Alton “Longbow” Safford, BHS 1932?
WWII Veteran, Educator, Outdoorsman
1914 - 2011
Alton “Longbow” Safford, long-time Wrightwood Resident, died peacefully in his home on December 21, 2011, having just turned 97. He was known throughout the West as an expert in Indian craft, primitive archery, flint-knapping and tanning in particular. He was also an expert marksman, fly-fisherman and a tireless hiker of the High Sierras.
Alton was born where his father, Lee Ashton Safford, worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs on the Toppenish Reservation near Yakima, Washington, on December 6, 1914. His mother, Alice Agnes Lugton, was born in Magdalena, U.S. Territory of New Mexico. As a child he learned to make Indian bows and arrows and to brain-tan deer hides, lessons he never forgot. Indians from all over the west lived there; Sioux, Arapaho, Utes and Cheyenne. He watched Indian women brain-tan buckskin and men make their small plains-style flat bows. They taught him to shoot when he was six and he made his first bow, of willow, when he was eight. He learned to make his own moccasins and baskets.
Alton’s parents were told by a doctor that Alton and his brother, Lee, were not thriving as they should be because of the damp climate, so the family moved to Greater Los Angeles. Alton joined the local Boy Scouts and attained Eagle Scout rank. While in high school in Burbank he and his brother sneaked off to Catalina Island and shot a buffalo with their handmade bows and arrows. They were eventually caught and paid a penalty.
Alston graduated from high school during the Great Depression and among other jobs, he cleared trails in the Civilian Conservation Corps (Roosevelt’s CCC), worked in a junk yard, as a “grease monkey” in a garage, on oil rigs, in mines, and for the railroad. One job that stands out was his co-ownership of an archery shop in Hollywood, where he became well-acquainted with all the great Southern California archers of the time, such as Howard Hill, Captain Jack Hoefer, Frank Garske, and his close friends Hugh Rich, Howard Mathisen and Fred Bear. He recalled great camaraderie with this group, as they hunted deer in the California foothills with their self-made 100-pound bows and broadheads. Also, because he had a tuxedo and could work as an usher in theaters, symphony halls, and other venues for live performances, his life became enriched by this education in drama and all kinds of music.
In 1937, influenced by his reading of Ernest Hemingway, Alton traveled to Spain in support of the Loyalist democracy against Franco’s fascist opposition. He drilled troops with wooden machine guns, expecting a shipment of arms to arrive from the Soviet Union. The arms never came. When Barcelona fell, he and others hiked over the Pyrenees to France, where he was arrested and deported back to the United States.
Having taken some machine shop courses in high school, he was able to get a job with Lockheed as the country geared up for World War II, working on Lockheed P-38 Lightnings. At that time he met and married his first wife, Margaret Blankenship. He was promoted to Senior Machine Parts Inspector. In 1943 he was drafted even though he was then 29 years old and working in the defense industry.
In the Army Alton was first posted to England with the 9th Air Corps but in June,1944 went ashore at Omaha Beach, Normandy, landing on D-Day + 17. As the best shot in his outfit, for a time the Army made him a sniper. He once said it was a strange duty because he always felt that when he was aiming, the enemy sniper was probably sighting him. He worked across France preparing advance air field bases, was in Paris for its liberation, was witness to de Gaulle’s triumphant return, and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. After the war he ushered at the Nuremburg Trials before coming home.
Back in California, Alton returned to work at Lockheed and became the father of two children, John and Jeanne Safford. Laid off for lack of production, he decided to use his G.I. Bill to get a higher education at nearby Occidental College. He earned a B.A. degree in education and taught 5th grade for about 8 years while working on his M.A. degree.
Divorced, Alton met his second wife, Juliana Brailovsky in Eagle Rock. They lived and taught in Ojai briefly before returning to Los Angeles where he administered academic tests for the Palos Verdes school district. Alton entered the doctoral program at USC and earned his degree in Education in 1965 at age 51. From his second marriage he now had three more children, Monique, Kimberly and Tony Safford. For the rest of his career he worked for the County of Santa Barbara as head of its Special Education department. Always an unusually good listener, he also used his skills and education as a practicing educational psychologist. Divorced, he met his third wife, Miriam Sacks Coker, a local Santa Barbara educator. They remained together for the rest of his life.
Since his father had died of a stroke at age 54, Alton decided to retire at age 63. He and Miriam moved to Wrightwood in 1977 where he continued with a limited practice for a few years. It was here for the next 34 years that he flourished, passing on the old ways of bow- and arrow-making, bone work, tanning, and hunting to whoever would listen and work with him. Alton found a group of wonderful friends and students at the annual Wrightwood Flintknapping Rendezvous, which drew Indian-lore aficionados from all over the West. Alton attended the first California Flintknapping Rendezvous in 1983 set up by Ray Harwood at California State University at Northridge. Subsequent Wrightwood Flintknapping Rendezvous were held at Jackson Lake, Camp Guffey, and Indian Hills Ranch. He participated in archer shoots across the state and particularly enjoyed the annual Mountain Men Rendezvous in the southern Rockies. He was known as “Longbow” among flintknapping friends and collected a room full of rare and significant Indian artifacts.
Alton was active until the very end, continuing to hike and camp and even renewing his driver’s license for two more years late in 2011. He had many circles of friends, including the Saturday and Monday Hiking Groups, the flintknapping friends, the Thursday Breakfast Group, the First Friday Reading Group (where his wide knowledge and expansive reading were particularly appreciated), ex-students and clients, and hundreds of people with whom he corresponded. A memorial was held for him on Wednesday, December 28, at the home of Ed and Phyllis Gallagher. Half of Alton’s ashes were interred at the Riverside National Cemetery with full military honors on January 13, 2011. His friends and family plan a spring flintknapping memorial and will also scatter his remaining ashes in the High Sierras as soon as weather allows.
Alton is survived by his wife, Miriam; his son and daughter from his first marriage, John and Jeanne Safford; and former wife Juliana and his children from that marriage; Monique, Kimberly and Tony Safford. He is also survived by five grandchildren, Joseph David Safford, Janet Arlene Safford, Miles Jameson Safford, Sophia Rose Mindas, Benjamin Jacob Safford and one great-grandchild, Benjamin David Safford.
Alton Safford–, one of a kind.
Mountaineer Progress Newspaper, December 2011