'All of You on The Good Earth'

My son, Mark, suggested recently that I write about my favorite Christmas memory or my favorite Christmas gift. I couldn't really think of a favorite thing that someone gave me but I do remember a "gift" I received from 239,000 miles away on Christmas Eve 48 years ago.

 Apollo 8 Astronaut William Anders snapped this photo, "Earthrise" while orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve 1968.

Apollo 8 Astronaut William Anders snapped this photo, "Earthrise" while orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve 1968.

1968 was a tough year for America. I was eight and I was scared. I remember being in a doctor's waiting room and seeing a magazine cover about the epidemic of drugs such as LSD on college campuses. I told my mom I didn't want to go to college but I refused to tell her why. Although I didn't know it at the time, it was the year of the Tet offensive in Vietnam and I saw reports on the nightly news of the rising numbers of dead and wounded American soldiers. I figured some day I would have to fight in that war.

In April, we were watching TV in our family room when a news bulletin came on that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated in Memphis. The report was too painful for me to watch so I got up and voluntarily took the garbage out, surprising my parents, I'm sure.

In June, I got up one morning before school and turned on the TV to watch Popeye and other cartoons as I ate my cereal. Instead, I saw video and photos of Robert F. Kennedy laying on the floor of the kitchen of a Los Angeles hotel, mortally wounded by an assassin. I remember when they  said the outlook for Kennedy was grave, my frustrated response was "come on, they must be able to fix him."

In August, street protests against the war and the resulting police riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago showed America at its worst, and that not everyone with power can be trusted to use it wisely. I wondered if we were going to have battles like that in my town.

I was an Olympic fanatic and in October I watched nearly every minute of the ABC broadcasts from the summer games in Mexico City. Our country's African-American athletes dominated and some courageously asserted their human rights on the victory stand and elsewhere. The American performances where thrilling but the athlete protests and the vitriolic reactions to them unsettled me because now anger and division had invaded even my beloved world of sports. 

By the time we got to December, most Americans needed good news, including me.

It came from the American space program, which was a childhood fascination.  I rooted for the U.S. to beat the Soviets to the moon and I read everything I could about the spacecraft and the men who flew them. My brother Ken had a model of the Gemini 4 capsule with astronaut Ed White doing a space walk. I admired it on his shelf in the bedroom we shared every morning when I woke up.

So when Christmas Eve came, I was glued to the TV as Apollo 8 reached the moon. As it circled the moon and the sun rose on the lunar landscape, the three astronauts -- Frank Borman, William Anders and James Lovell -- took turns reading from the Book of Genesis about the creation of heaven and earth, light and darkness, night and day.

 Frank Borman, William Anders and James Lovell, the crew of Apollo 8.

Frank Borman, William Anders and James Lovell, the crew of Apollo 8.

The astronauts had been told before they left on their mission that they would be speaking to the largest audience ever to listen to a human voice. Lovell said they selected the first ten verses of Genesis because it is the foundation of many of the world's religions, not just Christianity. 

Apollo 8's live Christmas Eve broadcast made me feel safe for some reason. Maybe it was the sheer audacity of what our nation was trying to do -- explore the heavens and advance the cause of humanity. Maybe it was that we seemed to be doing it together, as Americans, with a single and noble purpose. Maybe it was the courage of those three men in that tiny capsule far from their homes. Maybe it was their faith in something more important than themselves despite their own miraculous accomplishments. 

Maybe it was the warmth and love I felt from being with my brother and sisters and our Mom and Dad, on the most exciting night of the year for a little kid. Even today when I watch the Apollo 8 video, I get emotional and wonder why it touches me so. I don't have an answer.

Mark, I don't recall a single thing I got from Santa that year, but I do remember Apollo 8 Mission Commander Frank Borman's sign off from that broadcast. He bound us together as people -- good people -- regardless of faith, ideology or political perspective. Thanks for reminding me of his words, which are an appropriate way to cap the difficult year of 2016:

"And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God Bless all of you -- all of you on the good Earth."