Before December 1968, no humans had ever launched themselves into outer space with enough velocity to escape the Earth’s powerful gravitational field. Nor had they ever voyaged so deeply into space that they were captured by the gravitational pull of another celestial body.
Yet, here I was on Christmas that year – my junior year in high school – listening to a live broadcast from the first humans to reach the moon, Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders. Their voices crackled through the static of our Volkswagen’s AM radio as my father steered our van ever deeper into the rural blackness of northern Minnesota.
Five months earlier, the world could never have imagined that by Christmas humans would be orbiting the moon. Neither could I have ever imagined I’d be witnessing this extraordinary event – not from the sprawling Chicago metropolitan area where I’d spent my entire life – but from my new home in the bleak landscape of northwestern Minnesota’s sparsely populated plains.
In a few short months, my father had quit his job as a sales executive, moved our family to Minnesota, and become a farmer. He had lured me and my 12 siblings to Minnesota under the pretense of a summer vacation, then – two weeks after our arrival – announced we wouldn’t return to Illinois. By the end of summer, we had settled on a farm along the Buffalo River and began raising grain and cattle in “God’s country,” the euphemism employed by my father, the former salesman, to sell his new vision – one in which we were involuntary participants.
From the backseat I glared at my father’s head with a poisonous rage. I could never forgive his epic swindle, his bait‑and‑switch maneuver that had placed us here in such an unforgiving and hostile climate. I felt duped and powerless to escape. Every constant that had previously anchored my life vanished with neck‑swiveling speed.
Now William Anders’ voice sputtered through the radio, greeting Americans and the rest of the world as his capsule circled the moon 250,000 miles away. He seemed immediately present yet sounded impossibly remote. He was connected to us down here on Earth, just barely, by the thin, tenuous lifeline of radio waves.
Outside my window, I watched the night landscape of the northern plains pass by – a dark, arctic desert devoid of trees and buildings. Miles of shadowy snow fields. A starry sky. Lifeless, just like the moon.
The temperature had already dropped double digits below zero, and our van lurched in the winds that whipped across the road. I imagined we were in our own life‑support capsule probing the forbidding landscape. This damn thing, I thought, shuttled us from one building to another, each one another outpost that artificially sustained life in this harsh climate. Like the astronauts, we left the module at our own risk. God forbid it should break down in the middle of nowhere.
As the astronauts orbited the moon, William Anders began reading the first ten verses of the creation story to mark this extraordinary moment: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form…”
I could easily imagine the formlessness because it was here, too, just outside my window, threatening to swallow us up. I existed in a world of uncertainty, just like the astronauts who still faced a quarter‑of‑a‑million‑mile voyage back home through the unforgiving emptiness of space. Until the Apollo 8 capsule had splashed down and been plucked from the ocean, its perilous journey home would rely as much on chance as all the combined brilliance of NASA’s engineers and technicians to deliver it to the recovery zone unharmed.
That night – and many nights after – I wondered: where would I land ? Would I ever return safely home?
What began as a lie or betrayal or an abduction – call it what you will – ended less than a decade later when flooding, fires, and financial collapse forced the family back to Illinois.
Years later, when my brother Tim and I returned to visit the old farmstead, nearly every trace of my family’s tumultuous tenure on the farm had been erased. All that remained was the scorched foundation of the farmhouse and a few charred remnants of our past that lay as silent as a coffin at the bottom of the pit.
MARCUS KESSLER is a 2017 recipient of the Minnesota State Arts Board Initiative Grant for literary prose. His work has been published in The Pottersfield Portfolio, Voices in the City, Speakeasy, St. Paul Pioneer Press, and Star Tribune. He is a winner of The Loft’s fellowship in Creative Nonfiction.