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The First Total Solar Eclipse I Didn’t See

Fifty years ago today, I didn’t see my first total solar eclipse. And thereby hangs a tale.

I had just turned 20. I was a college sophomore. Although I tinkered with electronics now and then, my primary passion (apart from Carol) was astronomy. (Ham radio was another year off.) I don’t remember at all who in my inner circles originally had the idea, but as ideas go, it was huge: We would all convoy 1200 miles around the south end of Lake Michigan, across the State of Michigan, and then across a great deal of Canada, to reach the path of totality, which was damned near at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River.

We called it Project Moonshadow, under the influence of the well-known Cat Stevens song of the same name and era.

Some of my friends had cars. I had a car, but it was a 2-door sedan that didn’t lend itself to lugging my ginormous telescope anywhere. I prevailed upon my parents to do a temporary car swap: my 1968 Chevelle for my father’s 1970 Rambler station wagon. We’ve become a lot more cautious as a culture since then. I doubt I could have pulled it off had it happened today.

But happen it did: Four cars carrying ten hapless amateur astronomers and a lot of handmade gear got underway before the crack of dawn on (I think) July 7. I had discovered CB radio earlier that year, and persuaded my convoy colleagues to equip their cars with radios and antennas. So it was Sundog, Houston, Gaspain and…I forget my friend George’s CB handle. I was Sundog. I believe Gaspain was a play on Gaspe, the name of the peninsula that the Sun’s umbra would cross a few days later. Houston, well, I’m pretty sure it was because of that evergreen catchphrase: “Houston, we have a problem.”

That name was…peculiarly…appropriate, as I’ll describe a little later.

Five of us had belonged to the Lane Tech Amateur Astronomical Society as high schoolers. One was my best friend Art, whom I’d known since kindergarten. One was Ellen, a girl Art and I knew from our church. The names of the other three I’ve simply forgotten.

Moonshadow Group Cropped 1972 - 500 Wide.jpg

On our first day on the road, we made it to the outskirts of Toronto. I was nervous about passing through Canadian customs with a huge aluminum tube strapped to the top of the Rambler, but the officer had evidently seen a fair number of telescopes heading east already, and grinned as he waved us through. We camped, we cooked, we slept, and the next morning we roared off again, this time to (I think) somewhere near Quebec City. The final leg took us to a campground in Cap Chat, Quebec, where we had reserved a few campsites. There was lots of room, good facilities, and gorgeous summer weather. The landscape was rolling hills and pine forest, and down a gnarly slope, the St. Lawrence River.

Cap Chat Campground 1972 - 500 wide.jpg

I boggle that I have as few photos of the adventure as I do, and how crude those photos are. (How quickly we have forgotten the Age of Film…) I also have to admit that most of them will not let go of the sticky pages of the photo album they’ve lived in for the last thirty or forty years. So the ones you see here will be the ones I could pry out of the album.

The morning of Monday, July 10 dawned bright and clear. The telescopes had been set up the day before. We tinkered and aligned and adjusted and got everything ready to rock. After that, we simply sat around and waited. First contact came, and we cheered. Solar filters and cameras were ready. As minutes passed, the bite out of the Sun’s disk grew larger and larger.

Jeff and scope at Cap Chat 1972 - 500 wide.jpg

But then–damn!–clouds began to roll in from the west. We saw most of the partial eclipse. We had, however, already seen a partial solar eclipse, right at home in Chicago on March 7, 1970, when we were still high schoolers. This time, totality was the whole point of the adventure.

By 45 minutes before totality, the sky had almost completely clouded over.

We got some photos of the partial phase. And we saw a strange thing as totality happened: The undersides of the clouds got very dark. Once totality was over, we sat around and moped. The next day we packed up for home.

We went home by another way, to borrow from an excellent James Taylor song of the same name. I was so annoyed by missing totality that my memories of the trip back are sparser than those of the trip out. We crossed the Gaspe Peninsula, bored our way south across New Brunswick, and then drove the entire length of Maine. I believe we stopped at a beach just north of Boston, where I touched the Atlantic Ocean for the first time. Sparse, except for when we were burning our way west across Ohio, and one of the ball joints in Ernie’s venerable early ’60s Chrysler New Yorker gave out. Ernie got the vehicle off the pavement and out of traffic. Then he keyed his CB mic: “Houston, we have a problem.”

