Trendy Escapes and Impressive Cleverness

At 7:15 on the morning of June 12, 1962, the guards of Alcatraz prison made a surprising discovery. During the night, three inmates had escaped the allegedly escape-proof prison. Frank Lee Morris, John William Anglin, and Clarence Anglin made it out of their cells, onto the roof of the prison and into the San Francisco Bay without detection. The escape required teamwork, resourcefulness, and a great deal of cleverness.

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Alcatraz Island. Photo by Jon Sullivan, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And it turned out these guys were pretty clever. They drilled out the ventilation systems in their cells, work performed mostly by hand with rudimentary tools, though for a while they did attempt to use a makeshift drill run by a vacuum motor one of them managed to come by.

Using soap and toilet paper they fashioned crude paper-mache dummy heads painted with supplies from prison craft kits and topped with hair harvested from the prison barber shop. These they placed in their beds in order to avoid early detection.

With glue they stole from the prison glove factory, they joined pieces of rubber raincoats to make a raft and life vests. They may even have converted a concertina into a bellows to aid in the inflation of the raft.

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Dummy head found in Frank Morris’s cell. Not bad at all for crude paper-mache. FBI, public domain

Really, if these men had applied their ingenuity and resourcefulness to more societally accepted occupations, they probably could have done well for themselves, and spent significantly less time in prison. But it’s a fascinating story, certainly worthy of a book and a Clint Eastwood film.

I’ve had escapes on the brain lately. It’s a hot trend right now in education and entertainment. Patterns for classroom “break-out” boxes have spattered the Internet and full, themed escape rooms have been popping up across the country. They’re all pretty similar, requiring participants to gather clues and decode puzzles to solve problems, open locks, and escape the room within a time limit.

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Since the boys had access to a time machine, we figured fifteen extra minutes wasn’t really a big deal.

When my oldest son turned 13 recently, I decided to design an escape room for him and his friends, based on the quirky and beloved British sci fi show Doctor Who, which they all seem to love. If I were a different sort of blogger I would offer a step-by-step, photo-illustrated how-to guide to constructing your own Doctor Who escape room, but I’m not nearly ambitious enough to be that kind of blogger. Still, if you’re interested and want details, drop me an e-mail.

It was a big success, and so about a week and a half later when I got the opportunity to go to an escape room myself, I thought it might be nice to see someone else’s version. Along with my sister and my husband, I was “locked” into a room designed to look like an attic and tasked with opening a secure treasure box. We had an hour and no idea where to start.

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My crude paper-mache project was a Dalek piñata that the boys exterminated in less than two minutes.

Fortunately, we’re a good team of pretty resourceful people. And we’re also fairly clever. We uncovered our treasure and made it out of the room with twelve minutes to spare. The boys in the Dr. Who room were not quite as quick, but to be fair, their team consisted of six thirteen-year-old, hyperactive boys. Cleverness can only compensate for so much. They did make it out in about an hour and fifteen minutes with some occasional redirection.

Morris and the Anglins made their escape, too, becoming the only people to have ever successfully escaped from Alcatraz. Of course there was never any physical evidence that they managed to survive the cold water of the Bay and make it all the way to the freedom they wanted. Enough circumstantial evidence turned up to suggest to the FBI that the men perished in the attempt, and that became the official finding. Even so, it was an impressively clever escape.

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The Ear-splitting Crack of My Broken Backyard Dreams

On October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus first set foot in the Bahamas. He hoped he would find gold, spices and silks, and a faster trade route to China. What he found instead was fertile land, an easygoing and hospitable people, and hammocks.

When he returned to Spain from that first voyage in March of 1493, Columbus brought with him a few of the people, a little gold, some tobacco plants, and, most importantly, some hammocks. Because, as everyone knows, hammocks are one of the greatest things in the world.

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Surely the highlight of any Caribbean voyage. Or possibly a view of my backyard. photo credit: shizham Tenggol Island via photopin (license)

By then, Natives of Central America had been using hammocks constructed of bark and plant fibers for around 500 years already, and though Columbus never did discover his direct water passage to the east, hammocks were certainly not a bad find. Europeans took to them right away, particularly finding them useful aboard ships.

And today, they are widely used for swinging in the light breeze suspended from two trees beside a white sand beach while sipping a piña colada. Or, possibly, in that great imaginary beach that exists in my suburban backyard.

When my husband and I bought our first little house, a few years into our marriage, it came with two posts in the backyard, perfectly spaced for a hammock. Obviously, we had to install one. We each spent many happy naps swaying in the backyard, often while cradling our oldest son who was a baby at the time. Because as perhaps the not-so-surprising research of skilled hammock scientists now tells us, human brains go to sleep faster while rocking. Apparently that’s even true of grownup human brains.

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Now that’s livin’ photo credit: crowdive Audrey and the hammock via photopin (license)

Unfortunately the next house didn’t have a convenient place to install the hammock, and when we thought about hanging it in the house after that, we discovered that while we’d been neglecting to use it, a colony of ants had discovered that they, too, enjoyed spending time in a hammock, though I don’t know that any skilled hammock scientists have studied that.

It took us an embarrassingly long time to get around to replacing it, but when we moved to Missouri a few years ago, we decided it was time. Last fall, my husband dug holes, poured concrete, and secured the strong posts. Then we hung the hammock and made a discovery that may have escaped the notice of the highly skilled hammock scientists: children in the middle grade to pre-teen range don’t seem to be soothed by the rocking motion in quite the same way. In fact, they may have the exact opposite response.

Because to my children, the hammock quickly became something to jump on and try to shove one another off. I get it. As much as I enjoy a nice nap, their way sounds fun, too. But, it turns out that may not be the best approach to maintaining strong, stable posts.

The first post snapped within two weeks. My husband was pretty cool about it. He shrugged and said he’d thought there was a troublesome knot in the post and wasn’t particularly surprised. He replaced it and all was well. Then winter came.

It’s been a mild one, with lots of spring-like breaks, so we haven’t put the hammock away, though it’s obviously not seen a lot of use. But this week the boys decided to give it a swing.

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An actual view of my backyard and the sad state of my hammock.

I wasn’t outside when it happened, but I heard the spectacular ear-splitting crack as the second post broke, followed by the cries of a very upset (though thankfully unharmed) boy. My sons tell me they weren’t jumping or wrestling on the hammock at the time. And I believe them, though I’m sure there was jumping and wrestling involved prior to the moment one of them laid back only to find himself landing on the ground.

This time my husband wasn’t quite as cool about the whole thing. He didn’t yell, but there was a sad look in his eye when he sighed and said he didn’t think it was worth replacing. Actually, what he said was, “They’re why we can’t have nice things.”

So I suppose, at least for now, you won’t find a hammock in our backyard. Or an imaginary white sand beach. You also won’t find gold, silk, or spices, or a direct water passage to Asia. But you can still find easygoing and hospitable people. And maybe even the occasional piña colada.