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Back in mid-July, a model globe sat on a shelf in my home in Evanston, a few feet from a floor lamp. A fly calmly buzzed the room at night, casting a small shadow. For a moment it buzzed within a couple inches of the globe. Briefly I saw its little shadow dance on the map of North America. Call it “foreshadowing.”
As everyone knows, this past Monday our moon, a bit like that fly but more predictable in its motion, buzzed directly between the sun and the actual North American continent. The shadow moved east-southeast at about 1,500 mph. Roughly halfway across the continent, in the early afternoon, the moon-shadow reached Missouri where a few million people gazed skyward.
In the town of Cedar Hill, southwest of St. Louis – in the “path of totality,” with sunlight fully blocked rather than partially blocked by the moon – the skygazers included a dozen Evanstonians, among them my son Zephyr and myself.
I had noted weather predictions for the previous two days, plus on Monday before dawn. Forecasts called for scattered clouds. How to choose an observation site, to avoid a view-killing cloud? After checking various online sites and conferring with Mike Moran, a fellow totality-chaser leading the dozen Evanston neighbors, Zephyr
and I drove to Cedar Hill.
In GoogleEarth Mike had spotted the neighborhood of Scenic View Lane, on a ridge above the Cedar Hill township. At 9 a.m., Zephyr and I scoped it and discovered many signs threatening trespassers with arrest. But beside the roadway leading down from the forbidden zone, on an undeveloped shoulder of the ridge, there jutted an enormous promontory with a flat surface. We parked, scrambled, and discovered we had a 180-degree view to the south, with plenty of room to move about. No one was there except a young woman named Nikki, and her son, Drake. Nikki told me she had been coming up to this spot since high school and the cops never minded. Now we needed just a bit of luck with the clouds.
Waiting for Mike’s caravan, Zephyr and I headed back down to the town around 10:30 for provisions. With the eclipse running for three hours (from about 11:45 to 2:45, with two minutes of totality at 1:16) we wouldn’t want to take a break for lunch. At the Subway on route 30 we ordered a foot-long and chatted with Cindy Thebeau who was pleased that finally a couple of eclipse-chasers had joined her and her three-person staff.
“How’s business?” I asked.
“Not much today,” she said. “And we opened early expecting a crowd. But nothing much. Kinda puzzles me. They closed the school just for today. And all the daycare places.”
“You mean school is back in session but off today?”
“Yeah, they had school Thursday and Friday last week but kept the kids out today. Didn’t want the liability I guess. Don’t want ’em hurting their eyes on a school day.”
“Gotcha. But no crowd for you?” I asked.
“Nah, not much yet. Other towns handled it different, with a parade or something. St. Clair had a parade and stuff yesterday. Got lotsa people. The farmers there mowed down some of the fields by Route 44, so people would have more places – open places to stand and watch.”
For us, Cindy’s not-so-good luck potentially meant a better experience, I thought. Maybe we’d have that big Scenic View Promontory mostly to ourselves.
But no, by the time we returned around 11 a.m., another couple dozen people had shown up. Half of them were Mike’s dozen. The rest came from here and there, locals and out-of-towners, and, of course, they were just the first trickle of what would become a sizeable crowd. No problems, though – no goofballs, everyone eclipse-focused and pleased to have found a good vista point, everyone with fingers crossed against the clouds.
Using our ISO-123122 glasses, purchased weeks earlier, we could safely look straight at the sun for a minute or two at a time. We began to do so now, off and on. As expected, the sun appeared to us full-moon-sized, glowing orange in the midday blackness of the protective lenses. It occupied less than a degree of arc, less than the width of a dime at arm’s length.
We had never witnessed a solar eclipse before. During the drive down, and during the preceding weeks, we had discussed the remarkable coincidence of the moon’s relative size and position – 400 times smaller than the sun, 400 times closer – such that it precisely “eclipses,” leaving the ring-like corona visible. Of course this astonishes different people differently. To Zephyr, it signifies merely a simple happy coincidence. To others, it suggests a supernatural animating force. What are the odds that intelligent life just happens to exist on a planet with moon and sun meeting these criteria? Rather low, one would guess. But then, perhaps billions of planets and moons meet all the criteria – except for capacity for life.
