Robert Stroud was called the Birdman of Alcatraz. His world, for most of his life, was a prison cell, twelve feet long and six feet wide, in isolation from all other prisoners. But, with only a third grade education and equipment he fashioned from scrap, he became a respected scientist, raised hundreds of birds in cages in his cell, became an authority on bird disease, and wrote the definitive book on the subject which remains in print to this day.
It is true that he killed a man in Alaska and later killed a guard in Leavenworth. And for this he paid a terrible price in isolation and loneliness for close to fifty years. Yet he was able to endure and to learn and to change.
His story was turned into a terrific movie starring Burt Lancaster.
A young boy named Dennis circulated a Petition for Executive Clemency when Stroud was an old man. Stroud answered a letter from the boy. Here is an excerpt of what he said:
There is just one thing about your note that I do not like. You say that you know that you will never reach the heights in your studies that I have reached in mine. Now I do not like to see a young person sell himself short. Modesty may be all right on occasion, but in my opinion it is often a virtue of dubious value. Always tell yourself that you are as good as anyone that breathes; that you have two hands and a brain, and a little time in which to use them. But they are enough, and no one has any more. And if you train and force them to serve you well, you can reach any height to which you aspire. But to waste any of them is to betray yourself . . .
I hope that you never make some of the terrible mistakes I have made or see some of the phases of life I have seen, but if you could, for one moment, see some of the men who are ten, fifteen and even twenty years my junior, you would understand what I mean and why it is that I always think of this place as the final port of wasted lives. And Dennis, if there is any greatness or virtue in my life, it is not my work with birds. It is the fact that I have never joined that group. I have demonstrated time and again that no man is or ever can be defeated until he, himself, quits fighting . . . I have spent a lot of time locked up, but . . . I have never served time . . . because I have made that time serve me, and I have never been able to find enough of it to do all the things that I wanted to do . . .
There will be times, however, when the whole bottom will seem to have fallen out of your life . . .and when those times come, just say to yourself, “well. Here goes nothing,” fix a smile upon your lips that will not come off even if the whole world totters, clench you teeth and keep right on going . . . you will be able to reach heights of accomplishments that I could not even dream of, and you will learn that the happiness, for which everyone is searching, is something to be found only within yourself, not in your surroundings. And always remember that these suggestions come to you from a man who has seen the worse life has to offer and has made the best of it, who has ten times in his life had doctors tell him that he could not survive, and three times has heard a judge fix the day and hour of his death. Yet, who has outlived all of them and who knows by experience that the only thing that can ever defeat you is yourself.
(Excerpted from “Birdman of Alcatraz” by Thomas E. Gaddis)
Thank you to E, for your inspiration and contribution.
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