Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Great American Eclipse

Yes! We went to the path of totality for the great eclipse of 2017. This trip was five years in the making, but we only seriously started planning about a year ago. Our first idea was to drive to the nearest location of totality, which would have been in maybe Kentucky or Tennessee. But the humidity of the eastern US made me worry about cloud cover, so we decided to go west. As it turned out, most places in the East had good weather on eclipse day, but I have no regrets about the extra travel to get west. We figured that if we were going to take time off work and shell out for a trip, it was worth a few dollars more to maximize the chance of a good view. 

It came down to either eastern Oregon or Wyoming. Eastern Oregon had slightly better weather odds, but it looked hard to get to without a whole lot of driving. So we went with Wyoming, specifically eastern Wyoming away from the mountains which tend to generate and trap clouds. We could get there in about three hours from the Denver airport, which is easily reachable for us on Southwest.

We ended up staying in Guernsey, Wyoming in a very nice, new hotel at reasonable rates. But that took some doing, and it’s a good thing we planned ahead. Shortly before the eclipse, rooms were going for $500-$1,000 a night with multi-day minimum stays, and rental cars at the Denver airport were $1,500 a day. That is not an exaggeration. There were thousands of tents in campgrounds and on ranchland, all along the roads. One place in Guernsey was asking $150 for (I assume overnight) parking space.  

More power to them if they made money, but this seems like a bad deal 

Tents pitched in a grassy area between a hotel parking lot and the North Platte River on the morning of the eclipse (Guernsey, Wyoming)

The National Weather Service had a cloud cover prediction that was updated twice a day or so. Guernsey was well within the path of totality, but 48 hours before the eclipse, the NWS was calling for over 30% cover versus 5% in Casper, about an hour and a half west. So we planned on getting up really early on Monday and driving up to Casper. But on Sunday night the prediction changed, to 15% around Guernsey and 25% in Casper, but with a wide band of 5% in between. We decided to go to Glendo State Park, in the 5% zone, keeping open the option of moving around if there was a reason to. It's a good thing we didn't try to go to Casper, because we'd never have made it. We would have watched the eclipse from our car on the side of I-25. By 8 a.m., I-25 west of Glendo was at a standstill, filled with people from Denver who'd left at 3 or 4 a.m. That was too late; we talked to people who'd left at 2 a.m. and they'd reached their viewing spots just as the traffic was locking up. People who didn't leave Denver until 7 a.m. never made it out of Colorado. 

Local totality time was 11:45 a.m. When we pulled out of Guernsey at 7 a.m., the roads were moving well. There was some congestion near the park, but no real line at the ticket booth (the state of Wyoming charged a very reasonable $6 a car, compared to some private viewing sites in Casper that were asking $50 or more.) 

View from Wyoming Route 319 just south of Glendo, parallel to I-25, which is where the line of traffic is sitting. This was about 7:30 am.
Glendo State Park was set up really well – I’d estimate there were 5,000 cars there and space was available for many more, although there was not enough road to accommodate entry and exit (more on that later.) Several college astronomy departments had tents up, and the University of Wyoming gave us free t-shirts. Some people had large (10-inch or bigger) fancy-looking telescopes. We parked and walked over to a pavilion where we struck up a conversation with a guy from Italy. He invited us to observe some sunspots using filtered binoculars on a tripod. We also met a space weather specialist from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab and I had a long talk with her about the ins and outs of government-funded research. But most importantly – there was not a cloud in the sky!

Eclipse watchers near Bennett Hill, Glendo State Park. The tripod holds the filtered binoculars of our new Italian friend.

