As a Boy Scout, who would later be blessed to become an Eagle Scout, visiting the island prison of Alcatraz, located out in the San Francisco Bay, was one of the many trips I made that I cherish very much. It was one of the rare trips my sisters accompanied me on, and we had a lot of fun spending the day on the island. Over the years, I have had the pleasure of visiting it quite a few times. As a result, there is very little, if any, that is open to the public I have not seen. When we arrived at the dock, my heart sank well past the ocean floor. The boat ride to Alcatraz was going to be busting at the seams, and this meant that the island would be more than crowded. I quickly felt my heartbeat start pounding away in my eardrums, as if it wanted to beat right out of my head. I had been vehemently opposed to taking a trip here, for this very exact reason—the crowds. My time out in public with Harley had been limited to the classes she and I attended at Pet Smart. I understood it was expected that I would take her to all the places I went, but since I was not sold on the idea that a service dog would work, I simply had not.
My doubts and reservations stemmed from the fact that, how could a dog do what mankind, womankind, humanity had completely, entirely, totally, utterly failed to do: provide me any kind of permanent relief to my inner war. In fact, I had quit. I had not verbalized it, but prior to going to Alcatraz, I had printed out and signed a letter stating I was quitting the program. So, I here I was outvoted on the decision to take a boat ride to Alcatraz, while being accompanied by a service dog-in-training I had given up on. Jen and two of our friends thought this trip would be great, and that with Harley I would do quite fine. I did not feel comfortable telling them that four months short of graduating as a service dog team, I had decided this was not going to work for me, and I was quitting the program. I had hoped that the rest of the world would forget about making a trip there, and I could avoid the experience. Usually, there was hardly anybody else on the island. Instead, here I was with a huge massive crowd, something I had never seen there before or since.
My party, along with Harley and I, boarded the ferry that would carry us across the bay and deliver us to a packed rock, miles away from anything that I could possibly use to escape to. I felt trapped, or to put it bluntly, as if the prison was re-commissioned back into use to accept me as its latest addition. Harley was sensing that this was difficult and she did her best to alleviate my fears. She was doing a pretty good job of it, when my buddy, a former sniper in the United States Army, decided that, to get me through this, he would bring up the rear. He had his service dog, a husky mix that was twice the size of Harley. He attempted to convince me this was a good idea, and that my fears were part of my imagination and paranoia. To put it simply, nothing could go wrong because of all the support I had going there with me. I understand looking back he was trying to help. The problem was it had the opposite effect. Instead of quieting my fears, it exacerbated them. He had no clue Harley was helping. Instead of paying attention to what Harley was doing to help me, I focused on listening to what he had to say, and it had the opposite effect he was aiming for.
With him dismissing what I was feeling, being overwhelmed by the anxiety of the multitude of people visiting this tiny island, it made the feeling more entrenched. From here, the anxiety gave birth to paranoia, which lead to dread and hopelessness. I had gone from believing that this was a bad mistake, to deciding this was the worst thing I ever have done in my entire life.
By the time we had arrived, I had all but made up my mind the best option for me to survive this was to jump into the water and attempt the swim back. When we got to the island, I convinced my group it would be best for me to bring up the rear. That way I would not lose sight of them. Having my buddy’s massive service dog in front of me would serve to part the crowd. As we exited the ferry, and stepped onto this island prison, now turned into a National park, my gaze became permanently fixed on my companions. I ignored the welcome aboard speech of the park ranger. She told us the rules of the island and the history of The Rock. Along the way to the cell house, the main part of the tour, she spoke about the officers’ quarters and the bowling alley. Finally, we arrived a few feet away from the cell house, the heart of The Rock. Here, in front of us, was where the baddest of the bad, the worst of the worst, of yesteryear were made broken and low. Dreams died in these walls. Legends were made into the mere men they were. We filed in, single file, and were handed the audio guide of Alcatraz. I put on the headset and pressed play. I listened as guards and prisoners introduced themselves. Through their voices, they brought the island prison back to life. Through the narration, the prison, and its solitary function of breaking all those who came here, seemed to come to life again, as if it had never ceased to exist. We were introduced to the rules, and what is to be expected of you. You come in a man with a name, but are reduced to a number. The stark contrast of life on The Rock as an inmate was set against what life was as a guard, or a family member of a guard, namely their kids are interviewed. This is how the guided tour starts, and it leads you up and down the rows of the cells. Along the way, you stop at various points of interests: the spot where grenades were thrown to end a failed escape attempt, and the recreation yard. As the tour filled my ears, my eyes never left those in my group, or my buddy’s service dog. I was ever mindful that I did not want to lose them at all cost, in this sea of people deep in the heart of The Rock. Then, just like that, they vanished. How I lost track of Jen, the other people in my group, or a 120-pound service dog (one of only two dogs on the whole island), I will never know, but somehow, I had. I could feel my pulse racing in my head. I gripped Harley’s leash tightly, as if I were to let go, the sea of people would swallow me up.
