Archive for the ‘John Buchanan’ Category

Debris on the Pacoima Junior High School Athletic Field

Debris on the Pacoima Junior High School Athletic Field

A few minutes after 11:00 AM on January 31, 1957, teacher John Buchanan began recording the graduation ceremony being held for 800 students gathered in the San Fernando Valley’s Pacoima Junior High School auditorium. Approximately ten minutes later in the sky above the nearby San Gabriel Mountains an F-89 jet slammed into a new DC-7, rendering both aircraft uncontrollable. 

What Buchanan’s recording ultimately captured that morning was the sound of a tragedy.

Halfway through the recording — immediately after graduation speaker Linda Latrelle says “We have only one life to live…” —  the DC-7 can be heard plummeting into the school’s athletic field just a few hundred feet from the auditorium.

Killed in the crash were three Pacoima students, the pilot of the F-89 and the four-man crew of the DC-7, whose final words to traffic control were, “Uncontrollable–we’re spinning over the Valley. Say goodbye to everybody… we’re going in.” The navigator of the F-89 had parachuted safely to the ground immediately after his jet’s near head-on collision with the  larger aircraft.  However, dozens of students on the Pacoima gym field were injured, many seriously.

The tragedy gained national notoriety when angry Pacoima parents successfully petitioned officials to prohibit future test flights over populated areas. Though the San Fernando Valley was considerably less populated in 1957 than it is today, it was home to hundreds of thousands back then.

In 1987 the crash was spotlighted again in the movie “La Bamba” as the reason Richie Valens, the 50s rock icon and Pacoima favorite son, was afraid to fly. Two years after the Pacoima disaster, Valens was killed along with his fellow performers and tour mates,  J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson and Buddy Holly when their light plane crashed near Clear Lake, Iowa.


The quality of the recording is surprisingly good, considering it was recorded on dad’s ancient Wollensak reel-to-reel and that it sat in our garage for decades. The two-minute recording opens with Latrelle’s speech in progress. One minute into the recording, the faint-but-unmistakable sound of a rapidly descending aircraft crescendos into a roar of crashing airplane, immediately followed by the sounds of confusion and fear in the auditorium. The auditorium doors can be heard slamming open from the concussion of the crash. A school official tries to calm the students by announcing, “It was a jet blast. That’s all there is to it. It’s all over,” implying that the deafening sound they had just heard was a sonic boom (it was actually the plane’s wing exploding just above the ground, spraying hot oil and shrapnel in all directions). Against the sound of 800 frightened students and a distant fire bell, an unintelligible announcement is made on the P.A. when the school’s power goes out and the recording winds to a stop. As far as I know, this is the only recording of the Pacoima crash: Click on following link:

[This recording is the property of Russ Buchanan. Unauthorized duplication is prohibited]

The Pacoima crash was of particular significance to my family for a number of reasons. My father and sister were both on the Pacoima campus when it happened — my dad as a teacher and my sister Pam as a thirteen year-old student (it was her birthday). Needless to say, it was a rough few hours for my mom, who had learned of the crash but had to wait an excruciating two hours before dad called to tell her he and her daughter were OK. I can only imagine mom’s reaction to Pam’s account of the crash. Pam, who had just finished Gym, was in the P.E. office waiting for permission to retrieve the jacket she had forgotten on the athletic field when the DC-7 came down on the field. “I thought we were being bombed so I immediately dropped to the floor and assumed the ‘duck and cover’ position,” remembers Pam.

As a five-year-old kid, all I can recall of that day is seeing what appeared to be shiny bits of tin foil falling from the sky — parts of the DC-7 that had broken off after its crippling mid-air collision.

For a chilling and informative first-hand account by an individual who arrived at the school minutes after the crash, click on:  
“‘Eyewitness to the Carnage’ – A Personal Account of the 1957 Pacoima Crash”

John Buchanan taking on the funeral industry

A friend wrote the other day to ask if my dad had been on the Blacklist.

My friend had been reading about America’s waltz with fascism during the 50s when demagogic politicians and rightwing zealots attempted to ruin the lives of show folk, teachers and other public figures — sometimes with great success — for being a little too free in the Land of the Free. Dad was a professor and locally high-profile lefty political organizer/activist, and my friend figured my father had at some point endured the wrath of the House Un-American Activities Committee and Sen. Joe McCarthy’s merry band of commie hunters. He hadn’t. Dad did have problems with cops and feds later on, but in the 50s he was still in his pre-activism stage, just settling into his new job teaching at Pacoima Junior High in the San Fernando Valley, going to grad school and helping mom raise my sister and me.  The activism that would become central to his life was still a few years off. My buddy’s email got me thinking about my father’s life choice, though. What changed? What inspired this mild-mannered, soft-spoken, Mr. Chips-type academic to become a full-throated crusader for peace and social justice?