Panoramic view at the foot of Bennett Hill
Near the pavilion was flat-topped, rocky Bennett Hill with a path leading up. We trekked up the hill around 10:00, and found about 200 people at the top, some in folding chairs, some standing around, and some sitting on the bare ground. The view from up there was tremendous, eclipse or none  – it must have been 50 miles from horizon to treeless horizon. The atmosphere was very slightly hazy from some wildfires several states away, but that was only noticeable along the ground. The overhead sky was clear and blue.  We had heard that if you have a wide enough view, you could see the shadow of totality advancing across the ground at something like twice the speed of sound. I venture to say that the only way to improve on this viewing spot would have been to go airborne, which some people did in a helicopter and a hot-air balloon we saw overhead. Many videos taken from the hill can be found on YouTube.

View from atop Bennett Hill
On Bennett Hill, pre-eclipse
Eclipse watchers on Bennett Hill, Glendo State Park, Wyoming
The boys bought these t-shirts at the Casper Eclipse Festival the day before. 
One lady had a big white sheet spread on the ground to capture the shadow bands that are supposed to happen just before totality. But the buildup to totality had us all a little bored. You could see the moon covering the sun using eclipse glasses, but it was so clear and sunny that it didn’t get noticeably darker until about 15 minutes before totality. We listened to “Brain Damage/Eclipse” by Pink Floyd, just as I'd planned it five years ago. Then the light became…the only word is unworldly. An antelope was spotted near the top of the hill within a couple of minutes of totality, and it drew everyone’s attention. I wanted to yell out, “Forget the antelope!”

Totality came on very suddenly, which is characteristic of being right in the middle of the path, which we were. It happened too fast to look for shadow bands, and I didn’t see the approaching shadow or any Baily’s Beads. (In fact, I'm skeptical that the approach of a distinct shadow is ever visible, because we didn't see it under these near-perfect conditions.) The temperature dropped but I didn’t notice any change in the wind. The sky darkened as if someone had quickly turned down the knob on an adjustable room light. The stars came out, and the horizon took on the pink-orange of a sunset at all azimuths, not just in the west. We had rehearsed the taking of a single picture of my boys and me with the corona in the background, and got that out of the way quickly.  Then we just looked at the corona.

The one photo we took during totality. You can just make out the dark spot in the middle of the sun. In real life, the dark spot covered the entire photosphere, leaving only the corona. But the brightness of the corona almost obscures the dark spot in the photo.

I can only partially capture it in words. There was an illusion of the sun only being a few thousand feet high. There were three very long white streamers from the corona, much longer than you see in pictures. A high airplane crossed the corona, leaving a faint contrail. The corona looked like a bright, white, round fire with a perfectly circular hole in the middle of it. The boundary between the umbra (dark circle in the center) and the corona was very slightly dynamic, not like a flame. The corona streamers were stable. It could easily be viewed without eclipse glasses; the brightness was not harsh on the eyes. I could have watched it for hours, but of course it ended after two and a half minutes. Then we were treated to a very distinct “diamond ring” before the sun’s photosphere was uncovered again, and the lights went back on. There was an artificial quality to it – like a very high-quality planetarium show, only it covered the entire goddamned sky. It is no exaggeration that a Siberian tiger could have waltzed through the crowd during totality and nobody would have noticed.

After totality, people started down from the hill. The rest of the eclipse was anticlimactic and only the real astronomy buffs continued to observe it. Everything had gone perfectly, just as planned, up to this point. Then…

It took about half an hour to walk back to our car, and I foolishly started the engine as if we were going to just drive off. But the cars were at a standstill on the only road out. So I turned off the engine and we waited another half hour. The next two hours were short periods of driving down the exit road interrupted by long periods of standstill waiting. It was only about 80 degrees, but inside the rental car it got hot quickly with the engine and A/C off. The fun was only starting.

