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What to expect when you're expecting an eclipse

The total solar eclipse of August 2017, as seen from Marion, Kentucky.
Scott Fybush
The total solar eclipse of August 2017, as seen from Marion, Kentucky.

You’ve been hearing a lot about the total solar eclipse coming to the Rochester area on April 8. But few of us have had firsthand experience with the magic of totality. WXXI’s Scott Fybush was fortunate enough to travel to the last total eclipse in North America in 2017. In our series “What to Expect When You’re Expecting an Eclipse,” he’ll share that experience, providing advice on how to make the most of this brief but magical moment.

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“Until you’ve seen totality, until you have actually experienced it in person, it’s really hard to describe in words.”
If Deb Ross, the leader of Rochester’s eclipse task force, can’t fully describe the majesty of a total solar eclipse, you know it’s a tough task.

That’s my job, too — to use words and sound to bring you to places you might never know about otherwise. It turns out I’m not the only journalist who finds himself struggling to make the words rise to the task.

David Baron was working for NPR when they sent him to South America.

“I saw my first total eclipse in 1998 and I kind of knew intellectually what was going to happen,” he says. “The moon was going to go in front of the sun.”

You’ve heard this how many times by now? It gets dark for a few minutes in the middle of the day and then it gets light again. Big deal.

Except something happened to Baron that day.

“The moment the sun went out and I saw a sky like I had never seen before, I felt connected to the universe,” Baron recalls. “I was this tiny little speck in this enormous unfathomable universe.”

I also knew intellectually what was going to happen, when I saw my first total solar eclipse.

But it took a while.

I was that kid who built a planetarium out of old slide projectors in my third-grade classroom. I also had no control over some bad celestial timing.

Between 1954 and 1972, there were five total solar eclipses visible in parts of North America. Remember the Carly Simon song, where her mystery lover “flew your Lear jet up to Nova Scotia to see the total eclipse of the sun”?

That was a real eclipse in the summer of 1972. I had just been born, and I wasn’t flying anywhere yet. After that, there was one more in 1979, with the path of totality up in the Pacific Northwest. It was only partial here, but I still tried to watch it from school. It was Rochester in February, and it was completely clouded over.

And then, for 38 years — nothing.

So my inner third-grader had 2017 marked on the calendar for a very long time by the time I made it to the town park in little Marion, Kentucky.

It was a sweltering summer day. Even as we watched the moon covering the sun, it didn’t feel like anything extraordinary. Until suddenly, it did.

Totality. The temperature dropped 10 degrees. I got chills. The stars came out. The sun’s corona shone from behind the mountains on the edge of the moon. Somewhere out in the distance, someone had Pink Floyd perfectly synced up with the moment when the sun was eclipsed by the moo-oo-ooooo-ooon.

I was a speck in the universe — but a speck in an unlikely universe where the sun could be perfectly aligned with the moon and the Earth to make this spectacle possible. Where science could predict exactly where this shadow would speed across the earth so I could wait almost four decades for just 2 1/2 minutes of darkness.

It wasn’t anything like the usual slow descent into dusk we experience when it really is night. It happens so much faster. It’s over so quickly.

David Baron got hooked. He’s written books about eclipses. He’s been to seven more total eclipses since his first one.

“And one annular eclipse,” he noted during a national eclipse conference in San Antonio last fall, “and a bunch of partials. But total eclipses, I mean, that’s the thing to see.”

And this time, the magic is coming right to us. What should you expect when you’re expecting an eclipse? That’s what I’ll be exploring with you here for the next few weeks.

Come along for the ride of a lifetime.

You'll hear Scott in various capacities on WXXI either as a reporter, or hosting Morning Edition or All Things Considered.