Finally, the whole reason for our trip to Charleston arrived: the great eclipse of 2017! And it was . . . cloudy that morning. The forecast called for overcast skies and a chance of thunderstorms. Uh-oh.
We had picked our rental cottage precisely because it was in the path of totality, so we didn't have to deal with traffic or parking issues. I didn't hear of any major problems in Charleston that day, but anything which reduces stress and bother during a vacation is a good idea.
Fortunately the overcast was thin — so thin that one could still make out the Sun's disk through the official NASA-sanctioned eclipse-viewing glasses we brought. So I could see the moment of "first contact" when the dark shape of the Moon began to cover the Sun. At first it was a slight flattening of the curve on the upper-right-hand side of the solar disk. Over the next hour the Sun looked like a cookie with a bite taken out, then a crescent, and finally narrowed to a bright letter C.
I can't say I noticed any perceptible cooling of the steamy Charleston air as the Moon blocked more and more of the Sun's rays. Apparently the Low Country is just hot in summer, independent of how much solar energy it gets.
I did notice something I remembered from the 1984 eclipse: the light took on a curiously "metallic" quality. Another member of the party suggested that it might be because the Sun, while still bright, was effectively getting smaller, thus making shadows sharper and reflections more precise. It's a good hypothesis, anyway.
Because of the clouds I was switching back and forth between my eclipse glasses and a regular pair of sunglasses, depending on the thickness of the overcast. But just before totality, a window opened up in the clouds overhead, so I had full sunlight at the climax of the eclipse.
All at once, the thin bright curved edge of the Sun disappeared altogether, and suddenly it was night in the middle of the afternoon. I couldn't see any stars or planets because of the clouds, and frankly my attention was just riveted on the halo of the Sun's corona surrounding the black disk of the Moon. The clouds around it looked as they do at sunset — lit pink from the side as light leaked in from beyond the zone of totality.
According to my wife, biologists around the country were collecting data on changes in animal behavior during the eclipse. I did hear some birds singing before the moment of totality, but during the darkness any barking of dogs or agitation of animals was probably due to the noise of fireworks and massed crowds of humans cheering in the distance. For the perfect dramatic effect I could also hear thunder from a storm nearby.
And then . . . day again! As soon as the Sun's edge emerged on the trailing side of the Moon, the streetlights went off and my eyes registered it as "daytime" again. The Sun is bright.
We toasted the Sun's return with cold bottles of Corona (geddit? Corona?), and cooked a pot of gumbo that afternoon as the Moon gradually slid aside. To celebrate the defeat of the Sun-devouring Serpent of Chaos, we had a bottle of cremant de Limoux with our gumbo for dinner, and some more fantastic South Carolina peaches for dessert.
Next time: ships happen!
For two stories of amazing things in space, buy my ebook Outlaws and Aliens!