John Boston | A Most Happy and Horrific April 5, 1970

John Boston

Hey Dear R.P.P. (Roger Palmer Pal) … 

When we chat about that April 5, I hardly know what to say. A contrite “thank you” isn’t remotely enough. Historians call that day in 1970, “The Newhall Incident.” Four of your California Highway Patrol colleagues were murdered here in Santa Clarita. That night? I was driving aimlessly around Newhall, watching all the commotion for a town that small. My best pal since we were kids is Phil Lanier. His birthday is on that day. I’m 18 hours younger. My birthday’s April 7. We had both turned 20. The night indeed was surreal.  

We were headed to Hamburger Hill for Cokes and fries and the road was blocked with an almost military presence. At the second shootout in a house above Denny’s, we had no idea a depraved animal was holed up at a friend’s house above. As events transpired, we couldn’t wrap our minds around the abject heaviness of that tragedy, evolving in real time. 

I’m sending you, Roger, this letter as a sort of oddball and reverse birthday present, one that, hopefully, will lighten your soul’s load around this time of year. 

Phil and I are tiptoeing toward 80. Emotionally, still 8. Phil was a brainiac. Still is. As a kid, he’d build and launch rockets big enough to invite a CIA investigation. We’d launch them from Placerita Junior High’s new athletic field. We’d play catch long past twilight, bicycle 24 miles roundtrip to Canyon Country for a free Coke (our friend’s dad owned Thrifty Shopper), played handball endlessly and hatched harebrained Amos ‘n’ Andy schemes that would net us billions. Today? Philly’s in Chicago. Me? Still here in Newhall. Neither of us are billionaires. For 60-years-plus, we’ve never missed — once — singing to the other the most inappropriate, ribald, politically incorrect, sexist, un-Woke, non-DEI, highly unflattering, “Happy Birthday,” with our own lyrics. 

About 30 years back, Phil traveled to Florida to check on his ailing dad, who was nearing 100. That April 5, I sang to Phil an off-key ballad involving his participation in inappropriate sexual interactions with farm animals, hairy little circus people and butch softball-playing ladies who got their hair coiffed at a Bakersfield salon that served those who practiced the love that knows no name. 

Shame on that Phil for laughing so hard. 

Eighteen hours later, on my birthday, from Florida, Phil called me. Risking (another) hernia, he belted out a Poor Taste Grammy winner in the “Happy Birthday” category. Lanier crooned like a sodomized Mel Torme or a chimpanzee being tortured with a cigarette lighter. Phil sang, poorly, of my wives, past, present and future. My jump shot. My horse. En castrato, he promised I could borrow money for beer, but not alimony. He suggested I had a lisp, and it was annoying. He brought up sexually transmitted diseases, sang about parts falling off and ended the coyote-calling rendition with, “…and smell like one too … and many more …” 

I blame tainted well water in 1950s Newhall. Twisted us so. Now, tiptoeing toward 80, we’re still both a couple of unrepentant, immature goofballs, giggling while rolling downhill toward Purgatory. 

That day that Phil called from Florida, I asked how his dad was doing. 

“Johnny Boston. Dad died an hour ago,” Phil answered. 

I still cry about that call, the beauty of it. My best pal, through thick, thin, weddings, divorces, operations, deaths, harebrained business partnerships, and arguments over the Top 10 all-time baseball players via position (with Phil getting most votes for the innocent locker room towel boy with the come-hither grin) had called me to sing Happy Birthday an hour after his father, pain now all begone, had floated off to heaven.  

I was honored, happy, to be there for him, to be able to tell him how much, my buddy, the Girl-Armed Bozo Himself, meant to me. Still does. Always will. You know a crazy thing? All these decades? We’ve never had a single harsh word about the other. Never raised our voices, except to challenge, “Hey! You can’t eat all that!!” 

So. What’s the payoff here, Roger? You guys at the CHP allow us regular souls to have moments like that. Can’t begin to the comprehend the unmeasurably deep wound April 5, 1970, carved in you and others, first and foremost, the families. You were on duty, a highway patrolman on scene that night, sprinting in the dark after murder. I profoundly appreciate how you, and others, to this day, honor the memory of those four slain, tragically too-young California Highway Patrol officers. Wearing the uniform can be a thankless job, as a soldier, firefighter, police or first responder. Be it through eye-drooping boredom or dealing with, in one single 12-hour shift, every — ahem — “Adam Henry” — in Southern California. The job description is profoundly simple — Be There. Be There when all others are scrambling for safety, injured, crying, insane. Be There and run toward the Abyss while others are fleeing. This goes to all who keep order, save lives. But, for this past week’s anniversary in particular, I wanted to thank you and the CHP. Thanks for protecting us, all those uncountable hours we’re unaware we’re being protected. Your people have built a profoundly beautiful, wonderful, free country where knuckleheads like me and Phil can continue to live that fabric of life with all its variations, from profound sadness and loss to singing “Happy Birthday” in the key of R-Ruptured Flat.  

Oh. Another thing, Roger? Please keep sharing those completely inappropriate memes. They make my days. 

Thanks for your friendship, Rog, your service, on that horrific day in Newhall, April 5, 1970. Thank you for planting those memorial Italian Cypress trees up at the old CHP headquarters. 

You probably chat with them more than me. Next time they’re peeking from a cloud above, please tell dear officers Mike Alleyn, Skip Pence, Walt Frago and Roger Gore — we will never forget them. Those guys are peaches. Please thank them for — still — standing tall on watch. 

For those CHP still on the job today? Do be careful. Keep your eyes peeled. Come home to your families … 

John Boston is a local writer. 

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