MARCH 30 2010 15:17h
I escaped from Alcatraz and ended up the next day in Stara Gradiska, the prison. There was to be a dedication of the new church.
How many people could say that they had been in Alcatraz one day and Stara Gradiska the next? The first is a notorious prison island near San Francisco about which numerous films and books have appeared, most concerning failed escapes. Who doesn’t remember the classic “Birdman of Alcatraz” with Burt Lancaster? Or in more recent times, “The Rock”, and “Escape from Alcatraz”? The other is an infamous prison in the former Yugoslavia, and in comparison to Alcatraz, virtually unknown to most of the world.
To be honest, though, I wasn’t in the real Alcatraz. It was actually the Alcatraz café on Preradoviceva. I joked with my friend Sanja, who suggested we meet there for coffee. Alcatraz? I said. How appropriate! She was somewhat abashed. What was she thinking? After all, don’t former prisoners such as myself shy away from anything that even remotely reminds them of incarceration? Actually, no. Most former prisoners devour prison movies and prison books and enjoy talking with other former prisoners, exchanging experiences, insights, and intimacies only fellow prisoners can understand. It’s like a sorority or fraternity, akin to, say, the army, or the circus, or the rodeo circuit, a secret world only the initiated can enter.
So I escaped from Alcatraz and ended up the next day in Stara Gradiska, the prison, not the cafe. There was to be a dedication of the new church, which had been destroyed, using the forced labor of over 250 imprisoned priests, by the Communist regime in 1948. Since then, the community had had no church, so the event was expected to be well attended. After the mass, we were to be given a “special tour” of the old prison facilities, one in which many friends and acquaintances had served their time.
By the way, there is such a thing as semiotics of landscape, the "spirit of place". Shermakaye Bass once wrote, for example, that Texas was "America's Mona Lisa ... . It is a heroine of a thousand faces ... . Try to pin it down, distill it, define it, demystify it, and - well, good luck, amigo. Texas is a slippery lanker of a myth, whose weight and scale may be too vast for words." And so it was with the flat Slavonian plains that were to lead us to Stara Gradiska, so fertile, so pregnant with new life, the first buds of spring popping out everywhere, like newborns fighting their way out of a ripe womb. Heroine of a thousand faces, and one of them the counterpart to Life, the flip side, the yin and yang, fertile fields nourished by blood and tears. I saw signs and prison symbolism in everything we passed during our short drive from Zagreb, which is something linguists cannot avoid, it is in their blood. The names of the cities, for example: Ludina, Stari Hrastovi. Lud, (crazy), the insanity of prisons, and hrastovi, (oak), the tough wood, and the strength needed to survive incarceration, strong as an oak tree, and then ludina, so close to ljudina (great people) locked up and chained, invincible, impossible to cut down with even the strongest ax, and the countryside, dotted with swamps that sucked people in and then swallowed them forever. It was a conspiracy of geography. There’s no end to it, because one word, one image, can never represent just one thing, it always leads to another, and another and another.
My traveling companions, all former prisoners themselves, told stories along the way. Prisoners love to reminisce about their prison days. One, Marko, served his sentence in Lepoglava, four long years. He recalled how a prison guard by the name of Vodopivac had told him to pick out a pair of shoes from the pile that had been left behind by others who had either died or been released. He rooted around for awhile and settled on a pair of fur-lined boots, thrilled that he had managed to find such warm, sturdy footwear to carry him through the deadly winter cold. When he was putting them on, he noticed that there was a name written inside in black ink: F. Tudjman. I wish I still had those boots, he said regretfully. We nodded in sympathy, wishing we had been the ones to find those boots. And where was that prison guard now, the Water Rooster? A rooster made of water, a rooster drinking water? What did it all mean, all of it?
Another told how only the rapists and murderers were allowed conjugal visits. The “politicals” received short visits in small, cramped cubicles, under the watchful eyes of a prison official. Don’t mind me, he would tell them, I won’t listen! We all laughed. Don’t mind him, he wouldn’t listen! Right! Hahaha! Prison had been so entertaining, so full of absurdities!
As we drove into the town, we passed several processions of worshipers, some very young, others barely able to walk, supported either by wobbly canes or the firm arm of a younger relative or friend.
And then the prison came into sight. In the distance, it looked so exhausted, so benign. A long, brown wooden barracks with the windows broken through: a toothless hag in tatters who had once been strong and powerful, and cruel to those who resisted her deceptive wiles. But it is good to return to familiar landscapes that are no longer invincible. As the poet William Stafford wrote:
We must go back with noses and the palms of our hands,
and climb over the map in far places, everywhere,
and lie down whenever there is doubt and sleep there.
If roads are unconnected we must make a path,
no matter how far it is, or how lowly we arrive.
It is good to reconnect the roads and see where they lead.
To be continued.