“Marxists are people whose insides are torn up day after day because they want to rule the world and no one will even publish their letter to the editor.”
— Mark Helprin
One of the biggest benchmarks in the history of The Mighty Signal occurred just about 30 years ago. We launched a brand new feature on March 7, 1990. It was called Tell It To The Signal.
Journalists being journalists, i.e., depraved, someone in the newsroom grinningly pointed out the initials were T.I.T.T.S.
One less innocent “T” and you couldn’t print that in a family paper.
The technology was primitive by today’s standards. Readers would call the local number, 255-2617. I’d like to snitch that today, it belongs to the local FBI field office or an escort service. It’s still a lonely and unused disconnected number. People would be connected to an old-fashioned and bulky recording machine. They could complain about the cost of gas, the shenanigans of yet another elected official or leave a message that their newspaper hadn’t been delivered.
Must have had us confused with another newspaper.
The birth of tell-it
Back then, an actual human had the thankless chore of plopping on big padded earphones and operated the tape recorder via foot pedals to start and stop it.
Just like Richard Nixon’s secretary, Rosemary Woods.
Quickly, TITTS became a monster.
Unlike Letters to the Editor, people were supposed to leave their name at the end of the recording, but The Signal wouldn’t print it. There were all sorts of arguments around the newsroom about the ethics of that.
If you had to sign your name to a letter, why not to a Tell-It?
The experiment spiraled downward. Telephoners would leave fake names and used the medium to insult and name-call. One had the temerity to bring back from the dead the old tin of tobacco prank call:
“Do you have Prince Albert in a can?” Pause. Two. Three. Four. “Well let him out! He’s got V.D.!!”
Of course, not all the feedback from the Santa Clarita Valley public was puerile. Note the brief but angry message from a happy customer from November 1993:
“You guys are all a bunch of morons. I wish I had a subscription so I could cancel it.”
And some of us wished the anonymous caller was standing in front of us so we could whack him on the nose with a rolled-up Signal.
We attracted some of the most artistic and clever minds in the valley. The following was phoned in during March 1994. It was about the Cowboy Music & Poetry Festival:
“Regarding the city putting on the Cowboy Poet Fest for $83,000, I have a limerick: ‘Project manager Cecilia Burda/Has planned an event quite absurda./ Will pay 83-thou?/ To hear words that rhyme with cow?/ By poets we ain’t never hearda.’”
One of my favorites was this 1993 Tell-It. It was concerning Swedish meatballs:
“In the Food Section was an article, ‘Daddy’s Dinner.’ I come from Sweden. My mother is visiting from Sweden and we have never heard of anybody eating pancakes with cherries on it together with meatballs. That is not the way you make Swedish meatballs. I’m sorry.”
There you have it. From people from Sweden.
And these were just the tame ones.
You could just feel the culture of our once-fine SCV swirling down the drain with this July 3, 1993, Tell It To The Signal. It suggested a new award for a previous TITTS caller:
“I hope this is in acceptable taste. I know your staff had to be in hysterics when they printed the ‘Who’s to Blame?’ call in the paper. The caller stated he bedded a co-worker who needed special attention because she was lonesome. He goes on to blame the church for unwanted children and disease to the closure of the Safe Sex Shop in Newhall. I would like to nominate this man for The Biggest Anal Orifice Award in the Santa Clarita Valley.”
I believe that’s an ongoing award with nominations in the thousands. Speaking of, tonnage was one of the reasons we eventually killed this call-in version of Letters to the Editor. It became so popular, it took a full-time secretary to monitor and transcribe calls, many of which were from drunks or giggly teens. Before the days of the web, we only had a print version of The Signal and there wasn’t enough space to run even a portion of the calls. The feature died, was resurrected and killed a second time.
Ah, the good old days
Not just in newspapers, but years ago, people used to create a form of communication called, “letters.” You’d write them — usually by hand. Fold them, stick them in an addressed envelope and drop them in a mailbox. A week, maybe a month, would go by. Then, they’d appear in The Signal.
We still get hand-written notes, but, it’s rare.
Our very first Letter to the Editor appeared on Feb. 28, 1919 — just three weeks after the maiden issue of The Signal was launched. As if to lay the foundation for this paper’s eclectic style for decades to come, it was penned by the local Internal Revenue agent, which screams volumes about government. There were maybe 500 people in the entire valley and one of them was our IRS field officer. Here’s the text from that very first letter:
Bring in your figures, your problems, your doubts, and your questions. Many thousands who were not affected by the Federal laws taxing incomes must this year file returns. Here are the requirements:
Every unmarried person who had a net income of $1,000 or over during 1918, and every married person, who together with wife (or husband) and minor children, had a net income of $2,000 in 1918.
