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Stiehm: A solar eclipse for the common good

By Jamie Stiehm - | Apr 11, 2024

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Jamie Stiehm

I left the house at high noon.

Outdoors, Washington dressed in light spring green with splashes of pink cherry trees. The sun shone, no cloud cover. We earthlings had our eyes on the sky, from Texas to Maine. A solar eclipse was landing.

That was the path of “totality,” a harmonic convergence of the sun and moon.

Totality — a word meaning the moments the moving moon blocks the sun, casting a spell of darkness in daytime. Birds and animals go a little nuts.

But then, so do humans. We’re part of the cosmos, after all.

Thousands like me filled the National Mall, and millions gathered in other places — like Ohio and Niagara Falls — just had to see what was up.

With my reporter’s notebook in hand, the spectacle felt like old times as a Baltimore Sun reporter.

You go out on a story, talk to lots of strangers, scribble their thoughts, return to the newsroom and file the story “on deadline” for the next day’s paper (once past your city editor).

That’s the drill. And I missed the thrill.

Nowadays, I spend lots of time in the creamy Capitol, the dome in the distance. The House of Representatives is a pitched battle, and the Senate ain’t so sweet, either.

Breathing in “the war within” the walls wears on a body’s spirit. Witnessing the Jan. 6 siege stays a while in your head.

The Smithsonian museums set up outdoor tables and tents to answer questions and educate passersby on our star, the sun. The next eclipse won’t happen for 20 years. The National Air and Space Museum hosted the free Mall event, rounding up several museums to come out to play.

I was struck by the teamwork among institutions. Often they keep to their own. But this April day brought out a burst of enthusiasm, a sense of oneness. The experts were as excited as amateurs.

That felt palpable in a long line of people, all ages, waiting to peer through a standing telescope operated by a youth of 17. He generously assisted everyone, including a small girl dressed as an astronaut.

I asked what museum he represented.

“This is my telescope,” he answered. “I built it with a 500-millimeter lens.”

Gael Gomez of Chevy Chase, Maryland, indeed came on his own with a telescope he built for this very day. His mother confirmed: “This (astronomy) is his passion.”

Looking through, I clearly glimpsed a bit of moon over the sun. The stark sight stirs something deep in the beholder. The peak moment, 3:20 p.m., had not yet happened.

I noticed a chic couple sitting on a bench for hours. “Bien sur,” they lived in Paris, though she was American. She characterized her French fiance, clutching solar sunglasses, as “super excited.”

Later, a handsome blue-eyed Dutch man asked if he could share my bench. His name? “Job.” He and a friend walked all the way from the Lincoln Memorial, in the other direction from the Capitol.

I told them the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached “I Have a Dream” at the Memorial.

Nearby a young German man narrated a video for friends. A mathematician, Mario Frank, told me he traveled the world while working remotely. Everything will change in 50 years, he said, when that became the thing.

He seemed to see into the future, adding, “if AI doesn’t kill us.”

Around us, we heard murmurs that totality had traveled over and darkened Texas. We’d experience 87% of the eclipse. When it appeared right on time, spontaneous applause broke out on the breeze.

Not a bad seat in the house.

Sisters Cynthia and Laura Nelson, their silver hair in ponytails, live in Georgetown. We noted the 2017 eclipse was not such a big deal, a magical unifying event for everyone.

Perhaps after the pandemic and political strife, the capital (and country) longed for something good under the sun. Which all could agree on.

By the Smithsonian Castle, I met a (“born and raised”) Washingtonian, LaShawn Lewis, who brought her family’s younger generation. Her cheer radiated.

“We have a beautiful place to live.”

Just a fact, ma’am. I heard my BaltSun city editor was there, too.

The author may be reached at JamieStiehm.com.


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