Thursday, August 20, 2009

Last Man on the Rock

by Tom Emch

Plaster peels off the solid walls of Alcatraz; steel gun galleries that rang to the booted step of the guards are rusting.  Grass sprouts from cracks in the concrete of the exercise yard and the guard towers are unmanned.

In the main cellblock, three tiers high, the only sound is inside your mind where you can imagine the screaming and rifle fire of the big 1946 riot that left two guards and three prisoners dead.  The cellblock today is a a place of bad dreams and clouding memories.

But John Hart remembers well.  He's the last man on Alcatraz, the last link with the 29-year history of the prison that began in 1934 when the Federal Bureau of Prisons took over the island from the military.

A square fort of a man, he has lived on Alcatraz for nearly 22 years.  For 15 of those years, he was an armed guard, close enough to the prisoners to know them by name.  They are gone now; the last of the inmates was herded off the island in 1963.  And most of the grimness is gone, replaced by the ghostly atmosphere of a decaying institution.

John Hart and his wife, Marie, remember happier times: their four children growing up on the island, playing on the rocky shore; their two daughters who were married on Alcatraz; their friends among the 65 resident families.  It was a good life - outside the prison compound - for the 250 "civilian" employees, many of whom commuted daily to the mainland.

Hart stays on as a security contractor for the General Services Administration, reluctant owner of the property which will unload the island as soon as The City decides, finally, on a developer.

Meanwhile, the Harts live in spacious comfort on the 12-acre island.  They occupy two ground floor apartments in the building that formerly housed married guards and their families.  On the west side of Alcatraz, their quarters command a sweeping view of The City from the Golden Gate to the lower Embarcadero.

"At night, San Francisco is a fairlyland," says Marie, "but I miss the lights on the prison and along the shore.  And mostly I miss the children. This was their home."

It's still home for the last couple on the island, and for two semi-retired men who help keep the curious away.  Bill Doherty, 62, and Orval (Barney) Barnes, 83, help with the guard chores, and answer the phone on the dock.

Here, where Hart's boat, Rocky II, is moored and where all visitors come ashore, is a watchdog. He's required by Hart's contract with the GSA.

"Duke is a little unpredictable," says the former prison guard.  "We have a loud speaker here, and at night we can hear Duke's bark at the apartment.  If he snarls, I get into the pickup and drive over to the dock.  No one gets by him."  Another dog, Duffy, has lesser duties.  He stays near the apartment located on the old parade grounds.  Four people and two dogs.  It's a lonely little community on the Rock that once held more than 250 prisoners in maximum security.  "It was tight security, but not escape-proof," says Hart.

He takes you out in his 20-foot twin outboard cruiser and points out the spot where, it is believed, three men entered the water in June, 1962.

The three - Frank Morris, John and Clarence Anglin - disappeared.  They have never been heard from since.  Nor have Ted Cole and Ralph Roe who took a similar route to death in the tides or possible freedom in December, 1937.  Only these five are listed as "escapees," according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in the history of the prison.

Hart and his wife "escape" occasionally to Santa Rosa where they have a second home.  And there are the weekly trips to the Marina for supplies.

"One of the problems of living on the island," explains Marie, "is groceries.  It's hard to buy for a week at a time. We have three refrigerators and try to keep them full."

"If we run out of something, we can't just dash in to the store," says the lady of the island, who has written a book about her years on Alcatraz.  Lou Hurley, a radio traffic reporter who daily delivers the Harts' newspaper by helicopter, has offered to fly in emergency rations, land on the old parade ground where he drops the paper. But it hasn't been necessary.

Communications with the mainland are another problem, or were.  Six months ago, a freighter cut the underwater telephone cable.  It has only recently been repaired.  Radiotelephone contact is available, but unreliable.

And water (certain to be a headache for any future developer) is brought in by barge once a month - 10,000 gallons at a time. "There's enough water for us," says Marie, "but not enough for the lawns, barely enough for the flowers."

Water has been a problem for visiting movie companies and television camera crews that have used Alcatraz for location filming since the prison was abandoned.  

The Harts have been host to all the news networks, including Britain's BBC.  A Hollywood studio filmed "Point Blank" on the island; MGM rented it for $2000 a day for one scene.

But, seeing the bleak five by nine foot cells and the bare tile boxes for the mentally disturbed wonder if the smoldering world of the inmates could have been captured on celluloid.  The yelling and bar-banging of the isolation unit where prisoners were fed from trays pushed through a slot in the bars.  The"Central Bath" where Mickey Cohen once handled the linen.  The caged fury of Al Capone, Alvin Karpis, Billy Cook, Machine Gun Kelly and the Barker brothers.  The special cell for Roubert Stroud.  The office of Warden Olin D. Blackwell, now an  unfurnished shambles.

And what of the life outside the walls where the children of the guards played hide-and-seek among the old military fortifications?  This story has not been told.  "The children who grew up on the island have all had happy marriages," says Marie. "We don't know of any of them that have gone bad.  They had a good life here."

Their years on Alcatraz have meant much to the Harts. "I hope we will be able to stay on after the island is developed."  Both of them want this.  And both want to be there when the development is complete. Marie says:  "We would like to see them put the lights back on again."

"It's really such a beautiful place."

San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle 1969