Harley alerted me to the ever-swirling whirlpool of emotions attempting to engulf me, and was desperately trying to get my undivided attention, but I did not look down. I tried to give her a treat, but she’s not interested in it, and took it only after I shoved it into her face. I patted her head gently, and try to drown out what is going on around me and inside of me, by listening to a convict’s voice. Quickly, I scanned the room for the nearest exit. I moved against the crowd, against where the audio tour is attempting to guide me. Because of the audio tour, I cannot hear the remarks of those upset by me leaving opposite the way I am to go. I had one goal: to get outside at all costs. During all of this, Harley is still attempting to get my attention, or very simply: she is doing her job. I simply will not let her. I continue to ignore her. In my mind, the only place that is safe is home, not on some tiny island, with a tiny building, out in the middle of the Oakland / San Francisco Bay, that is crowded with way too many people. Right now, I have to get outside. So, Harley’s job becomes a very low priority to me.
She, too, is relentless. She is of one goal, one mind: getting me calm at all costs. She continues to desperately attempt to get my undivided attention. However, all I do is treat her and tell her how good she is. She does not stop, not even after the value of the treat is increased each time. Different treats have different values. The value is determined by what the dog will do for said treat. The higher the difficulty, the higher the value of treat the dog will need to complete the task. In Harley’s case, she has never turned down a treat, therefore, all treats have value. Eventually, I came to understand, that she is task oriented and praise oriented. She wants my hugs, love, and praises more than treats, and it’s these things that drive and motivate her. It is why our bond is very powerful. On Alcatraz, she was alerting me with her nose, wanting desperately for me to give her my undivided attention. She did not get it, and but refused to be denied.
When I was finally outside, I grabbed the railing, gripping it until my hands, palms, and wrists hurt. The only thought now going through my mind was how Harley was keeping me from jumping in, because I am well aware that if I jump in, she will follow. Once more, she nudged me with her nose. Once more, I respond with a treat. This time she reacted differently: she dropped it on the ground. She nudged me again. I looked down at her, and this time I really looked at her. Not the fleeting glances I paid earlier. And she sat. This goes back to the first class after we had completed the Puppy training. Our young dogs sat in front of us, and we, the veterans, sat in front of them as well. The purpose of this task was to simply make eye contact with them. Thus, connecting with them in a way we do not normally do with very many people, if any. The goal was to let us realize we are safe with them. Now, on the island, I knelt in front of her, and our eyes met. She held up her front right paw, and I held out my right hand. When my hand touched her paw, I knew in an instant what she had been trying to tell me, but I was being stubborn and wanting to ignore her: I am safe.
For the first time in more than a decade, on a tiny crowded island, crammed with a bunch of strangers, I was safe. I was all right. I got up, she handed me her leash, I stuffed my hands in my pockets, and we strolled off like we owned the place. In that moment in time, we did. The Rock did not serve to break us, as it had all the infamous men who had come here many decades before us. Instead, it had served to bring about a very powerful realization of freedom.
It had taken going to one of the most infamous prisons in the world for me to realize I am free because I have Harley by my side.