Signal 100 | A never-changing tale: The car accident

No. 49 in a series of 52 commemorating the 100-year anniversary of The Signal

“There’s a cave, we go inside of ourselves because we want to know more, and we turn this one corner and we go: ‘Oh my God — I didn’t know that was in here.’ We can never go back to the way we were. It’s like a horrible car accident — you’re never the same after that. It’s something that you’ll think about every day for the rest of your life.”

— Author Wayne Coyne

The Accident is among The Signal’s oldest stories. All of us have been the victim of one, be it tripping on a step or crashing in a car. It is so profoundly sad. Work. School. Worst of all, family. All of us know someone who was in a fatal car accident.

To this day, I still offer a haunted glance at the train overcrossing on Sand Canyon Road. Like we have, so many times before, The Signal ran a story, 53 years ago. In March 1966, a good friend of mine, Linda Taylor, 17, was the passenger in a convertible sports car. The driver hit that train overpass. Linda, so perfectly beautiful Linda, died instantly. Another dear, young person who would never know a future.

In 1941, Fielding S. Wood built a sandwich shop (cleverly called Saugus Sandwiches) smack dab next door to the historic Saugus Cafe. A delivery truck backed into it — on opening day. It was destroyed and never rebuilt.
Signal file photo

I’ve read just about every issue of The Signal from the past century. I don’t think it’s made me much smarter. A common thread? There hasn’t been a single paper in all that time that did not write about some accidental misfortune. They’ve involved cars, stoves, trains, planes, guns, animals, fire, electricity, chemicals — simple miscues. We’ve covered many of these horrible mixtures of happenstance, bad luck and violation of physics in many of the previous 48 stories in this series.

But the car accident?

There is something about it darkly and uniquely American. Part of it is the seeming sanctuary of being protected by so much steel, plastic and rubber. Life is moving swimmingly — right up to that point of collision of bodies in motion. From that pinpoint instant, life is never the same.

I’d bet it’s the same with the history of every newspaper in our country.

The car accident has touched each and every one of us from 1919 to 2019. Multi-trillion-dollar industries — insurance, car repair, medical, towing, legal, junkyards, newspaper sales, law enforcement, advertising, design, new and used car sales to name a few — have shaped our modern American economy.

In 1924, The Mighty Signal noted that Market Street, once a dirt road named 7th, had opened, connecting Happy Valley with Downtown Newhall. At first, Market was a dirt road. Back then, oafish tanker trucks would spray a mixture of oil and water to keep the dust down. That first tank’s mixture leaned heavy to the oily side. The very first car to cross Market was a new Model T. The brakes were useless on the oily road and when the Ford reached the bottom of the steep downgrade at Cross Street, it just slid through the intersection and slammed into an oak tree.

A Century of Horror …

There are no firsts, seconds or honorable mentions for the most horrific accidents. Neighbors now long gone told me that it scarred the young driver the rest of her life. We ran the story in July 1936. David Sleeper, 13, was camping with his family in Sand Canyon. The four children snuck off and borrowed their parents’ car. David was riding on the right-side running board. His sister, 11, was driving. She lost control and took out 250 feet of fence, fatally shredding her brother on the barbed wire.

Earlier in the 1930s, state police and local deputies put together the last few terrifying moments of the life of a young married woman. In a pounding rainstorm, she had swerved off Placerita Canyon Road. It was all dirt back then. In the pitch-black night, her Model A flew off the winding road and flipped, landing upside down in Placerita Creek. From the scratch marks on the side of the car, authorities determined she had been pinned as the creek slowly rose and filled the car. She drowned. She was 9 months pregnant.

This following Signal story is a real gut-clencher and I’m so sorry nearly 90 years later.

On June 24, 1931, Mrs. Theo Tourneur was clipped by a passing motorist on the Ridge Route. Her car spun out of control, then fell over a 400-foot cliff. Mrs. Tourneur suffered various injuries, including a broken knee cap. Her daughter was severely bleeding and injured. For 50 hours — four separate times —  Mrs. Tourneur climbed to just about the top of the cliff, only to slide all the way back down to the bottom. She used her own clothes, tearing them off for bandages for her daughter, who would eventually die, mostly from exposure and shock, down there in her mother’s arms. Finally, a trucker had pulled over just to stretch his legs when he happened to look over the cliff and see the bodies and wreckage. Getting help, he lowered himself by rope and helped pull Mrs. Tourneur to safety, then retrieved the body of her dead daughter. Thousands of cars passed by them those two days. None spotted mother and daughter.

So many damn, damn, tragedies. So many never coming home.

In the 1950s, sheriff’s deputies and paramedics were racing both to an accident site and to stop another ambulance from arriving. The fatality in the crash? She was the wife of the ambulance driver. They didn’t catch him in time. Unwittingly, he rushed to find his horribly mutilated and dead wife.