We intended to go west on I-25, then cut south at Casper to Independence Rock and thence on to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, normally about a five-hour drive. But we didn’t even exit the park onto Wyoming Route 319 for two hours. We were moving so slowly that we were able to get out and visit the porta-johns between movements of the vehicle line. Kids were selling water and popsicles from wagons, and they were moving a lot faster than we were. Once on the road, nothing sped up. There was another line of jammed cars coming in the opposite direction, which we soon figured out were eclipse viewers leaving from Casper who had hit a huge traffic jam on I-25 south and had exited thinking the state route would be faster. There were trucks off-roading it, driving on the dirt path along the railroad that ran between I-25 and the state highway. People were hanging out windows and sunroofs, sitting on top of campers, and walking along the roadside. I got out and walked for a while myself, to stretch my back. Usually it was the car that had to catch up to me, not the other way around. It was like the traffic jam scene from Woodstock.

Traffic jam on Wyoming Route 319 north of Glendo, several hours after the eclipse

Three hours and fifteen miles later we came to US 20, which cut us over to I-25 north. At the intersection of Wyoming 319 and US 20 there was a stop sign, with nobody directing traffic. There must have been three or four thousand cars in that line of traffic, and every one of them was stopping at the stop sign. Assume the stop takes five seconds, multiply by 3,000 and you quickly understand the cause of the delay.

When we finally got onto I-25, we could see stopped traffic on the southbound side stretching for twenty or thirty miles. It was the biggest traffic jam I’ve ever seen, and I used to live in Los Angeles. I-25 north was clear, but our plan of going to Steamboat Springs was in the trash. We made it to Casper by 6 p.m., having spent seven hours in the car already, and called it quits. There is no way I was going to drive hundreds more miles of unlit two-lane Wyoming state highway after that much car fatigue.

The only problem was, we had no room reserved in Casper and there was no possible way to get south back towards Cheyenne with the traffic. There were only three towns of any size between Glendo and Casper, and they didn't look like they had any hotels. The distances in the western Great Plains are orders of magnitude longer than in other parts of the country, and there can be sixty miles between cities that have even basic services.

With the eclipse crowd not completely out of Casper, we ended up paying $250 for a smoking room at a low-end Days Inn. It may well have been the last room in town. We also had to forfeit a night’s room charge in Steamboat Springs because it was a nonrefundable reservation. We headed to Independence Rock and Colorado the next day, but the traffic cost us an entire day out of our vacation.

Verdict: Worth every penny and every iota of hassle. People have lived their whole lives without seeing a total solar eclipse and that's almost tragic.

Lessons learned: Stay near a big city if the path permits it. They’re set up to accommodate hundreds of thousands of tourists; Wyoming isn’t. You can keep your location flexible, to avoid cloud cover, until the day of the event, but don’t expect to be mobile on eclipse day. You're going to have to just hunker down and hope the sky is clear. Thus the importance of getting to an area with good overall weather odds. (If everyone in a large city ever had to leave suddenly due to some kind of calamity, and there was no special traffic pattern set up, the scene would be very, very bad. I have new respect for the people who do this type of disaster planning.) Reserve your room and car at least a year in advance, and try not to tack on side trips for a couple days on either side of the eclipse. But most of all…do it if you possibly can.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Manchester Elementary School: Rewind

Last time it was Center Road Elementary School. Now we're really going back... back to the deep, dark mid-1970s. Back to Manchester Elementary School, my home institution from 1974-77.

Unlike Center Road, Manchester still stands. I think it became some kind of community center after they built the new schools. I've wandered past Manchester on trips home now and again, and the building seems, you guessed it, a lot smaller than I remember it. A lot smaller. As a kid I thought the "multi-purpose room" (gym/cafeteria/auditorium) was cavernous. It's like the size of my garage.

I don't think we had a gym class per se, but once in a while our regular teacher would take us down to the multi-purpose room to do jumping jacks and stuff. Once, the teacher said we would be playing with the parachute next week. I pictured us jumping off the stage, or maybe even the gym roof, with little parachutes on our backs, floating to the ground. When the day finally came, they took out an old surplus army parachute and then had us all grab the edge and flap it up and down. One of my greatest disappointments.

