The Decaturian

The People I Met When the Sky Went Dark

Broderick Sparks, Writer

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Riding shotgun, I travel to Carbondale to observe the solar eclipse with my friend Ben Woodall, a former Millikin student and published astrophysicist.

We leave at 7:07 A.M. Our supplies include a bag of flavored tootsie rolls, four granola bars, $32.05, fifteen writing utensils, four spiral notebooks, three La Croix sparkling waters, four cigarettes, and a giant sloth head that I use to entertain strangers during traffic jams. The Mountain Goats newest album “Goths” plays via aux. cord for the first hour of our trip. Ben fills my ears with sun facts that I pretend to comprehend.

“The photons we’re seeing today were created inside the sun around 100,000 years ago.” Says Ben. “Neutrinos tell us what’s happening in the sun currently, while photons tell us what was happening when they were created.”

I nod and smile as if I understand. Ben can read me like a periodical, and decides to change the subject to something more my speed.

“What do 100 billion neutrinos and I have in common” Ben asks. “We’ve both penetrated your mother.”

We reach SIU’s campus at 11:07 A.M. My friend Shelby Barker allows us to meet at her apartment. From there, we venture toward campus and join with her friends Katie Lorenz, and Nick Pradel. After hearing that my attendance is of a journalistic capacity, Katie informs me that she watched cars pile into town while riding her bike in the morning, and saw license plates from twenty-seven different states. She then found the notes on her phone where she recorded the list.

“Missouri, Kansas, Georgia, Maryland, South Carolina, Wisconsin, Maine…” Says Katie. “Indiana, Michigan, New York, Alabama, Virginia, Florida, Ohio, Kentucky, Maryland, Colorado. Wait, did I say Maryland twice? Make that twenty-six.”

I scribble down abbreviations as she continues to list. When we make it to campus, booths are set up selling lemon shake-ups, carnival foods, solar eclipse glasses, and “Eclipse Over Little Egypt” tee shirts. People of all varieties roam the streets. Science nerds, mystics, stoned college kids, and religious types all seem to be enjoying the event for different reasons, but share the same field of grass in harmony. I’m surprised to have not seen any dooms-dayers. I had assumed that “the end is near” people would be taking full advantage of an astrological phenomenon that’s been construed as a bad omen by tribal cultures for centuries. Perhaps they are too busy prepping.

While walking, Ben and I pass a team of scientists who appear to be frantic any time pedestrians come close to their experiment. Naturally, we approach the caution tape they’ve hung out of curiosity. As expected, the scientists shout for us to step away in a tone that’s both demanding and (somehow) respectful. After informing them of my important position as a journalist, one of them takes a short break to speak with me.

The woman’s name is Padma Yanamandra. I feel guilty for asking her to repeat her name thrice before finally having her spell it. She speaks with me enthusiastically, and as if I understand the terminology she throws around. Luckily, Ben understands what she’s saying, so I let them volley while I merely retrieve balls.

“We have a match-work of sixty-eight identical telescopes set up at locations where the eclipse will reach totality between Oregon and South Carolina.” Says Yanamandra. “We are using a K-telescope, but we have modified it by adding a polar measure to the camera. The reason being, we are interesting in understanding how and why the corona increases in temperature away from the sun as apposed to dropping in temperature.”

I use that quote, because it’s the only sliver of conversation my puny brain was able to comprehend. After seventeen minutes, we have to end the interview as the eclipse is nearing totality. At 1:17 P.M., we begin to panic. The sun has been visible all day, but a large cloud moves in and hides it from us. A loud speaker announces that totality will be reached in five minutes.

At 1:22 P.M., the massive cloud parts down the middle, opening a perfect window for us to view the eclipse as it reaches totality. The moon crosses over the sun, and the sky goes dark (more navy blue than black). It’s the loudest I’ve heard a crowd cheer since the cubs won the world series. The corona is completely visible around the moon, which makes the sun look twice as large. Ben bounces ecstatically. I want to hug him, but neither of us can take our eyes off the sun. Even typing now, I smile about the scene. It’s legitimately one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

Afterwards, we attack veggie burgers before hitting the road. On our way out of town, we wait at a stoplight behind a car with a Mississippi license plate. Mississippi, make that twenty-seven.

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The People I Met When the Sky Went Dark