Of Alcatraz, bank robbers, and uncles named Christopher Boyce

March 21, 2013, marked the 50th anniversary of the closing of Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. While it is a cold, foreboding place, it sparks warm memories for me – memories of being 19 and having my appendix removed at Letterman General Hospital, watching the signal light from Alcatraz by night in recovery; of making the drive from Marin through the Waldo Tunnel, seeing The Rock off to my left and knowing I was “home”; of riding in Sean Penn’s speedboat with Andrew Daulton Lee, skipping past the east shore of the island – and Sean turning to Daulton to ask: “Do you want to stop?”

Some of the fondest memories I have of living in San Francisco took place when my nieces, Natalie and Haylie, would fly in from San Diego to visit for a week each summer – an especially exciting adventure for them, since they were just old enough to fly by themselves. During these visits we’d shop, sightsee, stay up late, and watch movies. One night of the week was always dedicated to “taco night,” where with a veritable Mexican feast spread out on the kitchen table, we’d load up our plates and eat with our hands, always following it up with enormous bowls of cream topped with anything we could dream up. These were perfect “girls only” weekends that I dearly cherished.

In July of 2003, the summer after Chris and I were married, the girls flew in again for their yearly visit. This time would be different, and the girls were brimming with excitement over the idea of meeting their brand new Uncle Chris. The girls had also decided that one of the things they wanted to do most while in town was to visit Alcatraz Island, a place they’d never been. Needless to say, I was thrilled.

On a cool, damp Friday morning, I bundled the girls up and the three of us went down to catch the ferry out to The Rock. Having seen enough prisons for one lifetime, Chris decided to stay home. I can’t say I blamed him. Haylie, the youngest of the two girls, was the most inquisitive about the prison. She wanted to know what we would see and who would be there when we arrived. Most importantly, she wanted to know: “Will they let us into a real prison cell?”

“Of course!” I promised, and watched her face light up like a starburst.

The ferry ride to Alcatraz Island is a short one – 15 minutes – but I could not help thinking about the prisoners on the Bureau of Prisons boat all those years before, clad in shackles, headed across the bay to their final destination. To them, those 15 minutes would have felt like an eternity.

I wanted the girls to know the history of this island – not just from the perspective of the Bureau of Prisons, but also from the perspective of the American Indian Movement (AIM) who occupied Alcatraz from 1969 until June 11, 1971. I wanted them to know that the island had served as a Civil War garrison and a military prison long before. But most of all, I wanted them to “feel” the prison, to understand the sense of longing and loss for any man who stepped foot on that island.

Landing at the dock, we disembarked and made our way up the path. Past nesting seagulls and terns and the smell of low tide against the rocks, you could feel the mist around you, even on a sunny day. We walked the tiers together, taking it all in, standing in cells while the doors were clanged shut, feeling the damp and chill that was somehow much worse on the inside than on the outside.

We were led past a bullet-riddled wall and heard all about one of the bloodiest battles in the history of American prisons. Occurring in 1946, a handful of prisoners had staged a breakout, obtaining guns from the gun gallery and taking nine guards hostage after months of methodical planning. Ultimately, their escape plot was foiled and the inmates shot the hostages in effort to leave no witnesses behind. Thousands of rounds of ammunition were fired before order was finally restored to the prison, but it took the U.S. Marines to finally bring it back under control.

I told the girls all about Frank Morris and his legendary escape from Alcatraz. Their curiosity piqued, they asked me if Mr. Morris had ever been captured. Had he and his small group of fellow escapees made it to freedom? I told them that to this day, no one knew.

Wandering to the lobby area of the prison, the girls met a man by the name of Darwin Coon. Mr. Coon was a sweet, grandfatherly man who was selling books at a table in the center of the room. I stood back from the small crowd gathered around the table, intent on checking in with Chris on my cell phone, when suddenly I was encircled by teenage pandemonium.

“Mr. Coon is selling his book!” Haylie exclaimed, her 12-year-old face coming even more alive than I’d ever seen it. “He’s a real life bank robber!”

Natalie, 13, was next up: “Can we buy his book for dad? Please? Pleeeease?! Mr. Coon is going to autograph it for us!”

How could I refuse them such an amazing experience?

I followed the girls to the center of the lobby. There stood Darwin Coon, Alcatraz veteran and ex-bank robber, former resident of not only this place but also a handful of other correctional institutions before it: The El Reno federal prison in Oklahoma, the Nevada State Prison in Carson City, and Leavenworth.

As fate would have it, Coon’s ticket to Alcatraz came not as a result of his crimes, but because of his unique talents as an escape artist. After breaking out of prison in Nevada and embarking upon a spree of bank robberies, Coon was recaptured and eventually found himself locked up in Alcatraz, a place he called “The true end of the line.” Now here he was some 40 years later, a free man, autographing a paperback book adorned with his name and prison number, regaling the gathering crowd with tales of his former life in a living hell.

All throughout the ferry ride back to the city and the car ride home, the air was charged with excitement and the sounds of giggling teenage girl chatter. Natalie and Haylie could hardly wait to tell their Uncle Chris that they had met an honest-to-goodness bank robber. The irony of the situation was not lost on me.

At this point, we hadn’t yet told the girls about Chris’s past, believing they were still a bit too young to know how to process the information that their uncle had served 25 years in federal prison for espionage and bank robbery. My brother Tim and his wife, Lori, have always been exemplary parents who have guided their children with love and education; they allowed the girls to learn at their own pace, while keeping a vigilant eye open to any harm. I knew it wasn’t my place to tell them that Chris had survived his very own living hell for decades – or that he, like Mr. Coon, had enough stories of prison escape and bank robbery to fill a book of his own. Instead, I kept my mouth closed.

As soon as we arrived back home, the girls burst through the front door and announced in unison: “Uncle Chris! Guess what? We met a real bank robber!”

The expression on Chris’s face was priceless, but his recovery was flawless.

“Really?” he exclaimed excitedly. “Tell me all about it!”

Boy, did they.

Cait Boyce is an advocate for the parole of nonviolent criminal offenders and the wife of Christopher Boyce, known to many as “The Falcon” from the book and movie The Falcon and the Snowman. Their book American Sons: The Untold Story of the Falcon and the Snowman details Chris’s experiences in prison and Cait’s successful two-decade effort to free him and his boyhood friend, Andrew Daulton Lee. Find the book today on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, or other online booksellers.

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