Saturday, March 23, 2024

Flashback 1989: Viewers rate eclipse a total joy

"Two Men Contemplating the Moon," by Caspar David Friedrich (Metropolitan Museum)

     My job sends me places. I decide where, mostly, like the Nowruz celebration — Afghan New Year — at Northeastern Illinois University Thursday night, where I shot the photo atop the blog. It didn't generate a story — none presented itself. But I was invited, so I went.
     Back in the day, after I first joined the staff of the Sun-Times — 37 years ago today — I'd show up for work, for a while at 7 p.m., and be sent somewhere unexpected, whether a zoning board meeting or a church fire or an alley where a man had leapt out of window and been cut in half on the sharp edge of a dumpster.  I never knew where I might be going or what I might find when I got there, which was both a blessing and a hardship.
    For this story, one warm summer evening, I was told to go over to the Adler Planetarium. Two memories stick out. First I walked from 401 N. Wabash. And second, as I did, I wondered, "Who the hell is going to go to bother going there watch an occurrence they can see as easily literally anywhere?" A thought I held until I got to the point where I crested a rise and the planetarium hoved into view. A lot of people, as it turned out, gathered on the lawn for the communal thrill of it. That isn't in the story, for some reason. I clearly remember Willard Fontain sitting on a lawn chair, in a yachtsman cap, a portable radio set to soft music. As well as the lip-smacking relish he used after I asked him why he was there and he replied: "I'm a moon watch-ah!"

     Willard Fontain raised a snifter of cognac toward the moon, a dusty smudge of deep rose, and offered a toast as it was eclipsed for the first time in seven years Wednesday night.
     "A very beautiful sight," said Fontain, who went to Adler Planetarium with his friend Jerry Williams to watch the moon on its 3 1/2-hour transit through Earth's shadow.
     "It lets you know there's really a man up above," he said.
     The first hour of the eclipse was partially obscured by clouds, but the spectators' enthusiasm wasn't dampened. Hundreds of people on the grounds of the planetarium cheered when they saw the last glimmer of light disappear in a gauzy haze, and people waxed poetic while the moon waned.
     "The moon's always been a romantic thing; it symbolizes the unattainable," said Bob Pejovic, of Chicago, fiddling with his telescope. "We'd like to reach out and touch it, like Neil Armstrong did. But in the meantime, we look."
     For the planetarium, the eclipse drew a rare nighttime crowd, pressing around the exhibits and packing lecture halls to hear astronomers speak of the eclipse and to watch it on video monitors.
     "I think it is very good for the planetarium," said astronomer Larry Ciupik. "People don't understand eclipses, and they want to learn more."
     At the Images Lounge, on the 95th floor of the John Hancock Center, the crowd was less welcome.
     "It's been crazy," complained a waiter. "I don't know what the moon does to people, but it's been nuts."
     The moon was completely covered for one hour and 36 minutes, just 11 minutes less than the maximum time physically possible.
     A lunar eclipse occurs when the moon, the Earth and the sun are in a straight line, with the moon in the Earth's shadow.
     As the moon began to pass out of the Earth's shadow, at about 10:30 p.m., student filmmaker Hal Marshall, 24, began packing away the 16-mm. camera he used in taking stop-action photographs from the Hancock's observation deck.
     "It's a symbol of the highest thing that man's attained," he said. "Our machines are there. The American flag is planted there."
     The next total eclipse of the moon will occur on Dec. 9, 1992.
           —Originally published in the Sun-Times, August 17, 1989


  1. Partial solar eclipses are about a 100. A total solar eclipse, like the one coming up on April 8, is a 1,000. Hoping like hell for cloud-free skies here, but since springtime in Ohio is usually overcast and wet, I'm trying not to expect much. Some people are already planning to bring the circus to town. Maybe it'll be more like a zoo, if enough people show up. Locals are hoping to make a killing from watch parties, eclipse festivals, food trucks, merch, and a lot more. If it's sunny here, we'll just sit on our deck.

    On the other hoof, lunar eclipses are a lot more common, and a lot more low-key...maybe a 10 if it's total, as the one in August of 1989 was. I've seen a number of them, and that one was more enjoyable than some others have been...a mild late-summer night, mostly clear skies, and 96 minutes of totality.

    Things got luny fairly late, and the show lasted well into the wee hours, if I remember correctly. Found myself a nice clear view to the south, smoked a bowl or two, and then spent 3 1/2 hours in a lounge chair, wine glass in hand, in the alley behind the 3900 block of N. Oakley. T'was a night to remember.

  2. Congrats from me too! That's quite a ride! What timing! There is a penumbral lunar eclipse tomorrow night! It begins Sunday night at 11:53, goes total Mon. 2:12 am, is over at 4:33 am. The sun and moon are not aligned so not a total umbral eclipse-where it takes a bigger bite thru all of it. So it's more subtle and hard to notice until close to total. Sounds a bit like the one you witnessed-but maybe not. I think there will be a sliver not covered on this one. I get Earth Sky mail every day and you can find all things celestial at their website. (um, I see it will likely be cloudy, never mind ;-)

  3. "Back in the day, after I first joined the staff of the Sun-Times — 37 years ago today ..." Mazel tov, boychik. Sorry I missed that line. My apologies. I've said this before, but neither Bob Greene (33 years) nor Mike Royko (also 33 years) had rides as long as yours. You're a survivor...and that's something to definitely be proud of. Zei gesunt...and all the best. Write long and prosper.

    1. Grizz 65 said it well so I will second what he said. Congrats!


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