Jim Price

SAN QUENTIN GRAMMAR SCHOOL REUNION - ORAL INTERVIEWS

July 28, 2001 

JIM PRICE  (in his own words)

My mother was  Dorothy Zubler and her parents were Frederick Zubler and Grace Duffy. They lived here at the prison in house 110. I came to live with them in 1945; I was 5 years old. My grandmother was Warden Duffy’s sister.

In 1946 my grandfather retired as superintendant of the jute mill and we moved outside the gates to a house up on McKenzie street which is the second house on the left as you go up the street. I lived here until I was 19 and went away to college in Fresno.

Memories! My first cat was a cat named Mokie. I found Mokie out by the back gate. I used to deliver papers and I picked up my papers at the gate. I guess someone had left her off there, thinking maybe the inmates would take care of her; I remember she was in the iceplant there by the back gate (west gate). She was a great pet for a lot of years. She used to follow us up on the hills when we would play with our kites. She would go everywhere that we went.

I started selling papers when I was 10 years old on the freight pier and because I was the low person on the totem pole, I started selling the Oakland Tribune, the least favorable of the papers to sell at the time. The Examiner and the Chronicle and the Call Bulletin were the most prized papers to sell, but I got the Oakland Tribune. I’d go down on Sunday mornings and catch the first and catch the first boat at 6 o’clock and go across to Richmond and pick up my papers, come back and then sell them on the pier on the San Quentin side. The next year I got an Independent Journal route in the Valley and a couple of years later I got the Journal in the Valley AND the front gate and later on I had the Examiner and Chronicle routes, so I had paper routes until I was 19. And that’s how I raised money to go to college and buy my first car.

I think my life was very special here, probably because because we were almost like an island. There were about 200 families here and it was like a big extended family. Because I delivered papers, I knew almost all the families, at least who they were.

We had lots of things to do here. We had the bay; we had the hills to do kite flying; we would fish down at the bay; we could ride on the ferry boats. We rode over to Richmond and back; we had to sneak around so we wouldn’t have to pay.

I think life was different here because we were somewhat isolated. One thing that was quite different was that we made our own fun. I can’t remember any of our activities other than the school Christmas pagent that were adult oriented. We played baseball, work-up, one fly up; we flew kites; we played with yo-yos, hopscotch, went fishing, all on our own. There was no adult supervision. We just went out and did these things, made our own fun. We made forts, underground forts up at Tim White’s house. We’d dig a big hole, put boards over it and grass and stuff like that. One year it was like a cave; we had candles under there.

Memories of the school....there are so many. When I came Mrs. Hall was our teacher and we had all the grades in one room. In second grade, Mrs. Moore came - that would have been in 1947 - and so we divided 4 grades to a room.  I think I liked that fact that we sang every day. You know, they have found that singing is good for the self-esteem and Mrs. Hall knew that. We would sing songs like “Columbia, The Gem of the Ocean”, “American The Beautiful”; we sang songs about California, like “Caarmela”, but one song we sang every single day and that was “The Marine’s Hymn”. We were very proud of our country and we were very proud of California. People were moving to California. It was a very positive time, a very positive place to be, and our positive feeling was being reaffirmed because people were moving here. And we were very positive about ourselves.

My favorites subject there was probably science. I enjoyed that a lot. Although we didn’t have a lot of formal science training, we could read and do little projects and stuff like that. My worst subject probably was spelling.

One of the advantages of such a small school was that we could work ahead or behind because it was kind of blended.

One of the things about San Quentin kids here was that we were used to being disciplined and structured. Recently I have been taking a course and they were talking about law enforcement people and how they come from very structured backgrounds, having either parents or relatives in law enforcement. 

We did have some very specific rules. There were certain places where you could not go, couldn’t wear jeans. We were used to discipline and I think that has affected me in my adult life.

But I must say that when I was 16 and old enough to get a car, the first thing I wanted to do was get out of here. We would go to San Rafael and meet more people - especially girls - then the ones we had out here. The girls here were more like family.

Being at San Rafael High School was a little intimidating at first because of the change of attending a very little school where we knew everybody and then going to a big school and not knowing anybody. I knew a few because I had spent a year living with an aunt and uncle in San Rafael. I was taking college prep courses so the kids that were also taking these classes became my friends.

I had some interaction with the prisoners. Because I was so capable, I used to deliver papers to the prisoners at the fire station which is right next to the recreation hall, or was then, and I noticed that they had a real good life - at least I thought so. They had rates (??); they even had television which was a little unusual. It kind of gave me the understanding that life is what you make it. You could be in prison and you could make the very best of it which was what they were doing. Because they were trustees,they had the very best life of the prisoners. And there were other trustees that worked out at the Ranch that worked around the guards’ houses and we would have some contact with them. I remember one guy named John who was so cool. We never asked people what they had done - that was not done - but I think in his case I did because I knew him fairly well and he said that he “had sold something he wasn’t supposed to sell.”  I also had some contact with the cooks up at the Warden’s residence; they were all Chinese. They used to make kites. We would watch them fly kites all the time. One of the prisoners gave me a butterfly kite which was really kind of neat.

I do remember as a child when we lived inside the prison, we had a haircut prisoner who was a gardener and I have a copy of a letter that one of those prisoners sent to my grandmother and he was talking about how he missed being our cook and missed talking in the afternoons with Jimmy, me when I was 4 years old. We thought nothing of a 4 or 5 year old boy talking with a prisoner. Of course, now days people would be all upset about that.

I remember time with a prisoner, I asked him if he could get me a prisoner suit and he said yeah, I can get you a prisoner suit. This was when I was picking my papers up at the front gate. I was about 16. I thought it would be very cool to have the hat and shirt. He got it and laid it behind where I picked up the papers at the front gate and he said “I got your suit and all you have to do is go back and get it” but for some reason something clicked in my mind that “I don’t think I want to do this” and I don’t know why. But I thought maybe if I did this, I would be obligated or this might not be a good thing. It just didn’t seem right. Of course, now I know I would have been obligated to him; it was dishonest and he could have used that to get other things from me.

One thing I notice today is the lack of flowers. When I lived here, this whole place was a beautiful garden. There were tiers of gardens going up the hill, and flower beds all over - by the gate, by the school, greenhouses.

There was a jute mill here when I lived here. The prison bought the equipment and they made gunny sacks for the growers of rice and wheat which was grown in the central valley, thereby helping the economy of the state. All the prisoners went there to the mill upon arriving in San Quentin and it was here that it was determined if they were able to work and had the necessary discipline.  When my grandfather made the determination that they were able to work, he would assign them to other jobs around the prison. Eventually they could become trustees, or go to out to the forestry conservation camp. A lot of the prisoners who came through were Indians, and since my grandfather knew a lot of the prisoners, he would be invited to come up to the reservation to go hunting. The Indians were expert hunters and they taught my grandfather all the fine points of hunting. We had a wall in our cabin on the Russian River full of antlers that he had gotten by going up to Mendocino county and up in Trinity county with the Indians.

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