A blog by Paul Wallace

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    My eclipse story

    Totality, here we come! (Yes that’s a penguin in the background. His name is Roger. He travels with us. I forgot to get glasses for him)

    I

    WE LEFT ATLANTA late Sunday afternoon, in search of a shadow. We ate dinner on the way and arrived in Blairsville in time to swim for an hour. The pool closed at 9:00. We returned to our room and watched Cartoon Network and ate snacks until Potter Time. Chapter 12 of The Goblet of Fire was up (“The Triwizard Tournament”). I read aloud while everyone relaxed and listened. It was an excellent family day.

    I had chosen the Blairsville Best Western back in April because (a) it was in the path of totality of the eclipse and (b) it had a room available. This latter point distinguished it from a dozen other hotels I had tried. It seemed a good plan—I’ve long been familiar with Blairsville because I attended Young Harris College, nine miles up the road, thirty years ago. As students we would come to Blairsville for groceries and movies. It was at Young Harris that I first heard of the eclipse. Jimmy Westlake, the astronomy professor, had told us about it. I seem to remember general laughter; in 1987, “twenty seventeen” didn’t even sound like a year.

    We planned on leaving Blairsville for the event itself. We were to drive north to Andrews, NC, early Monday because it was on the central line, where the eclipse would be darker and last longer. Andrews would have 160 seconds of totality, 40 more than Blairsville.

    But we rethought that. We didn’t want to stay in Blairsville for the event, but we didn’t know Andrews. I was unfamiliar with the route and we didn’t know what traffic would be like up on the narrow winding roads. So I did some research and found we could get 20 more seconds of totality if we went to Young Harris, which was super-easy to get to and boasted several fine places for eclipse viewing. Also Julia, our high-school sophomore, is just beginning to think about college options. So we could do an informal college visit along with the eclipse.

    We drove to Young Harris and located an outstanding parking spot. The students had been released from classes. A few hundred of them were out in the big grass bowl, picnicking and playing spikeball. Run-DMC rocked from a boombox (It’s tricky, tricky, tricky…). We brought out our food and blanket and pillows and lawn chairs and I handed out eclipse glasses. Henry and I threw the frisbee. Julia and Elizabeth sat and enjoyed the afternoon. Kristen, our 8-year-old, got chummy with a cat on a leash.

    II

    WHEN THE MOON first touched the sun at 1:05 there were very few clouds, and they were far away.

    But I was nervous. I had been aware of this eclipse for 30 years and had been telling my students about it for 20. Georgia is humid in August, even in the mountains, and clear mornings nearly always give way to cloudy afternoons. I had not checked the weather in a week because it only increased my worry. It was a very weird anxiety. It felt like I was holding my breath but it didn’t hurt, and by this time it had been going on for days.

    The moon bit a little deeper into the sun. Clouds multiplied. The earth warmed, air expanded and rose, cooled, and condensed in tumbles and ribbons, far outside my circle of control, the whole thing driven by the sun. What an irony, what a bad joke. But it wasn’t personal; it was science. It was what happens.

    One cloud in particular drifted out of the southwest and began to build. I prayed to God for the cloud to miss. Make it miss, God, please, and I meant it.

    This is not something I normally do—pray for certain outcomes—but I was beginning to feel jittery. Powerlessness is hard to accept. This eclipse had been on my calendar, had anchored my calendar, for three decades. It was a fixed point, a mathematical certainty that would come to pass with or without my witness. But, along with slow-moving Saturn, which had recently returned to the same spot in the sky where I first saw it from Young Harris 30 years ago, this eclipse has framed my whole adult life. To not be present for it would set me adrift and spinning, unmoored, into an uncertain future.

    The clouds persisted. The big one stood tall in the southwest.

    III

    I DIDN’T HAVE the energy to be around people so I took a walk. First I visited the old library. On the way I stepped on an ant with one of my waffle-soled hiking boots. It was unintentional—I saw the insect an instant before my foot landed. I lifted my foot and there was the ant, still moving across the sidewalk, untouched and undeterred, having miraculously found a hole in the waffle.

    I took it as a sign: the clouds would miss me.

    This is also not normal. It actually surprised me, that I did this, that I meant it. I am not one to see signs. Maybe it’s because of my scientific education, or maybe it’s the reason I’m a scientist, but I rarely see personal meaning or direction or affirmation in the world around me. The universe does what it does. I am but a grateful and astonished witness.

