LAFAYETTE -- A "Lamorinda Kids Read" month that began with a chattery, squirming group of youngsters mesmerized by author Gennifer Choldenko's reading of "Al Capone Does My Homework" ended more quietly with a detailed account of "Life on the Rock,'
Phil Dollison, president of the Alcatraz Alumni Association President and Lafayette resident holds a vast repository of original photographs and stories chronicling the period between 1953 and 1962, when he and his family were island residents. Dollison's father Arthur was an accountant in Terre Haute, Ind. before he was hired as "Superintendent of Industries" to straighten out the factory books at the famous federal prison. Arriving in California, Alcatraz made an unforgettable first impression.
"The Bay was shrouded with fog and I was scared to death," Phil Dollison said, displaying a black-and-white aerial photo of Alcatraz to the small crowd gathered at the Lafayette Library and Learning Center Community Hall.
But it wasn't Al Capone, Robert Stroud (The Bird Man) or the other organized crime kingpins born of Prohibition and the Great Depression who terrified Dollison. Much more, it was the worry of a typical 16-year-old: Would there be other kids to hang out with?
Much to his relief, Dollison discovered more than 60 families and close to 30 children living on the island. Comforted by companionship, he ran straight into the next obstacle to teenage happiness.
"We lived in 64 Building," he said, pointing to the chunky, 1800s Army barracks. A second photo showed the home's "front yard" view: 15 feet of concrete leading to a barbed wire-topped chain-link fence.
"We had a two-bedroom apartment. One room was my parents,' the other, my sisters.' My bedroom was the hallway."
But the rent was only $26 a month, and Dollison soon discovered life on The Rock had its rewards. There was an Officers Canteen, where almost anything could be bought.
"Except no alcohol," Dollison said, "But that doesn't mean there wasn't any on the island, It just meant they didn't allow it. That place was our salvation: a bowling alley, movies, pool tables -- and no parents coming down there."
Alcatraz history reveals multiple dichotomies. Severe limitations like "dark rooms" and hourly prisoner counts coexisted with an ironically casual, que-sera-sera atmosphere. Dollison described the six cells, no lights and just a hole in the floor, where the worst offenders could be held for up to 30 days.
He then shared a series of photos showing unarmed guards mingling with inmates in a recreation area, and wardens (dressed in business suits as if at a corporate meeting) seated with an uncuffed prisoner at a conference table. Faced with some of the most violent offenders in the country, Alcatraz's low inmate numbers (250, versus the 5,000 at San Quentin, in Dollison's time) meant oversight was heavy, but it came with a carrot: good food.
"They wouldn't beat them, but they'd break them if there was trouble. To keep the tension down, every inmate had a separate cell and they fed them well. Alcatraz had the distinction of having the best food for inmates," Dollison said.
During a second phase of his life on Alcatraz, Dollison's father was promoted to associate warden, and the family lived in the large main house.
"I had a view of San Francisco," he remembered.
Other aspects remained the same. There was no natural fresh water supply on the island: a barge from Fort Mason delivered it twice a week. There were only two pay phones servicing the entire population. And garbage was simply dumped in the Bay.
"Washing machines, old sofas, sewage, everything. No one was thinking about ecology," Dollison said.
He said he can't recall ever feeling fear, even when his father took him on the kind of tour only the child of a warden could have experienced.
"My dad took me up to The Birdman. He had a whole wing to himself and I just thought he was a kindly old man who was a world expert on birds. Later, when I read a book my sister wrote, about how he killed a guard, I understood why no one ever said anything kind about him."
"Bird Man," a biography written by Dollison's sister Jolene Babyak, counters the 1962 Burt Lancaster film Dollison said left him with the wrong impression. Still, Dollison spoke with an odd blend of admiration and awful awareness, saying, "Just watching him was special to me."
In 1972, Dollison donated hundreds of his photo negatives to the National Park's Alcatraz archives, held in the Presidio. He allows writers and historians to use the images free of charge and shares his stories with equal generosity. For more information, or to contact Dollison, visit http://www.alcatrazalumniassoc.org.