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Flocking to See Alcatraz

Published: March 29, 2006 E-Mail This
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."

Enlarge This Image 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
Jim Wilson/The New York Times
A cell in the hospital ward. More
museum that lures more than
a million visitors a year, and Page 1 of 5
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

Mr. Heaney, who is 79,

regularly makes the trek
back to the island to share
Man of Alcatraz his memories and to sell and
autograph his book, "Inside
the Walls of Alcatraz." But
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"I don't mind coming back Go to Complete List
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
Enlarge This Image 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
Jim Wilson/The New York Times
begun to prepare for the day
Frank Heaney, who was a guard at
Alcatraz, tells visitors how it was. when the island's former
More Photos > inhabitants are no longer
living. The park service, in
conjunction with the
Discovery Channel, is in the
final stages of editing a new Page 2 of 5
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

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
A faux head made by an inmate former shower rooms, which
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 temperature-
controlled 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

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 tear-
gas 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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