The last total eclipse I remember was in the late 1970s. What I recall about it was the eerie light it cast for the minute or so the sun was completely blocked by the moon. It was like the dead calm you get just before a summer storm; the kind that makes your skin tingle.
The first one I saw was in the summer of 1944. It changed my life.
We were living with my uncle and grandmother in Racine, Wisc. World War II was still raging in Europe and the Pacific, and life on the home front had long since been turned upside down.
My dad’s career with the Forest Service had vaporized when the war erupted and the Army drafted the foresters and took all the trucks and bulldozers for the war effort. For the interim, he took a job as a draftsman in a defense plant.
News of an impending eclipse offered a welcome break in the war-torn tedium of day-to-day living. We talked about it around the supper table, and dad showed me how to punch a tiny hole in a piece of cardboard through which I could safely view the sun.
On the day of the eclipse I had spent the morning in the back yard watching nesting birds through my new telescope. Around noon the sky began to darken, and I pulled the peep hole cardboard from my pocket.
What I could see through the tiny opening was less than satisfying. It was hard to focus, and the hole had rough edges which blurred things further. As the moon moved in front of the sun, I got frustrated, threw the cardboard down and grabbed my telescope.
For a second I saw a perfect black circle in the middle of a golden aura. Then there was a brilliant flash and everything turned black.
For weeks I couldn’t see with my right eye. The eye doctor said I had burned a hole in my retina. For several years I struggled, coped and ultimately compensated for the damaged eye.
When I had cataract surgery a couple years ago, the doctor asked me how I got the hole in my retina. When I told him, he just shuddered and shook his head.
The next total eclipse is just around the corner. On Aug. 21 thousands of folks from Oregon to South Carolina will be squinting through cardboard peep holes and filtered telescopes to witness the event. The next one won’t be until 2024.
I don’t plan to look at either of them.