Chance of Alcatraz: A Dog Story
By Paul Duclos
His life, formerly the sport of outward chance, now comes under the austere direction of an inward impelling purpose no longer blown about as on a drifting raft, his hand is on a rudder, and he steers a clear course for a definite haven.
Anonymous (From the Gaelic)
Chapter One: Chance
When William first set eyes on the eight-week-old puppy at Rosemont Farms, he knew instantly why he was “the pick of the litter.”
“His father has been the California State champion for the past three years,” declared Rosemont’s breeder. “And this boy is a classic British Lab. Steady eyes, good balance, and most of all…courage.”
“Courage, huh? In other words, he’ll be hard to train?” William said.
“The headstrong ones always are,” replied the breeder. “But he’s worth the chance.”
“Chance,” William said. “That’ll be his name, unless you have any objections.”
“Of course not. He’s yours now. Let me get the paperwork. Once we’ve finished with it, you can take him home.”
Just then, William’s wife, Rachel, walked in. She watched as William hovered over the basket of squirming puppies and asked which he had picked. William reached in and pulled the biggest one into his arms.
“Meet Chance,” he said. “Leader of the pack.”
Rachel gazed sweetly into the puppy’s black eyes, and then looked at the others in the basket.
“He’s beautiful,” she sighed. “I wish we could take another one to keep him company.”
“You know the rules,” said William. “I think I know which you’d pick.”
Rachel fell to one knee and pointed to the smallest of the bunch. He was huddled tightly against his mother as if to say he could never leave her.
“The runt,” said the breeder. “Lucky to be alive. You’d hardly guess these two are from the same litter.”
William and Rachel signed the papers and paid the breeder. Chance had become restless as though he knew he would never see his mother or litter mates again, As they walked away, Chance whimpered. Rachael cried, too. She took one last look at the basket of jet-black puppies. Only the runt, standing on his hind legs, took notice.
The drive home was quiet. By the time the San Francisco skyline came into view, glittering in the sunshine of a clear spring day, Chance was calm. William and Rachel sat silently listening to his slow measured breathing. Occasionally, they glanced at the little pup and, then, each other. They were falling in love with their new puppy, and with one another all over again.
Chapter Two: Chance is Lost
Raising a headstrong British Lab is no easy chore, as William would soon find out. In just a few months, Chance had eaten scores of shoes and chewed more than a few pieces of furniture in the couple’s tidy apartment.
“Let me out!” he seemed to demand. And out he went at every opportunity.
He was becoming a City dog. He enjoyed walking on leash through the dense, urban neighborhoods. He grew and became bolder, displaying a confidence that was not entirely earned. Rachel wanted to protect her baby until he was fully mature. William had other ideas. He wanted to give Chance a taste of freedom and often let the little pup off leash to explore.
With Rachel in mind, William allowed Chance to roam for brief spells in safe places like the Presidio woods or Golden Gate Park. If the little pup ran far, William could catch him in a matter of moments.
And because labs are water dogs, William was eager to introduce Chance to the sea. Again, he was cautious, taking the little pup to a quiet inland spot along the Bay outside the St. Francis Yacht Club near Crissy Field. The short spit of beach seemed a safe haven for playing fetch. William would toss a stick into the small frothy waves only a few yards away from the little pup. Chance would pounce on the stick, drag it to William, and wait for it to be thrown again. They were becoming fixtures, well known to the Yacht Club members who watched them from the dining room windows.
“You two look like the best of friends,” commented one Club member. “We love watching you play.”
One day the unthinkable occurred.
The stick flew farther than William intended. He watched nervously as Chance bounded into the water and was relieved when the little pup clasped the stick firmly with his teeth. But Chance did not turn toward the shore. Instead, he paddled furiously ever deeper into the expanse of water before him. William kicked off his shoes, stripped to his shorts and dove in after his precious friend. Bystanders, who laughed at first, now understood that Chance was in trouble. Some waded into the water and begged the dog to return.
“Come on back puppy!”
“No, no, no!”
William was a strong swimmer, but he couldn’t reach Chance who was being swept out with the tide. The little pup shrank from view until he became no more than a small black dot atop a wave…and then disappeared completely. Chance was lost and it was unlikely that William – and Rachel – would ever see him again.
By the time William reached the beach, a small crowd had gathered. One woman poured him a cup of hot tea from her thermos. Another offered a towel.
“Don’t give up,” said one young boy. “I saw a windsurfer go by the puppy just as you were coming in. Maybe he saved him.” William patted the boy on the head.
