Thursday, October 19, 2023


Issue 597: The Big Eclipse


Well, in a small way, muchachos. Not that it wasn’t a fairly big deal, but it hadn’t assumed much prominence in my reckonings in the days before the event. Saturday morning’s annular eclipse had been somewhat on your ol’ Uncle’s mind, of course. How could it not be? Every weatherman, local and national, had been talking about little else for the last week. And yet, and yet…  I felt unmoved. Yes, it would be a fairly deep eclipse, around 75% of Sol’s face would be covered by Miss Hecate in the environs of Possum Swamp…but…yeah, just another partial eclipse.

Anyhoo, Eclipse morning, I wasn’t thinking much about the Sun; I was thinking more about my current addiction: breakfast biscuits, fried chicken breakfast biscuits slathered in honey sauce. “Guess I’ll head up to Whataburger for breakfast with the hams like I do every Saturday.” In addition to my guilty pleasure, those dadgum biscuits, I am the president of the Mobile Amateur Radio Club and feel like it’s part of my job to attend every edition of the Saturday morning assemblage of OMs and YLs—the fried chicken is just a perk (uh-huh).

It was a jolly gathering at Whataburger that morning. Everybody was awful excited about the Swains Island DXpedition, which had been causing quite the stimulation of the HF ether. But, also, the solar eclipse, which would begin about 90 minutes from the time the nice li’l girl brought Unk his breakfast tray.

Hams and astronomy? There are lots of amateur radio operators who are also amateur astronomers. Radio propagation depends on the Sun, so most hams have a natural interest in it. More than that, amateur radio is a scientific hobby, and hams tend to be curious about things like, yeah, The Great Out There. Question a ham and you’ll often find she/he has a telescope. A dealer at our last tailgater, Bud’s Tailgator, had a couple of scopes for sale, smallish Meades, and they generated a heck of a lot of interest. “Rod! What do you think of this one?”

Our efforts and success or lack thereof in working Swains Island in the South Pacific (I got him without much trouble on CW) talked over at fair length, the ragchewing turned to ECLIPSE, ECLIPSE, ECLIPSE. I grumbled it was just an annular eclipse, and a partial one at that from the Gulf Coast. Nothing to get excited about. My friends looked at me as if I were crazy, “But W4NNF, it’s a solar eclipse!”

Unfortunately, I reckon I got off on a bad foot when it comes to solar eclipses just over 50 years ago. I am talking about the great total eclipse of March 1970.  Not only would it be a deep partial one for Possum Swamp, over 90%, the path of totality wouldn’t be far away. It would pass relatively near here in fact, the path going right through this little town on the Florida – Georgia Parkway, Chiefland, Florida (!).

The "pinhole effect."
Now, I didn’t know a thing about Chiefland; it was just a spot on the map. I certainly had no inkling one day there’d be such a thing as the Chiefland Astronomy Village there or that I’d spend many a night under the stars on a Chiefland observing field. All I knew was it was on Highway 19/98, Highway 98 could be picked up right across the Bay, and the map I got at the Gulf Station indicated there were motels there. What if…what if…  What if I got in my 1962 Ford Galaxie and headed for Chiefland to observe the eclipse? Hell, maybe even to take pictures of it. It would be a real eclipse expedition just like the pros did!

While I had enough money saved up from my various endeavors—mostly lawn mowing—to pay for gas and maybe even enough for a cheap motel room, one impediment remained—the old man. OK, no use holding back; nothing to it but to do it. I apprised W4SLJ of my plans for the eclipse expedition.

His reaction? I feared it would be the same as the previous month, when I’d asked if I could borrow $24.95 for a Gotham Vertical antenna for WN4NNF: “Daddy," I'd said, waving a copy of 73 Magazine under his nose, "It says right here in the ad it will let me work plenty of DX!”  

I was correct. When I paused for breath THIS TIME after pouring out my eclipse plans, he gave a me a look that indicated he was momentarily speechless and/or concerned his peculiar young son had finally taken complete leave of his senses. He grabbed me by the shoulder and led me outside to the driveway where my prized Galaxie was parked.

“For crying out loud, you are going to drive six or eight hours on Highway 98 with this? Look at those tires!  I’m surprised when you go into the gas station and ask for a dollar’s worth that the attendant doesn’t ask ‘Gas or oil?’ No. I’m guessing you wouldn’t get halfway there. And I’d have to take a day off work to come and retrieve you and figure out what to do with this—junker.” Said he, looking over at my poor Ford and shaking his head.

