In short, I had adopted a ridiculous stance of near indifference toward the eclipse, so much so that I had not even procured a pair of eclipse glasses right up until Monday morning, just hours before the big event. My wife, on the other hand, had been doing voluminous research for weeks and had booked a campsite in Andrews because it had nearly a full extra minute of totality, compared to where I would be — the campus of Southwestern Community College, where I am a member of the faculty. On Sunday, she took my son and two of his buddies to Andrews to camp with some friends of hers at work.
Unfortunately, my daughter and I both had to work on Sunday, so I took her with me to Sylva on Monday to experience the eclipse there. When we arrived on campus, people were already setting up tents and chairs, and there was a large area in the front of Balsam Center devoted to all manner of telescopes, where people could get an even better view of the eclipse.
By noon, a decent-sized crowd had begun to form. People had their eclipse glasses ready to go, and were either sitting at large folding tables enjoying Sunkist sodas and Moonpies (and hot dogs) or standing around in clusters chatting, while keeping a wary eye on a band of clouds that had the potential to make trouble later on if they thickened and spread.
It had been quite some time since I brought my daughter over to campus. One of my friends there has a daughter almost the same age. They had once played together in the campus daycare. Now they are both driving cars and looking at colleges.
“Hey, look, look, Daddy!” Kayden suddenly said, her head tilted back as she peered through her eclipse glasses. “It is starting, it is starting! You can see it now.”
I put my glasses on and looked. Yes, there it was, a tiny indentation in the sun, barely noticeable, but there nonetheless. We walked over to “telescope square” and checked out larger images of it there.
On the other side of the large, roped-off parking lot, there was a band playing covers of classic rock songs, though I chided the guitarist, another friend of mine who also happens to be a vice president at the college, for not playing an eclipse-appropriate setlist: “Bad Moon Rising,” “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” “Black Hole Sun,” and so forth.
“Yeah, I know,” he said. “My favorite would have been ‘Cheap Sunglasses.’”
We wandered around the front of campus getting different vantage points as the moon cut bigger and bigger slices out of the sun, creating an ethereal kind of hue, an encroaching darkness that softened and polished the sharp edges of every visible thing.
“This is weird, Daddy,” Kayden said. “I wonder if the dogs are noticing back home? Whoa! Now look!”
There was little more than a sliver of the sun left now. It was dusk at 2:30 on a hot August afternoon, and the breeze now carried in a slight chill that settled amongst us. We were now just minutes away from totality. There was still some light chatter, but for the most part people had grown quiet, watching with a stunned intensity. I found a seat near the entrance to the Balsam Center, the very first building I entered when I came to apply for a job here almost exactly twenty-six years ago.
As I sat there, the past flashed like a train, faces barely registered in each passing window. I have seen a lot of history unfold on this campus. I watched live footage of OJ Simpson in a Ford Bronco followed by a bunch of police cars. I watched the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas hearings. I watched a plane fly into the World Trade Center. And now I was about to watch a total eclipse with my daughter and my large extended family of friends and co-workers.
Like everybody else, I had my glasses on and my eyes on the sun when the moon finally locked into place, leaving only a giant dark ball, with a glowing ring around it, a ring that danced and shimmered in the darkness. At the very instant of the total eclipse, a spontaneous gasp lifted up from the crowd, followed by wild cheering. Everyone pulled away their glasses, and I took a few precious seconds to look around me and take it all in, imagining at the same time people all over the country, differences set aside for the moment, united in awe at the wonder and beauty of this world.
I felt awe, yes, but I also felt something else beginning to stir inside me, something wholly unexpected. I was surprised to find myself feeling hopeful. It is something I have not felt much of in quite some time.
It felt like we — all of us there, all of us around the country — had shared something important, even if it was just a fleeting moment of joy, a glimpse of the possibility that something, anything can still unite us. And it felt good.