    For example: The house we now live in opened up at just the time we needed it, and in the neighborhood we needed to be in, and at a price we needed. And I do mean needed. And it became available in a way we could never have orchestrated. Was this God’s providence, a sign of divine care? Right or wrong, I don’t see it that way. I think sometimes things just work out.

    When it comes to the sun and moon, however, I sometimes find myself slipping into a world of signs, a world of intention and meaning, an old world.

    Sol and Luna really do make a magical set. These two bodies, one the center of our orbit and the other our lone natural satellite, one 400 times larger and at the same time 400 times further away than the other, appear to us the exact same size.

    This fact makes total solar eclipses both possible and rare. But, more to the point, the deep poetic and mythical and religious resonances of the sun and moon, which I believe would not exist without this perfect match of ratios, are too powerful to ignore. I have long felt an uncanny and very unscientific reverence for this pair of lights. And as I walked to the old library, I was feeling it so powerfully that I really did cross over into that old mythic world of meaning. The nearly-flattened but untouched ant, moving undaunted to its business, stood for me as a sign: all would be well.

    I left the library and it struck me how perfectly right it was that we were here, at Young Harris, where I had first befriended the night sky. Had God not brought us here? Having been loosed from standard-issue reason, I answered to myself, Yes. The word filled my deepest empty place, and it felt like joy.

    I entered the science building where I had taken calculus, physics, chemistry, and astronomy. I sat in my old classrooms and thanked God for that place and those teachers. They had changed my life. Maybe even saved my life. But that’s another story.

    IV

    AFTER THIS I felt strong enough to return to the crowd, to the family. I found Henry and Kristen throwing the frisbee, Julia napping, and Elizabeth taking a group photo for some local septuagenarians. I checked the sun. The partial phase had advanced and the world had faded slightly. It was as if the sun were shining through thin cirrus. But I looked up and it was a flame in a field of blue, the dark moon lost in its light.

    But the cloud in the southwest had by now assembled into something considerable. It had stacked higher and grown gray. And it was closing on the sun, but was still far from it. Its motion was nearly imperceptible. It was 30 minutes to totality.

    Over the next fifteen minutes new clouds formed between the thunderhead and the sun. A few thin ones passed across the solar disk, now about three quarters occluded. Minutes later one of these newcomers bulked up and blocked the sun entirely, the first time all day this had happened. The world dimmed.

    I begin to panic again, and this time it was much worse. The sign of the ant faded. Opting for control, I told the family to pick up our stuff.

    “We’re leaving,” I told them, “We’re going north.” But by the time we got to the college chapel the sun was back in the blue. We stopped; I decided we’d stay. My anxiety was uncontainable. I know this only because I saw Kristen sitting on a bench a little apart from us, crying.

    I paced and groaned. Three decades of waiting; now, at 10 minutes to totality, a decision. I looked up, paced, looked up again, over and over. Then I saw it: The cloud, huge now and charcoal underneath, seemed to have gotten caught in a new wind and was moving directly toward the sun. With certainty I knew the sun would be covered, and heavily, within three minutes. And it would stay covered. Anyone who stayed at the college would miss totality.

    The signs were back, and they were saying: Get your ass in the car.

    V

    “LEAVE OUR STUFF, all of it,” I said, “We’re going now.” We ran to the CRV. We had seven minutes. With six minutes to go we arrived at a police barrier at the front gate of the college, erected to keep campus lots from overflowing. Elizabeth jumped out of the car, said something about her husband needing to get through this barrier like right now please he’s going to have a heart attack. With five minutes to go we were out on US 76, motionless and half insane, waiting for Young Harris’ lone traffic light to turn green. With four minutes to go we were speeding up SR 66 toward North Carolina and I heard Henry say: “It’s working! It’s gonna work, Dad! I can see the sun!”

    “Ok,” I said, “When your phone clock shows 2:33 we’re pulling over. Wherever we are at that moment, we’re stopping.” That would give us two minutes to spare.

    It worked. At 2:33, having traveled about a mile from the college, I pulled over. We stepped out of the CRV and into a rapidly-changing world. We stood in the road. The light was falling, visibly now. A steady breeze arrived from the north. Crickets picked up and a bird, whose eerie call I could not identify, sounded off repeatedly from a nearby tree, as if in panic.

