Solar Eclipse, 1970 – A True Story

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Saturday, March 7, 1970 – Leisure Lanes, Camp Road, Hamburg, New York. I’ll never forget that day. It was the first time I remember having to make a very difficult choice. It was a wrenching choice. It was an agonizing choice. It was the kind of choice no one ever expects a nine-year old boy to have to face.

Yet I did. And I can blame no one for it except for myself, the expectations I had placed on myself, and the subsequent expectations I had encouraged others to, well, expect of me. Nonetheless, the way I approached the decision appears, in retrospect, to have become the template I have since used for all such future conundrums.

By that point in the latter half of fourth grade, I had become the de facto astronomer of the class. Yes, there was actually a competition of this exalted position, and I was determined to win it. Since the third grade, no doubt inspired by Apollo 11’s lunar landing, there had been a slow crescendo of excitement with all things space. Of course, having first become interested in second grade, I had a leg up on all the Johnny-come-latelies.

Third grade was a new school for me. Big Tree Elementary School, the expanded former one-room school house I had attended (the same one my father attended), only managed to have room enough for second grade. So it was off to Woodlawn Primary and a whole new set of kids. I didn’t know what to expect, and I certainly didn’t expect anyone else to be interested in astronomy. I mean, look, it was third grade. You just don’t expect eight-year-olds to have memorized the Hertzsprung–Russell diagram. The first lesson I learned in third grade: Always expect the unexpected.

The struggle for “top astronomer” was fierce and sometimes quite personal. It didn’t help that I played the violin (apparently that was viewed as a negative). They also made fun of my name. Oddly, given the long-standing popularity of the name among new born babies, I was the only “Christopher” in the class. It seemed that made me a target. (I must admit, the name was rather atypical given the many ethnic names my fellow first-generation immigrant classmates had, so I guess it kinda stuck out.) This particular vein of teasing stopped during a trivia contest when my team won because I was the only one in the class to correctly spell “Columbus” (as in Christopher Columbus). The connection between the famous discoverer and my name was not lost and “Christopher” was from then on treated with more respect.

The astronomer rivalry heated up in fourth grade, as we all advanced to a new school (“Woodlawn Intermediate”). There, the veteran teacher used this to prod us into learning more – not just about astronomy, but all sciences. Hostilities, however, finally ended with the taking of the final test on the astronomy unit. Following the grading of those exams, the teacher signaled me out as the only one to have gotten all the questions correct save for one (I had forgotten Hans Lippershey, not Galileo Galilei, had invented the telescope.)

Ironically, this brief moment in the sun was about to be dashed by the upcoming solar eclipse, billed as “The Eclipse of the Century.” Despite a stern warning from New York City’s Hayden Planetarium then-curator Robert Coles to “don’t get people too excited about it,” the national media promoted the event as – you guessed it – an “event.” My astute fourth grade class did not miss hearing, reading, and seeing the anticipation. My chief astronomer foe, sensing an opportunity, came to class one day prepared to explain how to create a “pinhole telescope.” This was a cheap and easy-to-create object (all you need is a cardboard box, aluminum foil, and a sheet of white paper), the perfect combination for the working-class children we were.

I nonchalantly pooh-poohed the idea. You see, I was one of those rare kids who had his own telescope. My parents gave me an inexpensive “Galileo” telescope (so named probably because it was only as powerful as the one the Italian Astronomer used) as a gift for my seventh birthday. I knew you couldn’t look through the telescope to view the eclipse (nor could you look at the sun directly). You could, however, use the telescope to project the image and view the reflection (which was the same principle used by the pinhole telescope, only with greater magnification).

The entire class looked forward to the eclipse. Even though it was a total eclipse (an “annual” eclipse, to be specific), we would only see a partial eclipse from our location. Now, I say partial, and that sounds weak, but in reality, more than 80% of the sun would be covered up by the moon. For us, the timing of the event could not have been more opportune. The eclipse would occur on a Saturday, beginning shortly after lunch and peaking little more than an hour later.

