I see Alcatraz everyday. On most days, it sits like a rare gem floating in liquid sapphire. The bay from a few storeys high is always a mesmerizing view. Everything that surrounds this small island is in constant motion — drifting, swirling, passing through.
This past weekend, after five years of look-but-can’t-touch anticipation, son declared he was old enough to visit.
We fought off throngs of tourists for tickets. We took the requisite boat ride. We walked up the steep ramps. We set foot on The Rock as a family for the first time.
THE (PENITENTIARY) THRILL IS GONE
I’d love to be able to say it was every bit as exciting for my son as he imagined. But I’m afraid it wasn’t. Little guy tuckered out soon after the penitentiary thrill of being inside a cell wore off.
Me? I could’ve lasted a lot longer. There were magnificent views to take in. There were pictures to snap and graffiti to decipher. There were gardens to walk, birds to watch, flowers to smell and blessings to count, particularly when you know you’re visiting a prison by choice.
LIKE MEETING A LEGEND (ONLY HE WROTE THE STORY AND HE’S REAL)
I’m inclined to joke about wanting to do more time on The Rock, except, I met someone that day who actually did serve time there.
It was a chance meeting.
His name was Robert Luke. He was big and tall. He looked sturdy and imposing sitting next to a lady, presumably his wife, much smaller than he. Though he was in his 80s, he exuded a vibe — an air of authority of sorts — best not to be messed with.
He wrote Entombed in Alcatraz, a short but painfully honest tell-all about his time growing up and serving a sentence on The Rock. He was there that day for a book-signing. Husband, son and I were drawn to him and made our way to where he sat. He signed our copy of his book.
THE RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT, AND YET….
My son wanted to know what he did that landed him in a cell on The Rock.
“I was a bank robber”, he said.
I was struck by the matter-of-fact manner in which he spoke this admission of crime. It wasn’t humble or apologetic, but it wasn’t proud either. It was a manner possible only after having served a full sentence, having it be a source of shame for decades, and eventually being able to reach that place of self-forgiveness.
The line of people waiting to meet him was growing behind us so we said goodbye. We shook his hand and told him what a pleasure it was to meet him.
We made our way down the wide zig-zagging ramps. We got in line to catch a boat back to the City. Soon, we were sailing away, leaving behind the cold surface of cement and steel. I thought of Robert Luke as we approached the dock. I wondered how he felt when he first set foot on land after serving five years on The Rock.
I can only guess.
What I do know is I was happy to meet someone like Robert Luke. The courage with which he shares his story, his crime and punishment, is nothing short of admirable. What a gift it is to know that there are people who turn their lives around and have the generosity of spirit to serve as inspiration for those who might consider giving up or think it can’t be done.
I played tourist in my hometown and, unexpectedly, I was moved.
Fortunately for the real tourists, The Rock remains solid and unmoved.
Have you ever visited Alcatraz?
Is crime/punishment worth pondering even if one is a law-abiding citizen?
Do we define crime justly?
What about banks that rob the people? Is this punishable? How? Who is culpable if this continues?