Then he sat in the sand and buried his head in his hands.
“What am I going to tell Rachel?” he muttered to himself. “She’ll never forgive me.” Through his carelessness — and pride — William had lost something dear to them both and irreplaceable. She would not speak to him for days. It would take her longer to forgive him.
Chapter Three: Chance is Found
The boy on the beach was right. A windsurfer had spotted Chance and tried to rescue him. But the board was unsteady and he circled the tired pup several times before realizing that all he could offer was a life preserver. Chance climbed atop the floating belt straddling it with his legs and for the time being was safe.
Chance floated for hours. As the sky darkened, he became cold and hungry. He longed for home, and vowed that if he made it back he would never leave. He missed William and Rachel, his cozy bed near the fireplace, his bowl full of kibble. Suddenly, Chance was startled by a bright light of a small fishing boat passing under the Golden Gate Bridge. The light shone directly in his eyes nearly blinding him.
A big hairy hand reached down and grabbed Chance by his collar. It was the light bouncing off his silver ID tag that alerted the fisherman to the pup floating haplessly in the water. Chance felt himself being hoisted toward the boat’s deck. Ah, he thought, soon he would be home with William and Rachel. But just as he was about to land safely on deck, his collar – the only link between the little pup and his heartbroken masters – snapped off and fell into the gloomy sea. Chance would not be going home after all.
His rescuer was Giovanni, captain and owner of the “Gloria,” a Monterey sloop. Chance marveled at the sight of Giovanni, so different from William and Rachel. He was covered in hair and tattoos. As Chance settled into the fisherman’s muscular arms, he whimpered with relief. He trusted Giovanni would protect him.
Giovanni called to the first mate to bring blankets. He wrapped the shivering pup into a tight bundle and brought him down to the boat’s small, cramped galley.
Phan, the Gloria’s chief – and only – cook, was stirring a simmering pot of crab chowder. Giovanni introduced Chance.
“This is the catch of the day,” Giovanni said with a laugh. “Only we now have one more mouth to feed.”
“You have got that right, boss, but I’m not sure I know how to do that,” Phan said with a smile. The two men began doting over Chance.
“Keep him warm and feed him slowly. Use a spoon,” Giovanni instructed.
“I can do better than that,” replied Phan, who produced a long baster, which he dipped into the stew. After drawing up some broth, he gently placed he siphon to Chance’s lips and released a small, fragrant stream into the little pup’s mouth. Chance wagged his tail in a frenzy of appreciation and love.
“What are we going to call the little guy?” asked Phan.
“I guess we’ll call him ‘found’ for now,” said Giovanni. “I don’t know his real name. His collar and tag snapped off when we brought him in.”
As the Gloria steamed slowly into harbor past barking sea lions and croaking gulls, the soft neon lights of Fisherman’s Wharf came into view. The other fishing boats had arrived before nightfall. Their crews called out to Giovanni asking him about the day’s haul and exchanging good-natured jokes. Giovanni made no mention of the most remarkable “catch” of that day. He called his wife, Maria Teresa, as soon has they reached the berth.
“Don’t tell anyone else this story,” she cautioned, “No one will believe you. They’ll think you’re crazy.”
Giovanni knew she was right. He told Phan to keep the pup quiet and out of sight. He swore him and the first mate to secrecy. Chance, curled beneath the stove, fell fast asleep and Phan pulled off his apron and gently tucked it around the worn out pup. Giovanni sent Phan and the first mate home, and then he, too, bunked down in the little boat remembering what his wife had said.
Chapter Four: Chance goes to “The Rock”
In the coming weeks, Giovanni allowed the growing pup to stay aboard the Gloria and to roam along the wharf when the boat was in harbor. When other fishermen asked about the dog, he told them he was looking after him for a friend. On his wife’s advice, he was also trying to find him a home.
Meanwhile, William and Rachel had given up on seeing Chance again and they were too ashamed to report his disappearance.
Soon, another Lab puppy would come into their lives. One day, Chance’s breeder called to offer them another pup from the same litter. “The couple that has Chance’s brother, ‘Brick,’ is getting a divorce,” said the breeder. “They’re giving him back on the condition that I find him a good home.”
William was ready. And with a little prodding, so was Rachel. They would make a fresh start with Brick.
“But this time, no running on the beach or swimming of any kind,” she told William. “Absolutely none of the risks we took with Chance.”
