06 September 2012
Let me know which is your favorite.
Before we headed to the Western frontier, my grandchildren and I made a list of our top sites to see. We scoured guidebooks, searched the Internet, questioned friends and relatives, and quizzed each other. Then we made lists–three of them. Each of us had a clear vision of the yeses and nos. My grandson’s number one was Alcatraz.
My granddaughter looked askance, and then she bargained. She traded her acceptance of this tourist site for her number one: an adventure of the rigorous kind (more on her top choice in another post). But I was compliant, knowing that memories are often what we make them.
My cousin, who lives in San Francisco and has his own local tourist business in the heart and beyond the city, advised me to make reservations online. That advice saved us disappointment, because on the day of our excursion are tours were sold for weeks–a testament to history’s lure.
The dock area was an exhibition space that was filled with information about the island and its staggering story of lives incarcerated, and families of correctional officers who lived freely on this stretch of land in the San Francisco Bay.
Our 10:30 a.m. slot was approaching, and as we secured our place in line. The family next to us so shared their recent journey from the southern USA to Western states. Travel is a connector for storytelling and attentiveness. Its instant bond seems to provide a safe space, even in an age of reasonable caution.
The boat ride was effortless and the day crystalline. Throngs of visitors joined us as we stepped upon the famous Rock.
Alcatraz is more than a reputation. To be present in its popularity is to be aware of its silence. Even with swarms of visitors there’s a quietude with a narrative of large proportions. Then as I walked the hill to enter its halls, a sense of danger and safety appeared.
As we settled into the tour, the audio guided our pathway. My grandchildren became entranced with the details of the story. Their engagement with the various levels of narration filled my own journal with memories.
In the Lens section are some of my photographs from this excursion that was filled with surprises. My favorite image is number three, which shows my grandchildren meditating on the colorful and extensive history explained during the audio tour. We needed a few minutes for contemplation about the echoes of lives lived in solitary confinement and cell blocks.
The past is stocked with the brutal, cruel and punished. Alcatraz has all of that and more. The public is mesmerized with tales about inmates, events, guards and their families as well as the Rock’s place in American history. It’s a site whose size is nothing compared to its reams of lessons about the human condition.
One has to have an inner dialogue about freedom and isolation. You almost feel like a voyeur into serious psychology and human behavior.
This experience surprised me, also reminding me of the Rock’s rich place in American material culture. From exterior and interior of the building to keys to uniforms to photographs to interviews to paraphernalia to signs, essential archives from the nineteenth to the twentieth century are kept as raw archives preserved.
Alcatraz (1850-1863) began with a stint in military history, then became a federal penitentiary, and its final phase was an occupation by American Indians. We were most shocked by the families of the guards that lived on the island. Apartments, framed houses and duplexes served as their residences. Apparently, this über maximum security facility was little threat to children jumping rope or having family outings.
Here are some additional photographs that relate to this historic site, which is part of the Golden Gate National Parks. I took the first two on the dock as we waited for the boat ride to the island, and the last was inside the gift shop on the Rock. On our tour day the author of the book was available to talk and sign his recent personal account of time served.
To read more details about the culture and history of this iconic island click http://www.nps.gov/alca/historyculture/index.htm/
The park service manages 75,000 acres within Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo counties, and is one of the world’s largest parklands. The “Rock” benefits from its protection, including conservation efforts. The island’s Garden Conservancy cultivates and maintains historic plantings. And we arrived in nesting season, which accounts for the high numbers of fledglings that we spied.
There is unrest in the shadows–man’s inhumanity to man–both in the deeds done to those incarcerated, deeds accomplished by prisoners to prisoners, and deeds by those guarding and tending them. But there are also uplifting stories associated with San Francisco’s most famous destination.
This half-day trip left much to discuss and ponder, especially the curiosity of those of us who go out of our way to step unto the Rock–a place still in the limelight, a place very much an icon of American history.
Note: As always I welcome any comment about this post or any part of my blog.