It was 40 years ago this coming Wednesday that the three astronauts from the Apollo 8 mission to the moon were approaching the lunar sunrise. It was Christmas Eve (and nighttime in the United States) back on earth. My family and I were spending that Christmas Eve with family friends, Bob and Mary George, and I was a little boy whose biggest concern as the evening dragged on was that we were going to leave so late that we would get home precisely when Santa Claus coasted to a stop on either our roof or our long, straight, invariably iced-over driveway. Imagine a patch of airport runway made of black ice.
The Georges meant a great deal to my parents and to me, but their children were a lot older than I was. Their daughter was actually old enough to have been my older brother’s babysitter and was now a grownup herself: She was married to a soldier who was spending that Christmas across the globe in Vietnam.
That’s how different the world was 40 years ago: As a nation we were fighting in Southeast Asia and as a species we had yet to walk on the moon. Somewhere between a third and a half of you reading this column were yet to be born.
But that night long ago my concern wasn’t for the safety of my brother’s babysitter’s husband or for the three astronauts in a spacecraft roughly a quarter of a million miles away. I was focused only on the five adults — my parents, their friends, and their friend’s daughter — drinking scotch in the living room by the fireplace. I was watching the clock and fretting about the time. I was also worried about whether our car would be able to navigate the Georges’ driveway, which was the exact opposite of our own: Their house was nestled like the base lodge for a ski resort at the bottom of a steep and wooded hill. The driveway was a black diamond trail that ended in their garage. It wasn’t snowing that night, but it had the day before and when we had arrived our car had slid down that driveway as if we were riding a barely controlled toboggan.
Now, hours later, I was reaching that moment when the little boy mind moves from mild to meltdown. I was desperate to leave. But Mr. George rose from his chair and went to the radio. In my memory, the radio is the size of a cement block and covered in gold-colored fabric. The dial was the diameter of the palm of my hand. He was smoking a cigarette — all of the adults but my father were smoking cigarettes — and with great excitement he spun the dial until he found what he was looking for. He insisted I sit down on the ottoman before the fireplace and listen.
I did and that instant would become for me a moment of revelation that I can liken without hyperbole to Charlie Brown watching Linus stand center stage in the school auditorium and explain the meaning of Christmas by reciting the second chapter of Luke. Mr. George wanted us all to hear a transmission from outer space — from astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders.
Anders began, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” and for the next few minutes the astronauts read from the first chapter of Genesis. The transmission was scratchy and occasionally hard to understand, but that only added to what a marvel it was. This was one of those rare moments when the world together could exhale in wonder at the miracle that is mankind at its best. My mother’s eyes, I saw, were damp.
Our car would make its way up that black diamond of a driveway and we would be home before Santa. The historical record shows that Borman concluded the reading by telling his listeners, “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.”
Indeed. Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah. Peace.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on December 21, 2008.)