    The road, weirdly, became a fast-moving stream of light and shadow. Deep purple and black wavelets sped northward along the asphalt and disappeared into the shoulder at a bend 50 yards away. It was a continual rush, a silent and unearthly torrent. It made me slightly dizzy. Then I figured it out. It was the sun’s attenuated light passing through thin nearly-transparent clouds, clouds invisible to the eye and riding high and fast on the stream out of the southwest, the same stream that carried the thunderhead, whose leading edge was now a full ten degrees from the sun.

    The world sank into deep purples and grays and browns and the edges of things looked silvered and razor-cut. The overall effect was of standing in the middle of a living, super-high-resolution tintype. The road and the trees and the sky fell further into shadow, and faster now. Venus appeared, and Mars.

    The sun became a thin arc, then a dancing, dazzling point, blue like burning magnesium. The moon emerged out of the glare like a dark ghost. The light took a final and sudden fall and the temperature dropped with it. The world hit bottom. The sun was gone: totality.

    I had seen this happen a hundred times on classroom video screens. I had turned my head from my students because I could not let them know what it meant to me. I’ve been actually dreaming about it for three-fifths of my life. I may have moaned like a wounded animal. I certainly called aloud to God.

    VI

    TOTALITY HELD FOR 2 minutes 20 seconds. During this time bats flitted by. The crazy bird fell silent. The pulse of crickets seemed to come from very far away. Suspended above it all was that black and silver wraith, a beauty if ever there was one.

    In the final minute I noticed Kristen. She was standing by herself at the edge of the road, her hands clasped in front of her and her head flung back. It was not until she lowered herself onto the asphalt and sat down that I noticed she was crying. I sat down and put my arm around her. Her eyes were fixed on the glittering, seething ghost in the sky. She was smiling, tears streaking her face.

    I was still sitting with her when a bright point appeared at the moon’s western edge. Within five seconds it stretched into an arc and intensified. Light enveloped the moon and it faded like a spirit at daybreak. A strange incandescence once more filled the world. For about thirty seconds SR 66 again became a river of dark purple light, steady and fleet.

    Then it was over.

    We laughed and hugged one another, incredulous and happy that we had made it. By the time we climbed back into the CRV the sun and moon were lost behind the great gray cloud, still moving northeast, still building.

    Back at the college we collected our things. We asked around; no one there had seen it. Out of courtesy I tried to contain my glee, to not overflow, but I didn’t succeed.

    VII

    TRAFFIC BACK INTO the city was terrible and we had lots of time to debrief. Elizabeth asked Kristen what she thought of it.

    “It was not as dark as I thought it would be,” she said. She also said it was the first time she had ever cried out of joy. Then she said she had prayed to God that we would see it.

    “I prayed too,” I said, and then I thanked her for praying. Does that make sense? I don’t know, but that’s what I said and that’s how I felt: grateful.

    Then she said she wished she had a Time Turner.

    “Like Hermione’s?” I asked.

    “Yes,” she said.

    The Time Turner is a device used by Hermione Granger in the third Harry Potter book. It’s a small hourglass on a chain. You wear it around your neck and every time you turn the hourglass you go back in time a single hour.

    “Why do you wish that? Would you go back and see the eclipse without all the fuss and running and getting in the car?”

    “No,” she said. “I would go back and not pray and see what happens.”

    “Really?”

    “Mm-hm.”

    “To see if your prayer made a difference, you mean? Like an experiment?” I asked, stunned.

    “Yes,” she said, smiling at me in the rearview. “An experiment. You know, like science.”

    Comment Pages

    There are 4 Comments to "My eclipse story"

    • Shelia Skinner says:

      Paul, I have had friends say “an eclipse, so what?” They definitely need to read your blog. Beautiful!! Kristen is such an sweet spirit and so is your family!

         1 likes

    • Jon Buford says:

      Paul, you captured all the excitement, trepidation, fear and trembling I experienced during the eclipse. Thanks for sharing your journey.

         1 likes

    • Roger Paynter says:

      An exquisite reflection. So many elements that beg for a response, but my primary one is this: you are a wonderful father, Paul.

         1 likes

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