Alas, this is where the conflict came in, for on that particular Saturday, March 7, 1970, Big Tree Cub Scout Pack 489 had scheduled its first-ever bowling tournament. It gets more complicated. I was in Cub Scout Pack 489. My father was the Cubmaster of Cub Scout Pack 489. My father loved bowling and believed all kids should learn to bowl. My father was the one who promoted and organized the Big Tree Cub Scout Pack 489 first-ever bowling tournament. And I was expected to be there in mind, spirit, and body. Not even the “Eclipse of the Century” could be used as reason for abstaining from the Pack’s bowling tournament.

And, so, there it was, the conflict. I had to be in two places at once. As the day approached, everyone in my class wanted to know to “where I was going to watch the eclipse from.” They naturally expected that to be my top priority. My father expected concentrating in bowling my best (but not my very best, because the last thing he wanted was from his kid to win the Pack event he convinced the other adult leaders to do).

What could I do? What could I say? I feebly asked my father if I could excuse myself from the bowling tournament – at least for the hour of totality. He, as I expected, said, “No.” The last thing he needed was for his own son to abandon something he fought hard to get others to accept. I coyly avoided answering any of my friends’ questions. Secretly, I hoped the weather would save me. It was, after all, the Snow Belts of Buffalo and we were technically still in the season of winter.

As the day approached I kept a careful eye on the weather forecast. Heading into the weekend, Channel 7 weatherman Tom Jolls (a.k.a., “Commander Tom”), warned of a growing low pressure area developing over the Province of Quebec. While not the ideal location, it was expected to push a weak trough of modified polar air through Western New York. Perhaps Mother Nature would come to my rescue. The odds of precipitation were 40%.

The day finally arrived, bright and sunny. The bowling tournament began shortly after 10:00am. The eclipse was set to begin at 12:22pm, reaching its maximum at 1:37pm. My father said I could go outside and view the eclipse once I had finished bowling my three games. I knew it took an hour to bowl each game. That meant we’d get done just before the peak. If we started on time. If everyone bowled quickly. I brought my telescope on a whim and a hope.

Naturally, we started late. I had to keep my mouth shut, but I had no doubt my non-verbal communication was quite clear. Once we began, I rushed each time it was my turn. I didn’t think too much about it. I just followed the instructions my father had taught me since he first brought me and my brother bowling when you could count our ages on one hand. Quick up, quick down. And, for what it was worth, I unsuccessfully prodded my bowling partners to do the same. They took their time. I kept glancing out the window.

It was nearly 1:30pm when the tournament ended, a few minutes before the peak of the eclipse. I rushed out the door with a small group of friends into the mild 40º air. We ran to my father’s car, quickly opened the door, yanked out the telescope and a sheet of white paper, and hastily set up the instrument careful to point it towards the sun. As we moved the telescope the projection of the sun’s eclipsed image teased us as it moved rapidly across paper. We were finally able to position the telescope directly at the sun. There, on that white page of lined school paper appeared the shaky crescent of the sun, just at the eclipse’s maximum moment. I was impressed, but more with the fact that the telescopic project actually worked than with the eclipse. As the “top” astronomer, I had seen pictures of eclipses and partial eclipses many times before. This was no big deal. My friends, on the other hand, stood in awe, both of the hardware contraption we had just engineered in no time as well as the actual event itself. Of course, after a few moments, they were ready to move on to the next thing, proven the wisdom of Robert Coles.

We ambled back into the alleys of Leisure Lanes in time to see everyone was looking for us. The adults weren’t too happy that we “took off” without telling them, but after we explained our purpose and subsequent achievement of that purpose, they couldn’t hide their pleasure. Something about the Cub Scout motto…

I discovered the reason they were looking for us a few minutes later. Much to my father’s embarrassment, my name was announced as the winner of the big prize for bowling the highest score.

In the end, I won the bowling tournament and got to see the eclipse. It turns out the choice wasn’t a choice at all. It was merely an exercise in time management, or, should I saw, precision timing.

Later that evening, the rush of that polar air pushed a later winter storm through Lake Ontario into Niagara County. This brief blizzard dumped a couple inches of snow in just two hours, leading to several fender benders. Visibility neared zero as the temperature plummeted 10º in minutes as winds gusted to 35 mph.

 

Proving, once again, timing is everything.

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