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Flocking to See Alcatraz - New York Times

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Flocking to See Alcatraz
Published: March 29, 2006 E-Mail This Printer-Friendly

Alcatraz Island, Calif. — Reprints This much Frank Heaney Save Article knows is true: the gangster George (Machine Gun) Kelly was easy to get along with and did not try to con the guards like other inmates on Alcatraz. Bonnie and Clyde's driver, Floyd Hamilton, was nice enough. Robert (the Birdman) Stroud was psychotic, but he never kept birds here and did not look anything like Burt Lancaster, who played him in "Birdman of Alcatraz."
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Mr. Heaney ought to know. From 1948 to 1951, between serving in World War II and the Korean War, he worked as the youngest correctional officer in the history of Alcatraz, the former federal prison that was infamous as the end of the line for the nation's most incorrigible and violent criminals. This macabre and inhospitable world is now a museum that lures more than a million visitors a year, and
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Jim Wilson/The New York Times

A cell in the hospital ward. More

Flocking to See Alcatraz - New York Times

12/8/09 1:12 PM

A cell in the hospital ward. More Photos >

a million visitors a year, and Mr. Heaney is one of the few people still living who can differentiate reality from myth. Mr. Heaney, who is 79, regularly makes the trek back to the island to share his memories and to sell and autograph his book, "Inside the Walls of Alcatraz." But now his visits are only once a month, down from nearly a dozen a month before a stroke slowed him down two years ago. "I don't mind coming back because the clientele is better," he said, joking. "I'm kind of a ham. But I don't know for how much longer. When I feel that I don't have any more fun I guess I won't do it." Using a bullhorn, park rangers introduce Mr. Heaney to the hundreds of visitors debarking the ferry, who whoop and clap and part the way for him as he shuffles his walker toward the microphone. The National Park Service, which oversees Alcatraz, has begun to prepare for the day when the island's former inhabitants are no longer living. The park service, in conjunction with the Discovery Channel, is in the final stages of editing a new
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Man of Alcatraz

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Scenes from Alcatraz

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Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Frank Heaney, who was a guard at Alcatraz, tells visitors how it was. More Photos >

Flocking to See Alcatraz - New York Times

12/8/09 1:12 PM

final stages of editing a new high-definition orientation film that will include interviews about life on "The Rock." By the end of this year, visitors will be able to walk in the footsteps of the convicts by first entering the Jim Wilson/The New York Times former shower rooms, which A faux head made by an inmate for an escape. More Photos > are now being renovated. (A remixed and expanded audio tour will also be available.) Back in the day, new prisoners arrived there first, were lined up, strip-searched and issued prison garb before entering the cell house for the first time. A larger museum store next to the shower room will contain temperaturecontrolled cases for artifacts now kept in storage in San Francisco. Park service curators are still combing through items like lead-filled "saps" or billy clubs used illegally by the guards and homemade shivs made by the prisoners. The dummy heads that fooled guards during the renowned escape of 1962, the subject of the 1979 Clint Eastwood movie "Escape from Alcatraz," are also up for consideration. The park service allows 3,000 visitors on the island each day. (Adult tickets are $16.50 with an audio tour; children 5 to 11, $10.75.) The service does not announce Mr. Heaney's visits beforehand, so tourists do not know they will hear the kind of rich detail that only a former prison guard would know: like how he counted the knives in the kitchen after every meal. "There is no substitute for having someone who lived here or served time here or worked here," said George Durgerian, a park ranger on Alcatraz. "But what the park service is doing is making the best out of what is going to happen. Because time is going on and we can't stop it." So they plan as best they can for the day when Frank Heaney won't be able to point to the shell of a building and recall what it was like to be 21 years old, fresh out of the Navy, fair haired, skinny and intrepid. Page 3 of 5

Flocking to See Alcatraz - New York Times

12/8/09 1:12 PM

Navy, fair haired, skinny and intrepid. As tourists study the damp rooms with mint-green chipped lead paint, Mr. Heaney recalls how the guards paid $10 a month for "a bed and a bureau" and 25 cents for a meal. The bread was good, he says, when it was right out of the oven. He remembers there were card parties and Saturday night dances when girls would come over to the island. But there was the tedium of night watch and the embarrassment of inmates' blowing kisses at him. And there was weekly bath duty when Mr. Heaney stood guard over the Birdman's tub to make sure he did not kill himself. "You struggle to get the history by reading primary source material and doing re-enactments," said Jan Turnquist, a tourist from Concord, Mass., who is the executive director of Orchard House, the home of Louisa May Alcott. "But here's the real deal." She asked Mr. Heaney to autograph his book in the cafeteria after he recounted the prison's spaghetti riot of 1950, when angry inmates could not take one more meal of bland starch and guards shattered teargas canisters with machine gun fire to quiet them down. "I kept thinking, 21 years old, so young," Ms. Turnquist said, clutching the book. "He must have been terrified." No corner of the island is left unturned in Mr. Heaney's razor memory. He poses for pictures with tourists, but not before pointing out how the bowling alley was just down the road from the firing range. "I'll probably be the first to go," he said, referring to the few surviving inhabitants of Alcatraz. "But the island doesn't need me. It can get by on its own."
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Flocking to See Alcatraz - New York Times

12/8/09 1:12 PM

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