Where do you go when your team is a little down and sliding in the standings due to injuries? There’s only one spot in San Francisco guaranteed to get your mind right and instill the mental fortitude to make the playoffs. Yes that’s right –Alcatraz– the one time federal penitentiary just a short 1.4-mile swim from the San Francisco shoreline!
You see, my wife and I spent the NBA All-Star Break in San Francisco, California celebrating her birthday and our upcoming 20th wedding anniversary. I’m on the road both dates with the team, so this was our chance. We both had a great time relaxing at the Palace hotel, seeing a Broadway show, eating delicious seafood, sightseeing in Chinatown, and, of course shopping, Union Square. But for me, the highlight of our trip was visiting Alcatraz, aka “The Rock”.
Our journey began Monday morning…standing in line to board a ferry to the island. It was there we met Larry and Linda Clauson. Larry played college basketball back in the day at Northern Iowa under Norm Stewart. Linda was his college sweetheart, a bright energetic woman and former culinary arts instructor. The four of us hit it off immediately. Cellmates for a day you might say!
During the 15-minute ferry ride, one of the officers told us the three men that escaped from Alcatraz in 1961 (immortalized in the Clint Eastwood movie Escape From Alcatraz) “definitely made it”! I was skeptical. What about the freezing water, sharks, and tides?
He detailed that the escapees had a raft, the tides were mild that night, fog completely obscured the tower guard’s vision, and sharks don’t swim in the bay! Apparently, fresh water from the Sacramento River pours into the bay nearby, and sharks don’t seem to like the mixture of salt and fresh water. Local authorities looking to scare the inmates into believing that swimming off the island would be impossible promulgated the myth. Fibbers!
Two other interesting notes on the escape; someone spotted a boat midway between Alcatraz and Angel Island during the night. Could there have been a pickup? Many say Mexico was their destination, as three of the escapees were studying Spanish!
Once we reached the island we decided to take the audio tour. They give you headphones and you begin a narrated journey back in time. As I wandered down the eerie prison hallways, I felt the same way I did when I’ve visited other historical sites like The Alamo, Dealey Plaza in Dallas and Dachau Prison in Germany. There is a sense of history, of walking where others have gone, of reliving a bit of the past.
The tour was an eye opener. The cellblocks were ominous; the atmosphere dark and dank. Tiny 5x9 foot cells were topped by 7-foot ceilings. Suffice it to say, my pal Scott Hastings would scrape his knuckles trying to stand up straight and comb his hair.
There were bright spots, including access to the yard; a high-walled outdoor area where inmates exercised, played “approved games” like cards, dominos, and cribbage, and occasionally got shanked. As they say in the NFL, it paid to keep your head on a swivel!
We also learned that the inmates were given three packs of cigarettes a week—even if you didn’t smoke ¬– and the food at Alcatraz got high marks on inmate surveys!
One thing that really surprised us…the families of the prison officials and guards lived on the island! There were a number of pictures of moms and kids fishing, bowling, gardening and happily playing in the prison’s shadow. The only downside I guess, the neighbors.
Alcatraz was a prison for all the bad apples. Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, and Robert “The Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud were some of the notables who ended up there. Considered escape-proof, Alcatraz maintained that distinction until 1962. The cells of escapees Frank Morris, John and Clarence Anglin show the tunnels they dug to reach the air conditioning shaft and roof of the prison. Some say they used spoons to dig out! They achieved the impossible and a year later Alcatraz was closed.
By the way, there was another movie made about the island called “Birdman of Alcatraz” detailing the life and times of the aforementioned Robert Stroud. I mention this because my dad, actor Hugh Marlowe, was in that movie. He played Albert Comstock, the mean warden who took Stouds’ birds away and wouldn’t give them back!
Talk about six degrees of separation.
I’m back in Denver now, free as a bird and ready to call the action on Altitude as the Nuggets make their playoff run!