As it turned out, Brick shared Chance’s good looks but none of his fearlessness. He wouldn’t have jumped into the water on a bet, and never left the house unless securely leashed. Chance was excitable. Brick was calm. And he was exactly what William and Rachel needed.
Giovanni and Maria Teresa fretted over Chance. They agreed that keeping him was out of the question, but neither wanted to take him to the animal shelter. There would be too many questions. And maybe not just about the dog.
Giovanni worried that the publicity would be bad for business, or that Phan might quit to work on another boat. Maria Teresa had an idea. Take the puppy to Alcatraz and leave him there. A tourist would find him and give him a home. It wasn’t a perfect plan, but it was something.
“You’re right,” sighed Giovanni. “We can’t leave him on the boat. He’s getting too big. We’ll take him out tonight and see if we can get him on the island.”
The forbidding island prison had been the scene of many an escape attempt when it was a federal penitentiary. Now it was about to be broken into by a lone puppy.
But how, exactly? Giovanni knew the Coast Guard would intercept any boat that approached the island’s dock without permission. But, he could no longer wait for a sign from God, even if Maria Teresa thought her nightly “Hail Mary’s” would soon reveal His wisdom.
Hail Mary. Holy water. Water. Giovanni had an idea!
Because there is no fresh water on Alcatraz, it must be delivered by barge for the visitors and the National Park staff who work and live on the island. Giovanni knew the captain well. And he knew the crew loved crab sandwiches. Phan made half a dozen and placed them in a heavy basket.
“Now what?” Phan asked Giovanni.
“Bring it to Pier 31 and put it on barge,” Giovanni told him. “See if you can get it into the cabin and then cover it with a blanket.
“And what about the puppy?”
“Put him under the blanket, too, and tie his leash to the basket. Let’s hope they don’t find it until they get to Alcatraz. Then there’s a chance this little scheme of ours will work.”
“You always did like a long shot,” Phan said with a shrug.
Phan did his part. And once the barge was at sea, Chance snuggled under the warm sandwiches and fell asleep. He awoke when the barge was halfway to the Island with a big appetite. He smelled the crab, and began nibbling on the sandwiches. The rustling alerted a sailor who came down to investigate.
Chance heard the sailor and became very still, letting the man reach into the basket to grab a couple of sandwiches. The sailor shoved them into his pockets. He wouldn’t tell the others until they reached shore.
Chance slipped his leash and carefully climbed out of the basket. Rested and fed, he was looking for action. He sat at the foot of the passageway ready to bolt from the barge at the first opportunity.
The little pup was sad and confused. “Where is Giovanni? Where are William and Rachel? They all said they loved him.” One thing Chance knew for sure – he wanted off the barge. He was water dog who had it with water. He craved land.
As the barge eased into its berth, Chance dashed up the stairs and leapt from its side. Most of the crew was too busy to notice, but one sailor thought he saw someone or something flash by. He quickly dismissed it — since as every sailor knows — Alcatraz is haunted.
Chance knew nothing of Alcatraz and its ghosts, but he felt unsettled in that dark and lonely place surrounded by water.
“Dear me,” he wondered. “What next?”
Chapter Five: Chance Finds a Guardian
As night wore on, a howling wind whipped through the island. Chance was on his own again, abandoned and without a friend. He must find shelter. The decaying prison frightened him, but it seemed like his best hope. The gulls, crows, and other birds of the night menaced him, harshly cawing in alarm as they watched him from above. He was anxious to escape them.
Chance’s black coat was made shinier by the heavy mist, and he glistened in the moonlight. How much brighter he would seem trapped under the wicked glare of the tower’s beacon that routinely swept the grounds looking for intruders.
He’d have to make a bold dash to avoid the spotlight. And even then, there was a good chance he’d be caught. But if he stayed, he would surely be attacked by another animal. Chance would rather be at the mercy of humans. He understood them and liked them most of the time.
Had he given up on being reunited with William and Rachel? Not while he knew they were somewhere in the City. The soft glow of the San Francisco’s skyline was a consolation. He could still see the neon sign at Ghirardelli’s not far from where his odyssey had began.
Suddenly, a gull swooped down on Chance and pecked his head. Then came another, and yet another. He made a mad dash for a gate at the top of a hill barely avoiding the beacon. Another gull swooped down before Chance could squeeze his small, wet body between the gate’s iron bars.
