File this in the “Be Careful What You Wish For” folder.
Once upon a time, in the summer of 1972, there was to be a total eclipse. It was, the media told us, going to be amazing, terrific & spooky. I was living in Boston then, and the path of totality was going to pass near me.
I got excited about this. And as the publicity buildup continued, I became steadily more excited. In fact, I was soon talking to my best friend David Eppers about a road trip:
“Let’s go see it, Dude” I begged. (Except we didn’t call each other “Dude” in those days.) David, besides being my best friend, had a van, good for camping and road trips.
And he was game. After all, David was hearing the same things I was about all the crazy weird stuff that happened in a truly total solar eclipse. And it was going to to be the last one within reach for — God knew, maybe 45 years!!
It was totally a Bucket List thing. (Except of course, we didn’t say “totally” like that, or “Bucket List”, and I’ve forgotten the slang of that year. “Whatever”; which we also didn’t say.)
Anyway, we started making plans. The actual eclipse path we were talking about was north of us, in eastern Canada. Nova Scotia, to be specific.
And the maps told us there was a car ferry from Boston to Nova Scotia. An overnight ride; piece of cake. (Did we say that? Not sure.)
Only problem was the cost, About $150, I think; a lot in those days. David and I were both scraping by, so the ferry looked out of reach. But WTF. (We did say that, minus the initials.) We were young; I wasn’t even 30, though almost.
We decided to drive. Figuring out the maps (on paper, adding up stretches of miles), it was supposed to be about 700 miles away, well into Canada, maybe eleven, twelve hours drive (& no passport needed in those halcyon days).
It turned out to be a lot longer drive, two or three days worth. And gas was much more expensive in Canada. Later that year, singer Carly Simon had a hit with her song, “You’re So Vain,” which includes the line “Then you flew your Learjet up to Nova Scotia to see the total eclipse of the sun,” supposedly a payback jab at actor/womanizer/eclipse groupie Warren Beatty.
But hearing it always rubs salt in the memory that David and I had no Learjet. We slogged up the northeast coast, through the endless wooded wastes of Maine, and the endless stretch of New Brunswick, up and around a bend, and then back southeast, on the Nova Scotia side. At least, despite all the publicity, there was no sign of an eclipse pilgrimage traffic jam on the road north. The sun needed a better ad agency, one surmised.
I learned a few things along the way, which lightened the tedious miles: particularly that many of the Canadian towns we passed through had been founded by “United Empire Loyalists.” After some cogitation, I realized these were the tyrannical Tory scum the victorious colonials ran out of the new United States after our revolution. That explained, among other things, the guy in the red coat on the sign for Shelburne; a “Redcoat.”
But their progeny, after these eight intervening generations, seemed not preoccupied with this old quarrel, happy to take our few US tourist dollars. And on the morning of July 10, 1972, though road-weary, we trundled toward the far eastern end of their oddly-shaped island, looking for a spot to park and watch the day turn to night.
I’d heard some odds and ends about eclipse folklore and mythology — celestial beasts fighting, or mating, or being distracted by human misbehavior, tribespeople who suffered panic attacks, anxiety about the world’s end, etc. Myself, I was more interested in natural phenomena: darkness? Fog? Animals going to sleep, or untimely waking up? Would the stars come out?
We watched the sun’s shrinkage through very dark glasses, and a reflected image through a pinhole in a box. The whole thing took awhile, but the magic interval, when the sun was completely covered, was quite brief: not quite three minutes, as I recall.
And, dear reader, it was a bust. The day got somewhat gray, as it does when a medium thick cloud layer of overcast settles in. Not at all like “night”, though with some imaginative stretch, it could have been seen as a tentative, momentary early dusk. I think I saw some birds flying, heard winged insects buzzing, but nothing was out of the ordinary (we had been warned that the Canadian Maritime mosquitoes were large and bloodthirsty under any and all circumstances, and a solar rarity did not dull their appetites). I saw no stars.
Then the sunlight was quickly coming back. It was over.
I turned to David, feeling ripped off and chagrined: we came all this freeking way (tho we didn’t say “freeking”) for THIS?
And furthermore, after two-plus days’ drive up, facing two-plus days drive back, we had achieved a whole two-plus minutes of nothingburger (a word we’d not yet heard of).
We wearily turned around and began chugging our way back through those endless forests, across what seemed like a thousand miles Down East to Boston.
We finally made it. Was it just the wind, or did I hear the ghosts of the exiled Tories laughing at us in the nights, from their northern stronghold?
Whatever; which brings me to the punchline of this story: Forty-five years later, I’m going to skip the eclipse of 2017, even though its path will go right over my head, and I could watch it from our small front yard, without even turning the key in my venerable 2003 Accent. All that promised traffic madness: I’ll be free of it.
Naaah. Instead, I’ll be at the Duke Hospital, undergoing a new procedure which is supposed to vacuum out a cache of stones that are growing silently in my kidneys, ominously waiting their chance to plug up a tube inside and send me screaming in pain for the ER, again.
With any luck, I’ll be fast asleep at the magic solar moment. Maybe I’ll dream about a redcoat on a roadsign. And if the procedure does as promised, — well, now THAT will be a true worldly wonder. For the rest, they can stick it where the sun don’t shine. (And yeah, we used to say that even in 1972.)
[Update: I don’t know how the 2017 eclipse turned out, but my “procedure” was a bust. “In by 7 AM,” they had told me, “out by noon. Piece of cake.”
But the one morning turned into nearly three days, with lots of bleeding, no little discomfort, and nothing much to eat but some smuggled-in chicken soup; and for all that they only hosed out two little stones. Turned out there were still some bugs to be worked out in the protocol. Duke Urology needs some better PR.
And I didn’t dream about a Redcoat the whole time.]