Memory is a mystery: years of experiences are compacted into some enigmatic space, or spaces, in the brain. Memory is inconsistent: we remember some things well. Some, not so much. Memory can be faulty; “has it really been that long since we talked?” Memory can be debilitating; ask a combat veteran, or someone who suffered childhood misadventure. And memory can be exhilarating: think about the time you first met that special person in you life.
If we’re fortunate, recollections continue to float to the surface of consciousness. We celebrate anniversaries, mourn losses, share old fellowships, and play Jeopardy. But how do we sort out the order of this jumbled collection of events and happenings of a lifetime? It seems a calendar is necessary. What happened before this? Did that really come after such and such? And for many of us, numbers that end in zero mark special occasions to recall past events with solemnity or joy.
Through all of 2018, now about to close, every month has evoked a vivid memory from fifty years ago. Fifty, a nice round number ending in zero. Vivid recollections. All too vivid.
1968 was filled with chaos, grief, and tragedy. The year had barely begun when the USS Pueblo naval vessel was attacked and captured by North Korea. On January 30th, the Viet Cong and North Vietnam initiated the Tet offensive, an attack that, although ultimately repelled, turned the tide of public opinon in America hopelessly against the Vietnam war. In February, three college students died demonstrating against an all white bowling alley in South Carolina. The My Lai massacre took place on March 16th (although it was generally unknown at the time.) On April 4th, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. Later in April, rioting students at Columbia University took over the Administration buildings and shut down the school. In May, the USS Scorpion, a nuclear submarine with a crew of 99, was lost in the Atlantic; cause unknown. June 5th, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. In late July, a shootout in Cleveland resulted in the death of three policmen, three black militants, and a bystander. The last week of August saw a breakdown of order in Chicago as thousands of antiwar protesters were met by police of equal strenght during the Democratic National Convention. In October, controversy followed a black power salute on the medal podium from two American athletes at the Mexico City Olympic games. On November 20, the Farmington Mine disaster trapped 99 miners; 21 escaped, but 78 lost their lives. 1968 would come to be known as the bloodiest year of the Vietnam war, costing the lives of 14,584 Americans.
And then, Christmas Eve arrived. Apollo 8, with astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders on board, entered lunar orbit after a three day journey from Earth. The trio were the first men to leave celestial gravity, and the first to witness an Earthrise over the Moon’s horizon. The flight was equipped to transmit live from the Apollo Command module. In the most watched television broadcast to that time, on December 24th, the crew sent the following message live from their orbit during a lunar sunrise.
“We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.
‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.’”
Lovell then spoke:
“’And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.’”
Frank Borman continued the passage from Genesis with:
And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called the Seas: and God saw that it was good.
Borman then ended the broadcast with the words:
“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.”
Fifty years is a trifle when considering the span of human history. But to those who lost their lives to war and violence in 1968, it is an eternity. The words of the Apollo 8 astronauts did not erase the tragedies of the days that preceded them, but they ended the year with important words for all humanity. Whether you were there or not during that awful year, you can look to the broadcast of Apollo 8 and understand: we can aspire to be better, we can seek and achieve greatness, and we can remember to treat one another amicably.
Merry Christmas to all, on this, our good Earth.