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Great American eclipse leaves millions in awe as darkness descends

It was just as promised. An exhibition from the heavens passed over a small patch of earth on the edge of Lake Erie and left everyone standing gazing up in hokey glasses happily dumbfounded. Even the dogs.

The DJ in the amphitheatre had the good sense to stop playing music for the great event. Shortly after 3pm, the temperatures began to cool. The blotting out of the sun quickened. And then it just happened. The world about us turned dark and chilly. The moon was framed by a perfect orb. There wasn’t anything to do but shut up and gaze.

“That was otherworldly,” Leah Delano, from Washington DC said afterwards.

“It was being part of a universe that you didn’t know existed,” said her friend, Nancy Chapman, smiling. They had been asked to put words into what is, in essence, a wordless experience. All around them, people are searching for explanations for what they had just seen.

“What it’s like for me is: we are standing here, and we see this blue sky and clouds and it’s a normal day. And in minutes it turns dark night and stars. And you realise: that’s a reality that’s out there that we just don’t see. And now we are back to normal. And it is like okay, we came out of that. But for me, the heaviest moment, even heavier than the corona, were those few minutes when it was utter darkness. That was just: woaaahh! Because if you didn’t know that the light was going to come back, you would be thinking … holy … we are in such deep doo-doo right now,” says Leah Delano.

And that’s the point. The Great American Eclipse was unique in that its far-out and nerdy and a little bit spooky all at once. Naturally, the various towns and cities have used it as a tourist attraction and Erie enjoyed a novel swell in early April numbers. But everyone understood that they were participating in a rare day.

It had started out bleakly by Lake Erie, with heavy rain and morning cloud cover. The visitors came anyway. On the waterfront a row of stargazers sat in camping chairs behind a row of serious-looking telescopes. One of those, Vincent Filigenzi, had travelled up from Long Island, New York, with friends to witness this. “March 7th, 1970,” he replied immediately when asked if he had ever experienced an eclipse before. He was studying astronomy at Adelphi University that year.

“And there was a total eclipse at Virginia Beach. And the prof said: let’s rent a bus and go down as a class. Sunny day. National Geographic was set up down at the beach. And it was just beautiful.” When we chatted, the cloud cover was heavy, but he was completely sanguine about what he might witness on the shores of Erie.

“Who has it better than us, you know? To be in the path of a total solar … people come from all over the world to see this.”

There has been a lot of talk about the unifying effect of what is a large-scale astronomical phenomenon. Thirty-two million Americans live under what, for a few hours, was graced as the path of totality. An imprecise number of millions of others ditched work and worries for the day to experience it. And it was the thought of 30 million other people experiencing the same wonder which brought this small park into the grander experience.

“It was about the joy,” said Nancy Chapman.

“It was spectacular. But the joy. The instinctive human response of everybody that was shared by everybody here to scream and shout and be amazed altogether as part of humanity.”

It was just as the Nasa boffins had predicted. It was like wooaahhh. And it won’t return for 20 years.


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