We had half-day kindergarten. Not even half-day. We arrived around 8:15, and started lining up for the bus at 10:45. It hardly seems worth getting dressed for. In kindergarten I achieved the double distinction of both peeing my pants and barfing, but not on the same day. The pants-peeing happened when we were sitting on the floor having a book read to us. The floor was cold and I was wearing thin pants. It stimulated something, and before I knew it, I was sitting in a puddle. The barfing happened right before Christmas break. I'd been queasy all morning and distinctly remember coloring outside the lines and not caring. When we put on our coats and waited to be called out to the bus, I couldn't hold it in any longer and spewed all over my plaid wool scarf. I remember seeing raisins in it from the Raisin Bran I'd eaten for breakfast.

I won't engage in false modesty and say I was an average student. I was pretty far ahead. My first-grade teacher, Mrs. Peterson, knew how to handle me. She let me read ahead, and I finished the reader on the first day (I was already reading encyclopedias and newspapers by this time.) She then had her son, Jamie, come over from the high school and spend time with me while the other kids did the regular reading. He brought a book with a bunch of paper airplane designs, and we would go out in the hall and make paper airplanes and talk about aerodynamics. Hey, Jamie, if you're out there, thanks. I ended up working on the Space Shuttle.

There was a jogging craze in the early 70s. Mrs. Peterson created an activity where we would jog around the playground and estimate the distance in kilometers, because of course the country was going to convert to the metric system. For every kilometer, or lap around the playground, or whatever, you got to put a foot outline by your name on the wall. My line of feet went way past the other kids', all the way around three walls. This was not because I was a good runner -- it was because I always finished my lessons early and was then allowed to go outside and jog.

Mrs. Peterson put together a spring show. We sang "Top Of The World" by the Carpenters and "Feelin' Groovy" by Simon and Garfunkel. A twentyish, hippie teacher's aide came some days, and she had us make God's Eyes out of popsicle sticks and yarn. Yes, this was the 70s, folks.

My second-grade teacher, Mrs. Huffman, was less successful at controlling me and I had some discipline problems that year. That is to say, I was a big pain in the ass. She was by-the-book and made me follow the same lessons as everyone else. We learned about dinosaurs and she made up a dinosaur-themed board game. I was chosen to play in the first game. The other player's dinosaur was creeping up on me, and I said, "I'd better get my butt out of there." For that, I was sent to stand outside in the hall. I think she also punished a kid for saying "darn" once. We had the desks where the top is hinged and opens up a storage bin where you put your books and things. One kid always had a messy desk, and Mrs. Huffman would dramatically dump it on the floor about once a month so he'd have to put his things neatly back in.

This is getting long. Let's see...the playground. I don't remember whether this was first or second grade, but the school bought a new jungle gym and we could see the workmen building it from our classroom window. When they finally finished it, our teacher let us immediately go outside and climb on it, even though it wasn't recess time. I ran as fast as I could and was the very first kid to get up on it. That damned thing was there for like 30 years, but I see from Google Maps that it's gone now.

The playground had an enormously tall slide, tall enough so that if a kid fell from the top, he'd have been seriously injured. Later they put down a thick rubber mat to make it a little safer, but when we were there it was a 15-foot drop onto plain asphalt. But I don't remember anyone ever falling. There were also some huge swings; once you got going, you were way off the ground. Once I walked too close to the swings, not paying attention, and a swinger kicked me in the head hard enough that it literally altered my sense of smell for a couple hours.

Each class had a supply of toys and balls you could take out to recess, first come first served. One day my friends and I grabbed one of those big red rubber school balls everyone must remember. We were booting it around when Wayne Sprafka came and took the ball from us and kicked it over the hedge, into the nursery field next door to the school, where we were unable to retrieve it. We said, "We're gonna tell," and we did, and he got busted. Wayne also dumped a whole bottle of purple paint on our art projects. Wherever you are, Wayne, keep it crazy.

