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Total Eclipse of the Sun

As a child and teenager growing up in 1960s California, I should have witnessed a handful of eclipses of the sun. I don’t remember much about them, though. I have a vague memory of watching the sun disappear while viewing it through a pinhole box as a teenager.

Through the wonder of the Internet, specifically timeanddate dot com, I recently researched the eclipses of the 60s and learned quite a bit about them.

Searching the timeanddate website, by both location and date, I located all five partial and total solar eclipses that were visible in the Northern California sky in the 60s –1960, 1962, 1963, 1967 and 1969. Most of them, with the exception of 1969, were quite skimpy and wimpy. In fact, the 1962 eclipse was visible only minutes before sundown when it slipped below the Pacific Ocean horizon and disappeared. It was apparently the 1969 annular partial solar eclipse that I watched on a Thursday, September 12 around noon. It was a school day in my senior year of high school.

Like some of you, I’m guessing, I haven’t thought much about eclipses since. In fact, the phrase “total eclipse of the sun” is more memorable as the lyrics of one of my favorite musicals, Little Shop of Horrors. You must remember Seymour singing about the weird little plant, Audrey II that he bought for $1.95. As it grows, however, Audrey II changes into a very hungry, very large, very strange plant after darkness descended during the mysterious moments of an eclipse.

This year, the rumble of Eclipse Fever started months before The Great American Eclipse of August 21, 2017. Libraries across the country were offered free, safe eclipse glasses in conjunction with an outreach program initiated by the Space Science Institute and NASA. Over two million free glasses were shipped to libraries nationwide.

We had no idea in advance that our original shipment of 100 glasses would fly out of the library within days. Using gift funds donated to the library for programming purposes, we researched the safest glasses and ordered 100 more. And 100 more after that. Our last glasses were distributed between 8:55 and 9:05 am the Wednesday morning nearly one week before the big event.

I was as amazed as everyone else that August day. I stood in the parking lot behind the library as we lent our glasses to curious patrons and we took long looks ourselves. It is an astounding phenomenon to witness an eclipse, even if it was only a partial one for us. The day dimmed slightly, turning a strange yellow color, and the air was perceptibly cooler. It was, simply put, a Great American event.

James Fenimore Cooper (of Last of the Mohicans and Cooperstown, NY fame) witnessed a total eclipse of the sun on June 16, 1806. He was so deeply affected that he believed for the rest of his life that it was a turning point for him. He had been expelled from Yale College in 1805 for instigating a college prank – blowing up another student’s door. He arrived home in Cooperstown and endured his father’s intense criticism and disfavor. Two months later he joined the American Navy.

Years later, Cooper detailed the events of the day in Eclipse, a short manuscript that was only discovered after his death in 1851. His daughter had it published in 1869. Cooper wrote that his memories “of the great event … are as vivid as if they had occurred but yesterday.” Each of the assembled friends and family to the Cooper family’s home was provided with a colored glass with which to view the spectacle.

Interestingly, the villagers in Cooperstown, New York awaited the eclipse with excitement – much as we did in 2017. Cooper wrote this in 1938 in Eclipse when he was about 49 years old: “I shall only say that I have passed a varied and eventful life, that it has been my fortune to see earth, heavens, ocean, and man in most of their aspects; but never have I beheld any spectacle which so plainly manifested the majesty of the Creator, or so forcible taught the lesson of humility to man as a total eclipse of the sun.”

In Eclipse by Duncan Steel (2001), the author includes the words from a diary of Mary Avery White of Boylston, MA. She wrote that “the stars twinkled at noonday.” Steel has an entire chapter on the American Eclipses of 1780 and 1806. In both of those solar eclipses, the whole of New England was affected.

Tyler Nordgren writes in Sun Moon Earth (2016) that a total solar eclipse in 1979 viewed in western Washington State was anticipated and celebrated by “gathered throngs.” That night, Walter Cronkite told his nightly news audience that the next total solar eclipse would not “touch the continental United States this century.” There would not be, in fact, a total solar eclipse that would be seen by so many until 2017.

Several authors wrote about solar eclipses just in time for the Great American Eclipse of 2017. The Shadow of the Moon by Anthony Aveni; Eclipse – Journey to the Dark Side of the Moon by Frank Close; and total Solar Eclipse 2017 by Marc Nussbaum are three of them. Several were written for children: What Happens During an Eclipse by Baby Professor and When the Sun Goes Dark by Eric Freeberg. Another book for children, Eclipses by Martha E. H. Rustad has just been published.

In the epilogue of Mask of the Sun (2017), lunar scientist and author John Dvorak writes that “nowhere else in the solar system is it possible to stand on a solid surface and see a total solar eclipse except on planet Earth.” We are lucky creatures. However, he tells us that total solar eclipses will end some day for earthlings because the Moon is receding away from the Earth due to the tides of our oceans. Someday our Moon will simply be too small to completely cover the sun.

On January 25, 1925 a New York Times reporter witnessed a total solar eclipse of the day before. He wrote that “the great lesson of the eclipse to the masses of those who saw it is that one little unusual phenomenon in the skies makes us realize how closely akin we all are in this common planetary boat out on an ethereal sea that has no visible shore.”

New Englanders will be witness to something closer to a total eclipse in January 2024. The best of it will be seen from Texas to Canada with Massachusetts on the edge of totality. Now is the time to begin ordering your eclipse glasses and reading about the mystery, lore and science of the wonderful and unique experience of a total eclipse of the sun.

Charlotte Canelli is the library director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts. Read Charlotte’s column in the October 5, 2017 issue of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.


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