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Thursday, August 24, 2017

An American Eclipse

 -- By Tom Phillips


 August 21, 2017

I ran with the eclipse today across America, and what a day it was.

It just so happened that August 21 was the day I had a ticket to fly west and visit our daughters and grandchildren in Seattle  -- right along the path of the total eclipse, or just north of it.

 Alaska Airlines was 30 minutes delayed but our pilot assured us we'd get to Seattle on time. He was a retired Navy Captain, and this, he said, was his "afterlife" job.  Before takeoff he came back into the cabin to brief us on the E-clipse -- that's how he said it.  It would be following us, tailing us across the west and reaching its peak just as we landed.  Still, he warned us, don't look at the sun unless you have those special glasses.  A couple of passengers did have them, but I had neglected to get them.   This was gonna be frustrating.

 Still, I had a window seat on a clear day, and I got my first look ever along the northern border of the US -- narrated by the pilot, whose interest in geology and geography sparked a running account.  We crossed Lake Erie, meandered over Canada and then across the farmland of Wisconsin.  "The Cheesehead State!" cried our captain. 

How many people get enthusiastic when sighting Bismarck, North Dakota?  He did, and I did shortly after that as the flat Midwest farmland broke into a rutted surface, then into stark Black Hills with only patches of farmland, then into a lunar waste with no towns and barely a road.  Then suddenly out of the clouds ahead a whole landscape, blue heaped upon blue, of sheer uninhabitable gorges and peaks -- the Rocky Mountains. "We're goin' over the Continental Divide!" whooped the pilot.  And now the race was on.


The E-clipse was starting, behind us but gaining fast, over eastern Montana and "the skinny part of Idaho," more farmland in eastern Washington, and then the Cascades erupted with Mount Rainier on the horizon, a volcanic mutant, too big to be true. 

"It's right behind us!" shouted the pilot, "Don't look unless you've got those glasses!"  This as we banked north of Rainer,  the wing on my side drawing a bead on the sun.  Of course I looked, and winced and looked away. It was just 20% eclipsed, still a blinding ball of fire.

 A commotion broke out a few rows in front of us.  Two pretty flight attendants had got hold of a passenger's glasses, and were leaning over other passengers to get a look at the sun.  Everybody wanted a turn.

-- I'm sorry to break up the party, said the head flight attendant over the intercom, in a mocking Hispanic lilt.  "But we gotta land!"  . 

I decided to look at the ground and see whatever effects could be discerned there. (I hadn't buckled my seat belt but nobody seemed to care.)  As we descended over western Washington, the sun shimmered on stretches of water -- but wait, the light was turning purple as it passed over.  My seatmate was a hard-nails silent type who'd been sleeping through the flight, but I needed a witness so I called him over.  He confirmed, he'd never seen such a color in reflected sunlight.  Then we saw something even stranger.  The plane's shadow was outlined darkly on a passing cloud below.  And around the shadow was a rainbow, a whole circle.  At first he couldn't see it, then he did.  As we came in for a landing, the plane's shadow on the runway was blacker than any we could recall.  It was 10:15 in the morning, but the atmosphere seemed like twilight.

As we taxied, the head flight attendant kept the cabin lights off so we could enjoy the effect. The eclipse was now at 90 percent -- as full as it was going to get in Seattle. As we left the plane, I remembered a line from Charlotte Bronte's novel "Villette" about being content with just the "crescent moon" of life -- just a taste, but not the whole experience.  That's what I'd had of this eclipse, so I decided to be content.

But this was not to be. The first thing we saw in the airport was an excited crowd of people, looking up through the glass ceiling.  A few people were sharing extra glasses they'd brought. "Do you want to look?" somebody asked me.
 
Hell, yes.  And so I saw not the crescent moon, but the full moon, and a crescent sun! And the crescent was slowly growing, the two celestial bodies moving apart after their long-looked-for rendezvous. I didn't want to hog anyone's goggles, so I went down the line, borrowing at least four pairs for a few seconds at a time.

Then I rushed off to baggage claim, and then to the train, and then the ferry terminal where I had my first meal of the day -- a tuna Poke. You know Poke?  It's a Hawaiian dish, like Japanese tekkadon  but more of a mix -- raw fish and rice, plus many more ingredients around the edge, like Korean bibimbap.  This one had avocado, carrots, cole slaw, spinach and I don't even know.  You mix it all together with spicy sauce and enjoy.

And then onto the boat for Bremerton, to my daughter and grandchildren, from sea to shining sea in one morning, beating the eclipse across America.  Time for a nap.  But first a blog, and a conclusion.

Some people say America is sinking into eclipse, losing to China, losing its touch, its will, its whatever.  And maybe it is.  But China will never be America, and neither will any other country.

In New York today, a great haven for the arts, the Chelsea Hotel, is being gutted and renovated, transformed from a bohemian hideout into luxury apartments.  Amid the construction debris around the lobby entrance, you can still see a few dusty plaques, honoring artists who stayed, lived, and  worked at the Chelsea. One of them is for the Irish poet Brendan Behan, with this quote from him:

          "To America, my New Found Land -- the man who hates you hates the human race."

           Amen, Behan.

---  Copyright 2017 by Tom Phillips
Originally published August 21 on The Road to Dotage

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