Joe Langston was the first journalist I ever met.
I’m not saying the meeting influenced my career path – but I’m also not saying it didn’t.
I met Langston, a longtime staple of Birmingham, Alabama television in 1968 when I was crying and creating a major disturbance on the set of a TV show at WBRC (Channel 6).
It was my fourth birthday, and my mother, along with some other mothers, packed several of my cousins and me in the back of a station wagon and hauled us 50 miles down U.S. Highway 31 to appear on Channel 6’s version of the franchised Bozo Show.
I had no idea that The Bozo Show was a franchise. As far as I knew, the guy on the TV in Birmingham was the Bozo. So when my mom asked if I wanted to go see Bozo for my birthday I naturally screamed Yes!
I mean, who even knew this was possible? I could see there was a bleacher full of kids on the set, but the thought that I could actually be one of them was inconceivable to me.
As I watched Bozo daily, building up anticipation to when I would be one of those kids on the bleachers, I started to study the show. At the beginning of each program, Bozo was introduced and walked in through a doorway in the set. I was a simple cutout with a rounded top, and there was a black background behind it.
I wanted to know where that background led. I asked my mom, but she didn’t give me a satisfactory answer. I couldn’t comprehend that it was just a black wall and that Bozo was walking in from the side.
It seemed to me like this unnaturally happy man with giant hair just appeared from the black void of space and exited back into it at the end of each show. He was like the astronauts I was watching on TV trying to get to the moon.
Finally, the day arrived when I was to be on the show. We hopped in the station wagon and headed for what, as far as I knew, was Hollywood.
I have no memory of entering the building or making our way to the studio. I just remember sitting on the bleachers with all the other kids waiting for Bozo.
I was on the far left side, and Bozo would be coming out to the right. Would I even be able to see him? Not to worry; he always walked down the row and talked to kids from every section. I’d see him soon enough.
All was well, and my excitement was building when suddenly some guy yelled for us all to be quiet. Then he made an arm motion and Bozo was introduced and the theme began to play.
I looked down the row of bleachers, and there he was! Bozo! In the flesh! Well, I guessed there was flesh under all that greasepaint.
Bozo barely got out a word before some kid on the left end of the bleachers starting screaming at the top of his lungs. That kid was me.
I tried to stop, but I couldn’t.
I was looking right at Bozo, who was looking right at me with his index finger over his lips saying, “SHHHHHH!”
Then every kid on the bleachers was joining him. “SHHHHH!”
I couldn’t shhhhh.
I don’t even know why I was screaming. I wasn’t afraid of clowns. I think I was freaked out that TV had just become real life. Plus, what if I accidentally got sucked into that abyss behind the doorway? I could be stuck on the moon for the rest of my life.
The only thing for certain was that I wasn’t going to shut up. They wouldn’t let my mom sit beside me, so I had to go off camera. Clearly, I was not ready for my close-up.
I wasn’t even OK standing beside my mom – she had to be holding me, which was not an easy task since she was eight-months pregnant with my sister.
During a commercial break, Joe Langston, the Channel 6 anchorman walked up to us and asked why I wasn’t up on the set with the other kids.
“He’s afraid of Bozo,” my mother told him.
Langston reached in his shirt pocket and pulled out a lollypop. I stuck it in my mouth. He was nice to me, and was probably a hero to all his co-workers for shutting up a screaming kid ruining their live show.
Back then, the local TV news guys did everything: commercials, the Dialing for Dollars show and more. Every time Joe Langston showed up on TV for weeks after that I’d point and say, “He gave me a sucker!”
“Yeah,” my parents would say, “but if you hadn’t screamed at Bozo you could’ve been on his show and not even needed a sucker.”
“Well, who cares?” I thought. Did all those other kids get a sucker from Joe Langston? No, they did not.
Twenty years later I dated a woman with the last name Langston. After about the third date I asked her if she was related to Joe Langston, figuring she’d get ticked off because people had asked her that her whole life.
But, no, she was happy to answer.
“He’s my Daddy’s uncle,” she proudly proclaimed.
“Cool,” I said. “He gave me a sucker.”
Then I had to tell her the whole story.
Langston was a three-decade legend at Channel 6, along with Tom York (father of conservative commentator Byron York), Bill Bolen and a young woman named Patricia Neal, who later moved to Hollywood and became Fannie Flagg.
That’s when you could pick up only three stations, and Channel 6 proudly proclaimed itself, “Your Clear-Picture Station,” because it was the only one that reached the farthest without a hint of snowy signal.
After I had worked at The Birmingham News for several years, I asked lifestyle editor Alec Harvey if he knew how I could get in touch with Langston. Turns out, Alec’s dad and Langston were buddies, and Alec gave me his address.
I wrote him and thanked him for the sucker. I said it had made me feel better, and I would hope I could do the same for anybody who ever needed it.
I never heard back from him, so I hope he didn’t think I was a crackpot. Even if he did, I hope he was glad I remembered.
Joe Langston died last weekend, and the world will be a lesser place without him. Everyone who knew him said he was a kind man and cared about his craft.
There are plenty of things in this world that just step out of the abyss and scare the hell out of you like Bozo the Clown did to me on that October day in 1968.
Little did my 3-year-old brain know earlier that same year that people were killing Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy or that people were rioting and getting beaten outside the Democratic National Convention.
Looking from atop Red Mountain from Channel 6’s studios into downtown Birmingham wasn’t any better, where wounds from the fight for civil rights were still fresh. And a war being fought half a world away was dividing the country.
There weren’t enough lollipops to solve all those problems, but a few more Joe Langstons wouldn’t have hurt then, and they wouldn’t hurt now.
Rest in peace, Joe Langston.