To soften the blow, he patted me on the shoulder. “Sorry coach. That’s the way it is. Say, you want to put up an HF vertical? Let’s build you one. I’ve got some aluminum tubing here somewhere, and we’ll put together a loading coil.” And that was that.  I was frankly embarrassed I’d troubled the OM, who usually maintained a calm if serious demeanor indicative of his European heritage. I imagined daddy was a lot like Enrico Fermi must have been. Yes, I was embarrassed and had no intention of bringing the subject up again.

The coda on the big spring eclipse of 1970? The OM was mostly right. Oh, I still wonder if the Galaxie might not have made it there and back in one piece…but it wouldn’t have made any difference. It was cloudy in Chiefland. And it was cloudy up here on the Northern Gulf Coast. The way I remember it, I didn’t get a glimpse of the eclipsed Sun that day.

The above somewhat bitter memory did pass through my mind at breakfast, but, on the other hand, no eclipse I’ve ever actually been able to see has, yes, failed to move me. Anyway, I was brought back to the present by the excited chirping of my fellow ops about the cardboard box solar viewers they had ready to go—I’d printed instructions on safe solar viewing and plans for a pinhole viewer in the radio club’s weekly newsletter.

I looked at my watch. 9:30 had come and gone and the eclipse would begin at 10:37. I announced we’d all better get a move on, and we headed for the doors nearly en masse—no doubt to the astonishment of the Whataburger crew.

Back home, I couldn’t deny it; a bit of the ol’ eclipse fever was setting in. If you want heresy, lunar eclipses have always meant more to me than solar ones. Maybe because of the events surrounding a memorable one early in my astronomy career. But, like the ops had said, “’NNF, it’s an eclipse!”  Having not prepared in advance for this one, there wouldn’t be any fancy telescopes or cameras. I grabbed my humble 80mm SkyWatcher refractor, Eloise, and headed for the backyard. I plunked her down on the driveway in a spot with a good view to the east, slapped the Thousand Oaks solar filter over her objective end, and was ready.

iPhone 14 Sun.
And soon it began, Luna creeping across the solar disk. As partial eclipses go, this would be a good-looking one. We are at a time of high solar activity here in Cycle 25. It’s been wild for months, and we are not at max yet—some fellers are saying this solar cycle might rival the legendary Cycle 19 for activity. That meant the solar disk was peppered by sunspots including one impressively large group. I reckoned it would be especially purty in a hydrogen alpha scope. Alas, your stingy Unk doesn’t have one of those. The Thousand Oaks filter did produce a beautiful yellow-orange Sun, however.

What was it like? Yes, any solar eclipse is an experience, one that isn’t duplicated by looking at photos of one. For one thing, looking at the Moon blotting out the Sun always gives me a real feeling for the depth of the sky. The Moon, our nearby pal, passing in front of far more distant Sol…I almost get a feeling of vertigo and the view in the eyepiece seems to assume almost the look of 3D.

Feeling that semi-vertigo, I pulled away from the eyepiece for a moment and thought, “Hell, this is a GOOD ONE. Oughta take a picture.” How? Just with my cell phone. I recalled I’d purchased a smartphone mount, a plastic widget that clamps your phone onto an eyepiece, to use when I was writing a Sky &Telescope Test Report on a SkyWatcher reflector and ran inside to fetch it.

With a little fiddling, I got the iPhone 14 set up and starting taking little snapshots. I didn’t expect much, just a souvenir of the day, but the iPhone 14 Pro Max does have a surprisingly good and versatile camera as phone cameras go, and I was able to get a couple of OK snapshots despite my excited fumbling.

With eclipse maximum upon us, I ran inside to get Miss Dorothy so she could have a look (and also document Unk’s uber-simple setup). Soon that eerie semi-twilight that comes with a deep partial eclipse set in, and the world was silent and still for a while. And we looked and we looked and we looked until the Moon passed on in her timeless path. It was a good one y’all and I was happy to have seen it.

Next time:  Shortly, I should have finished my yearly M13 image quest (I would have done that this evening but for dratted clouds moving in in advance of a mild front). So that will—knock on wood—be my subject next edition.  


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