It was 1968. It was summer. I was four, soon to be five, and Casey Clark was my best friend in the entire world. We played with our GI Joes and were going to be astronauts. That year, a fire swept through the hillside west of our home in Lemon Grove. It was enough to convince us that we didn’t want to be firemen like the other four-year-olds did. That year an earthquake, common enough in California, split the house across the street right in two.
Casey was older than me by a few months, and I, being born in November, wouldn’t have entered kindergarten with him, except that California had early placement if you passed a test. The teacher asked me to draw my family, and I drew my father and mother, my little brother, my big sister, the newborn baby just six months old, our dog, cat, goldfish, gave everyone hair and eyes and fingers. I drew the sun in the sky and the oak tree in our yard, and our house, and started in on my best friend Casey and his family... Because, I said, we’re all one big family...
Fall came, and I entered kindergarten. There were all the usual things you’d expect in kindergarten. The teacher read to us. We studied our alphabet, which I already knew, and our numbers, which I also already knew. I was reading from Grolier’s Encyclopedia, and while the other kids brought stuffed toys to school for show and tell, I offered up a report on Alpha Centauri, our nearest neighboring star. The teacher called my mother and praised me for having invented this imaginary place...
“Look it up,” said my mom.
I didn’t know there was any difference between the entertaining colorful children’s picture books, and the big thick tomes that contained Shakespeare and Dickens. I picked them up and waded through them all, and if a word seemed too difficult for me, I’d ask. The encyclopedia was my favorite. It contained factual things, like the weights and ages of stars, and how atoms form molecules.
In the back of the next to the final volume was an article on ultrasonics, written by Isaac Asimov. It sits in my mind all these years later, a clear and cogent work, so well written that even four-year-old me knew that Asimov was a great science writer.
There were astronauts on the nightly news, and the war in Vietnam. Dad was in the Navy, which in November, at five I only loosely connected toward fighting wars. He’d been promoted from Ensign to Lieutenant Junior Grade, which to me only meant that he had a shiny new brass pin on his collar.
December came, and the astronauts we saw on television, the ones Casey and I wanted to be when we grew up, flew into space. In school we made paper cut out rockets and placed them on the wall. On Christmas Eve, Apollo 8 orbited the moon.
Alpha Centauri was in the southern sky, always below the horizon from San Diego. It was a place I couldn’t even see from where I lived, and I knew, because I’d read it in Grolier’s, that at the very limit of the fastest thing ever, the speed of light, 186,282.397 miles per second (or there about), faster than which, Albert Einstein told us, nothing could go... At the very limit of what was possible, it would take 4.36 years to get there, and nothing we could build would ever go that fast.
Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders, in a tiny metal capsule, orbited the moon. Bill Anders, as the capsule rounded the moon the fourth time, pointed his highly modified Hassleblad 500 EL out the window, and captured on 70 mm custom Ektachrome, what NASA would call “image AS8-14-2383.”
Borman: Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! Here's the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty.
Anders: Hey, don't take that, it's not scheduled.
Borman: (laughing) You got a color film, Jim?
Anders: Hand me that roll of color quick, will you...
Lovell: Oh man, that's great!
But we wouldn’t see that photo until some time later. Christmas Eve we turned on the television... All of us, everyone who owned a television, everywhere, the entire planet, and watched the astronauts.
"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.'"
"‘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.’"
"'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 he Seas: and God saw that it was good.'
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."
I don’t even recall my Christmas presents from that year. Apollo 8 was my Christmas, and NASA was my Santa Claus.