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Alcatraz Island

Reminiscing About Alcatraz
Scott Ostler
Monday, April 24, 2000
2004 San Francisco Chronicle | Feedback

 

 

We're on the Rock with Killer and Beebop.

Killer is a former Alcatraz prisoner and Beebop was a correctional officer here -- a bull, a screw, a hack -- so they are natural enemies, yet now they are good pals. If their old respective cohorts could only see them now.

``What's that?'' Killer asks as he reaches over and picks a piece of lint off the front of Beebop's yellow shirt.

Killer is Leon ``Whitey'' Thompson, retired bank robber, former menace to society and to himself. He did 25 years in prison, four of them at Alcatraz, from '58 to '62. He's 77.

Beebop is Frank Heaney. Lured by Alcatraz's strange magic, Heaney dropped out of Cal as a senior and became at 21 the youngest guard ever on the Rock. He worked here from '48 to '51. He's 73.

It's no problem telling which guy is which. Heaney speaks in an authoritative voice and is tall and neatly dressed. Thompson has a ponytail and a beard. He was raised on the East Coast and still has a bit of Bowery Boys tough guy in his voice, a hint of dese and dose, and speaks quietly as if to avoid being overheard.

Both men got their nicknames on the Rock.

Thompson jumped in one day as a pal named Big Longo tried to collect a basketball bet from a con named Tennessee. Thompson told Big Longo, ``Give me a couple packs of smokes and I'll put a hit on this guy.'' And Tennesse growled, ``You're a regular killer, ain't you?''

One day Heaney was chatting with some black prisoners -- Alcatraz was strictly segregated -- and they asked him what music was popular on the outside.

``There's this new guy,'' Heaney told them, ``his name is Dizzy Gillespie and he plays what they call beebop.'' So the guard became Beebop.

Killer and Beebop met at an Alcatraz reunion. Thompson speaks at prisons and youth groups, and he invited Heaney to come along to a prison appearance. Heaney was amazed at how the former vicious thug, so unloved that he never got a visit or letter his entire time on the Rock, has turned his life around and is reaching out to people.

Thompson paints, writes, gardens, raises animals, and has been married for 25 years.

We walk up to Whitey's old cell and the two men, as if by instinct, resume their old roles. Thompson sits on his cot and talks quietly with a photographer. Heaney stays outside on the long walkway he once paced endlessly.

The mutual respect of the two Alcatraz survivors is strong. Heaney knows that no jail grounds a con's soul like the Rock because of the utter despair and gloom. Thompson's welcome to Alcatraz consisted of surrendering every stitch of clothing and being marched down ``Broadway,'' the main aisle in the cell block.

Thompson knows that no prison in the land tested a guard's mettle like Alcatraz, especially if the guard was a skinny, baby-faced 21-year-old college kid with one month of on-the-job training.

Despite what you've seen in the movies, Thompson and Heaney say, tales of the sadism of Alcatraz guards are fiction.

Thompson was transferred to Alcatraz from McNeil Island partly because he had made known his intent to kill two guards there. On Alcatraz, he found that the guard-prisoner relationship was more businesslike, less antagonistic.

Thompson tells of the time two FBI agents came to the Rock to interrogate him on an unsolved robbery. They summoned him to a small room.

``Sit down, Thompson,'' one of the agents commanded.

``I don't want to sit down,'' Thompson snarled.

``Sit down!''

``Look,'' the guard told the FBI guys, ``the man don't have to sit down if he don't want to. You don't make the rules here.'' Heaney was a by-the-book officer, but he was not without compassion. When he worked the kitchen, he would clomp loudly down the basement steps as a courtesy, because the basement was where lonely prisoners sometimes went to get un-lonely. Guards were required to limit conversations with prisoners, but Heaney struck up casual friendships with cons like like Machine Gun Kelly, Alvin ``Creepy'' Karpis and Floyd Hamilton, Bonnie and Clyde's getaway driver. ``The movies always portray guards as villains, and us as the nice guys,'' Thompson says. ``We were the bad guys.'' Killer's cell has a view of Berkeley. ``I only looked out there twice in five years,'' Thompson says. ``It wasn't my world. One night I looked out, you could see the lights of the cars, I thought about the people driving, wondering what they were thinking, if they knew I was here. It was the lowest feeling in the world, like I didn't exist. I never looked out again.'' Heaney took the job for the glamour, the adventure. Alcatraz guard! But he hated it, the incredible monotony and the constant threat of violence, and the gloom. But he felt that to quit after a short time, as many guards did, would have been an act of cowardice. So both Killer and Beebop were prisoners on the Rock. Now they both come back regularly and rattle among the ghosts. Both have written books (``Inside the Walls of Alcatraz,'' by Heaney; and ``Last Train to Alcatraz'' and ``Alcatraz Merry-Go-Round'' by Thompson), and they autograph their books and chat with the tourists. When the two became friends, Heaney couldn't shake the feeling that he was breaking the rules by talking to a prisoner. ``I still worry that the captain will find out and I'll lose my job,'' he says. ``This place gets to you.''

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