A bit before noon, despite the 90-plus-degree heat, the crowd began to swell. Kelly Jones, an amateur astronomer from Chicago, arrived with his brother, Craig, and a Celestron Nexstar 8SE telescope. He mounted it on a tripod and attached a filter and camera. It offered an excellent view that Kelly shared generously.
“My first telescope was a gift from Craig,” Kelly said. “He’s 7 years older. He passed down one of his first ones when I was about 8.” Kelly told me he had had the astronomy bug ever since, and had visited all the major observatories on the continent – Yerkes in Wisconsin, Wilson and Palomar in California, Lowell in Flagstaff. “It’s not the kind of thing you get tired of,” he said.
While we were talking and taking in the Celestron-assisted view, the sun began to overtake the moon, so to speak – sneaking behind it. A tiny curved nibble, called “first contact,” became visible in the sun’s upper-right quadrant. A murmur went up from the crowd, now numbering more than 50. Clouds drifted past, but none directly overhead.
Over the next 10 minutes we all watched closely. The nibble grew to a healthy bite, like the bite your sibling takes from the big cookie you don’t really want to share. But we could all see a sizeable cloud approaching from the west.
At 12:05 p.m., that cloud crept directly overhead and the sky-show took an intermission. A couple boos came from the audience – along with positive comments.
“Lucky to have the break,” said Craig. “A bit of a respite from the heat, before the big show.”
Around this time Missouri State Trooper Angrisani arrived. I knew we had parked in a questionable spot. I approached him and asked if I had to move. “No, you’re fine,” he answered. “You’re all fine. Just came to watch myself, and make sure everybody is okay.”
The cloud began to pass and dissipate. I found that the view through the thin cloud, using the glasses, felt as satisfying as the clear view. It gave a sense of multiple forces at work – sun, moon, cloud. A uniquely powerful force, blocked by a “lesser” force, blocked by a yet lesser force – which then yielded to the first. Rock, paper, scissors came to mind.
By 12:30 p.m., the bite was a quarter of the disc.
By 12:45 p.m., only a thick crescent remained.
By 1 p.m., the crescent had thinned to a fingernail. The air had cooled slightly, and only now did we have a clear sense that the light had dimmed. Mike commented that the ancients would not have known, until this final phase, that anything unusual was going on.
Unlike the ancients, we all understood the motion mechanics and knew what to expect –yet the next moments did not fail to impress. Just prior to totality, the darkness grew at an accelerating rate. We could see the greater shadow grow from right to left across our horizon. With his camera, Zephyr captured a moment when it looked like dusk to the west and afternoon to the east.
At 1:16 p.m., the last hangnail of sun winked out, and now the black sky was lit only by the sun’s corona – the outermost extension of its glowing gaseous atmosphere – ordinarily invisible in bright daylight. Fifty pairs of viewing glasses came off and almost all 50 voices could be heard. I had anticipated a slightly golden light but noted that the glow was more neutral, silvery. Zephyr observed that the circular flicker was more “feathery” than expected, perhaps owing to the hazy sky. He tried to get a photo, but the captured image was akin to a fuzzy glowing lifesaver, an odd but unimpressive light, rather than the astonishing black-centered flickering orb that everyone gaped at.
The darkness was like twilight, not thick, but mysterious. A few stars and planets could be seen, but most of us glanced only briefly and returned our gaze to the orb. We had minimal interest in Mercury, for example, which true astronomers delight in observing at such a time.
Two and a half minutes later, a burst of light from the point of initial nibble signaled the approaching end of the show. The glasses went back on. The hangnail lengthened, thickened to a crescent, and grew back to the cookie portion that your sibling may have left you. The obscuration process reversed precisely, but with few watching closely.
But an hour later, driving with Zephyr through a St. Louis neighborhood, we passed a bunch of kids with one grownup on a park bench. All had eclipse glasses on, all were looking up and pointing, and the kids were squealing.