Monday, May 21, 2012


Annular Eclipse, March 20th, 2012. Photo by
Daev Roehr. Used with permission

On March 30th, 1970 I experienced my first eclipse. And it was a doozy. It was a full, total solar eclipse of the sun – and I was 2 months shy of my 5th birthday.

It has always been the 4th item in my memory. The first was looking at our house on Los Coyotes Diagonal (Yes, that was the street name). The second was Apollo 11 lifting off: 
Stay awake! No - sleepy. Look at the TV. No – nothings happening. Just watch. Tired…. Here it comes. ZZZzzzz Look now! Why? there’s noth - BOOM Woooooowww…..!!
My third memory was staring up at the moon and trying to spot the astronauts up there. And the fourth memory, just 8 months later, was the eclipse.

We were camping - probably one of the only times where my Mother and Father and my older sister were present. As usual when you are four I was feeling lost and confused. Everybody kept pointing at the sky, but all I could see was the sun, which was too bright to look at. (We had a cardboard viewer but I wasn't interested.) So I just started following an ant around, which was my default setting at that age.
Your humble author, age 5. Yes, I'm making a cake.

The first odd thing I noticed was that I was cold. I looked up. All of the grownups were ignoring me and kept staring at the stupid old sun with their sunglasses and their hands over their brows. Why was I suddenly cold? I looked around for awhile, marveling at how the light had gone funny.

All of us were standing on a small ridge, with a lot of other people, and I remember the view out across the campground and the Pine forest beyond. The light had gone completely flat: Everything looked like a movie set. I was too young to grasp that because of the diffusion of the photons, everything was bathed in reflected rather than direct sunlight. I just knew that something  - everything - was different. Not good.

I went to my Mother for comfort. She looked down and talked to me and pointed to the sky. But I still didn’t understand what she was saying. How could the sun ‘go away’? That was like not being able to trust that the Earth would remain steady under your feet. (This was 11 months before the 1971 San Fernando Earthquake would have me flying off my top bunk and landing prettily with my mattress still underneath me.)

My first eclipse. Courtesy NASA.
I was the only one who wasn’t having a good time with this. I was cold, everything looked strange and it seemed to be bedtime all of the sudden. I didn’t want to look up (at that height you spend ALL DAY looking up) and so I looked out at the dusk and then I realized that all of the birds had stopped singing. Uh-oh.

Now I was scared. The day was fading fast and I was shivering for more reasons than just the lower temperature. And then all the grown-ups “Oooohed” and pointed and I looked up and I saw the moon complete its interception and the sun was eclipsed. I stared in horror as the sun was replaced by this black monster with a ring of fire around it.

I realize now that my reaction was more than mere misunderstanding of astronomical trajectories. It was a gut instinct. Something very old looked out of my toddler eyes and knew that what I was seeing was NOT RIGHT. Everything that you could count on in life, everything that was a given, all that was just accepted, “As sure as the sun up in the sky” was all swept away in a single glance. I looked up, the Sun had failed, and my Universe had changed in a profound way.

The March 7th, 1970 eclipse. Credit: NASA / Science Photo Library
That’s my main memory of that day. Not the eclipse itself (which I now think was spectacular), but just that sense of grim WRONGNESS that it kindled inside me. I think my reaction is analogous to what primitive mankind must have felt when they came out of their huts and caves and saw that their Ultimate Constant could not be counted on, apparently.

No wonder we invented Religion.

All of these memories came back to me when I saw the Annular Eclipse on May 20th, 
2012. 42 years had elapsed and I had a much better grasp of what was what. I spent the day hiking with my closest friends at a Monterey County park full of Oak trees, reminding me very much of that long ago campground of my kindergarten revelation. At the end of the afternoon we journeyed back to Santa Cruz and positioned ourselves in a backyard about two blocks from the ocean.

Toro Park, Monterey County.
Sheets of window tinting folded over make a great viewer. At 5:20pm there was a nibble out of the bottom right of the sun. It was a new moon, completely invisible to the naked eye until it started to cross the path of its big brother. It was very cool to see the moon just appear like it’s cloaking device had been switched off.

We laughed like little kids, talked some more and every few minutes raised our little protectors to the sky. I wondered, and not for the first time, how the science of Astronomy got started. I mean, with no modern instruments, how do you predict these things? Astounding that so many ‘primitive’ cultures around the globe had the cycle of eclipses nailed down pretty good millennia ago. Go humans!

It took a full hour for the moon to transit into position. Long enough for us to realize that it takes two to tango and we could see how the Sun was moving too, but on a completely different trajectory. And very slowly we could see how the descending sun and the ascending moon would end their pas de deux.

Backyard viewing party!
We also noted the darkening of the day. The local songbirds abruptly shut up. About 10 minutes before the climax we saw wave after wave of seabirds heading inland from the ocean. THAT was cool.

We were not in the path of totality, so we had to make due with 85% of coverage. This means we sang “I fell into a burning ‘C’ of fire” rather than a Ring of same. Close enough. For the few minutes of maximum coverage I looked around and tried to get my memories of being a four year old back. The day WAS darker but it wasn’t night, or even dusk. 15% of the sun still showing was plenty enough to light the planet pretty well. But the light was as flat as I remember it back in 1970. It really was like looking at a living movie set.

And I didn’t experience that primeval affront like I did 42 years ago. I could see how some primitive version of Homo Sapiens Sapiens would feel it though. It seemed pretty distant and silly now. As silly as the seagulls being faked out and thinking it was sundown. Haha; primitives.

Window tinting: great eclipse viewer.
Doesn't make very good photographs, however.
The party broke up at 6:45pm and Admiral Karen and I headed home, realizing along the way that we were totally hungry. The sun was still blazing away, almost totally free of its obstruction now.

But as I walked up to the restaurant, my brain, for just an instant, wondered if they were still open.

And then I stopped and laughed and laughed and laughed at myself. Faked out by the Eclipse after all. Hrmmm……maybe we’re not so far from our ‘primitive’ ancestors after all.

Angus McMahan

P.S. On my way out of the restaurant (with my arms full of yummy takeout), I saw a woman staggering down the center of the street. She was dressed in carpet remnants and Saranwrap and she was pointing to the sky and making strange hand gestures and was kind of barking in a giggly way. I couldn’t understand her words, but I knew what she was saying. She was saying: “There is something WRONG in the SKY!!!!”


  1. "No wonder we invented religion." Love that line. This brought me back to all kids of 4 year old feelings :)

  2. Cool. Mission accomplished!

  3. I fell into a burnin' ring of fire out in the Nevada desert. :D
    Side note: A welding helmet is *awesome* for eclipse viewing! It protects your eyes and turns the sunlight kind of a blue-green color.