Accidents touch so many, even grizzled newspaper editors. Fred Trueblood reportedly cried after covering a vehicular manslaughter trial at the old Newhall Courthouse. In November 1940, Jim White broke down in tears when he took the stand, sobbing: “I wish it had been me instead of them.” White’s 16-ton truck had lost its brakes and ran out of control, doing over 100 mph when it struck a station wagon carrying a family of nine. When the wife and mother awoke in a hospital from the wreck, she learned that only she and her 2-year-old were the survivors. White was acquitted.

A Century of Strange Happenstance …

The car accident often is an incident measured in inches and fractions of a second. Life? Death? Injury? Just a close call?

One of our eeriest traffic collision stories happened early on a January morning, 1926.

On the way up Soledad Canyon for an Acton hunting trek, Morris Feinburg noticed a car engulfed in flames. Feinburg pulled over to help the owner, Frank Kuentz, put out the blaze. Later that evening, Feinburg was returning to Los Angeles from his long day of hunting.

He fell asleep.

His car veered onto the shoulder — in the exact, same spot where he had helped Frank Kuentz put out the car blaze. Kuentz had been there all day, trying to patch up his vehicle. He was kneeling. Feinberg killed quite dead the man he had helped that same morning.

Another strange one.

In July 1941, Mrs. Rose Bender was despondent and spoke of ending her life. Her son, Victor, took her on a scenic drive along the Ridge Route. Victor also brought along his girlfriend, Beatrice Hill, 21. Both women had fallen asleep well into the drive. Victor was starting to pass a slow-moving truck carrying pipe when his mother, in the front passenger seat, woke with a start. She grabbed the wheel and swerved it into the truck. A section of pipe went through the windshield. It struck Victor’s fiancée in the face, killing her instantly. Son, and suicidal mother, were unhurt.

The Signal covered two accidents at the same intersection, the first in 1953. The Shirley family was headed home when they were struck at Solemint Junction. A speeding car ran the stop sign, broadsiding them and knocking over their car. Miraculously, no one was hurt.

Two years later, in 1955, Gertrude’s father, Charles Dillenbeck, would be killed at that very same intersection when a car, chased by the CHP and doing over 100 mph, ran the same stop sign. It struck Charles’ car, killing him. Charles was the owner of the famed Dillenbeck’s Market, then the major grocery store in Canyon Country.

The Signal covered the strangest runaway truck accident in the early 1960s. A husband-and-wife trucker team was toting giant generators for the Air Force. They were rolling downhill on The Grapevine when their transmission blew up. Faster, faster, faster, the truck gained speed. He tried to slow it down by dragging the right side (where his wife sat) next to the embankment. The driver climbed out. On the running board, he had a heated argument with his wife, trying to convince her to jump with him. She wouldn’t. In fact, she shimmied over to the driver’s side. He bade farewell and rolled to safety. She managed to ride the monster truck a few miles more to an upgrade and was able to safely pull it over to the side.

The truck made it.

I’m not sure about the marriage.

I guess Cornelius R. Ravlic was in the right business. The Signal described, in October 1964, how a speeding motorist forced Ravlic’s car off a 40-foot cliff near Castaic. Ravlic walked from the accident without a scratch.

Three things.

1) The car was hardly scratched.

2) It was a late-model expensive Mercedes.

3) And Ravlic was a Catholic priest.

Seems both heaven AND earth were watching out for the good padre.

A Century of Stupidity …

It’s rare when you read a car accident story and you have the reaction, “Good riddance to bad rubbish.” From the early 20th century to the 1940s, people drove on one of the most dangerous roads in the world — The Ridge Route. It’s still there today, abandoned, running parallel to Interstate 5. Because of car designs (they came with “running boards,” long shelves that enabled people to step up into the cab) and the treacherous curves (some calling for slowing to 3 mph!), the Ridge Route created its own type of crime wave.

Carjackers were prevalent then. They’d hide behind rocks, trees and shrubbery. When a motorist slowed way down for a curve, the auto thieves would jump on the driver’s side running board and commandeer purse, lunch and vehicle. 

A recorded five times over five decades, The Mighty Signal noted how the tables were turned. Twice the crooks were shot by the driver and once beaten. Twice, the drivers grabbed the arm of the holdup artist and sped up to more than 30 mph after the curve. One bandit was nearly fatally injured when he was rammed into a boulder. The other was bounced nose-first into a large conifer.

One of the oft-repeating themes The Signal inadvertently posts is that not all survive the rambunctiousness of youth. In August 1944, three teens were driving through Newhall, pulling an open trailer filled with an overloaded stack of pigeon cages — with hundreds of pigeons in them. One of the lads had ridden all the way from Frazier Park — sitting on top of the crates. When the car hit a pothole in Newhall, the boy on top was thrown off. He died.

