Signal 100 |Covering self-inflicted gunshot wounds


No. 26 in a series of 52 commemorating the 100-year anniversary of The Signal

For nearly two decades, I taught the history of the Santa Clarita. It was a 10-week course, covering our valley from prehistoric and Indian times to present. One aspect that just floored me for years was a tidbit on Native American perspective. No one can prove it for our local Tataviam, but many outlying tribes believed there was no difference between the dream world and day-to-day reality.

Absolutely no boundary between the two.

That struck me as strange and then some, that I could have a dream about losing a contact lens in a tidal wave and that would be as real as morning toast. A couple of years later, another epiphany visited. Most of us today have that exact same belief system as our ancient brothers. Do we not get our mental brain cells bubbling after watching the news or reading a letter to the editor? Do we not want to punch someone appearing on a screen for their opinions? Do we make up strange scenarios and cult-like devotion to beating the tar, or, worse, correcting someone for their views, then go through the day steaming and having imaginary conflicts?

Dream? TV show? Any difference?

Media can have a profound effect on people, sometimes in the strangest of ways.

Take the mid-1950s to early 1960s.

In that time period, the top TV shows weren’t comedies, musicals, cops & courts or sports. They were Westerns. In 1959, 10 out of the top 20 TV shows were what they used to call, “oaters.” Oats were what you fed horses. That year, the top three shows were Stetson-oriented: “Gunsmoke,” “Wagon Train” and “Have Gun — Will Travel.”

“Gunsmoke” was one of the most successful shows in TV history. It started as a top radio show from 1952 to 1961. The TV show ran from 1955 to 1974, airing 635 episodes. After its last show, in 1975, Los Angeles Times media critic Cecil Smith wrote: “‘Gunsmoke’ was the dramatization of the American epic legend of the west. Our own Iliad and Odyssey …”

There’s a funny local angle. Each one of those 635 episodes began with Marshal Dillon (played by James Arness, who was virtually given the role on a recommendation by John Wayne, who was the show’s first choice as Marshal Matt) facing down a bad guy on the dusty main street. Every. Single. Episode, Dillon shoots that same guy dead for 20 years. (Except it actually was three different actors!) One of the victims was a local Canyon Country stuntman, Fred McDougall, and I always wondered if he watched the reruns, wishing, just this once, I’m going to beat that darn Matt Dillon to the draw.

Shows like “The Rifleman,” “Wyatt Earp,” “Bat Masterson,” “Sugarfoot,” “Maverick” — the list is seemingly endless — often featured the hero in a mano-a-mano gunfight to see who was quicker on the draw. Imagine the repeated messaging. In 1958, 13 of the top 20 shows were Westerns. People — well, men — were bombarded with imagery of the necessity to be fast on the draw in a somewhat staid and vanilla 1950s culture.

This launched a national craze of quick-draw shooting. Besides contests all over the country, boys and men went through a period of buying retro guns and holsters and going out to desolate places (like Santa Clarita then) to practice their quick-draw.

The SCV, with its uncountable lonely canyons and highway-close to Los Angeles, was a perfect place for target practice.

Small problem. Often, guys would confuse that oh-so-necessary order of Crouch, Draw, Aim and Shoot. The last two commands are necessary to line up. Sadly, many a shootist would place a rusted beer can (they were made of steel back then) on a stump and Crouch, Draw, Shoot and Aim. Sometimes the bullet went simply awry. Sometimes, it perforated a foot, leg, knee or sightseer.

In the span of a few weeks, Signal Editor Fred Trueblood became fixated with including the name, “Earp” in this paper’s numerous accidental gunshot wound features. In a two-year-span, The Mighty Signal averaged a self-inflicted gunshot wound story nearly every week.

Do commit this to memory. For about two years, the No. 1 cause of entry to the little Newhall Hospital on 6th Street was the self-inflicted gunshot wound. The Mighty Signal gleefully covered many of the accidents, and who knows how many would-be frontier marshals and bounty hunters never checked in but drove to their own doctor or hospital in L.A. or the San Fernando Valley back then.

We ran literally more than 100 stories in that time period coinciding with TV Western popularity. We ran stories long BEFORE the late 1950s and long AFTER.

I’d be hard-pressed to find a favorite story of the Self-Inflicted Gunshot Wound. It’s a big bloody blob of ties.

I do like this lead tidbit from The Signal, five days before I was born, April 2, 1950: “Teen Paul Wasson fell off his Mint Canyon roof while shooting toys with a rifle. Before hitting earth, he managed to shoot himself through the foot.”

Dear me. How the holy heck do you do something like that?

In July 1956, Eugene Paynter made the record books for the most spectacular self-perforation. Paynter had put together a rig to mimic Wyatt Earp’s Buntline specials, those pistols with the barrels the size of irrigation pipes. Paynter pulled both weapons simultaneously, didn’t quite clear the holsters, then shot matching holes through his thighs, calves and feet.

As this story of Signal coverage of shooting oneself while pretending to be Wild Bill Hickok, a word will come up from time to time. It is, “Yee-ouch.” Feel free to use it.

Same year, a 20-year-old visitor from Van Nuys, Henry Norton Jr. was the star of his own Western. Hank was practicing his alleged fast draw in one of our canyons when he grabbed his revolver and tried to yank it out of the holster. The gun went off, sending a bullet through the following: his heinie; his thigh, his knee and his foot. Signal Editor Fred Trueblood compassionately added the headline to Hank’s tale of woe: “Another Budding Gunman Perforates His Own Ham.”

For 20 years, Marshal Matt Dillon plugged a bad guy to open the hit TV Western, “Gunsmoke.” It’s estimated he shot and killed 404 villains in the series. And that’s not counting the same stuntman (a Canyon Country local) in the opening credits.

