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Mark Eliason

The Alcatraz 100 is a yearly swim open to anyone who wants to try—it sounds deceptively like it should be referring to a 100-mile swim or something of the like. It’s actually a swim from Alcatraz to the shore, and the reason that they call it the Alcatraz 100 is because some of the swimmers are members of the elite club by the same name. Being in that club means that you’ve swam Alcatraz 100 times, in other words, you are what is known as a “centurion.”

My oldest brother, Steve, called me in May, and in a mid-life crisis (he’s 41) invited me to swim across the bay with him. He called my other six brothers (we are ten kids in total) and invited them, along with my two sisters. Only four of us ended up signing on for the race—Steve, Scott, Jon, and I. The difference between them and me is that I have never been a swimmer, whereas Jon was a surfing champ (meaning, I’ll assume he knew how to swim well), Scott was a state swimmer, and Steve played water polo for BYU. There is a strong macho man tradition in my family, though. Every Thanksgiving we used to break the frosty ice on the lake to go swimming. My mom always thought she was hilarious when she would lock us out in the cold for a minute or two, and then she’d open the door and pretend like she had no idea. “Oh, did you guys want to come in?” she’d say, grinning. Ha. Real funny, Mom. When Steve called about Alcatraz, it felt like a challenge from those old times. Our conversation was short:

“I’m just telling all the brothers,” he said. “I’ll be swimming from Alcatraz to the shore this fall. You can come if you want to.”

“Maybe I will,” I said, “maybe I will.” Yeah right, I thought.

But then I started mulling it over. Why not? I was studying for the LSAT at the time, and trust me, I needed something besides overly academic reading and logic games in my life.

[image]Seeing that I was going to make my own great escape from one of the world’s most illustrious and decaying prisons, I decided to investigate some of the more well-known prisoners of that island trap. Al “Scarface” Capone, Prisoner # AZ85 was, understandably, first on my list.

Not quite as intimidating as I had expected one of Alcatraz’s most infamous inmates to be, but how often does a picture really do someone justice? I don’t think you can even see the scar across his face from the knife-fight that he had with Frank Gallucio at a dark little establishment called The Seedy Harvard Inn, whose proprietor was ironically named Frankie Yale. (This fact only confirms my suspicion that the Ivy League is corrupted to the core. All I need is a guy named Joey the “Dart Mouth,” who would obviously be a hitman whose weapon of choice would be a blowgun and poisonous darts.)

Albert Capone was born in Brooklyn, 1899, to Italian immigrant parents as the fourth of nine kids. He started his life of crime with the aforementioned Mr. Yale in a group known as the Five Points Gang. After he fought with Gallucio, Mr. Yale moved him to Chicago to help him “cool off.” It was there that Capone’s career really heated up and he came into real power as a member of the mob.

Chicago in the 1920s was Gangland Chicago—a land plagued by corrupt cops and jaded politicians. It certainly is a windy city, yes—but I have often wondered if the nickname is a two-edged sword because of how much hot air Chicagoland political leaders are always blowing this way and that. Capone moonlighted as a community leader, even organizing a campaign against rickets; that didn’t fool too many people because most everyone knew that he was a big center of the bootlegging and illegal prostitution that ravaged the city during the Prohibition era. His main competition at the time was George “Bugs” Moran, who headed up the Irish mob on the north side of town.

Capone wasn’t a fan of competitors, though, and thus we come to the bloody story of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Prominent members of Moran’s gang were lured to a warehouse where they thought a deal would be going down. Members of Capone’s gang were in the area—dressed as police officers and driving a stolen police cruiser. They pulled up to the warehouse, lights flashing and sirens blaring. With their guns drawn, the faux-cops stormed the scene, rounding up the members of the Irish gang, who thought they were being busted. Moran’s boys surrendered; they soon found themselves lined up against a brick wall, and before anyone knew what was happening, the “cops” slaughtered seven important members of Moran’s gang executioner-style. The bodies were left for dead amid pools of sanguine waste, and the disciples of Capone fled. When the police arrived, one member of Moran’s gang was still alive. He was known as Frank “Tight Lips” Gusenberg, and as he gave up the ghost, he wouldn’t utter a word to the police about his killers. (Two notes to self: there is a character, one of Fat Tony’s henchmen from The Simpsons known as Johnny “Tight Lips.” Note number two: there seem to be a lot of gangsters named Frank or Frankie.) Capone orchestrated the entire event, and set himself up so that he would be in Florida on vacation, thus disconnecting himself from the crime.

