Between a Rock and a Hard Place.

A few weeks ago, angledge, dougygyro, jacesan, and I stole an evening away to reconvene on the tiny rock of misery otherwise known as Alcatraz. To spook the hordes of tourists and create an even more prominent sense of foreboding, the NPS saw it fit to commence a fair number of these popular tours in the night hours, and, as evidenced by these photographs (and my perpetual demeanor), it is indeed a fine parcel of woe.


Alcatraz is the same as it’s always been, which to say is nothing like it is portrayed in The Rock, but still very interesting and an excellent remnant of history floating smack-dab in the middle of our lovely Bay. I’ve been there before on more than one occasion, but never at night. It was an especially foggy evening, as well, lending to the air of mystery and atmosphere. I sometimes forget that History is not just something that exists overseas, and both dougygyro and I were touched deeply by the stories and tenure of the prison and its culture – for me it’s long been a subject of intrigue and interest, especially its time as a military fortress before and during the American Civil War.


Unfortunately, my experience there was marred by a few quite embarrassing park docents and their lack of tact and performance, which very much emasculated the island prison and its fascinating, sinister presence. In short, the place was presented as a bit Disneyland-esque for my taste, with clearly scripted schticks quickly served to the huddled groups of tourists dotting the island like flocks of seabirds. And the bird-poop was accordingly as thick.


While there is a tremendous wealth of solid information and deep history surrounding the island and its uses, of course the focus of the brief tour was to get people in the cellblock and to give them a sense of what it might have been like to be imprisoned there between 1934-63, when the jail was actually in use. To this extent, park officials have a set of activities which they oblige the visitor to endure, centered around a fairly good audio tour and a few gathering points that are explained by the docents. While the headsets mean that communication with other humans is quite limited, It was the human demonstration of the operation of the cell doors which had me wanting to kill someone. We were treated like five-year olds, condescended to, made to close our eyes with some measure of force to ‘imagine the environment’, and were asked moronic, rhetorical questions about if the sound of cell doors slamming is ‘GOOD’ or ‘BAD’. Yes, that’s right: BAD.


It wasn’t that their intentions weren’t genuine, but, quite plainly, the presentation and interaction skills of official historical informants seemed to make a mockery of the whole experience. As we walked to the ferry, back down the paving stone-smattered path leading down to the docks, some words were discussed between us, and some feelings revealed. I’m holding a more-than-full-time job and as it is barely have enough leisure time to keep myself sane, but I long for a place in the discipline of History to hold me over until I make it back to Scotland. San Francisco has a very rich and fascinating history, and there are programs all over the city and its environs that offer glimpses into the past for the present and posterity. Wouldn’t this be the perfect charge?


So I spoke with a friend at the NPS, who explained a bit about the problem we experienced over at the island. It seems that Alcatraz was recently transferred over to the jurisdiction of the Park Conservancy, which supports the upkeep of the site and has created the docent programs that are currently in place. All the tour guides and interpreters are volunteers, not park officials. Herein lies part of the problem. Moreso, when faced with splitting the Conservancy’s focus into Natural and Cultural programs, of course in Northern California the weight would be with things that are Green and the rest is tossed to the wind. While the resources and the directives might be on level ground, the focus is clearly not. And really, cultural history is my greatest interest.


So I’m already volunteering at the Marine Mammal Center one night a week, and have been for a couple of years now. But if we can’t keep busy, then what’s the point of life? I found a volunteer program that would place me directly in the shoes of my nemeses from that night on the Rock. I’m not saying that I’m more suited to taking a position there, but I’d sure like to give it a go. It might satisfy my keen interest in history, and also the love for spouting off useless bits of information to people who actually care.


Other opportunities abound, as well, and I’m still waiting to hear more about them, but it’s not as if I’ve not got enough to focus on here. The bottom line is that I feel a great absence of something very important in my life, and that is very much identifiable as me missing a piece of History in my soul. It’s looking for a way to manifest in this fervent routine I’ve got currently in place, and while I’m happy as a clam with what I’m doing occupationally and will be for some time, a larger palette of colors has never hurt even the most prolific painter. So more as it comes, as usual!


More photos from our excursion can be found here.

9 Responses to “Between a Rock and a Hard Place.”

  1. sleepycinderell Says:
    September 7th, 2005 at 12:32 am

    Go for it! You'd be good on Alcatraz : )
    If you volunteer with the ships might you get to suggest sailing here as part of the project? We could dangle ourselves from the bridge and cheer you as you sail grandly up the Forth!

  2. FunkyPlaid Says:
    September 10th, 2005 at 10:45 am

    This is a vision that I cherish greatly, even if I know it could never happen.
    They'd stop me in the North Atlantic, surely. 🙂

  3. thistlelurid Says:
    September 7th, 2005 at 12:47 am

    Its for people like you d <small>(as if there are any other people like you, ha)</small>, the ones who
    make it their life's blood unearthing all our hidden and forgotten histories…the ones with
    the passion to pass on these old cultures and stories…that we are truly indebted. Id rather
    follow you around that scary, spooky place than plunck one of those sad walkmans on my noggin…
    well, only if you had one of those "battle board" things like Peter Snow I mean!<small>
    (Im so kidding btw)</small>
    Crossing my fingers for you to be reunited with your true love through
    one of these opportunites! <small>(oh and my toezzz too)</small>

  4. FunkyPlaid Says:
    September 10th, 2005 at 11:12 am

    Oh my gosh – I LOVE that swingometer thing. I need one for my own personal use – and I'd use it for everything, too!
    What's gonna happen today at work? ASK THE SWINGOMETER!
    Who's gonna win the next election? ASK THE SWINGOMETER!
    Will Darren ever get a real career? ASK THE SWINGOMETER!
    Thanks for your kind words, Kat. You're a dear.

  5. thistlelurid Says:
    September 10th, 2005 at 6:28 pm

    is that what he calls it? I looked everywhere for a reference…..
    ever notice he rarely lets poor Dan use it? haha it must
    be terribly difficult to operate! :*P

  6. FunkyPlaid Says:
    September 11th, 2005 at 9:35 am

    Dan's still a precocious kid. He might break such a sensitive piece of machinery wonder.
    Who's a military historian at 25? I mean, really…

  7. jacesan Says:
    September 7th, 2005 at 6:18 am

    See now…
    I was more interested in the occupation of Alcatraz by A.I.M. in the 70's. I'm glad I didn't pay much attention to the tour guides. I remember the one lady as we were headed up to the prison itself, but sort of lost interest in her spiel as we got closer to the building of doom.
    I missed the "locking in cells" part, but wouldn't've gone inside a cell that can be locked anyway. Old equipment added to possibly incompetent staff could be embarassing. The sound of a cell door being locked is the worse one you'll ever hear, if you're on the wrong side of the door.
    I liked the exhibit they had in the lower part of the prison.
    A friend of mine was talking about overnight trips to the Rock. She claimed you can even sleep in the cells if you're so inclined. Have you heard about this? It would be great to spend the night on the island, but I'd bring my sleeping bag rather than sleep in a cell.
    Thanks for posting the pics. 🙂

  8. FunkyPlaid Says:
    September 10th, 2005 at 11:17 am

    Re: See now…
    Haven't heard about the Alcatraz 'sleepovers', but I'd be interested to know if they're still going on.
    Yes, the exhibit in the basement was really well done – I think there's a book available that deals with the same subject matter…

  9. Anonymous Says:
    September 9th, 2005 at 11:42 pm

    You can celebrate Scottish history tomorrow (Saturday) at the Festival of the Sea — it's Balclutha's 100th birthday! 🙂

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