No one was hurt in this episode, but how would you like to have been the deputy who answered the call of “Machine Gun Shots Fired”?

In April 1957, Deputy E.R. Acosta arrested a few guys for target practice. He confiscated the usual pistols and rifles, and, fortunately, the guys were most polite. One of the weapons confiscated was a 19th-century Gatling gun. The boys were firing the original machine gun at a rate of 250 rounds per minute when Acosta arrived.

Here’s an odd one:

In October 1960, young Paul Kemblowski’s dimwitted father loaded one round into a defective .22-caliber rifle, absent-mindedly held it up in the general direction of his 12-year-old son, the bolt slipped forward and the bullet went through the poor child’s head. The bullet did hardly any serious damage and the boy was back home within a few days. I’m Polish so I can say this in these politically correct climes. Having a name like Kemblowski is an explosion waiting to happen.

Alcohol and firearms are not at all a good mixture. The Signal carried a story in the 1930s about sheriff’s deputies responding to gunshots at the long-gone Castaic Motor Court. When they burst into the room, they found a man on the bed, one hand holding a bottle of whiskey and the other a revolver. He was delirious from pain and missing two pinky toes. When questioned, the drinker confessed he became fascinated by the wiggling of his right little appendage and indulged the compulsion to shoot it. He told deputies: “The first time didn’t hurt too much, so I thought I’d shoot the second.”

Michael Manhan, a 10-year-old boy in Acton in 1957, repeated the act, shooting off his big toe.

It’s tragic, isn’t it, the sudden and irreparable change that occurs in the split second before, during and after a dumb and self-inflicted accident. Both left strange footprints as a reminder that some mistakes cannot be fixed.

Not all of these Signal stories were humorous.

In February 1927, rancher John McAllister was cleaning his “unloaded” shotgun in the living room and his wife scolded him on the danger. He said it: “The gun’s not loaded.” It went off. At such close range, the brass button on his overalls was melted to his spine. Yup. McAllister died.

So did Joe Martinez. On May 2, 1919, Martinez accidentally shot himself in a Saugus beet field. Martinez had a .38-caliber revolver in his rear pocket, sat down and the gun discharged into his leg. By the time help arrived, he had bled to death.

And not all gun accidents had to do with reenacting horse operas. In mid-August 1940, one of the most tragic hunting fatalities occurred. About 70 hunters were in the same area of La Liebre, when one of them mistook a tan, 15-year-old boy with beige clothing for a deer. A high-powered round went through his chest. His father, a few feet away, rushed over to his boy just in time to have his son die in his arms.

On the bright side for all, this gunshot accident turned out with at least a much happier ending. In August 1970, The Signal reported how an off-duty Los Angeles police officer, getting ready for vacation, absent-mindedly placed his service revolver on a shelf in his camper while he packed. His 5-year-old son climbed into the camper, picked up the revolver and discharged a shot, hitting his 2-year-old sister in the shoulder. She was most fortunate and healed nicely.

Pre-1960s Santa Clarita was a different community, a different culture. Gun safety was taught in many households along with how to use a spoon. Thousands of hunters visited here for deer season up until the early 1970s. Those who shoot can describe the allure of hitting the bull’s-eye, and not every gun story is a bad one.

In addition to the fast-draw craze, which caused men to perforate themselves in the ’50s and ’60s, for  years, thousands of SoCal deer hunters visited the SCV. Here, in 1953, we had 7,000 opening day.

In the 1930s, at the old Newhall International Airport, The Signal ran a story about a biplane idling and breaking free of its tethers. It started spinning in a wild circle, going faster and faster. The danger was the plane would crash into other planes, buildings or people. Luckily, a sharpshooting sheriff’s deputy was nearby. He calmly drove to the airstrip, got his favorite target rifle out of the trunk and knelt. From about 50 yards away, in one shot, he clipped the fuel line to the engine.

In the epic rains of 1969, The Signal reported how a good portion of Africa U.S.A. washed out, undermining cages and allowing all manner of apex predators to escape. Three full-grown African lions were wandering at the next-door trailer camp. In a world-ending downpour, sheriff’s deputies were trying to find those lions before they killed someone. Rounding a corner, one lawman saw a 600-pound feline a scant 100 yards away, charging him. A lion can cover that space in seconds. The deputy quickly aimed, shot and felled the creature. It got up and charged him again. He shot the lion in midair. It fell dead at his feet.

How do you go home that night and answer your wife’s question: “How did work go today, dear?”

So much of SCV life IS the same as the pre-1960s. We have parties, dances, concerts. There are still a few shooting ranges locally. But, for better, worse or a wash, we’ve become suburbanized. Shooting, be it target or hunting, is more of a historical clip of times gone by.

The Mighty Signal, in April 1947, covered the visit of a legendary marksman, Herb Parsons. He traveled the country for the Winchester Company, putting on shooting exhibitions. Up in Stevens Canyon (Castaic), Parsons wowed the locals.

This guy could shoot.

We noted there wasn’t a single un-ovaled mouth amongst the more than 1,000 people who showed up to watch his dead eye and trick shooting. The stunt that most impressed the audience was Herb covering a washer the size of a half-dollar (remember those?) with masking tape. Then, he placed his .22 rifle on the ground, threw the spinning washer high in the air, picked up his gun and shot a hole through the center of the washer — without nicking the metal around the hole.

And not a soul was injured.

Starting in the 1960s, off-and-on, John Boston has worked for The Signal for nearly 40 years. He’s the local historian, author and columnist for The Mighty Signal. Come back next Saturday for installment No. 27 in our 100th Anniversary and History of The Mighty Signal.

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