The Eternal Eclipse: Is this really the experience of a lifetime?

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

If you’re puzzled about the claims made for the upcoming eclipse, don’t feel like a stranger. Reach a certain age, and you remember hearing a lot about eclipses, the first since sometime in the distant past, or the last until sometime in the distant future.

I think the problem is that there are lots of different ways to describe and categorize an eclipse, by path and degree. But as a result, repeated claims about once-in-a-lifetime events, heard more than once in a lifetime, can make you a cynic.

They’re rarely described in retrospect. I’ve found a dutiful list of eclipses visible somewhere in the U.S.: 1899, 1905, 1918, 1932, 1945, 1963, 1970, 1972, 1979, 1991. People actually argue about whether “the total eclipse of the sun” Carly Simon referenced in “You’re So Vain” was the one in 1970 or 1972.

Knoxville has never been directly in the path of a total solar eclipse, but we’ve had some relatively near misses.

In both the local and national press, we’ve been hearing a whole lot about one on Feb. 26, 1979, but it was cloudy that day, and the Path of Totality (such an ominous phrase) was several hundred miles to the north, anyway.

I hardly remember that one, even though I was an undergraduate at UT at the time and an aspiring journalist. I had every reason to pay attention. It didn’t cause much hubbub in my world.

Hardly ever mentioned, for reasons I don’t understand, is an astral event I do remember. It was March 7, 1970. And judging by inches of press coverage, it was maybe Knoxville’s biggest eclipse sensation in history.

The Path of Totality was on the east coast, in the Carolinas, but Knoxville was affected, reportedly experiencing a 90 percent occlusion. It was a Saturday afternoon, so most folks were out of work and school, anyway, and watched it from their back yards. And it was at the same time of day as this year’s big one, about 1:30 to 1:45 p.m.

I was 11. We were sternly warned not to look at the eclipse. I was told it was so irresistibly fascinating you’d be hypnotized by the sight of it, and your eyes would stop working forever. That possibility so impressed me that I started to notice symptoms of retinal scorching and blindness even before Eclipse Day arrived.

All useful for us to know, of course. But I worried about our dog, and the birds and chipmunks and box turtles. Wouldn’t they be just as likely to stare at this anomaly, and just as likely to go blind? I especially worried about our old Weimaraner. Her eyes weren’t so good, anyway. Poor Bridget Bar Dog. She’d look up at the eclipse, just as she’d look at a fresh tennis ball or an impertinent squirrel, and it would be the last thing she’d ever see.

I knew there were extra-extra dark sunglasses that scientists used to study it. I don’t remember them being available to us civilians. What we did, and I think I read about this in National Geographic Weekly Reader, was use a couple of pieces of white cardboard, cut a hole out of one and tape some aluminum foil over it, and make a pinhole in that—so that I could safely turn my back on the eclipse, and experience it anyway, by watching the shadow.

That worked. But beyond that, it was a little disappointing. It didn’t get dark. If I hadn’t known it was an eclipse, I would have thought it just clouded up for a few minutes.

The Knoxville News-Sentinel had advertised it as “awe-inspiring” the day before. But the day after, the same paper reported the cosmic event in terms I would never have said out loud: “rather mediocre.” It was, several remarked, just as if a cloud had passed in front of the sun. I was surprised to find the News-Sentinel‘s best front-page description of it came from an old classmate of mine, though I did not know her yet. Muffett Testerman, daughter of city councilman and future Mayor Kyle Testerman, said, “It was sort of exciting…but it didn’t really get dark. It just got sort of cloudy and cold.” The weather bureau confirmed that the temperature dipped about two degrees during the climax.

But, according to a national Scripps-Howard reporter that year, “not until the year 2017 will so many Americans again have the opportunity to see a total solar eclipse.” In another article, UPI reported that “it will be roughly half a century before another major eclipse is visible from the United States.”

That was, to me, the impossibly distant future. I’d be an old man, of course. But that would be fine, because cancer would be cured, robots would mow the grass, we’d all be living to 150, and taking shuttle rides to beach vacations on the Moon.

***

One of the biggest eclipse events of the last century was just over 99 years ago, on June 8, 1918, when the path crossed just to the south of Tennessee. News of it competed for space in the paper with stories of war in Europe and casualties of locals, and may have seemed more significant for that reason. Hundreds of Knoxvillians climbed to their roofs to watch the event, which promised to last almost two hours, starting at 5:33. Scientists recommended that people look at it only through smoked glass—or through “old photographic film.”

Nobody got the day off. It was barely front-page news. In 1918, there was plenty of carnage for the front page.

The Henson Building was at the northern end of Market Square, where TVA Towers are now. On the seventh floor was the U.S. Weather Bureau. And up there that afternoon was the U.S. Meteorologist, J.F. Voorhees. He had set up a 12-foot telescope equipped with an array of smoked-glass filters, to take photographs of the great Eclipse. He said he got about a dozen exposures. But processing was slow in those days. He said he’d be lucky if two of them turned out well. I don’t know whether they were ever published, or whether they still exist, perhaps in some long-forgotten file at the Library of Congress.

The Great Eclipse of 1918 was interesting to scientists like Voorhees. The skies darkened and the temperature dropped a couple of degrees. But overall, it was disappointing to most folks. The Knoxville Journal reported that “the darkness was not as general as had been anticipated by the general public.”

Still, the paper reported, an event of that magnitude “will not take place in this country for the next 99 years.”

In 1918, before radio, before air conditioning, before passenger airlines, they were already looking forward to the next big one, in 2017.

That’s now. Let’s give the Solar Eclipse one more chance. And think about all those 75,000 Knoxvillians in 1918 who looked forward to this day and never got to see it.

Contributing Editor & Writer | jack@knoxhistoryproject.org |

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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