Memory of my first eclipse
by Jim Sampanes
The date was February 26, 1979. The location was Taft Elementary School in Wyoming, Michigan. The school was abuzz with news that there would be a solar eclipse and the teachers would let us out into the snowy playground to witness it. There was only one caveat. “Don’t look at the sun! If you look directly at the solar eclipse you will go blind.” There was no gray area. There was no nuance. This warning was repeated throughout the day.
The main method of observing the eclipse was to stand with our back to the darkened sun and hold up a piece of cardboard with a hole punched in it. We could then ‘’see” the eclipse on the snow at our feet. The only other sanctioned way of viewing the eclipse was with a welding mask that a classmate brought to school because his dad was a welder. That was the best way. I can still remember the green hue of the solstice through that mask. Of course, that view was momentary because all the other kids were clamoring for that mask.
After relinquishing the mask, I went back to the cardboard method. During one of my attempts I could not get a good view of the eclipse so I instinctively looked skyward over my shoulder to make sure I had the right angle. In so doing, I looked directly at the eclipse. I immediately looked away. It was a glance, really. Only a fraction of a second; but I clearly did the one thing they told me not to do. Shit. I was going to go blind. I was sure of it.
When the bell rang and we all filed back into school I waited for it. They didn’t tell me how long it would take for blindness to occur. I didn’t want to ask because that would require admission to doing the one thing they told me not to do. I was rule follower. I was responsible. I was a “safety” for Pete’s sake. The school trusted my judgment as to when it was safe to cross the street and gave me the responsibility to keep other kids safe.
By the time school let out blindness had not yet set in. I briskly walked directly home, knowing that blindness was coming any second. Out of the school driveway. Right on Meyer Ave. Left on Wrenwood St. Crossed Avon Ave. I was almost there. Each step I made towards home as a sighted person is one less step I had to take to navigate my way home as the blind person I was sure to become. I did not dillydally. Right on Boulevard Dr. I got this.
I made it all the way home. Still, I couldn’t tell anyone. As we ate supper I paid special attention to the faces of my mom, dad and siblings. I was sure that this would be the last I saw of them. I went to bed. I woke up the next morning and I could still see.
Thirty-eight years later, I can still see. At first, I was mad that they lied to me. But with age I’ve taken it as an opportunity for growth. I’m still earnest but I’ve become less literal. I’ve learned that there’s a lot of gray in the world. There is nuance. I’ve also come to appreciate that “We do not recommend looking directly at an eclipse for an extended period because there’s a chance that you could do permanent damage to your retinas.” may not be the most effective admonition to give 4th graders.
Walter Cronkite reports: