get dressed. After the 15 minutes were up, another whistle pierced the air. The prisoners were required to walk to the front of their cells. It was time for the required morning head count.
But on the morning of June 12, 1962, a loud, shrill siren began wailing from the top of “The Rock” in San Francisco Bay. Few, if any, had ever before heard it sound, as if in “anger.” It was the escape siren on the supposedly inescapable island prison of Alcatraz. On this particularly Tuesday morning, during the bed check, it revealed that three inmates were missing from their cells. In their place were towels and clothes arranged to resemble bodies sleeping under blankets, with “papier-mâché heads” made from a mixture soap, toothpaste, concrete dust, and toilet paper, topped with real human hair taken from the floor of the prison barbershop. The end result was not perfectly realistic, but enough to fool the guards who had checked on the cells during the night. Matthew and I took snapshots of the three papier-mâché dummies sleeping under blankets. I could see how the handiwork fooled the guards. I personally thought it was a brilliant, but bold move.
The prison may have only been a mile and half offshore. But to prisoners this short distance would have been a fatal swim. The prisoners had used sharpened spoons to bore through the prison walls, leaving behind the makeshift dummies. Then they floated away on a raft made of 50 raincoats. But the water was known to be bitterly cold and rough. There were strong currents and lethal undertows. One of those three Alcatraz inmates was known to have survived that swim. His name was John Paul Scott. He was found beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, near rocks. Hypothermia and exhaustion had reduced Scott to such a state of collapse. When three teenage boys found him, they thought he had attempted suicide by jumping off the bridge. Nevertheless, the prisoner was still alive and after a short stay in a hospital, he was taken back to Alcatraz.
On the ferry boat return trip back to San Francisco, I realized Alcatraz was truly a brilliant idea for an inescapable prison.
Some of the interesting things I learned: On the island, Alcatraz was not just a federal prison; it was also home to families. It was a place where children grew up. Yes, kids lived on Alcatraz, too—but not as prisoners. The wardens and prison guards lived on Alcatraz, along with their families. The children took a ferry to school in San Francisco each day. Children played outside the barbed wire prison fences. (Imagine playing outside a federal prison with US’s most notorious and dangerous criminals.) These families had their own bowling alley, a small convenience store, and a soda fountain shop for the kids.
The best part of coming home after a trip is reading a book related to this trip. Alcatraz #1259 is a story of a man telling you what it was like to be incarcerated in Alcatraz, but it’s not just that. Bill wrote this book in his own words at the age of 80! It’s a true account of life in Alcatraz prison. How prisoners lived, what they thought, said, and did. The good and bad. The story is not filled with scenes of violence, but rather it is filled with life as observed and experienced by one person who walked those lonely prison miles behind bars. The book mainly relays the day-to-day life of a convict, how they made friends, how they spent their time, and how the prison was run. The former inmate was incarcerated in Alcatraz from 1957 until 1960. Bill was not a hardened criminal. After three escape attempts from three different prisons, in 1957, 23-year-old Bill Baker was sent to Alcatraz, the nation’s first super-max prison. While there, he learned how to manufacture and cash counterfeit payroll checks, a “trade” that landed him in and out of prison for the next 50+ years. Break the rules and you go to prison, break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz.
I will forever cherish this whirlwind 10-day vacation that I had with my precious son. And I’m absolutely delighted with the autographed book. I understand the travel itch is real these days, but so is the anxiety about getting on an airplane. So, tell me. Where will your first destination be after all travel bans are lifted?