And that was how Capone operated—he was untouchable because he could never be linked to the crimes. Until one day when Mr. Eliot Ness, United States Treasury agent, and the Untouchables came into town and busted Mr. Capone for tax evasion. It’s interesting that we give Eliot Ness all the credit for that particular arrest, because historians regard him as a glory-hog showoff and basically a nogoodnik. It was the accountant working for Mr. Ness, Oscar Wallace, who had the bright idea of prosecuting Capone for income tax evasion, which is what led to his arrest and his imprisonment at La Isla de los Alcatraces in the San Francisco Bay.

Rumor has it that Al Capone had a weekend getaway house in my home town, Oconomowoc, on the shores of the same lake I grew up—learning to swim and splashing around in—Lac La Belle. Our house was built in 1935, so that rules it out—but who knows, he could have lived in my neighbor’s house, throwing raucous parties full of illegal alcohol, debauchery to the max, and loud jazz music. I have strong recollections of swimming all summer long, but it was never the kind of disciplined, rhythmic swimming that I would have to use for my training. I swam with friends, mostly diving deep into the depths of the lake and walking out as far as I could with the muck swallowing my feet and my laughter filling the atmosphere. I have always felt very comfortable in the water, despite my lack of understanding the technicalities surrounding swimming.

So when I had paid the entrance fee for the Alcatraz 100 and knew that I was locked in, I decided it was time to spend my summer in the water again. The constant fragrance of chlorine and the brittle feeling in my hair was not something I was looking forward to, but it was a valid trade off for how good I felt when I was swimming regularly. In the Richards Building pool I began to learn the ropes—with the help of a one Sergeant Beck, Wayne Beck, to be exact. He is a man who is built like a cross between a bullfrog and a tank, and the idea that he could swim was beyond me when I first met him. But he had the grace of a ballerina in the water. We worked together on my form, mostly, isolating my kick and my pull. Wayne was one of those classic sports feel-good-movie coaches—he’d push me hard and challenge me, with the occasional encouragement, but he’d always top it off with some kind of life lesson. I’ll always remember the lecture on health that he gave me as we sat treading water in the RB pool. It went something like this:

“My dad was built just like me. The only difference was his attitude. He would get sick all his life because he felt robbed. I just enjoy life and my health has been great. So, Mark,” he’d say, “enjoy life.” Then he’d kick off the poolside and fly away through the water, like a great shark-killing machine. I’d just shake my head, laugh, and say, “Ohhhhhh, Wayne.”

And so began my training. Wayne challenged me to swim 1200 meters after about a week. That’s two-thirds of a mile. I came in every day, some days to work solely on form, and other days to put it all together and work on endurance. After I struggled for a long time, my breakout came and I did it—and my, oh my, was that a sweet victory for me.

A breakout is always a great feeling. I spend a lot of time, struggling beneath the surface, and when I’m finally able to breach it, the taste of the air above is sweet and liberating. The Foo Fighters have a song called “Breakout” where Dave Grohl does some wicked screaming; it sounds almost like he is begging for oxygen.

I wonder if it would feel like that to be trapped in prison. As the Alcatraz race approached, I thought, How cool would it be if they put us in a cell on Alcatraz and we had to make an entire escape? Well, turns out that wasn’t the case. However, that thought led me to investigate how many people had actually escaped from Alcatraz. There was always Sean Connery’s character in The Rock—John Patrick Mason, an SAS agent who is imprisoned on the island because of his knowledge of government secrets. Mason was the only person to ever successfully escape from Alcatraz—even though he was recaptured. In the real history of the Rock, thirty-four people attempted to escape from the penitentiary during its operation as a prison and only five remain unaccounted for. Seven were shot on their way out; two were known to have drowned; five remain, as I said, unaccounted for; two escaped but were later re-jailed; and the rest were caught in the act.

