America Through My Eyes- Alcatraz

Telugu Original : Dr K.Geeta 

English Translation: V.Vijaya Kumar

When we see from the coast of San Francisco, the piece of land Alcatraz can be seen in the distance, as if sea waters separated the highway in recent days. Though it’s an island, it is a tiny territory, and it is called “rock,” but not as an island. 

Whenever I came here, I always thought it would be nice to go to San Francisco, but I skipped the proposal for no particular reason. On our first visit, we thought a boat ticket costing $ 30 per head was unreasonable. And as of now, we are ready to pay $ 40 as parking charges; what is the point in abstaining from it?

We can’t get boat tickets if we plan all of a sudden on weekends or any congested holidays. So we booked tickets online as early as a week or ten days in advance. We know that it takes about two and half hours for the whole trip around the island and a fifteen-minute boat trip. It took us 45 minutes to reach San Francisco from our location. As we were heading out in March, the heat of the sun would be hardly palpable, and it would be pretty cool in San Francisco. So we booked a midday boating instead of an early one to escape from the chill. Food is not allowed at Alcatraz. We planned to reach the spot by mid-noon to board the ferry peacefully, after relishing our favorite seafood there. One thing I must say here. Earlier before the trip, we  learned about rock surfing the webs, and also  watched the movie ‘Escape from Alcatraz.’ As the movie was based on actual incidents, we were thrilled all along the trip.

Once, the Aborigines of this territory thought of this island as an inauspicious one and abandoned it.  But in 1775, the Spanish mariners loved to call it Pelican Island; in the Spanish language, Alcatraz means Pelican. Though the island had been exclusively signified for its military purposes during the 18th century and used as military confinement from 1861, it was changed into a full-fledged prison during 1933-1963. It is curious to note here that in 1962, three prisoners escaped from this jail dramatically. The stigma of that episode and the expensive maintenance of it drove the prison’s closure. The indigenous American Indian tribesmen occupied this territory in the year 1969 against the defiant attitude of the government policies and continued there for 17 months. The government later vacated them forcefully. We can still see the concerns of those people in their slogans and writings on the walls. After some years, the province was declared as a national protective territory and has since been a place of visit. 

Travel: The day before our trip, we checked the ‘weather report’ online and were disappointed to see “Partly Cloudy.” We are going to San Francisco on Beach Road and over from there into the island!  As we have already booked tickets, we must go there, and so we tucked in carefully, putting on sweaters, and left.  We kept the address with an iPhone to guide us without mistake, not sure about the GPS. There’s no traffic, and so we got on the right path we felt. But our phone took us to a place that looked like a beach down somewhere in South San Francisco instead of our destination, Pier-33.  We looked at our faces and laughed. Before that, whenever we went at least four to five times, we would first go to the Golden Gate Bridge, and then we headed forward. We thought now that it would be a shortcut route. 

This time, using a little ingenuity, we move on keeping the address “Fisherman Wharf.” This time we reached the right place in another fifteen minutes.  We get around two to three rounds for open parking but in vain.  And as usual, we parked in a three to the four-storey parking lot at $ 7 per hour and got out.  We crossed the road from the parking lot and climbed over a wooden bridge.  Every time you cross the bridge, we find pleasant views that stop every step of the way.  Buildings ascending to the San Francisco City Mountains on one side, on the other side are small bridges (piers) that extend into the sea, with colorful flowers, shops, and the overcrowded visitors look very attractive with artistic flavor. Fortunately, the sun’s shining brightly—a cold breeze blowing over the ocean. In the beginning days of March, Spring starts to break into life.  The cold days until February are now over, and the sun begins to warm up a bit, but not felt on the coast of San Francisco. When we move out of the sun into the shade, we will get caught up with the cold.

The hands of the shimmering waves on the sea opposite are inviting, with rustling music.  Alcatraz is enticing with its elegant impression! On the beach road, people are roaming around as if enjoying a fair. The melodious music of the street instrumental performances sounds pleasant. The flavor of various dishes floating in the air wafted through the nostrils.  All of us started to get hungry even though it’s hardly eleven-thirty. 

Bungee jump: With so much time left for our boat to depart, Varu showed interest in bungee jumping, so we stepped on that side first. Varu enjoyed it a great deal, paying  $ 10  for a three minutes spree kicking the floor up and down with a rope tied on both sides and maneuvering in the air, twirling round and round, shouting with joy! Seeing that, Siri about to jump out of the baby cart.  Satya is busy taking photos.  My mind raced into memories of something. I dreamed about this many times. It’s none other than me cruising like a bird freely without the ropes. I felt satisfied and happy watching Varu. Even my mind galloped like a baby.  Some children were standing in line without money, and their custodians approached them, took them away from there! I laughed when I noticed that those people who were doing so were people from our area.  Yes! We have had the habit of checking dollars into our currency and verifying whether it is expensive or not, which these people never cared for!

