On Tuesday, I missed witnessing one of the rarest of astronomical phenomena: the transit of Venus, in which our brightest planet passes in front of the sun. It’s not even a once-in-a-lifetime event, as it doesn’t happen every century. But, rather than lament the clouds that obscured my view, I choose to remember an equally marvelous celestial occurrence – one that occurs only once every 360-410 years in any given place. Now, if you’re not going to trek around the world for a 3-minute (or less) sensation, you’ve got to be in the right place at the right time. And, I was. Yep, I was on the coast of Maine to see the “Total Eclipse of the Sun of July 20, 1963.”
I was six and a half, and hardly knew what an eclipse was, let alone a total solar eclipse. I had heard, though, that it was a pretty important event, and that it didn’t just happen to anyone anywhere. We were extra lucky, my parents said, because we’d be able to see it where we were, off the coast of Maine. It would be something so special that I’d want to tell my grandchildren about it. That sounded worth paying attention to, so like a dog who senses that something important is happening but doesn’t know what, I watched carefully and made sure to get in on all the activity. I didn’t want to miss out.
That meant helping Mommy make sandwiches, packing some warm clothing in a rucksack, and getting excited for this special trip to the mainland. We left our island on the noontime boat and headed over to Southwest Harbor where our car awaited us. The plan was to drive to the top of Cadillac Mountain and have a picnic while we awaited the spectacle. Daddy was bringing several pieces of unexposed film for us to peer through. He had told me that we were going to be able to see the sun disappear in the middle of the day. It was going to get really dark at 4:00 in the afternoon because the moon was going to come in front of the sun and block its rays. We would be able to watch it happen, but under no condition were we to look directly at the sun. We could go blind in an instant. So, we’d have to look through the dark film. It would protect our eyes. It all sounded a bit scary, but I was ready to try since this was such a special event.
It went according to plan. Upon arriving on the open, granite-covered mountaintop, we found a place to spread out our blanket and settled in. The views were spectacular: the blue ocean sparkled in the sun; occasional sailboats and yachts glittered in the distance; and the dark green islands, clothed with hemlocks and firs, revealed their irregular shapes. I paid scant attention to the vistas, however, as I watched the other families preparing themselves for the momentous event. They, too, were holding pieces of film, and some even had dark cardboard sunglasses that they had bought especially for the occasion. I wished I had some of those because they looked cool, but Daddy said that we didn’t need them. The film would do. So, I waited patiently, munching on my sandwich, wondering what it would be like when the total eclipse occurred.
Soon the air became still, as if it was about to storm. The ocean lost its glitter, the islands faded away, and it felt like twilight was upon us. But, it was only 4:00 on a summer afternoon, too early for nighttime. It felt strange. I looked around and saw that the people around us were standing up now, putting on their disposable sunglasses, pulling out their strips of film, and looking upwards. I jumped up too, eager to be part of it all. I carefully followed Daddy’s instructions, only looking at the sun through the camera film. I saw that the normally round sun had a chunk missing from it, but I could only look for a second because even through the dark film, the sun’s rays hurt my eyes. Every few seconds I’d take another peek and each time I could look a bit longer. Soon I could actually witness the round disk of the moon sliding over the sun and covering it.
The air became heavy, and the normally squawking seagulls became quiet. Then, without my actually seeing it happen, it became dark, really dark, like the middle of the night. It suddenly felt cold and frightening. I sidled up to my mother, burrowing my face into her side. She reassuringly patted my head, and caressed my shoulders and back. Meanwhile, Daddy was all excited, talking fast and jumping around, ecstatic at being able to witness this rare natural phenomenon. I couldn’t share in his enthusiasm. It all felt very ominous to me. What if the sun never returned? What if the world remained dark and eerie? I huddled even closer to Mommy, but she seemed distracted. She wanted to be fully present at this once-in-a-lifetime event, but her maternal instincts demanded that she attend to her frightened daughter. She reassured me that it would be temporary, and asked me not to cry. I tried to believe her.
It didn’t take long to learn that she was right. Before I knew it, the sky began to brighten and the air lightened up. At Daddy’s urging, I screwed up my courage to look through the filmstrip one more time and saw that the crescent-shaped arc of the sun now faced the other direction, opposite from how it had been before it got dark. As I watched, the sun became rounder and rounder, and soon it became too bright to look at. Relieved, I looked away, and focused on the other families gathered on the mountain top. People were smiling, talking, reaching out to others, and acting as if they were survivors. I felt my spirits rise, and realized that I could breathe more easily again. A slight breeze arose, prompting me to look off into the distance. The blue ocean was sparkling again, and I could see that my island was still there, looking just as it had a short while earlier. It beckoned me home, back to the normality of life. But I knew I was different now: I had experienced the great “Total Eclipse of the Sun of 1963.”
While I have no grandchildren to tell, I tell you this story. And, I accept that while I didn’t get to see Venus, the second brightest object in the night sky, pass before the sun, I did see the brightest one, the Moon, put on a show of a lifetime.