Same month and year, David King earned the ignoble distinction of being the only known individual to be killed by tomatoes in the Santa Clarita Valley. King was hitching a ride down from Fresno and was riding in one of the beds of a big rig. The truck lost its brakes, careened out of control and crushed King between the side of a mountain and 10 tons of tomatoes.

It’s cold on Interstate 5, north of Castaic, especially in November. In 1983, two pickup drivers were finally arrested after a high-speed argument. The dueling imbeciles were flipping each other off at speeds of 90 mph — plus. They were throwing beer cans at each other, each attempting to ram the other truck. When the CHP pulled them over, they found a 7-year-old boy, son of one of the drivers, had been in the bed of one of the trucks, in the freezing mountain air, hanging on for dear life.

Which is one reason why CHP officers should be allowed to shoot some people on the spot.

Over the go-go 1970s, The Mighty Signal covered three separate stories about local law enforcement pulling over speeding vehicles, each with naked spouses/friends-with-benefits in the back seat. In each case, the nude passengers were being rushed to a hospital to remove a lodged marital aid from a place where no sunlight enters.

Then, There’s the Dad at Castaic Lake …

Sometimes, when you’re married, and you’re The Guy, there are no existing Two Honest Positives to place in front of the really stupid thing you just did with the kids.

In the 1980s, a Valencia father kissed his wife too-da-loo for the day and whisked their four beloved children for a day of boating and dad-bonding at Castaic Lake.

Dad expertly backed the station wagon onto the boat ramp, locked the car in park and then jumped out to release the stout family vessel into the chilly waters of our world-famous manmade reservoir.

Of course, being A Guy, Dad gets distracted on the way from the front seat to the boat trailer 10 feet away. He’s talking to another dad. The other dad starts screaming. One of the kids in the station wagon, which was still running, had kicked the car into reverse.

Trailer.

Boat.

Children.

Station wagon.

They all slipped into the murky and unforgiving waters of one of the crown jewels of SCV Natural Resources.

Bubbles are forming.

People are diving into the water.

All kids were saved and blessed with a forever story of “Remember that time Dad…”

I’m guessing Dad is still sleeping on a couch.

For Once — Please — Drive Safely …

Over the years, Signal Editor Tim Whyte and I kid each other over the holidays. It’s the time when this newspaper pens a compelling wish that everyone return, safe in life and limb. If these editorials had saved a single life, I’m grateful.

Still.

Is it tomorrow’s issue of the paper? Later this month? No matter how many candlelight vigils. No matter how many reminders or awareness-raising community sessions. Someone — young, old, unlucky — will die in the Santa Clarita Valley in a car accident.

One of the most popular features this newspaper’s ever run was a Wednesday column called Demon Rum. It was a list of everyone in the SCV who had been arrested on a DUI — Driving Under the Influence. The hope was that the public shame of being in the paper would shame if only a few into changing their tragic ways. In the midst of Demon Rum, people still fell asleep, still were distracted, still lost control of their cars.

The Mighty Signal made history by becoming perhaps the first newspaper to use the word, “Bastards” above the fold, in a big old headline. Then-Publisher Scott Newhall, and others, were outraged when a gravel truck with faulty brakes slammed into a pickup truck at Bouquet Junction, killing three small children and injuring four more.
Signal file photo

Beginning in April 1974, we ran one of our most controversial series in this paper’s history. It began when a Saugus mother was carrying seven children in a pickup — two in the front with her and five in the bed. She slammed on the brakes at Bouquet Junction for a yellow light. A fully loaded gravel truck smashed into her from behind. Three of the children were killed, the youngest just 4.

Because of the fatalities, the front-page Signal editorial drew gasps from the community for its headline:

“If the Big Rigs

Won’t Slow

Down, Throw the

Bastards In Jail.”

Then-Publisher Scott Newhall attacked speeding and poorly maintained big rigs. Scotty likened them to a “Southern California Panzer Division of Murder Incorporated…” This newspaper drew an equally divided response. The Signal received several threats of violence, reportedly from Teamsters, against staff and paper. Most locally agreed with the editorial.

Henry Battle was the driver behind the huge gravel truck that ended the lives of three local small children. Battle was cited by the California Highway Patrol for having faulty brakes.

Later, in June, Battle was fined $50.

Alcohol and brains.

They do not mix well.

In 1982, The Signal was running stories about how Los Angeles County was cracking down on drunk driving.

We got an angry call from a Canyon Country bar owner, threatening the paper with a lawsuit and demanding we stop publishing the press releases.

The pub manager yelled that the stories were bad for his business…

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 three stories left. Come back next Saturday for installment No. 50 out of 52 in our 100th Anniversary and History of The Mighty Signal.

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