I moved to California for the first time almost 16 years ago. Ever since then, I’ve had a small obsession with visiting Alcatraz, but – like so much that’s fallen by the wayside of life – have somehow never done it. Until this past Saturday, that is.
I found myself at Pier 33 in San Francisco that morning, unabashedly excited, waiting to board a ferry for the short ride to the island. It was a gorgeous day, the kind of blue-skies-and-wispy-clouds day that can break the hearts of tourists – or perhaps, of locals too.
I didn’t know much about Alcatraz before going, and am not someone obsessed with tales about gangsters, though it turned out that there were several of those aficionados on the tour. I’ve always been more fascinated by the fact that it must have been a different world for those prisoners, to live in the middle of the bay, looking out at a city that was thriving just fine without them. How lonely did that feel? Or was it a community, something that people longed for, once they’d left?
I’m sure both things were true, for the people who spent time there. Our tour guide – a likeable man with a broad smile and an impressive memory, who asked us to call him Ranger Miguel – highlighted some stories of prisoners, but the tour focused more on the entire island, its development, and the role it has played throughout the years.
I was most interested, by far, in the Native American connection to Alcatraz, which I’m embarrassed to admit I knew virtually nothing about before this weekend. One of the first things that Ranger Miguel told us, in fact, was that we happened to show up on the annual Indians of All Tribes Day, which commemorates the Native American occupation of the island from 1969-1971. As with so many things, it made me pause, and reflect on how very much I do not know; in our current political moment, I find myself with renewed energy towards seeking out the stories I’ve missed, and am ashamed not to have heard.
Along with that, of course, I admit to a curiosity about the prisoners who spent time on the island. There’s a gruesome wondering about what happened behind those metal bars, which clanged so loudly that I knew that sound alone would have likely driven me mad. Again, and especially when we went downstairs into the area that was once used for solitary confinement – it was so cold, and would have been so very, very dark – I found myself thinking about our prison system today, and how much more we could emphasize rehabilitation, forgiveness, and healing.
More than anything, I found myself keenly aware that there are lessons from history that emerge still today, loud and clear, in need of attention and not at all in the past. At the end of the day, as we bobbed over the gentle waves of the bay, surrounded by literally hundreds of sailboats on a flawless late January afternoon, heading back towards Pier 33, I found myself deep in thought, grateful for the National Park Service, grateful for the recognition that so many give to education and history, and wondering how to play a role in protecting all that is so critical to understand if we are to truly grow as a nation.
Though it took me nearly 16 years to get there, I hope I will be back on Alcatraz Island, before long. I cannot, after all, learn from a past I do not know.