Varu moved toward me smiling and asked, “Mom!  Can you do it like me!”

“Oh, No!” I exclaimed. As a child, I was reminded of my adventure of jumping from a ten-foot drumstick tree (not fractured but badly sprained, of course!). The body does not cooperate with anything as we grow older. Bravery in childhood does not last into adulthood.

We devoured our food hurriedly in the available time and rushed to the boat within 10 minutes.  We had to walk the same distance from where we were to the other side.  We were at the end of the line when we reached the boat. The boat had set its sail as we got on.  The upper deck of the ship was thoroughly occupied; in the lower class, there was only a single couch left vacant inside. The boat was steering forward, dashing the sea breeze, as if the Alcatraz island crashed straight away towards us. 

Alcatraz: We landed on Alcatraz in15 minutes.  We got to the boat at the end so we could get off earlier. They informed that the visitors gathered there would follow the guide’s introductory remarks about the Alcatraz. We stood in the space next to the old building wall and listened intently for about 10 minutes. They detailed the history of the island and what can be seen there, and the details of the fine if any violations at the forbidden areas.

If you look upwards, you will see it’s like a small fort, a prison somewhere on the winding road above. There were large military buildings along the way. Some of the old buildings on the island were nowhere to be found, and some were dilapidated. In some places, it’s written there that it is a forbidden place as if military secrets were still hidden somewhere.

The building that we crossed in the front had a museum and a video center. The details that were explained to us outside were once again watched in the video. Our Varu loves such things greatly. She glanced into the guide’s face and listened to him intently, watched the videos carefully, and gave attention to each exhibit in the museum for a long time.

 There were many exhibits about military history, prison history, and films made with the Alcatraz theme.  Old-fashioned concrete buildings were well-preserved here, which we mainly loved.  Keeping their originals intact gives us a good impression of ​​the history of that place. The terrace with the bricks seeping out with the water, the rusty iron rafters, and the funnel-shaped passage entrance built with a round arch was very impressive.

Jail: After the three to four rounds passing through the spiraling road, walking up straight away the hill, finally we reached the jail.  Unlike the archway at the front door of our prison structures, there we had to move forward through a narrow verandah as if it’s something like a government office.  As we stepped into the hall, divided into two sections, we were greeted by uniformed employees.  Everyone was given a set of self-guided tour recorder sets to wear.

 There was a path through the stairs behind that nothing was caught sight of, leading to an attic-like structure.  Especially to those accompanied by small children, an usher comes and picks them up in the elevator.  From there, we must proceed to the inside of the prison, following the instructions heard in our ears. We listen to sounds and words that somebody is there.  There will be a narration now and then during the passage. They tell us where the incident took place and the cell numbers, the names of the patios that precede it, and the location exactly where we exist. Varu listened to it very enthusiastically and began to guide us. We stayed closer to each other, stopped listening to the recorders to stay tuned to others, and moved on. 

 Cell: In those rows of each cell, we could see a bed leaned to the wall, a small toilet by the feet, a small washbasin, and a bookshelf above them. Some cells appeared opposite to the other one.  Some do not have at least one. They were worse than the cages that we hid animals in.  We remembered the movie we saw the night before.  We had the illusion that prisoners were staring at the rows of cells and police were guarding the verandas. How horrible it’s to stay in such dreadful prisons, and the anguish they underwent for years was unimaginable.  As soon as I stepped into the lounge, I started to feel nervous and nauseating.

 Block “D”: Rows of cells from that corner to this corner in four rows in a row are called “C” blocks, and a row of cells with separate doors on one side beyond them is called the “D” block.  This section was used to punish those who had a disruption in prison demeanor.  It had four separate cells with full-fledged iron doors which were opaque.  We can see openly what it is like to be a captive in such dreadful conditions. The iron door does not close completely.  If you go there and close your eyes, you feel that all the cells in the body are dead at once. We hear the voice of the prisoner that resonates in the ear.

 “The door closed painfully behind me. Everywhere there is darkness.  But as the hours go by, a light gradually begins to appear. That’s the light I see in my brain. Sometimes hours become years in the dark…”

We stepped into the big hall on the other side, where we saw a signpost of the “Library.”  There were no books except two or three old bookshelves. There were only two to three long benches in a row in the middle of the room.  It was written that there are graduates who studied there.  Adjacent to all these porches, there was a corner door with a small playground with large walls all around.  There’s no access to it. 

 We got down to the lowest steps, but the air was violent above there, witnessing the turbulent waves of the freezing sea. Through a brick-sized vent, we can see the fascinating city of San Francisco like heaven, and on the other, the irrevocable backyard of the jail once an unsuccessful attempt was made by the captives to flee away from there! The inmates made the adventure by bending the iron grills. They grabbed a pistol from the crew and shot one of them dead. As the key they picked up from the crew was not the right one they were nabbed. 

