Staff Perspective: The total eclipse experience

August 24, 2017
On Aug. 21, 2017, the moon passed between the Earth and the sun, displaying the astronomical phenomenon we call a total solar eclipse.
My boyfriend and I drove nine hours from Wheaton College to Grand Island, Neb. on Aug. 20. We met my parents, Tom and Cathy Franke around 7 p.m. My father is a 1977 Wheaton alumnus and has waited since 1994 for this eclipse. He booked the hotel room in Grand Island more than a year in advance. Every hotel in the town of 51,000 was sold out that night. So what’s the big deal?
According to eclipse2017.org, Grand Island was at the center of the path of totality where eclipse viewers could  experience two and half minutes of complete eclipse. The path spanned from northern Oregon to South Carolina.
For avid astronomers, every second is sacred. After settling, we flipped to the weather forecast: mostly cloudy and even rainy was the description for Grand Island on Aug. 21. This means a less visible sun and less than promising viewing conditions.
The nine-hour drive to Grand Island was a good plan, but plans had to change if we wanted to get the total eclipse experience. All of us hopeful eclipse viewers had a choice to make. We could drive northwest up the line of totality to predicted clear skies in Wyoming or risk missing the eclipse behind clouds in Nebraska. For us, there was no choice.
We got up at 3:30 am and my dad drove us to Torrington, Wyo. A five hour drive for three hours of eclipse. Between dense fog and waves of light traffic, we got to a viewing area around 9:20 am. The man owning the property charged $20 per vehicle to park on his farmland, and there were nearly 40 cars around us.
We took some time to set up the telescope and camera, as well as to prepare a plan to capture ideal pictures. A family from Colorado walked over to our area to visit, look in the telescope and exchange small talk. The minutes leading up to the eclipse seemed to stand still.
“The anticipation was half of the experience. Waiting 23 years, the laying out of supplies, reading Astronomy magazines, and then we started driving. I said to myself, ‘This is really happening!” Changing plans dude to weather, getting up at 3:30 am and the thick fog… all of it heightened the anticipation,” my dad said.
My dad saw the first sliver of the moon’s shadow over the sun through his eclipse glasses, and we all looked in excitement as the sun began to disappear bit-by-bit. We took pictures every 10 minutes through both a telescope and a telephoto lens.
Two minutes before totality, I stood up to take a video of the “shadow of darkness” that would approach as the moon completely eclipsed the sun. It did not take long. As my dad took as many pictures as he could, the rest of us watched as day turned night within a minute. A chill passed over me as the heat from the sun vanished. Then I turned around to look at the sun, but it was gone.
The sun had become a black circle and surrounding it was an immensely bright but soft halo of white. The planets shined in the dark sky and it seemed surreal, unnatural even.
“The biggest surprise was seeing the pink solar prominence. I was hoping I would see them, but I couldn’t believe how cool it looked when I did,” my dad said.
The eclipse in totality was safe to look at without eclipse glasses, and I could not take my eyes off of it. The four of us kept saying how incredible it was, and before we knew it the sun peeked out from behind the moon once again.
At that exact moment, my dad captured the picture of a lifetime. “Capturing the diamond ring picture was the almost as rewarding as the photographer. Seeing totality was most rewarding as an astronomer,” my dad said.
My mom told me afterwards that, “The excitement that I shared with my husband when he saw the diamond ring in his picture can only be compared to the excitement we shared when he put a diamond ring on my finger.”
There was a time of eerie dimmed lighting, like a sheet was dimming the sun, and the moon moved away from the sun slowly. It became hotter and hotter as the sun returned in all its glory.
“Sharing the moment and journey with my wife was the deepest of happiness. The four of us worked took part in our own roles to capture great pictures and even greater memories. It was a bucket list item checked off,” my dad said.
I did not know that seeing a solar eclipse was on my bucket list until my heart stopped when I saw the sun disappear behind the moon. I’m thankful that everything fell into place (including the moon), and that I got to share an indescribable moment with some of the people I love the most.

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