Of the five who remain unaccounted for, the most famous are the three who escaped on June 11, 1962—Frank Morris and John and Clarence Anglin. This was a very famous prison break—so famous, that the Clint Eastwood film Escape from Alcatraz was based on this event.

John Anglin: Prisoner #AZ442, Frank Morris: # AZ1441, Clarence Anglin #AZ536

The guards at Alcatraz had their hands full with this trio. Morris was a man who was put in prison in his late teens for armed robbery, but he wasn’t your average moron criminal. With an IQ of 134, Morris had made several escape attempts from various prisons in Kansas and New Jersey, and had succeeded at getting out, just not staying out. Finally, the authorities wised up and placed him in what they considered to be the “unescapable Alcatraz.” But when he teamed up with the Anglin brothers, who were jailed for grand larceny and bank robbery, they became unstoppable. You see, these two had also escaped from every other prison they were put in. So when the brothers heard about Morris, they arranged a meeting in the dingy prison courtyard. The three convicts got together and devised a scheme that would go down in history as one of the most infamous escapes ever.

Every day during music hour, accordion music would waft through the halls of the prison. Morris and the Anglin brothers decided this would be the opportune time to work on their escape, since the music would be a noise cover for them. They constructed a makeshift chisel out of a spoon and a dime, and also a homemade drill out of a vacuum engine. They used these to chip away at the concrete around an air vent—and when the guards came around to check, the boys threw up façade walls against the air vents. Because it was dark around the vents, the guards were none the wiser. When the three had escaped into the vent, they came to a place where an old fan had been replaced with a grill. They broke through the grill, and replaced the grating with a fake one carved out of soap. Before they left, they stole a ton of raincoats which they used to build a raft and escape to shore. Most people assumed that they had died in the attempt; but relatives of the Anglin brothers swear they received post cards from the two in South America later on. They could still be hitchhiking around in Peru somewhere, selling woven baskets and eating chili con queso.

South America seems like the escape place of choice for many. In addition to the Anglin brothers, many ex-Nazis made their homes in South America post-WWII. I escaped to South America for two years, as did my older brother Steve. He was a missionary there in Bolivia sixteen years before I went to Brazil. This is just one of many parallels in our lives.

Another interesting parallel between Steve and me is that both of us were at one time lead singers in rock bands. My parents’ response couldn’t have been more different. For example, when Steve first brought home a Beatles album, my mom made him write down all of the lyrics from it (The White Album) to make sure there were no messages from Satan embedded within. Fast-forward sixteen years—there are Clair and Annette Eliason (my parents) at the back of the crowd at Band-Aid, a local benefit show starring yours truly, and I give them a quick shout out.

“Everybody say hi to my mom and dad,” I breathe into the microphone. The crowd roars; my parents look pleased and clap and cheer all night for us.

Basically, Steve and I had a lot of things in common. We were both pros at the Atari, as well, especially (ironically enough) the game Super Break-out, an awesome eighties game of bouncing balls and smashing tiles. Steve Jobs, the main man at Apple now, actually headed up the design of this game; this was clearly his peak performance. In this stellar game, you smash away layers of bricks until your bouncy ball is able to escape into the freedom of fresh air. I have strong recollections of sitting for hours in our dark basement, with an original Joystick in my hand, playing Super Break-out surrounded by my whooping brothers—Steve, Nate, Jon, Scott, Ben, Tom, and little Paul.

Anyway, it turned out that Steve and I were the only brothers to actually do the race. Scott and Jon dropped out. I met Steve in San Francisco on September 1st, the day before the race. He and his wife, Jen, had rented this hip little silvery-blue convertible and we were going to take the town by storm. We checked into the hotel; Jen headed off to do yoga and Steve and I went to explore the city, find the starting point for the race, get some wetsuits, and philosophize.

