Solar Eclipse….Oh, Jesus!

Last week began with Mother’s Day and ended with a solar eclipse.  Even though I didn’t get to see my mother on her special day or live in a place to view the rare ring of fire in the heavens, the two events brought together in my mind, a memory long forgotten.

It was Saturday, March 7, 1970.  I was thirteen years old and in the seventh grade.  For several weeks, our science teacher (someone whose name has escaped me as I sit down to write this), had been teaching us about the upcoming solar eclipse and how lucky we were to be able to see a total eclipse in our lifetime.  We were so hyped up about it that it was as if we were on science steroids. 

For the first time in my life, I became interested in all things celestial:  the sun, moon, our solar system neighbors – planets both near and far and all of their moons, the constellations in the night sky, super stars, novas, black holes, red giants, white dwarfs, the Milky Way, our universe and galaxies beyond.  I became very aware of astronomy and the “science” of astrology and learned that there was a difference between the two. 

The week of the eclipse finally arrived and all of us amateur astronomers were ready to make our solar eclipse viewers.  We had been warned for months not to look at the eclipse with our naked eyes.  Directly looking at the sun, even as the moon began to cover it could burn our retinas and we wouldn’t even feel the damage!  As we sat at our desks with our shoe boxes, tin foil, glue and scissors, I stole a look around the room to see which one of us would come back to school blinded by the light.  There had to be a least one rebellious, mean girl or boy who would defy the rule and look at the sun unabashedly, naked eyes and all, staring at the beautiful corona or ring of fire.  Who knew?  With that kind of magical allure, even I could be tempted to steal a glimpse of the forbidden beauty.  Like Eve eating from the “off limits” fruit tree in the garden would I gaze into the light of the dangerous sun?  Monday morning, the first day back at school after the eclipse, who would be wearing an eye patch?  How many kids would have disobeyed? We shook with terror of the potential consequences and got to work making our viewers.

Saturday morning, we awoke to a clear, cool day.  Having heard every weather report for the entire week, we knew that good weather was to grace our scientific outing.  My siblings and I and a few neighborhood friends all met after breakfast with our trusty eclipse viewers.  We staked out our observatory area and put lawn chairs out to wait out the event.  As I can recall, around mid-morning we began to see the moon slightly edge itself onto the sun’s disk. 

There was a party-like atmosphere as it began.  From time to time my mother would come out onto the front porch and shout at us, “Don’t look right at it! Don’t damage your eyes!  You could go blind!” Ten minutes later she would come out and sit on the front porch steps and see if we were using our viewing boxes.

The moon was taking a huge bite out of the sun.  After an hour and a half or so, the sky started to darken a bit, and an eerie feeling began to settle down upon us. We stood with the sun at our backs, holding our viewers with the foil pinhole taking in the direct sun’s view.  Magically, the sun appeared on our screens and we were watching the fascinating eclipse.

The sun starting disappearing until it became a perfect sliver.  The sky turned a deep navy blue and Venus shone like a diamond earring near the sun/moon. The birds stopped singing and a few dogs nervously began to howl.  Next, the wind began to pick up and there was a noticeable drop in the temperature.  The moon slid perfectly over the sun and we were caught in a twilight zone.  The corona shone like a halo around the sun and for a brief moment, I peaked at it with my naked eyes.  It was glorious!

We were caught up in the moment, briefly seeing something we knew we would more than likely, never see again.  It was awesome, majestic and magical and that’s when the screaming began.

“Oh, my God…Precious Jesus…Look at that!  Look at that, Jesus!  Oh Jesus!  Jesus!  Kid’s don’t look at it.  Don’t stare at it!  Look at it!  It’s beautiful!  I’ve never seen anything to beat it in my life!  Oh, my Jesus, I praise you!”  It was my mother, Virgina Painter.  She was standing out on the porch, laughing while tears rolled down her cheeks, the wind blowing up the skirt of her house dress.  Her arms where lifted up as if she was getting ready to be received by her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  I honestly think that she thought that the end of the world was nigh unto us.

We all stared at my pretty, little mother, standing on the steps, in an almost holy trance, having a moment with her creator.  As children, we later teased her about screaming out to the Lord during the eerie black out of the eclipse but even we knew that we had been first hand witnesses of God and science together, putting on a show for us.

I entertained for years after the viewing of the solar eclipse, the idea that I wanted to be an astronomer when I grew up, although I learned years later, as a sophomore at East Carolina University, that a strong knowledge of mathematics was needed if you wanted to make an “A” in Astronomy 101.  I had a blast in the class lab though, meeting on Tuesday nights during the winter months on the roof of the Science Building with my classmates.  The roof top was romantic and dreamy and on it we forgot that we were bound to the earth by gravity.   Somehow, the silken ropes that held us in captivity to our earthly prison fell away and we became moon struck lunatics, jet setting around our galaxy and time traveling into the light of distant stars.  We looked up into the heavens and saw…God.  He was majestic in his heavens and He wore a black velvet cape encrusted with diamonds and pearls.  He held up both arms straight over his head and the voluminous, billowing fabric became the back drop to the heavens and the diamonds and pearls, the objects of our affection. 

We studied these luminous objects in awe and reverence, the entire class every night for weeks enfolded in the cloak of God’s heaven.  It was magical and spiritual at the same time, demanding that we speak in whispers on a roof top, gathered around a telescope, under the influence of the utter beauty of the creation.  I often thought of my mom as I looked into the telescope and saw God’s handiwork, spilled zillions and zillions of miles across the vastness of space and wished that she could have been there with me viewing something so mysterious and awe inspiring that she would lift up her arms to her precious Jesus and let him pick her up off of the roof top and spin her around and whisper to her, “Not now, Virginia, it’s not time to go now.  But how do you like what I made for you?”  I think she would have liked that.

Check this… Carole King and James Taylor – Up on the Roof

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