The last, total, solar eclipse to grace our nation from coast to coast occurred on June 8, 1918. The United States, however, seemed to have little time to pause. The First World War had been raging for four years, and daily headlines were dominated by stories of loss, woe, and prayers for resolution. Just two days before the eclipse, 5,000 Americans were killed during The Battle of Belleau Wood.
As the moon shadow drew its path across the states, however, the country was offered a momentary respite from the concerns of the terrestrial sphere. For a time, the world was small, and a fragile comfort rose from the knowledge of the great beyond.
The day before the eclipse, wedged among stories of U-boats and battlefield reports, The News Democrat described the umbra shadow as an astral pencil.
“A great astral pencil, whose point is miles in circumference, is to draw a jet black line across the United States from Aberdeen, Washington, to Orlando, Florida, tomorrow afternoon. The great cosmic titan who will hold the pencil and mark the line will ‘get even’ with Washington for stealing an hour of sunlight on that day, for he will take 47 minutes of the sunlight back again.
“The point of that pencil, black as ebony, will represent an eclipse of the sun. The point will begin with the moon and will drop in an exact cone to the earth where it will delete a considerable portion of the [United States] in about the same manner that a military censor deletes an objectionable line from a war correspondent dispatch. The stock of the pencil will be represented by a nebulous space of infinity, millions of miles long, between the sun and moon.”
Even though totality was not observable from Paducah, the city was treated to a partial eclipse when, a little after 6:30 PM, the moon covered three-fourths of the sun. “Smoked glass bits were in demand Saturday by virtually all Paducahans who were anxious to view the eclipse,” said The News Democrat. “Amateur astronomers were busy early in the afternoon. By the time that the moon covered one half of the portion of the sun, large groups of individuals using smoked glass were numerous in both the residential and downtown district.”
On August 21, the scene in Paducah will no doubt be similar. And in 2017, even though we may not be in the midst of a world war, we are often beset by the concerns, woes, and afflictions of humankind. Perhaps on August 21, as the cosmic ballet delivers its show to our seats, we too can look away from the bonds of terra firma and see, for a moment, our place among the great expansion of universes and galaxies and find that fragile comfort.