We strolled around San Francisco, talking about books and ideas and how to survive this swim. It was fun to connect with my older brother, and I discovered that truly, as you get older, age difference matters less and less, even if it is sixteen years. San Francisco is a city full of windy hills, fit bodies, and full parking. The wharf, however, was full of life—especially seals and seagulls. There was a prisoner in the 1940s who took a special interest in the seagulls and other avian specimen from the Bay Area:

Robert Franklin “The Birdman” Stroud: Prisoner #AZ594

[image]Mostly he was known as the Birdman of Alcatraz, but he was born and christened Robert Franklin Stroud. He was not one known largely for criminal exploits, but the combination of fits of rage and falling in with the wrong crowd led the Birdman to Alcatraz. After murdering a man who beat up on his prostitute girlfriend, Stroud was put in prison. He was generally quite gentle and detached. Then something set him off one day – perhaps a taunting, perhaps a little too much violence – no one is quite sure why Stroud stabbed that prison guard in Kansas. Shortly thereafter, he was sentenced to death—until he received a presidential pardon from Woodrow Wilson, at the request of Stroud’s mother.

Although not condemned to death, Stroud was sentenced to life in prison and may well have felt very dead to the world. Then he discovered something he cared about—birds. That’s right, birds were his passion. One day while walking around the prison yard, Stroud came upon three injured sparrows and something struck a chord in him. He nursed these three birds back to life, and with the permission of the warden, began breeding and studying many different birds. Throughout the course of his life, he made some important contributions to avian science, particularly with his works entitledDiseases of Canaries and Stroud’s Digest on the Diseases of Birds. Old ex-prison guards will lower their voice and look straight at you as they tell you about the stench that wafted out of Stroud’s cell because it was always full of birds and their excrement. But he loved these creatures, and through this love his gentle nature developed even more. He died in jail, but he died a studious man, spending his time in his last years studying French and law.

Stroud died studying law in prison. I have a dream to study law; part of the reason I want to study it is purely for the challenge of it. Law school is reported by everyone who does it as super hard, and I love a good challenge—something I can decide to do and feel myself grow and expand through it. That’s a big reason I decided to swim Alcatraz; the toughness factor. I ran a marathon before that, so I knew that I was up for a physical challenge. And I couldn’t back down from a brotherly challenge.

Looking in the Oxford English Dictionary, I found out that a meaning of the word “break-out” is the break of day, or the break of morn. In San Francisco, there is usually so much dense fog that the morning doesn’t really quite break out, it more like seeps out. So as we suited up for our extreme macho-showdown on the morning of September 2nd, Steve and I laughed at what we were about to do. It was kind of ridiculous—we had each paid a hundred bucks (plus travel expenses) to come and swim 1.4 miles through shark-infested super dangerous (and probably super dirty, sewage-filled and stinking) water. That’s right—the San Francisco Bay is home to thousands of sharks, particularly leopard sharks.

This is one bad boy you wouldn’t want to meet as you were out flailing around in the chop of the Bay. Thoughts of sharks drifted through my head as I rode the ferry boat with Steve out to Alcatraz Island. I knew then and there that it was time to turn my mind off. The ferry lurched to a stop, the iron doors were flung open, and I threw myself into the bay, praying one last time that I wouldn’t run into any of these carnivorous terrors of the surging sea.

Alvin “Creepy” Karpis: Prisoner #AZ1539

Sharks may lurk about the depths of the water surrounding the island, but one denizen of Alcatraz that I would have no desire to meet in a helpless situation (like a dark alley, or a lonely desert road, or a filthy truck stop bathroom) is Alvin “Creepy” Karpis. Listen to that name. Let it roll off your tongue—just the sound of it gives me the shivers, and kind of makes me think of a shark.

All kinds of creepy tales surround this convict. He was the longest running inmate of Alcatraz when it closed down in 1969. During his stay at the Rock, he worked in the bakery. There was another lad who worked there by the name of Charles Manson. Isn’t that quaint? I can just see Karpis and Manson waking up at the crack of dawn. “There’s bread to be made, my boy!” Karpis would say, slapping the young Manson on the back. That’s right—the Charles Manson, the same one who is in prison for a series of murders where “Helter Skelter” was written in blood on the wall. He was not actually at the scene of the killings, but he was the mastermind behind them. This is the same Charles Manson who comes up for parole this year. Long before his serial-killer days, he approached Karpis one day, telling Karpis that he wanted to be a star. He asked Karpis for music lessons (apparently Karpis was quite the guitarist) and Manson was flat-out denied. Karpis was a complete jerk, totally rejecting him. Later on, we see that Manson became a star—but maybe things would have been different had Karpis been willing to teach him a few riffs.

