A fine morning in Montana

As a kid I was always a nut about astronomy. It was an interest that was to remain with me until the present, and will continue into the future as well. I remember one particular astronomical event which took place in the mile-high city of Helena. It was a total solar eclipse, but the story of that eclipse begins years before. Then I was 12 years old and I received a Golden Nature Guide about astronomy called "Stars". I have no trouble recollecting it as remains at my desk even as I type these words, taped and battered from long hours of study.

It was in the section on eclipses that I learned there was to be a solar eclipse passing through the Pacific Northwest in 1979. That was an event that I marked in my mental calendar! I wondered at the time where I would be at that distant date, and whether I would miss the eclipse. Children wonder those things I suppose, but I needn't have as I was to find myself living on the centerline of totality that day. In fact, perhaps by subliminal planning or just luck I realize now that most places I had lived were on or near the centerline of that eclipse path.

Winter in the Rockies is not for the faint of heart. In the high country fierce cold air builds and then, being dense, descends and blows down the valleys. Snow accumulates and dries to a hard powder. Cloudy skies alternate with clear and bitter cold days. In general, weather patterns follow a course from west to east. As the air rises towards the mountain passes the clouds build, and dissipate as they cross to the eastern lower elevations. Clear conditions are a hit-or-miss proposition at best.

The forecast for 26 February, 1979 was not good. Missoula where I lived was predicted to be overcast and my friends and I decided to make a early morning dash for Helena on the east side of the Continental Divide where we expected better skies to see the eclipse. Even Helena did not have favorable forecast for that morning. We took the chance and were rewarded with a spectacular sight. An eclipse is almost spiritual. The memory is something that will never pass. We drove back to Missoula after the eclipse and in my apartment I sat down at my typewriter and wrote the following words:

"While the experience of the eclipse is still fresh in my mind, I would like to tell of it.

Four of us, (me driving) left this morning on a three-hour drive to Helena east of the Continental Divide. We found a small hill just south of town and in fact partially within town. During the partial phases of the eclipse I set up my telescope and screen to project a sharp 5cm diameter solar image with a large dark "bite" out of it. I set it up low enough so that the children present could also see. It was a social event, as totality grew near more and more people (and their dogs), gathered talking and laughing excitedly to the top of the hill. There were thin high clouds which had no effect, but there were thicker clouds much lower in patches which drifted in and out of view. At times we thought that all was lost as the clouds gathered and our view was obscured. Then they dispersed and excitement ran high. The clouds actually provided a service by filtering down the intensity of the sun during partiality. I took several photos.

My projecting setup proved very good for group viewing and there were many people round about it. A TV newsman used it to film the crescent sun. About ten minutes before totality the sky was visibly dimmed and the crescent was growing very thin indeed. I remember thinking that there must be less than a minute left to go when, looking behind me, the western horizon was very dark! Upon seeing that, a stillness came on the folks, an anticipation. It was twilight, the horizon in front was blue, behind it was black. Then, the moon appeared! No longer a very large bite into the sun, but a black disk surrounded by the diffuse corona. The sky was dark and the lights came on in the city below. We all shouted and cheered in joy and wonderment. Although I have read and looked at photos of many eclipses, I was not prepared for what I saw. It was awesome and wonderful, it really was. It was much larger than I had expected, very near and familiar.

I wasted no time and took many photos and even changed lenses. Perhaps I spend too much time with my equipment and not enough in just looking. Certainly I did not see as much as I might have, and I was rushed to be sure, but I am satisfied none the less. Soon the western horizon grew light and all the horizon around was of a weird brownish light, very diffuse. Then it was over, the sun peeked over the rim, twilight came, and the day returned. We watched the solar crescent projected through my telescope. As people wandered away, all concluded that it was a grand and awesome sight. Satisfaction was general though it was too short. That, I expect, was a common opinion. We stayed until the very end of the partial phase. So... that is how I saw my first eclipse, (but not last!)."

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