If you’re anything like me, your memory is so shot that you sometimes can’t remember what you had for breakfast until you belch. Or surreptitiously lick that stain on your tie.
But one thing I remember, one thing imprinted on my memory like maple syrup on a rayon-and-polyester tie, is a three-minute segment on a Charlotte news station in 1970.
Or was it 1971?
Whenever it was, I’ll never forget it.
In Rockingham, we thought we were big time because we got Charlotte TV stations WSOC, WBTV and WCCB, and Big WAYS on the radio. (The late Jay Thomas? Greatest deejay ever.)
The news this particular evening was full of the tumult that defined an era that included the anti-war and Civil Rights movements, women demanding equality and the National Guard shooting college kids on campuses for – get this - protesting the war in Vietnam.
The turmoil of one year bled over into the next, and there was doubt as to whether the country would conflagrate before reaching its 200th anniversary a few years hence.
When the newscast ended that evening, the screen went black. And Stevie Wonder’s song Heaven Help Us All came on:
Heaven help the child who never had a home
Heaven help the girl who walks the streets alone.
Heaven help the roses if the bombs begin to fall
Heaven help us all.
No editorial comment, no pictures, no video. Just Stevie beseeching the heavens for celestial intervention.
No 13- or 14-year-old could have fully comprehended the mess the world was in, but I remember staring at the TV screen, mouth agape.
It was that powerful.
Ever since, I’ve wondered what led to that moment.
Wouldn’t you like to imagine some conscientious news director, overwrought by what he or she was presenting to the public nightly, pulling a Howard Beale in the movie Network, locking himself in the control booth and declaring “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore”?
Only, his personal plea called upon a higher power:
Heaven help the black man if he struggles one more day
Heaven help the white man if he turns his back away.
Heaven help the man who kicks the man who has to crawl
Heaven help us all.
Despite unflinching, gut-punching lyrics, the song was a top 10 pop hit and reached number 2 on the R&B charts in 1970.
Ken Koontz, a longtime Charlotte resident and a reporter for WBTV from 1969 until 1983, told me this week that only WSOC and WBTV had news departments in 1970 and 1971: WCCB didn’t. Koontz, a city chronicler for decades, didn’t remember anyone at WBTV performing such a stunt, although instead of stunt, I prefer to think of it as a public service.
You sometimes hear apocryphal stories about some radio deejay locking himself in the booth and playing Elvis’s Blue Suede Shoes until the people in white suits arrive, bust down the door and gently escort him to a padded room where the scissors are rounded.
Several years ago, a N.C. radio station played the garage band anthem Louie, Louie for 48 hours in a row. I called the station to find out who’d locked themselves in and discovered it was just a publicity stunt: the station was changing formats and figured if enough people called in to inquire, it could create some buzz.
What happened in Charlotte was obviously no cheap publicity stunt: there were actual pro-war riots in 1970, and no station would risk alienating its war-monger demographic.
It’s impossible to convey the pathos of the 1960s and 1970s to anyone who wasn’t there, but nothing exemplifies the helplessness many people felt than a TV station sending out an SOS for help from above:
Heaven help the boy who won’t reach 21
Heaven help the man who gave that boy a gun
Heaven help the people with their backs against the wall
Lord, heaven help us all.