First things first. A solar eclipse at 98% of totality is not 98% as awe-inspiring as a total solar eclipse. It is maybe 20% as wonderful. I know. Now that I have seen both.
On the August 21, 2017, my wife Sherrie and I joined a few friends from Mississippi and a couple of thousand other people at a small, private airport in central South Carolina. At least a thousand drove in to join the thousand who flew in.
There was a grass airstrip, an unmanned control tower, a lake, several tents and pavilions, and restroom facilities scattered across acres of rolling, sun-drenched, green countryside. Campers and tents were clustered in the wooded areas on the periphery. Rows and rows of airplanes glistened in the morning sunlight: some home-built; some restored, vintage planes from World War II; some production models by Cessna or Beechcraft or Piper. People sought out the shade under the wings.
It was hot and humid, so we too gathered in the shade at the edge of the enormous, white tent set up for lunch: Sherrie; my old friends Vergil and Charlie; Charlie’s wife Tupper, and their granddaughters, Ella and Leigh Leigh. It was the first time we had met Tupper and the girls, all of whom proved to be as delightful as expected.
Suddenly at about 1:30, word circulated. The eclipse had started. I looked at Sherrie. “A squirrel is eating the sun,” I said. “At least that is what the Choctaw Indians thought.” We slouched in chairs with our funky, single-use eclipse glasses and regularly checked the progression. Ella and Leigh Leigh were fascinated by Vergil’s welder’s goggles and took turns looking like Junior Birdmen.
As the moon’s occlusion of the sun progressed from 25% to 50%, we noticed our surroundings change. It was like an increasingly cloudy day. At 90%, the very air took on a strange shimmering quality, but a brief, unfiltered glimpse at the sun revealed what still appeared to be a huge, fiery ball.
By the time we reached 98% of totality, we were all locked into our eclipse glasses watching the thinnest slice of orange sun shrink thinner and thinner. The chatter of excited voices filled the air. Suddenly, the last, least sliver of the sun winked out and the world through our dark glasses went black.
I slowly lowered my glasses, unsure of what to expect. All I could do was stare at the sky above. It was totally black. The moon was a flat, black disc that hid the sun. An irregular ring of pure white light, the corona, flared around the moon. I realized that I was holding my breath, had been from the moment had I dropped my glasses.
The temperature dipped perceptibly. The chatter of excited voices ceased and was replaced by the chirr of night insects. Awesome, otherworldly, all of the usual adjectives came to mind, all so insufficient as to be trite. It was easy to see how frightening a solar eclipse would be to a people with no knowledge of what was happening or why.
For over two minutes we reveled in the strangeness, trying to comprehend and articulate in hushed tones what we were experiencing. We took pictures that turned out poorly and promised to be better prepared the next time. Then with a cheer we rejoiced as the sun peaked out from the other side of the moon’s umbra.
There are at least two, sometimes as many as five, eclipses somewhere in the world each year. It is a matter of orbital mechanics and the plane of the ecliptic. The earth’s rotational axis tilts about 23° off of the plane of the ecliptic, its path around the sun. The moon circles the earth in a path that moves from 5° above to 5° below the ecliptic. Additionally, the moon’s rotational axis is nearly 7° off of its orbital plane.
These conditions combine to give us the rising and falling tides, the waxing and waning phases of the moon, and the seasons in their regular progression, things that make life on our planet a thing of transcendent beauty. These conditions, along with the speed of the earth’s and the moon’s respective rotations and orbits, also make total solar eclipses a rare occasion.
The human mind knows all of this, can predict with certainty when an eclipse will occur, but none of this detracts from the experience, it is so singularly unusual and, well, weird.
If one believes in God, and I do, it is another opportunity to thank Him for a universe of such majesty and wonder, for the stars, and planets, in their courses, and for the ability to understand and appreciate something so rare and moving and humbling.
Later that afternoon after fond farewells to friends old and new, we all headed for our respective homes, a new image vividly etched in our minds. And, yes, we are already making plans for the next total solar eclipse in the United States in 2024. We are now officially Totality Junkies.