Alcatraz #1259

Tired, broke, and homeless, Bill Baker found an unlocked car door and got out of the weather. He lay sleeping there for a while, until a rap on the window woke him up. It was the cops.

He got four years in the Oregon State Penitentiary for attempted car theft. Even though he had no intention to steal the car, nor did he possess the keys.

Thus began a lifetime of revolving door incarceration for this 19-year-old.

He was a hell raiser in the Oregon Pen, and spent much of his time in the hole with other hell raisers. Together they attempted a daring, and nearly successful escape.

Soon after being released he was arrested again, in Portland, for stealing cigarettes from a warehouse. But this time he actually succeeded at busting out of jail. He stole a car for real, and fled to Washington state. That was a big mistake, crossing the state line, because there he was caught and charged with a federal crime for the interstate transportation of a stolen auto.

He was sent to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas. But on the long bus ride, wouldn’t you know it? He tried to escape again. They weren’t having any of that, so shortly after he arrived in Leavenworth, this now 23-year-old recidivist was shipped back West, for the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary.

That was in 1957. As inmate #1259, he spent the next two-and-a-half years in this supermax. But he was getting older and wiser. He decided to grow up and make something of himself while in Alcatraz. So he learned a career. He found a mentor, who was a fellow inmate, and this man taught him how to write hot checks.

That earned him multiple stints in prison over the course of his working life. But he finally retired from the business of hot check writing at the age of 80, and began a new, more honest career as a celebrated author. He wrote the book, Alcatraz #1259.

Bill Baker is one of only two former inmates of Alcatraz who is still living. And these days he’s a celebrity at Alcatraz Island, rather than a prisoner. He talks to tourists about his experiences in Alcatraz prison, and signs copies of his book they purchase in the gift shop.

Alcatraz #1259 tells about this penitentiary from an inmate’s perspective. Baker’s writing is raw and candid. There’s no sugar coating, but there’s no bitterness either.

He treats guards and wardens with both respect and contempt, in measures he believes are well deserved. He humanizes fellow inmates. He makes no excuses, nor apologies, for his crimes. And he warns of the consequences for choosing a life of crime.

His writing style is folksy, reflecting his rural Kentucky background. And it’s also friendly and laced with humor. Bill Baker comes across as a down-home character that anyone would love to have as a cellmate.

This seems to be his first and only book, and his dearth of writing experience is detectable through occasional misspellings and unpolished grammar. But that only adds to his story’s authenticity, in my view. It leaves the impression he’s not trying to pull anything over on the reader.

Even so, some passages came across to me as startlingly eloquent and thought-provoking. I’ll just steal a few quotes from this ex-convict, to show you what I mean:

“A water tower rises high above Alcatraz Island shivering on long iron legs in the cold January wind.”

“Happiness comes in small packages in prison. But it comes. It has to get through the gray filter of awareness that you’re locked up. But it gets through, somehow, maybe not as powerful as cruising down the road with the wind at your back and all your red lights green, like when you’re free, but it gets through in smaller portions. It’s all relative. To a junkyard dog a bone is pure heaven.”

“Love is a four-letter word in prison, one you don’t use when fuck will do, for you dare not show your weakness in the middle of a jungle where a spear may pierce that most vulnerable place in your heart. And loneliness is a word you never use even in a whisper.”

“I have no love for the law, nor they for me, but me and the law had a congenial dumb and dumber relationship, they being dumb and me being dumber.”

“If you’re thinking about going into hot checks as a criminal career you might ought to toughen up your immune system so you can eat a lot of rotten prison food.”

“Never make somebody afraid of you, because a coward can be just as dangerous as anybody if he’s afraid you’re going to do something to him.”

“It’s easier to do time if you don’t fight it.”

“THE FIRST LAW OF SPACETIME: Space and time are equivalent, and neither space nor time can exist independent of the other.”

“My church is a place where space is equivalent to time and Mother Nature is equivalent to God. It’s a place also where the good and the bad are equivalent, where neither the good nor the bad can exist independent of the other, for if it wasn’t for the bad there wouldn’t be any good.”

My wife and I met Bill Baker. We shook his hand in the Alcatraz Island gift shop, and he kindly signed our copy of his book. He came across just as folksy and friendly and funny as he comes across in the pages of his autobiography.

Bill Baker is the real thing. The genuine article. And a national treasure. He’s 85 now, and I suspect he hasn’t much space or time left on this Earth. So don’t waste your space or time. Steal a car, write some hot checks, or do whatever else it takes to get inside Alcatraz and meet the man.

But lacking that, just order his book through Amazon.com, and let yourself have a fun little reading escape.

When you get on Amazon, aim your searchlights for Alcatraz #1259, by William G. Baker.

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