This article was contributed by David Baumgartner as part of a local series on astronomy.
There I am standing just outside a little town known as Sallum on the western border of Egypt, just a half-mile from the Libyan border overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. What would I be doing there and why would I have traveled so far to be in this little unknown town? Somehow sky and telescope, along with a TravelQuest cohost, my wife and I visit this deserted land to view a celestial object in the sky. Well, nonetheless, I’m there with my two cameras on tripods with special solar filters pointing up toward the sun with maybe 1,000 other people ready to experience and start taking pictures for my first solar eclipse.
I have been told that a total eclipse of the sun is the most awe-inspiring of all celestial events. I don’t know if this is true or not, because I had never witnessed one. Oh yes, I have seen many pictures of one on tv and some in magazines, but it is said that one has to experience a total eclipse in person to really appreciate the full wonders of it all. A while back, our daughter and I did get the chance to go down to Panama to witness an annular eclipse. Even though an annular eclipse is an exiting event, it doesn’t hold a candle to a total eclipse.
Well, I had been awake since 1:30 that morning going over and over and over in my mind the total procedures of the event, just to make sure I didn’t forget anything, or do something wrong. The last thing I wanted to do was come all this way mess up and not have anything to show for it. All the experts say to make a list and stick to it. But I knew in my mind that I had it all down, so no stinking list needed here. Ten minutes to go until the moon’s first contact with the sun. I hear the man next to me starting to get a little flustered. He started to question his settings and what he was supposed to do next. I chuckled to myself, knowing that I was fully prepared because just this morning I had gone over every thing a million times on what could possibly go wrong and I was ready to go without a hitch.
And just then, even with all the excitement going through my mind and body with the up and coming event, I had a flashback to the mid 50’s. It was the one Christmas morning I got up to see what was under the Christmas tree, no doubt one of the best surprises of my life. There stood next to the decorated tree was my first telescope—one of many to come—all set up ready for me to start a hobby that would last for…..well a lifetime. I spent the rest of the day outside in my pajamas seeing what I could see. I didn’t even go back in the house to open the rest of my packages until I don’t when. I wonder to this day if my mother, I mean Santa, really knew what he was getting me into.
Then just as quick as my mind had wondered off, I was back to my tripods stuck in this sandy site with only five minutes to first contact. Now I must admit at this time I was feeling like I might be getting more flustered than my friend next door to me, wondering if I might have forgotten something. But I assured myself that this wasn’t the case. I checked everything just to make sure I hadn’t.
Now less than a minute to go and off my mind went again. This time back home to my good stargazing buddies, wishing they were here to experience this momentous event with me. I knew they would have liked to have been here with me as well.
And then thinking of the week leading up to this moment, how my wife JoAnne and I had made the trip across the Atlantic Ocean and witnessed the ageless river Nile and the mighty pyramids of Giza and Sakkara along with the inspirational Sphinx. So much was going through my mind at that time; it was a wonder that I even knew what I was doing there.
Then my mind was woken by the cheers of my fellow onlookers, first contact had occurred at 11:20 a.m. Well, right on time I started taking my pictures. One every five minutes so as to give me a good series of photos to show off to my friends back home and to give me a good record of what really happened just in case I failed to witness a visual for myself.
The moon ever so slowly kept covering the sun, first one quarter, then half, and then three quarters. I’m there, keeping a cool head, doing everything right, just as I had practiced in my mind so many times before. And then it started to happen, I noticed the sky started to turn a dark blue; the shadows on the ground were more vivid than I had ever seen before; the birds that I had noticed chirping before were silent now; a little chill had filled the air as I put on my jacket. I was getting so excited I could hardly stand it. I felt like I was in my own little zone. Even JoAnne, my non-astronomer partner, was getting exited. And just before totality I hear someone yell out “ there is Venus!” It was getting so dark out that you could actually see the planet Venus along with some of the other bright stars twinkling in the middle of the day. This is not normal, I thought to myself, even though I knew it was going to happen. And that wasn’t even the best part yet.
Like some supreme being had intervened, at 12:38 p.m. the sky turned black; the sun disappeared behind the moon, and this bright haze around the two combined bodies, known as the sun’s corona, shined brightly like some hazy atmosphere. I was just in awe.
I have no other words that I know that I can use to describe it accurately, or even how I was feeling at the time. It was one of the most beautiful sights that I have ever seen, even if it was for only three minutes and 56 seconds.
Then my biggest fear came upon me. After feeling so cocky about my readiness, and doing everything just right, I remembered that I had forgotten to take off the filters on both cameras just as totality began. Because at that time of totality you can look directly at the sun without the aid of a filter of any kind. Where was my stinking list? Oh, that’s right, I didn’t need a list. I was like a chicken with his head just cut off. I had no idea who I was, let alone enough thought in me to actually go over and take off the filters. But I did get to the point where I pulled myself together enough to accomplish the feat.
But by that time I realized that I had missed the opportunity to catch on film the first part of totality, Bailey’s Beads and the Diamond Ring. Though very upset with myself, I settled down to enjoy the rest of the eclipse.
Still able to have enough sense to continue to take pictures, I continually looked through the viewfinder of my camera and kept repeating out loud “oh my god, this is gorgeous, I hope the camera can pick this up.”
Even with the excitement going through me at this time, my mind took off on me once again. This time to my Father, Harry, who I had never met. He was in the army during World War II. He gave up the ultimate fighting for his country right here in Northern Africa. Maybe he had stood in this very spot at one time, I thought. Maybe he was the reason I was even there at that location, at that time. I don’t know. All I knew is that I had an eerie feeling so I backed away from my camera to look around. I don’t know what I expected to see, certainly not him. Or maybe he was there in some sort of spiritual way.
Your mind can present to you strange thoughts at times. All this seemed to happen in just a split second. And before I knew it I was back on track viewing the eclipse. I kept on taking pictures, still somewhat upset. I even remembered to put the filters back on after totality. The four minutes seemed to pass in seconds. The glory of it all had come and gone. It seemed odd to have had to wait for so long for this to happen, and travel for so far to see it, and to spend so much money to get here, that I thought: Was it worth it? Oh yes, it was worth it all right. And all I kept thinking was, I want to see it again and again, right now. But nothing could make the experience come back, an experience that will stay with me always.
I am so happy that we made that trip to Egypt, even with all the plane rides, all the bus trips, the money spent and all the worrying, will we get there on time, and so on. It is something that will always have a special place in my mind, if not in my heart. What a great experience. All I can say to you is: if you have the chance to witness a total eclipse, just do it. You won’t regret it, at all.
The next great total eclipse that I would like to go see is in Texas in 2024. I know it’s not right now, but I think I can wait till then, I think. You can be sure of one thing though, that I will have my stinking list ready, and will use it. Even though I didn’t get the best quality pictures that I wanted or expected, I did get to witness the eclipse in person through my own eyes, and that will never be erased in my memory. Not even with time.
April Calendar of Events from “Astronomy Magazine”
April 1: First Quarter Moon
April 3: Mercury passes 1.4° south of Neptune
April 7: Moon is at perigee (221,771 miles from Earth) and Full Moon occurs
April 14: Moon passes 1.2° south of Pluto and Last Quarter Moon/Moon passes 2° south of Jupiter
April 15: Moon passes 2° south of Saturn
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