My curiosity about Angel Island grew out of my interest in sailing. It all started in the 1960's. I was in my mid-twenties and had suddenly become half owner of a small sail boat. Although I had grown up around boats, I knew nothing about sailing, but I was determined to learn. Very fortunately for me, I had a coworker named Harris, who was an "Old Salt", and offered to teach me to sail. Before long I was sailing my little boat both with Harris and my boat partner.
All of my sailing and practicing took place in the upper reaches of Richardson's Bay in very protected waters with light winds. Whenever Harris knew I would be sailing without him, he would tell me in no uncertain terms, "don't go past the green pump-house, " ( a structure that stands alone the southern shore of Richardson's Bay, just as the shoreline starts curving toward the Golden Gate Bridge).
As my sailing knowledge and confidence grew, I sailed farther out into the bay, always getting nearer the green pump-house where winds and currents were stronger. Being in that part of the Bay also brought me closer to Angel Island, which always had an intriguing and almost mysterious look about it. The island was especially beautiful in the evenings when the setting sun bathed in it soft light. But as tempting as it looked I never sailed to the island, because it was "past the green pump-house."
About two years later, with a growing interest in sailing, my partner and I traded in the little boat for a larger more seaworthy one that could safely "go past the green pump-house". The boat was kept in the Oakland Estuary and I could not wait to sail to Angel Island at the first opportunity.
Finally, the day arrived and my partner and I sailed our new (to us) Folkboat to Angel Island. Because it is a straight upwind beat, it took us a full two hours and lots of tacking to get there. We first sailed to China Cove, right in front of the Immigration Station, then a little father upwind and around the corner into Ayala Cove (still known as Hospital Cove at that time). Suddenly the strong winds were still and the beautiful tree covered hills put their arms around us.
Arriving in the cove gave us a feeling of accomplishment for having gotten there, but more than that we felt a great sense of calm and safety.
We dropped our anchor, pumped the bilges and settled in to a small picnic lunch we had brought with us. Angel Island was even more beautiful up close than it had been as seen from the green pump-house (or in my imagination).
We were experiencing the joy of discovery.
It was not until many years later that I read the history of the island and learned that some famous sailors like Juan Ayala and Richard Henry Dana had written of their discovery of the cove long before I had sailed into it. In a strange way I felt a certain solidarity with them for having chosen the same anchorage they had. Ayala Cove continues to be my favorite sailing destination on the entire Bay, both in my own boat and via ferry when go to the Island as a volunteer.
Although I visited the island regularly by boat for decades, I rarely if ever went ashore. Finally, I did go ashore and realized how much exploring there was to be done. Learning about the island made me understand what a historically important place it is. Later, news of the discovery of the Chinese poetry carvings gave me reason to visit the Immigration Station. It seemed that there was no end to the many fascinating and beautiful aspects of the island.
After retiring from a career in sales, I found time to volunteer. It took me almost no time to decide that Angel Island was where I wanted to be. The rest was easy, I went to a spring orientation meeting and was soon connected with Stacy Lee and her staff at the Station. I did “shadow training" for a several months, until "I felt comfortable," as Stacy said. Shadowing for various docents was a great way to learn, not to mention being very interesting. They each had a slightly different slant on presenting their tours. As a way of learning the basics, I read as much as I could, especially "Island" and "Miwoks to Missiles", which I have still not stopped re-reading.
Finally my big day arrived when I stood in front of a group, as a docent, and gave my first tour. I was nervous, but managed to get through it. I revised my script for the next week and have been revising it small ways ever since. What I say in a tour has evolved considerably, based on my own knowledge of Station history and exposure to the subject of immigration in general. The more I read on about immigration, the more I find there is to read.
Visitors to the Immigration Station themselves are interesting people.
Usually they have some vested connection with immigration, either personally or thru parents or grandparents. Often times they have stories to tell about their own family's experiences that add to the meaning of the tour for everyone.
I normally start my tours by asking where the visitors are from and if any of them has ever visited the Immigration Station before. On either my second or third tour, quite an elderly gentleman raised his hand when I asked if anyone had visited the station before. I recognized him and he said that he had been there at age 13 as a Chinese immigrant. Realizing that he was the first "real Station Immigrant" I had ever met gave me reason to pause. Finally I said, "maybe it would be better if you would conduct the tour and I would follow along behind." He laughed and assured me that he didn't want to do that. However, he very willingly shared some old memories of his time at the station.
Most interesting was his story of having been sent to the hospital upon arrival because of a small skin rash between the fingers of one hand that was discovered during his physical examination. The rash kept him in the hospital for almost three weeks before he was declared cured and transferred to the Detention Barracks. His first day in the Barracks made him realize how good his life in the hospital had been by comparison. However, he soon befriended some other immigrant boys of his own age and together they made life in the Barracks reasonably tolerable. Within two more weeks his papers were cleared. He was landed and met by his uncle in San Francisco.
The student groups are a very important part of our tour schedules during the school year. It is not unusual for us to have two and even three tours of 30 kids each on a busy weekday. Maintaining the interest of kids is more challenging than with adults, however, it can be accomplished by getting them to empathize with what life was like for the immigrants. Having students read several poetry translations aloud to their classmates while in the Chinese Men's Dormitory, then briefly discussing, can bring a sense of reality and identification that they seem to understand.
One of my most gratifying student experiences was when a large brown envelope containing 60 handwritten thank you notes arrived one day. It was from two classes in a Redwood City middle school that had toured the Station a few weeks earlier. The notes not only expressed their thanks, but also described highlights of what they remembered from the tour, complete with drawings. I was amazed at how much recall the notes showed. Visiting the Station had clearly made an impression on the kids.
I sometimes talk to visitors after the tours, on the ferry, as we are all going off the Island. My general impression is that people are often quite deeply moved by what they see and experience at the Station. The Barracks somehow convey a sense of human struggle and drama that is more than what they had expected. The Station presents history in a way that touches people deeply and they understand it.
Being a docent has been a very gratifying experience. I feel that I am doing something that is important, both for myself and others.
I like to end my tours by continuing the historical reference and quote Winston Churchill who said, "The more we learn about the past, the farther we can see into the future"