He was inside and beyond the reach of the birds and the guards. Still, he worried. It was darker and scarier here than it had been outside. The harsh caws of the birds were replaced by the clanging and creaking of heavy metal doors swinging on rusted hinges. Some of the walls were covered with cryptic drawings and slogans left by the Native Americans who occupied the island in the last century. Chance adjusted his eyes and saw a wide and empty hallway bordered by cells, now haunted by the troubled spirits once imprisoned here. He heard a persistent wailing only to realize that it was the sound of his own cries.
Now he must find food. Anything would do, but what he really wanted was sourdough bread. Somewhere there must be at least a crumb. Maybe a tourist had dropped a half-eaten sandwich.
He wandered through the cellblocks, but found only empty bags of chips and dry soda bottles. He found a cell with a roughly made sign. “Cat Burglar,” it said. There before him was a trough filled with kibble and meat. He feasted to his heart’s content and then curled into a corner to sleep.
For a time, he slept peacefully. Then, what had been a gentle slumber was disturbed by a terrible nightmare. He saw William standing helplessly on the beach as he was swept out to sea, and then Giovanni deserting him on the water barge. The bird, whose horrible cawing birds, descended on him and picked him apart. He reclined whimpering and shivering on the cold cement floor when he was jolted awake by a rough tribe of alley cats. They howled and hissed and circled him, ready to attack. Of course they were angry! He had eaten their food.
As payback, they would eat poor Chance. He counted five, six, seven, and even more coming to join them. The leader was a fat tabby with a missing ear; his sidekick was big, but brawny, jet black with emerald green eyes. The others, in faded shades of black and brown, looked to their leaders for cues. Chance stood up and barked with a ferocity he didn’t know he had.
“Bow wow. Bow Wow. BOW WOW.”
He growled for good measure. “GRRRR.”
The cats were more puzzled than frightened. But in the few minutes that they stared rather than pounced on the little pup, Chance was safe. The commotion stirred a young, sleepy-eyed woman in a ranger uniform. She scattered the cats with three quick claps of her hands, bent down and lifted Chance into her arms.
“Who are you, sweetie?” she asked. “How did you get here?”
The cats were descendants of those brought on the island by prison guards. They were wild and dangerous, and targeted for removal by Park authorities. But this ranger – Alice – felt sorry for them and secretly fed them.
Alice wrapped Chance in her coat and headed toward her cottage, careful to avoid being seen with the little pup. She would be severely reprimanded for feeding the cats, but keeping a puppy would get her fired.
Chance had become used to change and he took this development in stride. He liked being with a human again. He figured she would take care of him. He was right.
Alice kept Chance out of sight in her tiny cottage while still managing to do her job. Each morning, she walked the little pup on a leash around her fenced garden, and she rushed home during lunch hour to give him another stroll outside. At night, they played learning games. Chance was a good student. In a few weeks, Alice had taught him to sit, stay, come, lie down, to speak, and best of all, to fetch!
Each night, Alice fed Chance a home-cooked meal. He grew into a handsome young dog, almost mature, and eager to serve his new master.
Chapter Six: Chance The Hero
Soon, most of Alice’s colleagues knew about Chance. Because she was well liked, no one told her boss. Alice was a fine tour guide, one of the best on the island. Children, especially, loved her lively tales of famous criminals like the Bird Man of Alcatraz and Al Capone who had once lived in these small, lonely cells.
Sometimes Alice spotted a wild cat in the brush, and shouted, “Look kids, a cat burglar has escaped!” and the children squealed with laughter.
Alice still fed the cats, but Chance took up most of her free time. After giving the cats their evening meal, she rushed home to cook for herself and her canine friend. It wasn’t easy. After a long day of work, Alice was tired. Making dinner was the last chore of the day, and for Alice, who had never liked to cook, it was stressful.
One night it became dangerous.
Alice placed a plate of macaroni and cheese in the hot oven before settling on the sofa for a short nap. Chance nestled next to Alice’s warm body and was happier than he had ever been since leaving the City. Alcatraz was home now and Alice was his master.
They snuggled for more than an hour when Chance noticed the smoke billowing from the kitchen. He could see that Alice was struggling to breathe and her eyelids were fluttering in a strange and disturbing way. He growled but could not rouse her. He barked as loudly as he could. Still she did not answer.
The kitchen was black with smoke and Chance saw flames bursting from the oven. In no time, the apartment would be consumed by fire!
Chance licked Alice’s face and nipped her ears in a last and desperate try to awaken her. Her eyes were firmly shut now and her breathing was more shallow. Chance knew Alice was dying.
