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City attorney shares insight into a Christmas remembrance

“And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, and it was good. And God divided the light from the darkness.” – Astronaut Bill Anders quoting Genesis on the Apollo 8 mission

City Attorney Joe Fernald says he has had many joyous Christmas memories throughout the years.

Joe Fernald

“My first Christmas with my wife, Christmas with my children and Christmas as a boy with my family in Boston and Connecticut were all special in their own way for the moments spent with loved ones and friends,” Fernald said.

But the Christmas of 1968 is something Fernald will forever hold special. To Fernald, the events of Christmas Eve that year provided a rare epiphany into the true meaning of Christmas for a troubled nation, and the birth of an internal hope and optimism for the future.

As part of President’s Kennedy’s vision to eventually land a man on the moon, NASA oversaw numerous missions in the ’60s. Apollo 8 was the mission that would near its conclusion late into 1968.

As the crew finished their orbit of the moon and began the trip home, Fernald recalls standing in his driveway and reflecting on some of the events of the year. In one small moment, Fernald seemingly caught eyes with the men of the mission as they stared back at the earth, and the words of Genesis sunk in and an elusive and long overdue peace began to settle in.

In reflection on that cold but clear Christmas Eve night, 1968 had been a tumultuous year, Fernald recalled. In just one year, both personal and societal events flooded into his mind.

In April of 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. In June of the same year, Senator Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Both killings occurred less than five years after President John F. Kennedy was killed in 1963. Fernald questioned the direction the nation was going at the time.

“Had our country become a place where political and social discourse would be conducted and resolved at the point of a gun?”

As the year continued, the war in Vietnam escalated with the Tet Offensive. Societal unrest at home became the new status quo across colleges and universities and on the streets of cities across the nation.

Fernald would also learn that year of the death of two close friends from high school. Both friends joined the Marine Corps straight out of high school and were killed in Vietnam. Fernald, who would later fly F-4 Phantom jets in the Navy, says it was an event that still tortures him.

“They took care of me in high school and didn’t have to. If I had graduated with them, it is very likely that I would have followed in their footsteps.”

Still later in 1968, Fernald’s parents made the decision to separate and file for divorce after 23 years of marriage.

Standing alone on his driveway as the year neared its culmination, these memories converged and were almost overwhelming, Fernald said.

“I remember that night that I couldn’t understand why all these events had come to occur simultaneously. My faith and resolve began to erode.”

Then, an unexpected epiphany occurred as Fernald stared into the night sky. It was a moment that would restore a glimmer of hope, and stir his heart.

“In those few moments on my driveway, I began my recovery from the despair and depression of 1968. The message of hope and the accomplishment of the Apollo 8 mission, one that was so complex and unbelievable, restored my hope for the future. If man could pull off something like this, nothing was impossible. The words the astronauts chose to read from Genesis reminded me that they shared the belief that God’s gifts had played a part in the creation of the moon and the ‘good earth.’ And, having happened on Christmas Eve, it reminded me once again of the hope for mankind that was born on that night so long ago. I remembered the words of the priest at Mass that evening. ‘Surely if God be with us, no one can stand against us,” Fernald wrote.

“The meaning of Christmas was so clear on that night. I will never forget it. The moon saved me.”