David Dale had a wad of cash in his pocket when he arrived at Eternal Valley Memorial Park & Mortuary in Newhall on Wednesday morning. He walked into the cemetery office and ordered a gravestone, and was asked what inscription he wanted etched into the granite.
“Too soon,” said Dale.
He wanted to keep the inscription simple, he told me. He wanted to express what he’s been thinking about, and haunted by, for 45 years.
The story begins in 1970, a few days before Thanksgiving. Dale and Christie Lynn Galbraith, Chatsworth High students, had broken up a week earlier, but she thought they should reconsider.
Sure, Dale said. Let’s go to Bob’s Big Boy in Northridge and talk it over.
Dale, 17, and Galbraith, 16, had dated for about six months. They liked cutting through Topanga Canyon to go to the beach, they tripped on the Doors and Jefferson Airplane, and like a lot of teens in that era, they partied.
“Drugs was the common denominator,” said Dale. “She did drugs, I did drugs. Reds — barbiturates — were the drug du jour. That and pot, and that’s what everybody did.”
Dale, whose family owned the Dale’s grocery store chain, drove a white Chevy Corvair van back then.
“We get in the van and I was already loaded. I say, ‘Hey, you got anymore pills?’ She says sure. I took a few, she took a few. Let’s go to Bob’s.”
They never made it. Dale fell asleep, or passed out, at the wheel. At Devonshire Street and Reseda Boulevard, his van crossed into oncoming traffic and got clipped by another vehicle.
“I woke up calling for her,” says Dale, whose ribs were crushed by the steering wheel.
Galbraith wore no seat belt and flew through the windshield. Dale remembers the police arresting him and he recalls waking up in the hospital, handcuffed to the bed. He knew Galbraith was alive. Barely. On Thanksgiving day, he got word that she had just died.
“I knew I couldn’t face it,” said Dale, who decided not to attend the funeral. “I couldn’t face anybody.”
A friend suggested they climb a hill near Eternal Valley Memorial Park and watch the funeral procession from a distance.
“So we get up in the hills and we’re watching everything, and I remember almost having a breakdown when I saw the hearse,” said Dale. “That’s when I realized it was real. I think I’d been in shock up to that point, and then it really hit me. You did this. This is what you did. This is what happens.”
Dale says his family hired an attorney who turned what might have been a manslaughter conviction into a reckless driving charge, arguing that Dale caused the accident but that Galbraith might have survived if the other driver wasn’t speeding. He lost his license and recalls a brief encounter with Galbraith’s mother at a meeting to arrange an insurance settlement.
“She grabbed both my hands in hers and said, ‘I want you to know that I forgive you.’”
But Dale could not forgive himself. He never has and never will.
“For four years I woke up screaming at the top of my lungs,” said Dale, now 62. “I saw a psychiatrist ... and over time I learned to stop fighting it and I just accepted that somebody died for my negligence.”
But in many ways, he never fully recovered, even though he held various jobs over the years, got married and had a son and daughter.
“I wish I could say that after [the accident], I shaped up. But for whatever reason, I didn’t, and I’ve had a lifelong history of drug abuse and alcoholism. I lost a 30-year marriage. I lost everything, and still, I couldn’t stop.”
Dale survived cancer and hepatitis C. Many times, depression dragged him toward suicide, but it seemed like too easy a way out. He felt he owed it to Galbraith to fight through his grief, to pay penance and to go on remembering the girl with the sandals and the platinum blond hair.
Way back in 1980, Dale got up the nerve to visit Galbraith’s grave for the first time. He took his wife-to-be, who had stood by him through the nightmares and self-destruction, and they discovered that there had never been a gravestone. Dale had lost touch with the family and didn’t know why they never had one made.
Over the years, Dale returned many times to pay his respects to the girl without a marker.
“I’ve sat up here for hours and cried my eyes out. I’d sit and talk to her and apologize for the mistakes I made, for letting her down,” said Dale. “I’d say I’ll try to do better. To get sober.”
Finally, about three years ago, he did. He got clean and retired to Sonoma to live near a brother. And he began putting money away, a little at a time, to buy a gravestone.
On Wednesday, after he paid for the marker, we went out to Galbraith’s grave and sat down on the grass. Dale pointed up to the hill he stood on as a 17-year-old, watching the funeral from a distance.
“Nothing good came out of this,” he said. “The only thing that happened was a beautiful girl died too soon.”
I was born the same year as Dale, and I told him I made bad choices, the same as he did, when I was 17. I’d go out and party and then drive, another invincible young fool, and all that saved me and the people around me was luck, if there even is such a thing. I told him I appreciated him sharing a cautionary tale. Maybe it will give someone pause; maybe it will save a life. At the least, Dale’s deed is an act of grace in memory of a lost child.
Dale wanted to make sure I understood that he doesn’t want a pat on the back. A friend suggested that there might be closure now, but Dale knows that’s not possible.
“I’m not looking for any forgiveness,” he said. “It’s just the right thing to do. After all the mistakes I’ve made in my life, this is the right thing, and even if it seems selfish to say this, I’ll sleep better knowing this time I made the right choice.”
Dale plans to go back up the hill when the gravestone is set in the ground.
The marker will read:
Christie Lynn Galbraith
Born 1954, Died 1970