The big story across the United States today is an exceedingly rare coast-to-coast solar eclipse, and it feels as if the sun and the moon and all the heavens have providentially aligned to spare our nation one blessed day off from the rest of the news.
It’s the topic of conversation everywhere we go, and a welcome change of subject from the past week’s talk about torch-bearing American neo-Nazis and nuclear-armed North Korean commies and such, and so far as we can tell from all the press coverage it really is sort of a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Solar eclipses are rare, far rarer yet when they happen where the sun happens to be shining down on you, and even the children who are born today will probably never again get in on another one that at least partially obscures the sun from one coast of America to another. To use a hackneyed cliche quite literally, the odds really are astronomical.
Here in Wichita, Kansas, in the heart of America, it’s rigorously scheduled to go down between 11:36 a.m. and 2:32 p.m., with 92 percent of the sun blocked out by the moon at the height of the eclipse shortly after 1 p.m., and we plan to be here for that. Many people we know have purchased those very dark sunglasses or upgraded welders’ masks that promise to let you watch it happen without going blind, others are using the old-fashioned pin-prick in paper shined on another piece of technique that we used way back in elementary school days when the last partial eclipse came around here, some have even purchased sunglasses for the pets, and our plan is to avert our eyes from the sun and instead watch our fellow Wichitans and Americans watching the eclipse.
Even on a normal day we know better than to look at the sun around here. There’s an old Clint Eastwood movie where he snarls that Kansas doesn’t have anything but sunshine, sunflowers, and sons of bitches, and we have to concede there’s some truth to that. If you’re heading west on the Kellogg freeway at a certain point before sundown, especially around either of the equinoxes, you need heavy-duty sunglasses just to keep your corneas from being burned out, and we’re always relieved to hear on the local news radio station that there’s not been a major pile-up. The Kansas state motto is “ad aspera per astra,” which roughly translates from the Latin to “to the stars through difficulties,” and the first rule any Kansan learns about how to get there is that you don’t look at the brightest star even on the most normal day.
At some point this early afternoon the sun will be 92 percent obscured by the moon, and it will be interesting to look around the parks and the buildings and notice what effect that has. Our interests tend to the sociological rather than the astronomical, though, and we’ll be more eager to see what our neighbors and their pets make of it. At a few places out west and off to the east the eclipse will be total, and in certain American towns the morning and evening will become night for a few eerie moments, and we’ll be eager to read about what that was like, but unlike some friends of ours we haven’t booked a hotel room in those places to experience it ourselves.
We don’t doubt that it’s a memorable experience, but we’re not envious, as we’ll share it vicariously. For us the fun is knowing that from coast to coast the entire United States is sharing in a rare astronomical event, that we’re well-informed enough that few of us will go blind as a result, and watching our fellow Americans somehow united by the inexorable facts and unalterable rules of the universe.
Tomorrow the sun and moon and the rest of the heavens will once again follow their usual rules, the body politic probably won’t, but it’s nice that providence and its astronomical odds provided us a day off from all that and a reminder that we’re all still subject to the same objective reality.
— Bud Norman