Unless you’ve been in the dark, you know that a major celestial event occurred this week: a shortage of Milky Way bars. Ha! Of course I’m talking about the Great American Solar Eclipse, the first total solar eclipse to sweep across our entire country in nearly a century.
I don’t know about you, but I’m relieved this whole eclipse nonsense is behind us, in our celestial rearview mirror, so to speak. Not that the eclipse itself is nonsense. It’s spectacular. But the hype? The “solar-brations”? The fact that it can’t just be a solar eclipse but the Great American Solar Eclipse?
Let’s start with the solar eclipse glasses, or rather, the shortage thereof and the ensuing mad scramble. I guess it’s not really people’s fault; this whole eclipse thing just suddenly popped up out of nowhere. It’s not like it’s been on the calendar for centuries.
Except, wait. It has!
I get it. People are busy. People procrastinate. Even I — a closet astronomy geek — didn’t order glasses until early July. Then, when my anticipated delivery date came and went without glasses, I began to panic. After emails and phone calls to the company that had guaranteed delivery, I picked them up two days before the eclipse by going to the post office’s loading dock back door.
It was either that or make pinhole viewers out of cardboard boxes, which I remember doing as a child. A small yellow dot on a cardboard wall might provide a cheap thrill at a time when you still think pet rocks are cool, but by now I should be able to move up to flimsy dollar cardboard glasses.
I had read before the eclipse that about half the country was expected to watch, which would explain my husband. When I asked him where we should go observe, he said he might peek out the door from work.
ME: What? We can’t see the full eclipse from here! We only have to go 70 miles south, though. How can you not want to have a front-row seat to the celestial event of the century, the greatest natural, awe-inspiring phenomenon of any kind?
HIM: Eh, I’m good.
Well, apparently he’s not as over the moon about this eclipse as I am, although perhaps I have gotten a little caught up in the hype after all. Next thing you know I’ll be calling it a “solar-bration.”
No matter. My mom and sister, as well as my 21-year-old son Alex and his girlfriend, and I decide to watch the eclipse at Homestead National Monument in Beatrice, one of the top viewing spots for the full eclipse because of its location and wide open spaces.
About 50,000 people from all across the country are expected to watch from this town of 12,000. It feels a bit like a carnival, with booths, souvenirs, food trucks and bands. It wouldn’t surprise me to see someone shooting hot dogs out of a wiener gun.
Still, there’s a sense of history in the making here as we watch weather balloons being released. There are telescopes set up everywhere, some the size of canons. There are guys wearing NASA hats and shirts, who I assume are either from NASA or nerdy guys who bought them on Amazon. Probably both. And if there’s ever a day when it’s cool to wear apparel like your “It’s Just a Phase” T-shirt depicting the different moon phases, today is that day.
With overcast skies, the weather isn’t cooperating, though. At the start of the partial eclipse — when the moon makes its first move — we put on our glasses and see … nothing. At first. And then, suddenly, there are gasps and cheers as the thick clouds clear and we have our first view of the moon taking its first bite out of the sun.
And I realize I’m cheering, too. The clouds come and go for the next hour, and that’s fine with me. Otherwise I’d never stop watching, which, even with my fancy cardboard protective eyewear, isn’t recommended.
As the time for totality — when the sun is completely covered by the moon — approaches, it grows quiet as people suspect they will not be able to view the full eclipse after all. But at 1:02 p.m., when the moment comes and we can take off our glasses, the clouds seem to part in dramatic fashion, and we have a breathtaking view of a perfect, full eclipse. The crowd cheers, as if they’d been given a great gift.
And again, I’m cheering with them because it’s impossible not to be caught up in this moment. The sun’s corona shimmers around the black disc of the moon. The planet Venus suddenly appears. There’s an eerie twilight glow on the horizon. It’s magnificent.
For the next couple minutes there’s a hushed silence over the crowd as everyone tries to take in the moment. Once totality is over a mere two minutes and 35 seconds later, I’m ready to stay and watch the next phase, as the moon moves out of alignment. But the crowd’s already packing up and leaving, apparently in a hurry to sit in traffic. This leaves us front-row seats to listen to Bill Nye the Science Guy talk about what we just saw.
Here, Nye is like a rock star, doing interviews with national news stations. He has a large fan base following him around, including my son, who skipped his first day of college classes to be here. Certainly he’ll remember sharing Aug. 21, 2017, with three generations of our family here more than he’ll remember getting his economics syllabus.
And it turns out my husband — who was traveling on the road that day — actually did pull over to the side of the road and put on his cardboard glasses to witness the grand event. There’s hope for him yet. Though it may be too early to tell him we’re headed to Texas in 2024 for the next Great American Solar Eclipse.
What a solar-bration that will be.