Sensational: Just before the prison was set to close in a year, the incident of how three prisoners escaped from there was powerfully demonstrated with spectacular accuracy. The cells of those prisoners were meticulously organized as they were then. It was an amazing job to glimpse how perfectly they cracked the walls with the broken spoons and drilled the concrete wall, and mixed the papers into the powder so that no one would suspect. Digging is one risky endeavor, and hiding it is another difficult job. This is an excellent example to believe that stealing is an art. They made delusional mask heads and kept them on the couch to avoid immediate suspicion.

The appliances they made to get out of there to cut the iron rods, the clothes to protect them from dying as they reached the shores of the icy cold water, despite all the hardships they got out of prison and a small kayak…  It’s just like a great movie story! But the fugitives had never been caught. The case was closed, and the culprits were declared dead.

In the middle of the jail, we saw the conversation room for the visitors who came for the inmates from outside.  Rooms separated with a glass window on one side and the other.  Sturdy doors barred both rooms. It’s a horrifying experience to sit by that glass mirror and imagine that someone belonged to us on the other side. When I touched the glass surface, I felt the wetness of tears. I rushed out from there.

When we stepped into the hall from there and saw the prison staff room and the room with the communication system, the significant difference between the inside and outside of the prison can be seen. The crew had spacious dining rooms and suites with large glass-paneled doors covering the vast walls, a beautiful green courtyard in front of the prison, birds chirping, and the seacoast of San Francisco is like a beautiful painting on a canvas painted with exquisite brushstrokes of sea waves.

After visiting the whole prison, we finally stepped into the dining hall. There they never kept the forks available. (Perhaps they might have been used by them to kill one another).  All over there, photos of five to six people were erected like big cutouts.  All those were the people who were sentenced to life imprisonment in that prison and later settled in jobs with good conduct. They are exceptionally large.

Views: The opinions of those who came there were written and pasted on a board with adhesive papers. I stayed a long time reading the sympathetic and hostile comments towards the prisoners and the criminal system on the yellow papers that filled the whole wall. I felt horrified, thinking, what if those forbidden prisoners would have watched those papers falling from the wall flickering around the premises.  Would their heart melt when they see it all?  Would any change happen with them? Won’t the crime burn them down? Were their minds and hearts as strong as shown in the movies? Plenty of such thoughts thronged into my head. It’s easy to write a comment in such a way, but how difficult it is to weed out the animalistic attitude from the human race! 

“Who are they all, Daddy!  Are they Prison Heroes?  Varu was asking her Dad. I did not hear the answer, but when I came out, I saw them walking towards the souvenir shop and buying something with prison stamps. I became upset for no reason suddenly. Nothing is there to sit around inside. I leaned against the wall and stood motionless until they came. 

As I came out, there was a vertically curved passage downwards leading ahead. The cold breeze was gushing over the sea, sprinkling cold water on my face.

By passing through a narrow grilled room, we stopped there and took a look at the small mortuary with the corpses. The tables and equipment used there at that time were kept intact. This open room and the vicinity of the place were dusty, being away from the actual building.

The land is ours: we walked to the warehouse, substation, and dilapidated buildings on the other side of the prison.  Everywhere the writings of the occupant American Indians appeared as indelible imprints on this stone,  The letters “This land is ours” were ascertaining the agony in the hearts of those people who lost it.  It seemed unthinkable how they were in such a rocky, freezing place with great hope that something would happen to wait on that cold island for about seventeen months. The memories of those incidents, like the government forces chasing them from there and the photos of the retrieval of their despair, came to mind.

Return journey: It’s five in the evening. The sun began to swallow the Alcatraz stone.  Suddenly, a fierce snowfall began to fall from the other side of the sky. Though we were walking under the sun tucked in sweaters, hands in pockets, the cold wind was blowing up violently. We searched for a shelter, strolling around there briskly, and finally headed back down the hill to the boat area.  We went to a gift shop there for warmth and stood there for a while. It seemed as if we were longing to get out.  Within fifteen minutes after we boarded the boat, we reached the shores of San Francisco. For some reason, we didn’t want to see the Alcatraz back that’s slowly disappearing into the darkness of the smoke from the shore. Yet, I saw it for a while. I felt the air of freedom thumping upon my face taunting the prison. I did not tell them not to go for the ice cream because it was so cold when the kids were dragging towards the ice cream store; moreover, I said, I want one!  Until then, I felt my throat was dried out. 


Photos & Telugu Original:

నా కళ్లతో అమెరికా-19 (ఆల్కట్రాజ్)

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