Take all the excitement over the upcoming solar eclipse — if it’s possible to even ponder that notion — and it wouldn’t begin to rival the enthusiasm that was seen in the days before the “eclipse of the century” that crossed North America on March 7, 1970.
It certainly seemed that way from my viewpoint at age 11. And my vantage point was vast. With my red Schwinn Stingray bike, with brothers Tim and Marty as wingmen, I had the run of the world. And the center of that world was Saint Patrick’s Grade School. You’ve heard of the Seven Sisters colleges? At St. Pat’s we had six sisters — Petrona, Janice, Judith, Monica, Celeste, and Mary Rose — all part of the Dominican Order residing in the nearby convent. The best teachers anyone could ever want.
Provided you didn’t pull Pam Brown’s ponytail during communion.
To the west of St. Pat’s was the Great Bend Cemetery; to the north – the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe train tracks. During recess the train would rumble by, pressing the pennies we had placed on the track that morning. To the east of school was St. Pat’s church, with rock hard kneelers that greeted my knees daily. Also in our domain was my parent’s four bedroom ranch, sandwiched between a fishing pond on one side and the Dominican Convent on the other.
The only venue out of our reach was the skies. And we fixated on it. On that topic we had a lot of company. Captain Kirk was right — space was the final frontier. In 1967 Gene Roddenberry rocked our world, and in 1968 the Crest Theater featured “2001 A Space Odyssey” followed a month later by “Planet of the Apes.”
The future was, well, confusing.
And those of us at St. Pat’s were already full of confounding notions. Ever tried to understand Purgatory, the Holy Trinity, and Original Sin without the benefit a fidget spinner? Didn’t think so.
And then in July, 1969 the Eagle landed and Neil Armstrong introduced us to the word “mankind.”
What? The moon would be home to colonies, and someday we might live there. It was a sure thing. The Weekly Reader told us so.
So when we heard the news that the moon would block out the sun, this was a five star red letter opportunity for us to experience the mystical heavens on our terms. Adding to the excitement were the stories that when Christ died, there was an eclipse AND an earthquake.
So, for those counting at home, this represented a convergence of 1. Jesus dying on the cross. 2. NASA, Neil Armstrong, James T. Kirk, and colonies on the moon. 3. UFO sightings; 4. Animals howling and acting strangely during the eclipse. And we had a dog, Buckwheat, who was already prone to such things.
We could barely contain our enthusiasm. Correction. Containing it was hopeless.
But the directive from parents, the nuns, and everyone else was emphatic. DO NOT WATCH THE SUN DIRECTLY. This was preposterous. We had no intention of looking away. Just like “don’t put beans in your nose,” “don’t swim after eating,” “don’t swallow your gum” and “don’t crack your knuckles you’ll get arthritis.” Another phony baloney parental command, issued as parents puffed a cigarette, sipped scotch and barely looked out from their newspaper.
But of course there was science behind this. The news stories at that time reported that at the last solar eclipse seen in the U.S., 247 persons suffered vision loss from looking at the sun. The March 6, 1970 New York Times, for instance, said this: “Doctors fearful that an epidemic of permanent eye damage will result from an improper viewing of tomorrow’s solar eclipse have warned that the only safe way to see the eclipse is not to look at it – not directly, that is.”
But what to do?
Consider an illustration from the Times published the day before the eclipse.
Solving the rubrik’s cube would be easier.
The complexity of it all weighed heavily on us.
“If you went blind we’d have to sell your bike,” Mother Ramona admonished me.
“We’d probably have to move you to the convent or someplace like that where they could take care of you,” Dad said over breakfast the day before.
So we improvised. My brother Marty remembered: “I looked up with these ridiculous purple Easter egg halves on each eye. Of course, one is smaller than the other. I couldn’t see anything. I don’t remember where we got our info. I just know we didn’t know what we were doing.”
Some simply watched nothing except the darkness descend on the surrounding.
“I missed it,” classmate John Holt said. “Our parents and teachers warned us we’d go blind if we looked at the eclipse.”
The adult hyperbole worked. I kept my eyes down and only remember it getting kinda dark. And really quiet. But I can still see!
“I remember someone told me about the solar eclipse that the Shawnee chief, Tecumseh, predicted would happen in 1806,” fellow St. Pat’s classmate Kevin Birzer said. “Later I looked it up on the internet and it looks to be true. It seems that we weren’t supposed to look directly up in 1970, and I seem to recall making some kind of paper contraption with an opening to follow the action.”
March 7 was a Saturday. We were home and mom had all of us engaged with techniques to avoid direct viewing. Marty used the plastic eggs, I tried the pinhole on a piece of paper but I did sneak a couple glances up just to be sure it was in fact happening. Marty did the same.
Overall, it was a huge disappointment. There were no UFOs, earthquakes or Bigfoot sightings.
“It was like a cloudy day” I told mom. Life went on, and the rest of the year we became fixated with a hero bigger than Neil Armstrong: Evil Knievel.
But today if you ask my kids they will confirm that I can’t see very well. Or hear for that matter.