CARBONDALE — As if a total eclipse of the sun weren’t dramatic enough.
Or, maybe, as if a meteorological phenomenon as common as a solitary cloud could be jealous of all the attention being lavished on a rare astronomical wonder, and might try to crash the party and spoil the fun.
Or, maybe, because a struggling small town just can’t catch a break in this sagging economy, and fate just couldn’t wait for the eclipse to even be over before it started dampening Carbondale’s hopes that all this national exposure will spark lingering interest in their community, with its surrounding forests and trails.
But as the point of totality approached Monday, clouds gathered in to what had been sunny skies for days. They threatened to wreck the Great American Eclipse, here in an area that was so proud of the length of “totality”—the time the moon would completely cover the sun so it could be looked at safely—that it was ballyhooed on the special eclipse-viewing glasses being handed out by Southern Illinois University: “2 minutes 38 seconds of darkness.”
Talk about hubris. People came here and not other places in the country so they could view totality a few seconds longer. And now it looked like they wouldn’t be able to see it at all.
At about 12:30 the waning sun, an ever-larger bite being taken out of its right side, was obscured by a rogue cloud, with an even bigger gray barge of a cumulonimbus waiting in the wings. There wasn’t wind enough to hope.
Across town, a little after 1 p.m., Curtis Conley, the manager of PK’s, a bar on Illinois Avenue, closed up, and sent everybody into the street, more as a favor to his employees than to his customers.
“Everybody wants to see it,” said Conley. “I don’t want to make ’em stay inside.”
Conley reported “a record week,” but other area businesses were less enthusiastic. “You want to take home a case of chicken?” said the manager at the Giant City State Park Lodge restaurant, in nearby Makanda, Sunday night, saying they had 1,400 guests but had expected a thousand more, which would have put them on par with Mother’s Day, their busiest day of the year.
At Saluki Stadium, along with 14,000 others who paid $25 to hear the SIU band play “Thriller” and see three weather balloons sent up with scientific equipment and listen to cable TV hosts fill time, Ed Hill and his girlfriend June Mannion explained why they came down from Barrington.
“It’s bucket list,” said Hill, 69.
All seemed fated to end in disappointment. Poor Carbondale. They plan for years, spruce up, beautify their downtown, install new cell towers so everyone can Snapchat the astronomical wonder, and the guest of honor hides in a closet of clouds. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad. I felt disappointed, sorry to miss the spectacle, almost personally responsible, wondering if I had dragged a few dark clouds of bad luck along with me. As if the botched eclipse were somehow a cosmic referendum that I had just been measured by and found wanting.
Then, amazingly—miraculously, if you prefer, for those uncomfortable with all this emphasis on science and its clockwork predictability—at 1:15 p.m. the sun peeked into view through a hole in the otherwise thick cloud, an extreme crescent. Hope dawned. A cheer went up.
“The sun!” people at Saluki Stadium cried. “The sun!” Fingers pointed heavenward.
Then murk again, and the appointed moment arrived—1:21 p.m. Seconds ticked past. There were no confused birds that I noticed, no insects calling, but an unnatural gloom fell over the stadium, yellowish at the horizon. It was very quiet.
“Oh no, it’s not going to happen,” thought Tyler Ong, 18, who had driven here with his friend Jason Leung, also 18, from San Mateo, California.
Then it did happen. The long-anticipated total solar eclipse, a deep blue disk of the moon with the whitish ring of the corona around it, appeared briefly through the clouds. Loud cheers erupted. “Look! Look! Look!” people cried.
“We got five seconds of totality,” said Hill, afterward. “I wanted more, but it was definitely worth coming.” At other locations around campus viewers reported 10 or 20 seconds.
Not much. But enough.
“Awesome, amazing,” said Dan Ruffo, who came from Rochester, New York. His wife Martha, though aware of the scientific nature of the struggle between astronomical and atmospheric titans transpiring above her, had found herself indulging in some magical thinking.
“We came all this way … it can’t be covered by clouds,” she recalled thinking. “It can’t be covered up.”
And was the flash she saw enough to make the journey worthwhile?
“You’d have to be dead not to think it’s pretty cool,” she said.
“We got lucky,” said Jason Leung, one of the teens who drove in from California.
“It was definitely worth it,” said his friend, Tyler Ong.