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Back in 1978, my friend Sebastian Melmoth came across a newspaper notice in the San Francisco Progressannouncing the very first night tour of Alcatraz Island. Thinking that a sightseeing mission at an old maximum-security prison after dark was an ideal outing for the Suicide Club, the urban-adventure group with whom he gallivanted and gamboled, Melmoth immediately reserved 20 tickets and tramped down to Fisherman's Wharf. At Pier 41, he and his collaborationists eagerly awaited the ferry, along with members of the Hell's Angels, another hardy social club popular at the time. Twenty minutes later, Melmoth and his friends were enduring "rough" treatment by the Golden Gate National Recreation Areastaff on the Rock, one and a half miles from shore.
"I think the GGNRA was as excited to be there at night as we were," says Melmoth. "The guides were dressed up as prison guards, with billy clubs and uniforms. The "warden' had a big mustache and a striped suit. They led us up to the cell house and indoctrinated us with the same speech that was given to prisoners. They locked us in the hole, and at the end of the tour, they performed sea chanteys. They were really into it. It was great."
But the end of the tour was not the end of Melmoth's visit to Alcatraz. During final boarding, Melmoth and three friends hid on the island while a Suicide Club pal distracted the head counter, tripping and falling at his feet just as several other club members scurried up the gang plank. It worked; the head count was fouled, and, even though two of the four deserters were spotted "making out in the bushes," Melmoth and his date were left behind. Alone.
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"It must have been close to 11 o'clock at night," remembers Melmoth, "and, as the boat was leaving the dock, I looked up at the cellblock wall, and I got this horrible sinking feeling. It was like a horrible undulating wall of psychic pain. I'd never experienced anything like it. I was a devout atheist, you know, this stupid, super-macho 20-year-old kid, so, of course, I couldn't admit how I felt. So I casually suggested we check out the cell house in the morning."
Drawn to the only light on the island, Melmoth and his friend crept over to the guardhouse and studied the "old guy" as he flipped through Penthouse magazines and occasionally got up to adjust his cap in the mirror. Satisfied that they could get help if needed, the couple hunkered down in a little room just off a tunnel on the main entrance road, covering themselves in newspaper and cardboard for warmth. Just before dawn, the frozen duo rose and explored the buildings that had been off limits to the tour: the laundry where 250,000 gallons of water was used to clean military linens every two weeks; the "industries" where inmates toiled on wood, metal, and leather while gazing out at the Golden Gate Bridge and open sea through hundreds of tiny windows; the kitchen where industrial-size vats sat ready for the much-maligned spaghetti sauce; and the catacombs, which remained under the original military fort upon which the prison was built. At dawn, Melmoth says, he climbed the water tower, an experience he still prizes among his many delirious excursions, and watched the sun climb into the sky. As the first tourists of the day arrived on the island, Melmoth and his friend huddled beneath two benches inside the pitch-black isolation cells, waiting for a chance to nonchalantly emerge and "rejoin" the tour.
"A couple people on the tour knew we weren't with them," says Melmoth. "I'll never forget their faces. Or the way Alcatraz feels at night. It's very spooky."
During the 29 years Alcatraz served as a federal penitentiary, five men committed suicide on the island; 15 died from natural illnesses; and eight lost their lives at the hands of inmates. According to guards and former inmates, many more lost their minds.
By today's prison standards, Alcatraz seems almost humane -- there was only one inmate per cell, the prison was kept clean, and the food was relatively palatable (although a proliferation of spaghetti dinners did lead to a dining hall riot). Still, the sights, sounds, and smells of San Francisco wafting over the bay might be enough to drive anyone trapped on the island right around the bend. Even in the best of weather, Alcatraz is dank and frigid, and the wind howls right through you.
"I have no desire to spend the night out here," says Kim Kennelly, manager of the Alcatraz Night Tour. "But I don't think there are any ghosts, or anything, out here. Maybe some very bad karma, if you believe in that sort of thing. The way I figure it, though, Alcatraz was such a horrible place to live, why would anyone want to come back here?"
As the sun dips behind the Golden Gate Bridge, spreading gold and rose feathers across the water, black oystercatchers and sea gulls settle into their roosts, and dozens of tiny mice scurry out across the lighthouse courtyard. Kennelly calls these the "Mutant Mice of Alcatraz" because their gray coats, which blend with the concrete slabs of the former prison, are an anomaly among the typically brown-fleeced deer mice. Across the bay, thousands of lights glimmer to life, offering warmth and welcome as an icy breeze slithers down the west side of Alcatraz Island.
"It is very beautiful," says 26-year-old Selma Lindgrid, a Swede dressed in a light cotton shirt, "but I want to go inside now. To jail, please."
Inside the cold, austere cell house, I manage to cut myself off from the nighttime tour group, which is only 10 percent as large as the usual daytime gaggle, losing myself in the award-winning audio tour. The clang and squeal of thick metal bars sliding along metal tracks fill my headphones as the craggy voice of a former correction officer leads me down "Broadway," a lane between Cellblocks B and C, which rise three tiers high. From their 9-by-5 cells men call to me, offering taunts and jeers as I walk the gauntlet. Humiliation is part of the introduction to the Rock. Former inmate No. 1465, Leon "Whitey" Thompson, describes the hatred that burned in his heart during those years, and, staring at a photograph of his vacant face, there is little reason to doubt his sincerity. I am invited to step inside a cell, sans bed, toilet, or sink. Even without furnishings, it is fewer than three paces back to front; my hands can touch either wall. Too small to imagine.
"One inmate told me the longer you sat in there, the smaller it got," says Kennelly during her lecture, "Sanity and Survival on the Rock." "Inmates sat in their cells 18 hours a day if they were privileged enough to be allowed out on work detail, 23 hours if they weren't."
Jim Nelson, who has worked for the GGNRA for five years, remembers sleeping in No. 107 while friends and co-workers did the same in the surrounding cells.
"It was really, really hard to get used to," says Nelson. "You can hear everything. Someone coughs, and it's as if it's right next to you. You can hear everyone breathing, snoring. The noise is horrible. I prefer the isolation cells in D-block. Of course, there, you've got the creaking and groaning of the building. That can get to you as well. The tunnels leading to the morgue ... now, those are pretty spooky."
In the "hole," where men were kept without light for months, I listen as an inmate describes the specks of light that flicker behind your eyelids after you've first closed them.
"I'd just concentrate on that light," he says. "I'd hold onto the light and put a TV in there and go on trips." Another inmate describes pulling buttons off his shirt and throwing them in the air while he spins in the darkness, then dropping to his knees to search for the buttons by touch. And doing it all over again.
Through it all, the sounds of the city -- laughter, music, women singing, the chiming of clocks -- and the aroma of chocolate from Ghirardelli Square wiggle through the walls, along with frigid fingers of wind, reminding the convicts of an unreachable world. Thirteen suicidal escape attempts and the bloody battle of 1946, which lasted three days and cost the lives of two guards and three inmates, seem paltry sacrifices, considering the isolation that spawned them.
"OK, OK," says tour member Lindgrid. "I've done my time on Alcatraz. We should go now." She is not alone in the sentiment. By the time we leave the island, the crowd is exhilarated but very eager and very grateful to be going home, and I can't imagine anyone but Melmoth crouching in the darkness of an isolation cell for fun.
The head count is faithful; our ferry heads for the twinkling lights of Fisherman's Wharf.