A Night Less Than Total

photo: oggling the moon

Yes! Look! There it is! The sun and the moon at the same time.

Spectators Like Show Anyhow

Paris:- Wednesday, 11. August 1999:- This morning there is panic in the city. The autoroutes and highways heading to the north and north-east are jammed.

Huge crowds at the Gare du Nord are storming trains leaving town. The SNCF has put up barriers to hold passengers back.photo: eclipse shades Door-pushers are cramming passengers into trains. By doing so, an extra 100,000 are shipped out.

Since yesterday at 10:00, I have not been able to find 'eclipsegoggles' - the newspaper Le Parisien's promised 630,000 free pairs are all gone already. Pharmacies and optical shops all had signs saying, 'no more moon shades.'

The weather doesn't look good for today's spectacle. There are many more clouds than small patches of blue sky; it may rain and it is chilly. 'Below normal for the season,' as TV-weather news says.

My building's manager has four pairs of the shades. He got them by ordering them early at a pharmacy. I ask him to loan me a pair on Thursday, for a photo. He is looking at the sky too - I think he is going to watch the eclipse on TV. Hephoto: sign, no eclipse glasses left wasn't aware that the Paris Observatory is only a few blocks away.

The sign saying, 'None left,' refers to the goggles on the right.

I cut across the big Denfert place by going through the tiny park behind the catacombs, crossing over and going down the Boulevard Arago, to see if I can get in by the south gate. It is closed up tight, as some people just ahead of me have already found out.

Following behind them up the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Jacques - the way Allan and I came last March, looking for the Meridian disks - I see more people going the same way. Not too many though. Everybody turns left into the Rue Cassini.

In front of the Observatoire, there is a line snaking from the entrance gate and around the corner into the Rue Cassini, and down the block towards the Avenue Denfert-Rochereau. When I get to the corner, the line goes south down Denfert-Rochereau a long way. I tag on to the end of it. Within minutes I am far from last in line.

The crowd seems mildly excited, as if it is going to see a movie word-of-mouth has said is good. We edge up slowly in short halts and little forward bursts towards the Café de l'Observatoire at the Rue Cassini corner. Some people have been 'holding places' for others, so some squeeze into the line - but many more have slightly worried looks as they look for the line's end.

The file of people speeds up a bit after we have turned the corner into Cassini and we get to the entrance gate fairly quickly. Observatory staff are windmilling their arms to speed us through the iron gate. It is about 11:10.

Inside the grounds, there is a big screen set up in a tent structure just to the right of the observatory's entrance. A sign says free eclipse glasses are reserved for some special category of visitor, but I get a pair just by looking at a young lady with a handful of them. Get my space shades!

According to the one-page leaflet, the 'first contact' of the eclipse in Paris has been at 11:04. On the big screen they have shown 'first contact' at Reims, Compiègne and Nançay. The path to the south terrace is around to the left and this is the path I take.

There is a fair-sized park on the south side of the Observatory, with a path in the centre, leading up to the south terrace. Afterphoto: queue on rue cassini passing a small line waiting at a porti-toilet, I see that there are two refreshment wagons on the right side of the terrace.

It seems like thousands are in front. Will we get in on time?

On this side there are too many trees overhead to get a good view of the crowd looking up at the sky. I cross the grass over to the westerly side where the trees are fewer and the whole south terrace becomes visible. There are a lot of people on the terrace and hanging out of windows in the Observatoire.

I set up the tripod for the anticipated 'night-shots' I intend to take of everybody looking at the moon hiding the sun. A fellow asks me if I'm going to photograph the eclipse, without noticing the camera is pointing ninety degrees away from it.

People, adults, kids, start placing themselves on the grass near me. The grass must be damp, but there is a lot of sky visible from my spot. Moon-gazers make themselves comfortable by lying down, angled towards the sun, which is peeping out occasionally.

Big white, fluffy clouds with dark grey bottoms are sliding across the sky from the north-west. Something happens when it is a bit clear at 12:07 and the crowd cheers. The show is on time and it is appreciated. It applauds the sun and the moon.

