Bob Bestler

Total eclipse brought spectacle, conversations with interesting characters

People gather to watch the Great American Eclipse on the Georgetown Harborwalk. The sun was totally eclipsed at 2:46 p.m. on Monday.
People gather to watch the Great American Eclipse on the Georgetown Harborwalk. The sun was totally eclipsed at 2:46 p.m. on Monday. jlee@thesunnews.com

The eclipse passed through McClellenville on Monday, but I was nowhere around. I had left our little village to old pal Ed Piotrowski, your friendly WPDE-TV weather guy who broadcast from there.

It seems old Ed brought a lot of Grand Stranders with him because the place was, by all accounts, packed with cars and people. A new sandwich shop called Boats & Hoagies sold no fewer than 600 sandwiches in the hours before the eclipse.

I, meanwhile, was 10 miles away at the Sewee Environmental Education Center, which is a part of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The bride is a volunteer there and I had been asked to write about this historic event for their bulletin board or newsletter or some such thing. I could not say no.

The center’s grounds was filled by 10 a.m. and I spent the day talking to folks who had come from various parts of the world to stand in the epicenter of a total solar eclipse and watch and study for a full 2 minutes and 34 seconds.

There was, for instance, Jean Pierre Bordenave of Paris, France.

The 76-year-old Jean Pierre has a unique hobby. He travels to remote parts of the world to watch total solar eclipses.

Ask how many he’s witnessed and the best answer he can give you is, “About 12 to 15.” Then he’ll rattle off some of the places he’s traveled to see a total eclipse:

“In 1981, Liberia. In 1997, Mongolia. In 2001, Zambia. In 2006, Libya. In 2008, Siberia. In 2012, Australia.”

He didn’t mention Indonesia, but his T-shirt gave him away: “Total Eclipse 2016 Indonesia.”

He’s already planning his next total eclipse trip. In 2019, he said, he’ll be heading for Argentina or Chile.

Bordenave was part of a group of about 15 people who came here from France. They described themselves and “passionate amateurs” and they came prepared with high-powered telescopes and cameras.

The group was traveling in a bus and was heading to the Kennedy Space Center the next day – “We’re going to have lunch with an astronaut” – then drive on to Key West before heading back to France. I told them they’d love Key West. Its nightlife is out of this world.

Prof. George Charta of College of Charleston brought a few undergraduate students to set up telescopes. A table had several handouts about solar eclipses and as we awaited the eclipse, he assured me that seeing a total eclipse is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“If the sun is 99 percent covered, it is still daylight,” he said. “You need complete totality.”

Mary Hennessy said much the same thing. She and her husband Tom had traveled from Raleigh to camp at Myrtle Beach State Park, then made their way to the Sewee Center.

Mary is a fan of author Annie Dillard and she offered a quote from Dillard’s essay, “Total Eclipse”:

“Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying one. Although one experience precedes the other, it in no way prepares you for it.”

After the eclipse, I asked Mary if Annie had it right. She could barely speak and the tears in her eyes brought a tear to mine. What else was there to say?

Monica Pepe, a physicist from Italy, somewhere north of Rome, had come to the United States to attend a conference next week in Fairfax, Va.

She and her husband decided to come early in order to experience a total eclipse and the first thing they did was look for a cool city.

That would be Charleston, but they noticed that Charleston was not in the absolute center of the path of the eclipse.

They spent a day driving around and found the Sewee Center, which they thought perfect.

She said this was actually her second total eclipse. “We saw one in Vietnam couple of years ago,” she said. “I was there for another conference.”

I mentioned Juan Pierre’s words about an Argentina eclipse in 2019 and suggested she look for a conference there, as well. She laughed and said she might.

At about 2:45 the grounds of the Sewee Center turned a greyish hue as the moon slipped fully between earth and sun. A cheer went up at the darkness, though the full eclipse was hidden momentarily behind a cloud.

A few second later, the clouds parted and the most breathtaking astronomical sight I’ve ever seen appeared in full.

Another cheer went up, this one louder than the first.

Then there was near total silence as we stared skyward, many of us lying on the grass and taking in a phenomenon that will not occur again in the United States again until 2024.

After more than two and a half minutes, a tiny sliver of sun peaked through and the cheers went up again – this time louder than ever. It was indeed spectacular.

Contact Bob Bestler at bestler6@tds.net.

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