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Southern Joy, Heavenly Awe

by Perry Pezzolanella

The long awaited, dramatic, total eclipse of the Sun came to an end on a windy, hot afternoon in Aruba. It was February 26, 1998 and I was with a group of friends from the Mohawk Valley Astronomical Society who had left a cold and snowy Upstate New York to witness this awesome celestial event. We could not wait to see another one. We all knew the next good one would occur August 21, 2017 and would cross the U.S. from coast to coast. We definitely had caught a bad case of Eclipse Fever and the only treatment was to observe the one in 2017.

Eclipse Fever was raging inside me when Christmas 2016 rolled around. Excitement for “The Great American Eclipse” on August 21, 2017 was building. I simply had to go see this total solar eclipse no matter what since a partial solar eclipse at home would not do. I had to book a room somewhere along the path of totality and preferably close to the centerline to experience the longest duration, and I had to book it fast! The path of totality was hardly 70 miles wide running from Oregon to South Carolina and lasting no longer than 2 minutes and 40 seconds. The Mohawk Valley Astronomical Society was planning a field trip to Perryville, Missouri; however, it proved to be too expensive and complex to organize, so the best bet was for anyone interested to simply plan their own expedition. I thought about Wyoming where the weather would be best and even Missouri and Kentucky. Weather prospects would be favorable at these locations. A final option that was very attractive was Santee, South Carolina. This town was right near the centerline of totality and conveniently off I-95 on the south side of Lake Marion. Best of all, I was familiar with Santee as it was often a stopping spot for lunch when heading to Disney World, and we had stayed there overnight on one of our return trips home.

I researched online for availability of rooms in Santee surrounding the day of totality on August 21 and almost none were to be found even though it was only January! I finally found a Holiday Inn in Santee that had a few rooms available and wasted no time on that mild January 21 afternoon to call. There were not many rooms left but I booked one for the nights of August 20 and 21 on the second floor that was reasonably priced. The receptionist wondered why that was such a popular time of year. She was surprised when I explained about the eclipse, and was thankful for the information and for me choosing to stay at the Holiday Inn. As fate would have it, I made one of the best decisions in my life. I only had to worry about the weather and it was too far off to worry. The best part of this plan was that I could take my mother along on this road trip that was all too familiar to her from our Disney World vacations and it would be her first total solar eclipse! She enjoys observing lunar eclipses, meteor showers, and auroras so I could hardly wait for her to experience a total solar eclipse!

As spring rolled into summer the South was bothered by storms and floods. Worse yet an unusually active tropical season was under way that raised concern if the weather would be good in South Carolina on the day of the eclipse. The probability of seeing the eclipse was a flip of a coin, 50/50, when we departed from home after sunrise on Saturday, August 19. The drive was busy, but overall it was a beautiful, sunny day when we arrived at Fredericksburg, Virginia for the night. The weather seemed promising the next day with a smooth ride to South Carolina with only a few congested areas. Electronic message signs along I-95 warned motorists of “Heavy Traffic Possible – Monday, August 21, 2017 – Solar Eclipse”. We arrived at the Holiday Inn in Santee at 2:45 P.M. where the weather was beautiful! Could we please have the same kind of sky this time tomorrow? The check-in went smoothly and the fear of heavy traffic was history. We settled in with a buffet dinner at Shoney’s nearby. The forecast looked encouraging except for the coastal area with a disturbance looming offshore. I was anxious and excited; a restless night of sleep lay ahead.