But the wait has been long and I'm worried the closest kid is going to kick the tripod by accident. Two others have started playing cards. The clouds hide events for a bit, and then another cheer goes up. 'Go moon, go!'

I whip my shades out of my shirt pocket and see - dimly - the moon half-covering the bottom-right of the sun. Wisps of cloud are weaving fine threads of gossamer between the earth and the event in the sky.

At 12:17 it is hard to tell if it is getting darker, because cloud cover lifts, splashing lightphoto: 12.21, maximum cover over the observatory. I am watching this closely, because I want to photograph the fall of the advertised 'night' in the middle of the day. I look at it really hard.

Here it is - one minute before 'maximum cover.' Darn!

Three minutes later it is darker, but is it clouds? I guess and shoot again at 12:21. I can't tell. I wait five minutes, and take another frame at 12:26. In effect, I miss the 'maximum cover' at Paris - it was at 12:22.

Just before, at about 11:56, I noticed my watch was indicating 'Tuesday' and '12' as the date. Idly, I changed it to the right day and date, but in the process lost the 'right' time.

The camera's clock was set to the time of my radio-tuned clock - so the indicated '12:21' and '12:26' are correct. I get a perfect, one-minute interval sequence of shots from 12:17 to 12:21, but I miss photographing the observatory at 12:22. I blow it, in other words.

The crowd cheers and applauds when it can see what is happening in the sky. At the moment of 'maximum cover' the audience is doing neither. Waiting I suppose, like me, for 'night' to fall.

'Night' doesn't fall. It gets as dark as it can get just before a heavy summer storm. A bit like ten minutes before sundown on a clear day. It is fake 'night.' We are suppose to need coal-miner's lamps.

It gets light again so quickly, it is more like clouds passing than the moon shifting away from 'maximum cover.' I shoot at 12:28, 12:30 - twice - and 12:31. It is surely over. Officially it is really over at 13:45; the eclipse has left Paris and is heading for the rest of the world.

But the crowd is drifting away an hour before the moon has its final word. The eclipse was famous for two minutes. Partially.

I was expecting it to get dark like what you can do with a dimmer-light switch. A little dark, darker, darkest, night. It has been, instead, a bumpy dimmer, popping up and down and not dark enough at 'maximum.'

This is mostly due to the relentless 'eclipse-hype' that has been building up to a non-stop news feature during the pastphoto: eclipse, attention danger couple of weeks. Newspapers, radio and TV were full of it.

It seems to me the promo for it has been more intense than for last summer's World Cup - for an event lasting in Paris exactly two hours and 36 minutes, from official beginning to official end.

After the sensation, spectators pass the show's poster.

I think I am supposed to express some 'wow' sentiment. I am finding it hard to do this - to be amazed. Columbus used his foreknowledge of an eclipse to save his scalp in a sticky situation, and that was over 500 years ago. Eclipses don't happen as often as weekends, but they are not uncommon.

I'm more impressed with the numbers of civilians who have taken a bit of Wednesday off to come to the Observatoire, to see the star-gazers' 'big show.'

This has been a rare event for the Paris Observatoire. It is not used to having 'big shows' on its hands. Yet it seems to have handled it all right today.

When their people looked at their clocks and saw the line of the spectators was larger than expected, they dropped formality and waved us in as fast as they could. And, as far as I could tell, everybody had a pair of eclipsogoggles.

The Observatoire had its experts commenting on the event on broadcasting systems - I was too far away to hear anything clearly - and it had a big screen set up in a tent, with a live-TV feed from points in France along the 'maximum cover' path. There were two buffet wagons for the eternally hungry and thirsty, and three porti-toilets within the Observatoire's grounds.

Many Parisians who were only dimly aware of the Observatoire's existence, found out a lot about it today. It may become really popular.

In the future I see - but no bets! - the Friday night roller 'Rando' following the Meridian-line disks through Paris, carrying twenty or thirty thousand flashlights.

It'll be a line of lights you could see from the moon.

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