This tax is a war burden; it is part of the price of victory; the greatest victory the world has ever known. I am offering every facility of my office to aid them to determine their individual liability.
Internal Revenue Service
We ran a L.T.T.E. from an angry housewife (“name withheld upon request”) in January 1939. It was more of a public notice: “Night before last my husband came home yesterday. Last night he came home today. If he comes home tonight, tomorrow, I won’t be home.”
In the 1940s, a thin and handsome cowboy wrote a most polite letter to The Signal. He had just ridden in the Fourth of July parade and noted it would be a good idea if, next year, parade planners supplied water stops for the horses, especially considering July’s searing heat. The cowpoke would later get into movies. Ben Johnson would also win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in “The Last Picture Show.”
Back in November 1951, local Alf Clark mailed us a letter, suggesting that the bald eagle be stripped of its title as the national bird. Clark suggested the noble bird of prey be replaced by the woodpecker. Clark felt the woodpecker was more symbolic to the American worker. He wrote: “The harder a woodpecker works, the further in the hole he gets…”
Speaking of fauna, an animal lover and recent transplant to the SCV from Los Angeles in the 1960s wrote The Signal to complain about how shabbily we treated our dogs. “Why can’t a community care for its abandoned and emaciated dogs?” She asked. She called for action to feed these lost pets.
An editor’s note to her complaint pointed out from her description of the svelte and foraging hounds, she was confused.
They weren’t dogs.
They were coyotes.
Don’t feed them.
Don’t pet them.
Don’t let your chihuahua play with them.
In an odd choice of style, The Signal even wrote a letter to itself. It was back in 1937. The Great Depression was taking its toll on local economics and The Mighty Signal came close to folding. Signal Editor Fred Trueblood penned a short LTTE on the op/ed page, thanking those who paid for their subscriptions with fruit, vegetables and dairy or “…in good, old-fashioned cash.” But the paper couldn’t pass along potatoes and turnips to buy ink and newsprint. Somehow, we managed to continue.
It wasn’t the last time we wrote a letter to ourselves. In 1965, Signal “Proprietor” Scott Newhall had been tirelessly pushing the name of Valencia Valley as the new, all-inclusive handle for our region. Using the fake name of “Scott Valencia,” he innocently suggested in a bogus LTTE that we call the future SCV: “Newhall Valley.”
The Signal in the age of social media
In 2019, from home or office computer or often from their cell phones, people can effortlessly send in their own opinion piece — thoughtful, witty, erudite, insightful or downright and consistently stupid.
You people know who you are.
Or maybe not.
Frequently, modern Signal readers even leave comments at the end of Signal stories — some of which have little to do with the actual subject matter of the feature. Weeks go by where it feels like there are a dozen or so souls who consider The Mighty Signal their own, private chat room where they argue, name-call and trade off in endless one-upsmanship in the age-old political debate of: You’re Stupid/I Know You Are But What Am I? The retorts and back-and-forths are sometimes longer than the original story — by epochs. Someone wrote a hate reply on a column I had penned.
The column was about how autumn was such a lovely season.
Another bagged on firefighters — while they were fighting a fire.
One of the beautiful aspects of Santa Clarita is the ongoing expression of gratitude over the decades. It is a simple act of kindness, often portrayed by our readers, in the form of a Letter to the Editor or comment on the Internet. People thank first responders, volunteers, teachers, friends and neighbors. They’re grateful for parents, churches, businesses and institutions. This simple act of kindness is the fabric of our community quilt.
And yet, how a wicked smile forms at the corners of our mouths. We love our little evil rewards, of reading complaints, from counterfeit Swedish meatballs to marital infidelity, especially when it involves sound effects or political leaders.
When our local congresswoman was recently forced to resign after lurid details of her romantic adventures with multiple partners surfaced, The Signal’s opinion pages were radioactive with comments. Our own editorial stance suggested we all take a high road.
Some of our readers agreed.
Some suggested we blame The White House.
Some suggested we go Old Testament on the woman.
And so it will probably be in the year 2119, when we look back at the saints and crackpots from the previous century who write Letters to the Editor.
Starting in the 1960s, off-and-on, John Boston has worked for The Signal for nearly 40 years. He’s the local historian, novelist, author and columnist for The Mighty Signal and has earned 119 major writing awards. Just six stories left. Come back next Saturday for installment No. 47 out of 52 in our 100th Anniversary and History of The Mighty Signal.