By Dan O'Brien
I had never seen a total, solar eclipse and didn’t think I had missed much. I mean, so something drifts in front of the sun and the landscape gets kinda dark for a few minutes. Heck, you don’t have to wait a hundred years to see something like that. I figured it had to be sort of like a dark, rogue cloud blowing across the face of the sun–happens every day.
I spent the two weeks before the 2017 eclipse teasing people as they ordered special eclipse glasses and consulted the internet for the shortest route to the sweet spot of totality. I listened to half a dozen people calmly, but futilely, try to explain the physics of how the eclipse works. Questionable stories of scientists duping primitive people by announcing, and then seeming to produce, an eclipse were rampant. The eclipse was on the tongue of everyone I work with–our sales people, shippers, butchers, cowboys and truck drivers were all talking about it. People on the phone – eclipse, eclipse, eclipse. Some sort of mass hysteria was in play.
Even my kids, Jilian and Colton, had caught the bug. They wanted me to join them and their boys, Lincoln and Barrett, on a safari to Alliance, Nebraska–ninety miles and the quickest path to totality. Colton planned to view this solar phenomenon through the lens in his welding helmet. Jilian had scared up a pair of eclipse glasses, originally ordered from Amazon and resold at a scandalous profit. They packed their old Suburban as if they were going to measure the parallax of the sun as it moved across the Gobi desert. I was trying to think of a way to back out of joining them when three-year-old Lincoln looked up at me and said, “You coming, Pop?” I had no choice.
Both Jilian and Colton had wanted to get their work done before they left so they’d been up since long before light that morning. I figured that I’d be driving while they slept, but no one was sleepy except me and the babies. Colton drove. The kids passed out in their car seats and I crashed in the passenger seat. We were headed for a little state park just outside of Alliance, Nebraska. We pulled into Box Butte Lake State Park just a few minutes after the eclipse was supposed to begin. I got out of the car, stretched, and looked up at the sky. Perfect, blue prairie sky but nothing was happening–just a blazing August sun and a light breeze. But Jilian put on her glasses and squealed, “It’s starting. Oh my God, it’s starting." I looked up through Colton’s welding helmet and saw that a black dot had appeared on the corner of the sun. It was totally not impressive and so I helped Lincoln throw stones at the garbage can before we both stretched out in the grass beside three-month-old Barrett to resume our naps.
I woke up twenty minutes later and, when I opened my eyes, something was different. Lincoln was groggy too and we sat there blinking and looking at Jilian and Colton as they oohed and aahed over the eclipse, which was apparently progressing nicely, though there was no way of telling without stealing the glasses or the welding helmet. Even then, it was just a slightly larger, dark spot on the sun. The wind had come up a little and the temperature seemed to have taken a dip. The eclipse couldn’t have had anything to do with that but there was something definitely wrong with the light. It didn’t seem any darker but there was something grey in the air, as if the pixels were slowly washing out of the picture of the little campground by Box Butte Lake. Suddenly, I was fascinated – not so much about the moon’s shadow that Jilian and Colton announced was now nearly covering the sun, but the effect it was having on the light. I’ve studied the diffuse light of mornings and evening on the Great Plains for half a century. But this was not like the joyous early morning light or as powerful as a sunset. This was unique.
After Lincoln and I had viewed the eclipse through the glasses, we stood in that grainy light and looked at each other. Lincoln was bored by looking upward through the glasses but, like me, this odd, otherworldly light captured his attention. Some of the ancient cottonwood trees along the edge of Box Butte Lake had blown down years before and created a jungle of dead-fall limbs and branches that drew Lincoln’s attention like a magnate. The old cottonwood trunks were a grayish-brown, and as I followed him into the tree grove I realized why this partial light was not like daybreak or dusk: The shadows were all wrong. They were not long and dramatic. They were stagnate and locked in time: August 21, 2017 – 11:49 am.