The Whole Earth in a Prison Cell

bWhole Earth AS11-36-5355HR (detail)y Jim Forest

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong, of the Apollo 11 crew, became the first human being to walk on the moon.

Most people at the time watched the moon landing on television. In my case, I listened to it via a pair of low-tech earphones. I was in a cell fourteen bars wide at Waupun State Prison in central Wisconsin.

Prison had become my temporary home due to an act of protest against the Vietnam War – I was one of fourteen people who burned files of Milwaukee’s nine draft boards. Now I was in the early weeks of serving a two-year sentence – in fact just over one year, given the “good behavior” factor.

My new address was the sort of grim maximum-security prison you see in old James Cagney movies – tier upon tier of cells reached via steel stairways and narrow catwalks. It was a place that seemed black-and white even when seen in color.

It was perhaps more exciting to listen to the moon landing than to see the event on TV. Radio’s advantage has always been to enlist one’s own imagination for all the visual effects. I had plenty of props for my imagination already, after seeing approximately every science fiction film made in the Fifties and having read many volumes of science fiction. Lots of si-fi book covers were embedded in memory.

It was astounding to imagine human beings crossing that dry and airless sea of space, landing, then actually standing – then walking – on the Moon’s low-gravity, dusty surface.

But the main impact of the event came in the days that followed as newspapers and magazines made their way to me full of photos taken by the astronauts in the course of their journey. The whole Earth as seen by human eyes. The Earth rising like a blue marble over the black horizon of the lifeless Moon.

drawing of the table in my cell at Waupun Prison
drawing of the table in my cell at Waupun Prison (click to enlarge)

Then came the biggest surprise of all: a packet from NASA arriving from one of the astronauts (or so I have always presumed) containing an  8-1/2 x 11 inch color photo of the Earth. I doubt the photo could have reached the White House much faster than it reached my prison. The same image was to appear a few months later on the cover of National Geographic Magazine, but even in that case didn’t have the richness of color and detail the actual photo had.

How did this remarkable photo come to me? There was no letter in the envelope. I could only guess.

The Milwaukee 14 trial had received a great deal of press attention, including many articles in The New York Times and later a lengthy essay in The New York Review of Books. Perhaps something I had said during our trial had been read by one of the astronauts and lingered in his memory during the trip to the Moon and back. I could only guess that his sending me a photo of our astonishingly beautiful borderless planet was his way of saying thank you.

another cell decoration: While I was in prison for being part of the Milwaukee 14, my son Ben -- age six at the time -- did this drawing for his Sunday School class. The topic that Sunday was St. Paul. The woman leading the group commented that St Paul was imprisoned for his faith. "So is my dad -- he's in jail right now," Ben responded, then drew this -- me behind bars on one side, a cell with a cross in the center on the other.
another cell decoration: While I was in prison for being part of the Milwaukee 14, my son Ben — age six at the time — did this drawing for his Sunday School class. The topic was St. Paul. The woman leading the group commented that St Paul was imprisoned for his faith. “So is my dad — he’s in jail right now,” Ben responded, then drew this.

The prison administration made it difficult for me to receive the photo – it hadn’t been sent by an “authorized correspondent.” I was given the option of the packet being destroyed or returned-to-sender. After a struggle with the prison bureaucracy, the packet was at last delivered to my cell and for the rest of my time in prison it rested on top of the book-laden table. It was an icon that I often contemplated: this magnificent fragment of creation that God has given us to share and care for, and in which we are called to love and protect each other.

Assuming I was right about the sender being one of the astronauts, the giver of the photo was an officer in the US Air Force and I was an anti-war protester locked up in a small cell in middle America. How good it was to feel the bond between us.

Later on I came upon this statement from Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, the sixth human being to walk on the moon:

“[Looking at the Earth from the moon] you develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.”

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