I was wide awake at 4 A.M. and never fully fell back to sleep. Visions of solar coronas and diamond rings danced in my head as I tossed and turned until we got up at 7 A.M. The Sun rose beautifully with only a few clouds in the east - the day looked promising. We stepped outside after breakfast at our hotel where the weather was holding up with only fair weather cumulus clouds building up. It was a beehive of activity with people everywhere scouting the area and starting to set up equipment. The Holiday Inn where we stayed mowed a field in the back special for those of us who had equipment to set up so we could safely observe the eclipse with little hassle. I was happy we could stay put as traffic down the road looked nasty. We stayed in our cool hotel room watching the eclipse begin in Oregon on TV until about 12:15 P.M. when I headed out to set up my equipment. It was hot, but we were prepared with a cooler full of cold drinks and snacks in my car that I had parked next to the spot where I set up. There were no trees or shade and the thermometer in the feeble shade under my lawn chair read exactly 100º! I carefully watched the Sun through my 100mm Orion Sky View Pro refractor equipped with a Thousand Oaks solar filter. I saw the first knick in the Sun right on time at 1:15 P.M. as the crowd cheered the beginning of the eclipse! We could feel the energy of the crowd gathering around in the field and parking lot. There were astronomers like me nearby, some simply equipped with only lawn chairs and solar glasses, and others with laptops, and computer controlled telescopes, cameras, and canopies to protect it all. The puffy clouds died away except to the east as the eclipse progressed. I noticed the fading sunlight by 1:50 P.M. and it felt a little cooler with a breeze stirring. The quality of sunlight really changed after 2 P.M. as the glare was gone and everything had an ashen cast. People were pulling in from the road to try and find a spot to observe and police were trying to keep the road open in case of an emergency. It was a hectic and festive town!

The sky was clear and I told my mother that we were indeed going to see totality! It was 2:20 P.M. and there was Venus! My mother easily saw it as the sunlight continued to fade as I waited for the arrival of the shadow in the northwest. The street lights came on a few minutes before totality along with the exterior lighting on the buildings. At about 2:43 P.M. the crowd grew loud when suddenly I turned to the northwest and there it was! A giant dark gray wall was rising fast! It was 70 miles wide and coming at us at 1500 miles per hour! It was the shadow! The crowd really grew loud as the sliver crescent Sun broke into brilliant beads and then a final bead, the Diamond Ring! The crowd screamed and cheered wildly! Totality! The scenery quickly grew dark like a deep twilight, not quite night, and in place of the Sun was a “black hole” surrounded by pearly white streamers like a flower! I took the filter off my telescope and safely looked at the eclipsed Sun. I could see the magenta/hot pink solar prominences erupting from behind the Moon and then simply stood back, looked up, and took it all in. The crowd cheered and screamed and fireworks were set off in the distance. My mother could not see anything at first and I excitedly shouted for her to take off the solar glasses and look directly at the eclipse! It was safe to do so! Take them off! She took it all in as best she could as it was overwhelming. The horizon was bathed in an eerie sunset glow all around with Jupiter and Venus shining, and it was only 2:45 in the afternoon. My mother told me to try and calm down, but I was like an excited child on Christmas morning! It would all end too quickly as a sunrise glow climbed rapidly in the northwest. Suddenly I saw the Sun reappear with a Diamond Ring even more spectacular than at the beginning! Daylight returned, dim at first but steadily brightening. Totality lasted 2 minutes and 35 seconds, too short for us, but a tremendous rush of joy, awe, and satisfaction overwhelmed me. I successfully saw my second total solar eclipse, and it was the first for my mother. I watched the eclipse to the very end at 4:08 P.M. Most people packed it in earlier; I sent my mother to the cool lobby in our hotel by 3:30 P.M. as the best was over, Venus was gone, and daylight appeared normal. Clouds began to encroach from the east filtering the Sun after I packed it in. How lucky we were!

We celebrated our success with dinner at Cracker Barrel’s behind our hotel. They had trouble with the supply of food due to the huge crowd in town for the eclipse as my mother had to order twice before they finally had something. It was a festive party scene around town, but also a mass exodus, and unfortunately there was a traffic accident blocking a road. Fortunately, the drive to and from dinner did not take us out to the main roads. All fear of congested traffic never materialized when we departed the next morning for home. We arrived safely home on Wednesday, August 23 at 2:30 P.M. with bright sun and a refreshing breeze after a stopover in Martinsburg, West Virginia the night before. The expedition to see The Great American Eclipse was a 100% success!