Eclipse fever

Elizabeth Donald

Two years ago today, the moon pulled a photobomb and for a minute, everything stopped.

For every sourpuss insisting, “It’s no different than a cloud crossing over the sun, that happens every day,” there were twenty people excited and having fun with something breathtaking. I wrote a great deal about the eclipse in the weeks leading up to it, as I was working for a newspaper in its direct path. We were expected to have 99.5 percent totality, and for more than a year, “eclipse tourism” was predicted. Hotels filled up, Air BnB’s popped into existence, highways clogged. People came from all over the world to our little slice of flyover country, just to look at the moon.

I was stationed on the campus of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, which would later become my university when I left the newspaper a year later. I was observing the students as much as the eclipse itself, mostly a redundant viewpoint while my colleagues were stationed south, where totality was expected at 100 percent. They got a cloud across the sky at the worst moment, so I think we actually got a better view.

College students gathered on the quad wearing goofy-looking paper glasses, chattering excitedly with their friends as they watched the moon slowly move into position. Astronomy fans clustered around their telescopes as the science departments had a metaphorical field day. College administrators in full suits wandered out of their air conditioning with the same goofy-looking glasses, joining the secretaries and athletes and baristas and janitors, all staring at the sky.

The entire region caught moon fever. Businesses offered special cupcakes with moon candy toppings. Moon Pies were on sale everywhere. It was half-price all day at the Eclipse Car Wash. Ozzy Osbourne found Carterville, Ill. on a map and played “Bark at the Moon” at what the organizers called “Moonstock.” Middle schoolers launched a weather balloon to observe the sky. Stormtroopers patrolled the observance at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. There was eclipse-flavored art, memes, events, silliness and seriousness.

All because of an astronomical event.

I could not remember the last time I saw the entire country get excited about something that wasn’t awful. When was the last time we could all agree that something was neat to see, even if it doesn’t do much for our advancement of science and it doesn’t change anyone’s life?

Yes, there were dangers to watching the eclipse. The dangers were reported: don’t look at the eclipse with bare eyes, don’t use an unprotected camera,” etc. Some schools canceled classes because they could not guarantee that the students wouldn’t disobey them and look up, and the lawyers advised that injuries would be their responsibility.

The campus Starbucks closed briefly. That’s how you know it’s serious.

And because this is America, there was the predictable backlash of “Those experts don’t know anything, I watched the eclipse in 1979 and I didn’t go blind!” Well, in 1979 I’d like to think grown adults would believe the scientists and experts and didn’t presume that Google replaces an ophthalmology degree or professional photography experience. But I know better.

Sometimes I think American adults have now become the recalcitrant children of yesteryear; when Mom says not to put your hand on the stove, we slap our hands down just to see if she’s really telling the truth and nobody’s gonna tell me what to do anyway.

Setting aside all that nonsense, it was something magical, eerie, amazing. If you hid inside from the heat or the weirdness, maybe you didn’t feel what we felt. The sun becoming oddly moonlike, with larger and larger pieces of it blocked by the moon. A fingernail-crescent sun floating in the gray darkness created by our ISO-approved eyewear, and featured in a million fuzzy blob-like pictures taken on cell phones wrapped in spare mylar film.

I did the best I could. The special eclipse-proof lens filters were all sold out from every possible photography store and those that were available were priced to the skies. I took some mylar from a few pair of paper glasses and wrapped it around my lens, but my results were very substandard compared to the amazing work of David Carson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

One reporter friend commented that for once, all the younglings put away their gadgets. They were awed and excited by something in the real world. That in itself is a thing of beauty, and an opportunity for schools and families alike to share an experience that has nothing to do with the latest blockbuster movie or computer game.

The light turned strange and thin, and even the muggy, awful heat of late August didn’t keep people indoors. I saw students and administrators and professors and random humans filling the quad to capacity, all staring at the sky or chatting excitedly, glasses in hand. Even though we didn’t see a corona or get a full totality, there was still something ethereal and otherworldly about it.

I’ve never seen that many people gathered on the quad of the university, before or since. I’ve never seen so much excitement over an astronomical phenomenon. And later, the flood of posts on social media… all so happy, excited, thrilled, overwhelmed.

It brought an energy I’ve rarely experienced, a fascination that lifted the doldrums of troubling times and social overwhelm to give us a glimpse of something far beyond ourselves. I joked with my fellow writers that we should all come up with eclipse-flavored short stories, but then it didn’t feel like a joke. It felt like we had all stepped outside our little private shells for just a moment, and that was something that needed to be captured.

And still a few people felt the need to say “Eh, whatever…” because in this modern world, there’s always someone who has to diss the stuff everyone else is enjoying just to be different.

But I feel sorry for them. The rest of us enjoyed something amazing, and I am saddened that they didn’t experience it. The photos were fascinating and our observations of the world around us were intriguing…. but it was the people that made the experience for me.

And maybe we don’t have to wait for an eclipse to make that happen again.

Elizabeth Donald

Written by

Journalist for more than 20 years, president of St. Louis SPJ, masters candidate/teaching assistant, freelance writer, editor, photographer, and fiction author.

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