Weirdly, I don’t recall in detail how we solved the problem. We got a towtruck to pull the Chrysler to a service station, and they replaced the ball joint. The rest of the way back to Chicago occurred without incident.

We did our best, and the failure of Project Moonshadow was no fault of ours. I consider it a coming-of-age adventure, since we got four cars and ten people to the mouth of the St. Lawrence and back, and didn’t lose more than a ball joint.

And an eclipse.

Ahh, well. I’ve since seen three total solar eclipses, including the fabulous one down in Baja on July 11, 1991. Win a few, lose a few. The trip was fun, and had other advantages: I got tired enough of CB that I started working on getting my ham radio license. I enjoyed the company of my friends. And I began learning how to deal with adversity. That may have been the biggest win of all.

But damn, the fifty years since have gone fast!


  1. Jim Dodd says:

    Great story! Did you think about trying to get the group back together for the trip to Baja? Everyone was probably too scattered by that time.

  2. ace says:

    I grew up in Montreal, and at the time of the 1963 eclipse I was at a summer camp in the Laurentians north of Montreal. I hated that camp, mostly because it was full of the same clowns that I went to school with. Many of the school teachers were there as well, and it was not a joyous reunion.

    The morning of the eclipse, my dad showed up, unannounced, in our copper Chev, and whisked me away. We drove like fiends to Grand-Mere (‘grandmother’), north of Shawinigan, and saw the whole glorious thing. The camp was clouded over, so I was the only one who saw it. My dad achieved ‘Hero’ class that day.

  3. Bill Meyer says:

    Mine was 1963. Built a camera obscura — a large cardboard box which fitted over my head, with pinhole behind me and white paper in front. (Gray would have been better!)

    Waiting for things to happen with a box on my head. Good times!

  4. Orvan Taurus says:

    Alas, I have even been in the oath of TOTAL solar eclipse. But I ***STILL*** have LOATHING for the DUMBASS IDIOT B!TCH of substitute “teacher” that wouldn’t anyone out to see a PARTIAL SOLAR eclipse, not even by pinhole shadow… while a SANE lower-grade teacher had the class do EXACTLY that. Yes, I AM BITTER. Even having witnessed similar and maybe better later, she is STILL a DUMBASS IDIOT. And I am being FAR, FAR TOO KIND. If you pictured C-word, GOOD! In BOLD. ITALIC. UNDERLINED. FLASHING. IN TECHNICOLOR. And that’s NOT ENOUGH!

    1. Orvan Taurus says:

      ..have NEVER been in the path of…

      (and no even close, because if CLOSE….)

  5. Rolf Grunsky says:

    There is a total eclipse on April 8, 2024 that will pass through the eastern part of Texas and over the Niagara peninsula and northern New York state and Vermont. I intend to see it. The path of totality is only about forty miles south of me.

  6. Rich Rostrom says:

    In 2017, I tried to make arrangements to go from Chicago to southern Illinois for the August solar eclipse, but they all fell through.

    At nearly the last minute, I discovered the totality path crossed over the airport in Nashville. The round-trip ticket was the best $500 I ever spent.

  7. RickH says:

    Dunno if you have noticed this:

    An interactive tool that compares Hubble images with those from the new Webb telescope:

    Impressive differences!

  8. Rich Shealer says:

    When I was a Senior in high school in 1979 there was a total eclipse that we mised because of cloud cover. Turns we also missed it because according to a calculator I just used it wasn’t total in our area.

    I participated in the great parking lot of 2017. I drove from NE Ohio to a Walmart parking lot in Russelville, KY to see it. No clouds to speak of. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. The drive home really sucked.

    The next one in 2024 has totality only 15 miles from my house so that is nice. The ride home should be easy and if it’s cloudy it will suck, but not as much had I driven 14 hours to not see it.

    The traffic was interesting. The GPSes aligned and everyone took the same route. Probably should have tried using Waze.

  9. Tom says:

    Isn’t it an interesting coincidence that to an earth-bound observer, the relative size of the sun and the moon are almost exactly the same?

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