Before being incarcerated, Karpis had led the notorious Karpis-Barker Gang. This was a bloodthirsty group who had no qualms about murdering whoever got in their way during their rampages of murder, mayhem, and mischief. They were especially well-known for their kidnapping escapades. But when J. Edgar Hoover became the head of the FBI, he decided it was time to take down Karpis. Hoover organized some teams known as “Flying Squads” to hunt down dangerous criminals. The Flying Squads were groups of the best FBI agents who were constantly on the road and on the tail of these gangsters. As Karpis ran from the law, his gang was taken down, one by one. As a result, Karpis personally sent a death-threat to Hoover.

In 1936, Hoover was chewed out by a Senate committee. Even though he had completely transformed the FBI, there were all kinds of problems still plaguing the bureau and, the committee pointed out, Hoover himself had never actually arrested someone. Shortly thereafter, Hoover got word that Karpis was cornered somewhere in New Orleans. He flew out to make the arrest personally.

Legend has it (and so do the FBI case files) that the FBI chased Karpis in cars until he could no longer flee, cornering him in a tight area of the French Quarter. With their lights a-flashing and their sirens blaring, the cops surrounded him and approached his car, rusted and parked beneath a rickety storefront sign. J. Edgar Hoover sauntered up to the car, reached down in through the window of Karpis’ Ford and pulled him out, reading him his rights. Since they didn’t have any handcuffs (don’t ask me what the freaking FBI is doing on a bust with no handcuffs), Hoover asked one of his men to remove a necktie, and Hoover tied up Karpis with the tie and hauled him away. I’m sure that made a grand shot on the next day’s front page: Karpis’ anger boiling over and Hoover’s round face smiling—Hoover Hog-ties Karpis!

And so the stories about Alcatraz abound. I’ve got my own story—my own escape. I took the plunge (haha!) and decided it was time for me to get my feet wet (oh, another zinger!) in a very literal sense, and figure out how to saddle the horse that was waiting for me (okay, that one didn’t work so well). I swam across the San Francisco Bay and it felt great. My most distinct memories are that the water was green and turbulent, and that it seemed like I was never getting closer. I pushed on and on, but it felt like I was never getting anywhere. The city stood distant and foggy, and other swimmers passed me by, their yellow-capped heads bobbing along atop the beautiful briny sea.

The end came suddenly, like a breakout. You chip away at something for so long, and then one day, seemingly on its own, it collapses and the open air fills your lungs and wild, free sunlight fills your cell. And suddenly you’re back out in the open. One moment I looked up and could see nothing but a hazy San Francisco and green saltwater swells. The next minute, I looked up and the end was in sight. As I entered the aquatic park that housed the finish line, I spotted another swimmer off to my left. Giving it all I had, I kickstarted my heart and broke out in front of him, winning the little race to the shore. I wish I would have yelled, “Last one out’s a rotten egg!”

And when I made it, staggering and triumphant, I knew that I could stand among the centurions, and among others like Morris and the Anglin brothers. It was a good feeling.

Let’s end on a scene—light and water and brothers and hope and breakouts all combined into one. I remember the freshness of the morning air, the newness of light breaking out at that time of day, and the stillness of the water on the Rock River the morning I succeeded in clearing the wake. I hopped into our boat with my mom and my younger brother (but the superior wakeboarder) Paul, and we revved the engine and headed out. I had started out the summer unable to stand up on a board, but over the weeks had adapted to the give and take of carving in the wake. I slid my feet into the bindings with the help of some Barbasol shaving cream, and flung myself into the chilly water. The sun broke the horizon, and our boat sliced through the water upriver. Swerving back and forth, watching my younger brother in the boat, I threw all my energy into one cut, and as I flew into the air, I knew I would make it. The wind swept through me, calming my heart and carrying my body upwards and over the wake. I landed softly on the other side and let out a yell of triumph. Mom and Paul were both pumped as well—and in that moment, it all came together—light, water, brothers, hope, and breakouts.