In 1991 I flew to the big island of Hawaii to witness a total eclipse of the sun. The hotel required a six night stay, which was pleasant enough, but the highlight, or one could say the highdark, of my visit was the total eclipse of the sun scheduled for the next-to-last day.
The west coast of the big island of Hawaii boasts three hundred and sixty sunny days a year, so I didn’t even consider the possibility of clouds. The first five days were bright and beautiful, but when I woke up on the day of the eclipse I was dumbfounded to see an overcast sky.
I’m an optimist. I was certain the clouds would disappear before the moon blotted out the sun. But no. I stood on a hotel room balcony, desperately looking up at . . . clouds. I watched the eclipse on CNN and I’ve been disappointed ever since.
So when my son suggested that we take the family to see the eclipse scheduled to cross the entire continental United States on August 21, 2017, my answer was an enthusiastic “Yes.”
At 8:30 am on the appointed day thirteen of my family members landed at the busy airport in Casper, Wyoming. We bought a few souvenirs then headed downtown where there was a festival.
For the previous ten days all of us had studied the weather reports for Casper. Every forecast predicted full sunshine all day, so we were confident.
We parked near downtown – free parking (unlike Los Angeles where the parking meters gobble quarters as if the existence of the city depended on the income) –and walked to the festival where three or four hundred people had gathered. We passed the time by shopping. I bought a special “Total Eclipse” baseball cap from an artist who had created his own special design for the event.
The day remained bright. We used our eclipse glasses to watch the moon take its first bite out of the sun. Gradually, the sun was transformed into a crescent moon. Finally the crowd counted down toward totality.
“Three . . . two . . . one . . .,” and there we were, eyes uncovered, looking at the dark spot where the sun had shone. We observed the sun’s corona, a bright ring which surrounded the mask of the moon.
I was struck by two thoughts.
First, how rare it must be in the entire universe for a small moon to blot out a much larger sun in precisely this way so that we are able to observe the sun’s corona. As a layman it seems to me that while there may be life on many other planets there can’t be many other total eclipses that happen in exactly this way. I stood at a special place in the universe witnessing a unique event.
Second, I was alive on a planet in a solar system where the sun and planets move in predictable, immutable orbits, each separate, yet all bound together by gravity, a pervasive force we cannot see or touch.
I recalled words from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:
“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on, nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”
In a little more than two minutes the sun and warmth returned. Light clouds appeared as we enjoyed a fine outdoor lunch before flying back to Los Angeles to continue living out our more ordinary days.
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