He had to get them out of the cottage. He grabbed the doorknob with his teeth and turned it until he heard a click. The door swept open. He then rushed to Alice and grabbed her shirt collar with his teeth. She fell from the couch like a rag doll. His paws bled as he dug into the bare wooden floor to drag Alice outside away from the flames and smoke. When her collar ripped, Chance grabbed her belt and continued on. He was woozy, and his strength was fading, but there was no quit in the dog. He fought until they both were safely on the porch in the fresh air.
Chance heard a high-pitched wail. Sirens. In minutes, he and Alice were bathed in the red and blue light of a small fire engine and ambulance. Paramedics scrambled toward them with equipment. Now that Alice was being cared for, Chance collapsed with exhaustion. Soon, they were being transported from the burning building.
As the Alcatraz firemen worked at putting out the blaze, the head park ranger was puzzled. How did a dog get on the island? And how did this bold young fellow manage to save the life of Alice Maggart?
Chapter Seven: Chance Goes Home
The investigation began the following morning. Alice, recovering in the infirmary, was questioned. She described the accident, as best she could, and said she wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for Chance.
And what about the dog? the park police wanted to know. Where did she find him and how long had she been keeping him? The authorities asked questions until Alice was too tired to answer.
The fire was reported in the news, but with no mention of Chance. Park officials wanted no one to know about the dog that had been smuggled onto Alcatraz.
Alice, now out of the infirmary, wanted to take Chance to the “Blessing of the Animals,” an event that took place each year at the St. Francis Yacht Club. It was scheduled for that weekend.
God knows Chance could use a blessing. Having survived the Bay, murderous cats, and a fire, his luck may have run out. She made plans to have him delivered there by boat on Saturday. There would be an adoption fair after the blessing and Alice figured Chance, now a beautiful one-year-old, would find a forever home.
William and Rachel were also planning to go. After the heartbreaking loss of Chance, they wanted a blessing to keep Brick safe.
The morning of October 4 was the feast of St. Francis, both the patron saint of the City and all animals. It was an extraordinarily beautiful day. Autumn is the loveliest season in San Francisco, and the bay shimmered in the radiant sunshine. A warm breeze from the Golden Gate swept the congregation with a sense of renewal.
The ceremony had already started by the time Alice and Chance made their entrance. Friar Simon paused to allow them to disembark from the sailboat and join the rest of the faithful.
“Welcome to the blessing,” Friar Simon said. “We have a visitor from Alcatraz and this may be the first time that a dog has been sprung from prison!”
This congregation laughed. Alice suddenly felt sad. After the blessing she would say goodbye to Chance, her loyal friend. She said a silent prayer that he would find a loving home.
The dogs, cats, and birds all made a ruckus during the ceremony, but none more so than Brick who was unusually restless. William, and Rachel tried to calm him so that Friar Simon could finish his homily.
“There’s something in the front of the crowd that’s bothering Brick,” said William. “We’d better keep him here until the others have been blessed.’
Chance and Alice led the procession to Friar Simon.
“What’s the dog’s name?” the priest asked.
“I don’t know,” answered Alice. “We call him ‘boy’ when we want him to come. And it wasn’t easy – he did not like that particular command at first.”
“Well, I can’t bless him without a name,” Friar Simon said. “Take him to the adoption tent near the water, and see if his new owner has a name in mind.”
Alice did as she was told, taking Chance to the small crowd of people waiting to adopt. Meanwhile, Brick continued to fuss and William and Rachel worried they would be asked to leave before he could be blessed.
Brick could not see Chance, but he knew by his scent that his brother was near. Alice took Chance into the tent and out of sight. People crowded around the dog and a number of children rushed up to pet and hug him. He’d have a new owner soon, Alice thought. It was then that a blur of black fur rushed by Alice nearly knocking her over. Another Black lab, almost identical, leapt on Chance pulling him to the ground. As Alice watched in astonishment, the two dogs wrestled gaily scattering the people who had surrounded Chance.
It was Brick! He’d broken away from William and raced into the tent to find his brother. Once united, they tumbled together in complete joy. William and Rachel hurried after him panicked that yet another dog of theirs would disappear into the Bay.
“Chance?” asked William upon seeing the dog. “Are you really Chance?”
Chance and Brick rushed toward William and leapt into his outstretched arms. Rachel stood by them, tears in her eyes. “These dogs know each other?” Alice asked. “And this one goes by ‘Chance?’”
Alice realized this was another miracle. Her savior had been saved himself.
The Friar told the story for many years afterward, and since then many children have dreamed that a little black puppy may wash up into their own lives one day, and bring them peace and happiness.