The Bandleader and the Bastard

Though dad and I never talked much about his political awakening, I’m pretty sure it began during the civil rights era. I was about six years old when I began hearing dad talk about the plight of Negroes. Even at my tender age I noticed that TV images of Dixie cops and clan types beating up dark-skinned people would send my father into a funk. He’d get quiet. Then he would talk to my sister and me about how immoral it was to mistreat people because of their skin color. He reminded us that bullies are cowards, and should always be stood up to, whether they were bullying us or others. To illustrate his point he would often tell us about the time during World War II when he and mom went to see the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in mom’s hometown, Great Falls, Montana. While the band was playing, someone in the audience yelled “nigger” at Dorsey’s only black musician. Dorsey stopped the orchestra mid-song and the crowd went silent. He called out into the microphone, “You! Hey you. Yeah, you in the yellow tie.” The heckler was trying to scamper away into the crowd but couldn’t get around the throng in front of the bandstand. He finally looked up at Dorsey, who was shaking with anger and pointing down at him like a vengeful god with a trombone. Unfortunately for the yellow-tied bigot, the black trumpeter happened to be a good friend of Dorsey’s and had just returned from duty in the Pacific, where he’d been wounded. According to dad, Dorsey went crazy, yelling into the microphone about his friend’s heroism, then verbally filleting the bigot, whom he called a stupid, un-American bastard. At the end of his rant, Dorsey ordered the guy out of the dance hall and refused to continue the show until he left. Whether for noble cause or the fact that the crowd was ready to jitterbug and had shelled out good money to see Dorsey’s whole show, many in the audience sided with Dorsey, booing and hissing the guy out of the dance hall. The show went on.

Though the full meaning of the tale was over my 6-year-old head, I never got tired of it. I loved hearing dad do the Tommy Dorsey parts. “Yeah, you with the yellow tie,” dad’s baritone rumbled, as he pointed at some imaginary racist in the living room. I also got a bang out of hearing dad say the word “bastard,” a word rarely heard in our house–a word I probably assumed meant bad man in a yellow tie. For my sister Pam and me, the story was a great example of someone using his position to stand up to a bully. For dad, who knows? Tommy Dorsey’s wrath might have been an important inspiration. After all, it was the kind of thing dad would soon be doing full time, only on a larger, relentless scale, against bullies ranging from Richard Nixon to the funeral industry. Inspiration or not, by the time the 60s started, dad was taking on the bullies of the world with a vengeance.

The Art of Activism

The first piece of dad’s activism I remember–helping a black family move into our whites-only neighborhood–was relatively small-scale and personal. For months after the Holmes moved in, it was dad’s job to protect the house from vandals when the family was away. There wasn’t much he could do about the rocks thrown through the Holmes’ front room window during the night, or the cross burned on their lawn one very early morning. But during dad’s watch, just the sight of him sitting on the Holmes’ front porch, grading his students’ papers, was all it took to keep the Bubba brigade off the property. I don’t know how long dad had been at it before I realized that threatening phone calls in the middle of the night and flat tires from tacks and nails scattered on our driveway weren’t part of everyone’s hearth and home, but I gradually came to understand that dad’s dedication to fairness was not shared by everyone. As for the 3 AM phone calls, we discovered that the cardboard stick from a Sugar Daddy sucker made a terrific telephone bell dampener when jammed through the proper hole in the phone’s access plate. My contribution to the struggle, of course, was to eat the Sugar Daddy. Ah, the sacrifices of activism.

Sometimes dad’s protests verged on street theater. During his quixotic run for the California Assembly in the mid-60s he delivered a campaign speech at a local shopping center while stomping a bathtub full of grapes. This might have been a fine way to draw attention to the farm workers’ strike and grape boycott raging at the time, but the sight of dad in the tub, wearing his trademark Petrocelli business suit with the pant legs rolled up for the fruit-stomp, did not sit well with my teenaged notion that parents should always strive to be invisible. For weeks after, I was known to my rotten buddies as “Grape.” To dad’s supporters, though, it was a beautiful sight to behold–and it worked. Lots of people gathered to see the lunatic in a bathtub, and wound up learning why they should support Cesar Chavez’ United Farm Workers and stop eating grapes. Dad lost the Assembly race in a rout, of course, but his son’s embarrassment over his father’s unusual forms of activism soon morphed into pride and admiration. His low-key protest of the Vietnam War at L.A. Valley College, where he spent the rest of his teaching career, was particularly memorable. Every day during his lunch hour, he would set up a card table full of anti-war literature next to the flagpole. For that hour he stood silently, wearing an armband featuring the number of GIs killed that week. He did this for two years.

Dad’s Final Years

Dad started in the 60s and never let up. He was still active in the Memorial Society — a consumer activist group — well into his 80s, fighting the good fight against the predatory practices of the funeral industry. A 1992 L.A. Times interview about the Memorial Society found dad in top form.

“You have to look at death as part of life,” Buchanan said. “‘If people looked at it that way, they wouldn’t need the limousines, the caskets and the tons of flowers, the embalming and all the other barbarities that go on at a so-called traditional funeral.’ ‘The hoopla is undignified,’ he said. ‘The other indignity is putting so much emphasis on the body, which is not a person.’ Buchanan has not made the trip to his mother’s gravesite in Spokane, Wash., in years, he said. ‘That grave site does not mean anything,’ he said. ‘What does mean something is that the dead still live in our minds,’ he added.”

“The hoopla is undignified” and “…all the other barbarities…” Dad had a way with words.


I’ll never know whether a big band leader’s outburst in the 40s inspired dad to help save the world. But damn, it was inspiring to hear him tell that story. Actually, there wasn’t a lot about John Buchanan that wasn’t inspiring. Though less active, dad still followed the news during his final years. I wish he had been spared America’s rightward drift during the 90s and new millennium and all the intentional unfairness it has thus far meted out. Mercifully, he wasn’t around to see the bully renaissance in full flower. If he were still alive, news of such bad-guy victories as the passage of voter suppression laws and the Citizens United ruling would have put him in a funk. He would have gotten very quiet…for a while.

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