Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Secret of 738

“Wait, I’m getting something!” I looked more intently at my EMF (electromagnetic field) meter as I stepped slowly past jail cell number 121 on the section of Alcatraz prison they call Broadway.

The needle started to bounce rhythmically up into the “interesting zone” of readings around a 4 or 5 and I started counting, one, two, three. It bounced seven times. It paused. My friend Beth’s son Dylan rushed over to watch. It bounced three times, then paused again. It bounced eight times and then resumed its usual baseline reading of about 1.5.

“738. I can remember that.” The prisoners were called not by their names but by their numbers. I wondered who number 738 was.

Dylan had been looking forward to this night tour of Alcatraz for months. When I first found the night tours, I was hoping for a ghost-hunting theme. I think that was seasonal and this wasn’t quite the season yet. Never fear, ghost-hunting itself really has no season. So we came armed with my EMF meter and a couple of cameras knowing that we wouldn’t be able to do a real investigation with the 300 or so other visitors who had joined us for the evening tour.

We had found easy parking about a block away and walked to the Pier 33 Alcatraz Tour Snack Bar. In the hubbub, Beth, my husband John and I lost Dylan for a very tense few minutes and found him again, doing just what he had been told to do.

“If you get lost in the woods or in the City, just stay where you are so we can find you,” John had reminded him. And there he was just outside the snack bar door, waiting to be found while he took in the sights dockside San Francisco.

The adults all nearly collapsed in relief and we discussed the relative merits of pigeons. One had walked into the snack bar near our table. I sneaked a bit of the soft brown roll from my ham sandwich to the floor. “Rizzo” our pigeon (named for the character in Midnight Cowboy after the inevitable “flying rats” attribution) found the morsel immediately and gobbled it up. I figure Rizzo must be a regular in the snack bar because she looked up at the tables nearby to see who had sent her the offering. I launched another crumb over her head and she chased it down. A sullen teenager imprisoned by his cheerful family sitting at a table across the room frowned in disgust. Well, that would get better in time. Or not. The voice over the loudspeaker announced something official and we all got up to get in line for the boat. We declined the opportunity for a group photo, knowing we weren’t going to buy one. We had some different souvenirs in mind from The Rock.

Out on the water, I reminded Beth, who was a little concerned about sea-sickness, that the ferry ride we were on was smoother than the train ride to Sacramento a few days before. She pointed out the 4-ft swells and I noted that we really could barely feel them. I didn’t want to tell her I had been on San Francisco Bay in storms from time to time when I commuted by ferry, pretty exciting each one of them. Dylan speculated there might be sharks; I said it was pretty rare to see a shark in the Bay since they don’t like the fresh water. We disappeared into the fog.

The fog that night wasn’t the cute little cat-feet fog playing over the hills and into the City and the Bay. It was The Fog, Stephen King fog, Twilight Zone fog. It was fog where the rest of the world disappeared from view so that midway between we could see only ourselves and water but neither Alcatraz nor the bright lights of San Francisco. And then a wall of rock appeared and the voice of our guide told us more about how this remote and inhospitable spot had not been populated with Native tribes, who had the good sense to stay where food was plentiful and the winds didn’t howl, only a mile and half away. The Rock had appeared then white-washed with bird guano (which, if you aren’t into the “nice” names for ooky stuff is bird poo) further “un-hancing” the livability of this high spot in cold water.

First a fort, then a military prison, and then, starting in 1934 Alcatraz opened as the prison we think of as the federal maximum security slammer for high profile prisoners. More accurately, it was the place they sent prisoners who caused too much trouble in the prisons they were originally assigned to. Alcatraz is known for some famous names in crime like Al Capone, “Creepy Karpis” and “The Birdman” Robert Stroud, who by the way was not the sweetie-pie Burt Lancaster portrayed but a very scary guy. There were also the less famous but no less creepy, cranky, bad, rotten or just deranged. And three guys figured out how to escape; officially, no one knows what happened to them. Those and other sensational events provide the highlights of the headphones-guided tour where you can feel the cold fog-wind screaming in through the doorway to the recreation area, struggle against the tightness of a 5’x9’ cell and almost hear the instruments playing on music night, trouble piled upon trouble in 3 stories of cells guarded by men in double-breasted suits and red ties and forbidden blackjacks.

There is plenty of old wiring in these old buildings, some of which are in ruins. Those old wires can make an EMF Tri-Field meter go crazy with a normal source of electromagnetic energy. And then there are the things that make you wonder. One of the guides noticed my Tri-Field meter and mentioned that people often get a creepy feeling in the room next to us. No wonder, it’s what they call a “fear cage,” a room surrounded by electrical wiring that creates a constant strong field that registers high on my little machine. Places with naturally (rather than supernaturally) high EMF readings give sensitive people anything from a buzzing sensation to visual effects. And then there’s the argument that perhaps it is easier for a spirit to manifest in places where that energy is plentiful. Proof? I’m still looking but I know I’ve had my own personal experiences.

As to my 738, counting the bounces of the needle as it pulsed its electricity, I thought of tarot of course. Alcatraz inmate AZ-738 was Edward R. Mayberry. Was that you, Ed? At least there was the story for each of the inmates, 7, 3, 8 repeated over and over. 7 of Swords: Tried to get away with it, whether it was robbery or murder or other violent crime. 3 of Swords: The anguish of getting caught and causing heartache for their families and their victims. And finally, 8 of Swords: Bound by the iron bars and iron will of the prison system, wardens, guards and consequences of a bad idea that got worse as it went along. And then there were the three men who escaped: 7 of Swords, did they really escape? 3 of Swords, did they die in remorse and bitter disappointment in the nearly ice-cold currents of the San Francisco Bay? 8 of Swords, are they or someone else stuck in that place, forever playing out the problem of their lives and unhappy choices?

Dylan bought a t-shirt and a hat in the museum shop and we made our way back down the winding path to the ferry to return to freedom. I noticed that the seagulls, who laughed at us as we had walked up the path to the prison, had disappeared into the night. I heard only the sound of the wind lashing the water against the dock and fog horns in the distance calling their warning.

Best wishes.


  1. :) Amazing. I've always been fascinated by Alcatraz. Sounds like an absolutely epic adventure. (And a bit scary in places!)

  2. I need to get an electromagnetic field meter. My friends and I really want to start ghost hunting. I cant wait. Sounds like you had a great time. Thanks for the story!!