Chapter 21: The Stakebed of Alcatraz
View of Alcatraz Island from Pier 37, with weird blue clouds hanging above. The sign that greets visitors to The Rock.
24 January 2001 So I got this friend of mine, known him for 20 years or so, who ended up with a unique job. He tends an information desk in the main cellhouse on Alcatraz, the former penitentiary situated in San Francisco Bay. There, he greets the many, many tourists who come ashore for a visit and answers their questions, from "where's the bathroom?" to "where's the electric chair?" (Just to set the record straight, there is no execution chamber on Alcatraz, and the bathroom is out the front door on Eagle Plaza and to the left). One fine evening, he told me there was an old truck on the island. Wow, I replied. Find out what year it is and if it needs any attention.
A while later he told me it was a 1941 flatbed truck, left there by the crew of the 1995 film Murder in the First. a courtroom drama set in the late 1930s featuring Kevin Bacon (which gives it a degree of 1 on the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" game). It was brought on as a prop, and they left it behind as a kind of thank you to the rangers and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA). It apparently never actually appeared in the film, however. And yes, it needed a bit of attention-- the passenger-side door tended to fly open, and there were a bunch of other small stuff that could be looked at. We made arrangements for me to come onto the island and give the old truck a cursory once-over, to ascertain what sort of shape it was in and to run the serial numbers.
I'll be the first to admit I haven't had a lot of exposure to the mechanical workings of Art-Deco trucks (1939-1947, so called for the deco-looking barred grille). But any reader of this website knows I've put in a LOT of time under and in the Beast, and Task Force and Art-Deco are mechanically very similar in complexity and design.
So one fine morning I ferried onto the Rock and met up with John, the United States Park Service Ranger who has sort of adapted the truck as his own. Sure enough, he came down the steep driveway in a dark blue Chevy Flatbed, and gave me a ride to the Quartermaster Building, where it was garaged, but not before spinning it around the Parade Ground a few times. Fun, and I tried to be game, but I had a doozy of a head cold that week, which unfortunately kept my energy level low all day.
Upon close inspection, it was in remarkably good shape! It turned out to be a 3/4 ton , with 8-lug rear wheels and military-style knobby tires. It has a good dark blue finish, good brightwork, and a tidy interior. Under the hood is a Thriftmaster, but not the 40s-era stock low-pressure Babbitt 216 or 235, but a familiar friend: the high-pressure 1955-1962 235 six-banger. Aside from the alternator, it's exactly the same as the mill in the Beast, right down to the Rochester carb.
The Alca-Truck, a 1946 3/4 Ton Chevrolet DR. It's parked at the docks, just down the hill from the Quartermaster's building. Back of the flatbed. It's all probably custom work. Note the 1940 plate.
There are a few things that are amiss, though. The coolest part of the Art-Deco trucks, the crank-out windshield, was replaced by something whipped up by the Warner Bros. prop department and did not open. The original parking brake mechanism completely rusted away, and was replaced by a pair of cables yoked directly from the back brakes to the actuator rod. And indeed, the passenger door did not latch properly. None of the instruments worked, and the wiring looked pretty original, which ain't good.
Still, it chugged up and down the hill reliably and looked sharp as hell. If I were to value the truck, it would fall somewhere between classes 3 and 2, and would fetch about $7000 in the classic truck market. Compared to the Beast, it's visibly in much better shape, with a gleaming finish and straight lines, but in some places on the frame the rust is pretty deep.
The first thing I did when I got my hands on it was to read the serial numbers off the ID plate on the cowl against a Chevy truck reference book. Whattaya know! The number scheme-- 6DR-D3195 -- positively identified the Alca-truck as a 1946 3/4-ton Chevy truck, manufactured in Oakland, California no less. Whoa-- same place as the Beast, ten years previous. Everyone on the Island had the impression it was a 1941. Frankly, that's not surprising: there is practically no difference between 1941 and 1946 models, due to the war. Abetting this is the fact that the front grillework, usually chromed, is painted wartime black. Just to add to the ID confusion the grille vents on either side of the hood are bright chrome.
The ID plate, or what's left of it. About all that can be made out is the serial number, in fact. John, the Ranger. Uniformed representative of the Park Service on Alcatraz Island. Proud custodian of the Alca-Truck.
After I checked out the ID, I looked at that pesky latch. To get to it required taking off the inner door skin and examining the latch mechanism. After I did so (fortunately I brought a selection of clutch-head drivers with me onto the Rock) I discovered the spring inside the latch housing was broken.
Armed with this knowledge, I left the island and contacted Jim Carter Antique Truck Parts, where I purchased a 1946 shop manual and a used latch assembly. After laboriously de-rusting the thing (a remarkably complex set of clockwork-like parts) it was ready to be transplanted into the Alca-Truck.
20 February 2001 Returning to the Rock, I took the door apart again, and found to my dismay the fine folks at Jim Carter had sold me the LEFT side latch assembly. GM had cleverly designed the latches to be either left or right, but some of the moving parts were riveted onto the main assembly plate, and the right side had additional door lock mechanisms, which presented a set of insurmountable problems considering my location. Working on the truck on Alcatraz is a lot like doing roadside repair-- Although it's garaged, there are NO good tools there so you have to bring everything you need. That means everything you can carry on the ferry.
The 235 engine in the Alca-Truck. Built in 1959, by the die stamps. Note the color of the cowling on the left. The wiring harness. They have an all-new harness on the Rock, but it has yet to be installed.
I took the old latch completely off, pried it apart so I could get to the main latch rod, swapped the springs, and reassembled the original latch. It worked pretty good, but because I didn't bring enough vice-grips or had a bench vise some of the levers were not in proper position, which kept the door lock from working.
Returning to Alcatraz for a THIRD time several days later, I took that damn door apart again, this time bending the levers and checking clearances until the latch mechanism worked like new. It latches perfectly, but it still won't lock. Sometime soon, I have to visit yet again and figure out why the lock won't lock. I would have the problem licked in one afternoon if I had it in my garage, but the cost of having it barged over the bay is totally beyond reason. It's also probably the real reason Warner Bros. left it behind.
I also got a chance to get under the truck and check the parking brakes. I managed to tighten them, but they still need attention (and more cable anchors!) to make them safer.
A row of Task-Force era Jimmies, showing their Cadillac-inspired chrome. An extremely rare Canopy Express van. From the looks of it could be 1947-1954. Hard to tell at this angle.
It is a wonderful privilege to get a chance to volunteer on Alcatraz on something as worthwhile as this project. Although I realize it's just an inexpertly restored prop truck left by a movie company, it still seems to have a deep connection to the history of the island. It isn't hard to imagine it being used by the maintenance personnel during the Penitentiary days, delivering huge pots of soup and bread to inmates in the Industries building, or perhaps as a brand-new truck, charging up the hill, a squad of Marines in the flatbed, ready to put down the riot of 1946. At the very least, Kevin Bacon got to ride around in it. It's also a treat to crawl out from under the truck, walk back to the rear of the garage in the Quartermaster Building, and look out the little window at an incomparable view of the East Bay. Yep, this is going to be fun!
And what of the Beast? Ah, she's fine. I'm still in a stall, waiting for the spondulix to effect the final stages of it's restoration (the body work). The last things I did to it was tightening up the parking brakes (which are fully intact and in much better shape than the Alca-truck's) and replacing the rubber dealie that is used on the muffler hanger assembly. It totally rotted away!
21 March 2001 I have heard from Stanley from Los Angeles. He's getting married (Yay, Stan!). He also got a chance to visit the massive Chevy show and shine in Paso Robles, CA. He sent over a few snaps.
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