As I said, I had some discipline issues in second grade. The playground was bordered by a wooded area that had a path leading into it. Kids were not allowed to go back there, but one spring day, we did anyway. It gets better. We were out of sight of the teachers, and when the bell rang for everyone to line up and go back to class, we just stayed out there. I guess nobody noticed we were missing. After a few minutes, we started to realize that we'd have to go back inside eventually, and there was going to be no way to sneak it. So we just had to bite the bullet and walk back into class. "Where were you?!" "Uh, we stayed in the woods after the bell rang." I don't remember the punishment, but I sure remember the offense, so it must have been worth it. I know I didn't get "swats" (corporal punishment, can you believe a school doing that now?) I only got swats once, and it was much later.

Going to have to wrap this up. In second grade, a kid's lunch money was lost or stolen (probably lost). The thief, if there was one, was never caught, so strict Mrs. Huffman made a rule that you had to give her your lunch money in the morning, and then she would parcel it back out at lunchtime. This went on the rest of the school year - seems like overkill. Lunch was 40 cents including milk, and milk by itself was six cents. A nickel and a penny. On hot dog day, an aide would sit at a desk, and you'd say, "ketchup", "mustard" or "both", and she'd squirt it on your hot dog. This is getting disjointed and it's getting late, so that's going to have to be it.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Center Road Elementary School: Rewind

I have a pretty good memory, but am getting old enough that a few leaves are starting to fall off the tree. So I'm going to get the rake out and pile them up one last time before the wind blows them away forever. I did this a few years ago on another blog and was happy with the results, although Blogger shows the posts in reverse order and I'm too lazy to figure out how to change it.

This post will concern the same time frame, but there won't be a narrative, just some memories. I went to Center Road Elementary School in Perry, Ohio from 1977 to 1980. Back then, it was a one-story brick building with three classroom hallways (one for each grade, third through fifth) with one of those combination cafeteria/gyms at one end. Today, it's just a grassy field. But... I remember a few things.

It was built on flat ground, but the third-grade hallway had a weird slope in the middle of it. I wonder if it was a construction mistake. That hallway was where the janitor's closet was. Some of the teachers would assign a student to clean the erasers, and the eraser-cleaning machine was in the janitor's closet. It was dark and kind of spooky in there. There was one of those "civil defense" signs inside - I guess that's where they would have put us in the event of World War 3. They could have fit about 20 kids in there.

The eraser-cleaning machine was a small cast-iron vacuum cleaner bolted to a table. You held the eraser up against a hole and flipped a switch, and the machine sucked the chalk dust out of the eraser. It was louder than hell, especially in that little closet. In that closet was a shelf where the janitor kept his supply of ZGOOP. You remember ZGOOP, don't you? That was the sawdust-like stuff the janitor would use to soak up puke. They still make it!

Eraser duty was a privilege because you got to do it unsupervised. So of course we did things like jam the erasers into the hole until they hit the impeller, which would scorch them and make a bad smell.

The third grade classrooms had coat closets attached to them. They were long skinny rooms with a row of coat hooks on the wall, that opened back into the classroom on either end. A couple of the older teachers - and some of them must have been teaching since the 1940s - would call them "wraps" instead of coats. "Children, it's time to put on your wraps and get ready for recess." The classrooms also had sinks. Once a girl ran to the sink red-faced, and threw up into it. The janitor didn't need his ZGOOP that time.

Mr. Snyder was the janitor. One day at lunch, I was taking my tray up to the trash can, and he said, "These kids throw away more food than you can shake a stick at." That was the first time I'd ever heard the phrase and it took me a while to get his meaning. He was right, we did throw away a lot of food. Some of the food was decent. They would always serve potato chips on pizza day and we'd put potato chips on our pizza. The spaghetti wasn't great - they scooped it out of the steam table and it sort of stayed in the shape of a scoop - but they served a slice of decent Italian bread with it and we would make a spaghetti sandwich.  Some boys would take their leftover food and stir it all together into a disgusting stew. Then the principal said if he caught us doing that again, we would be forced to eat it.

Recess. The playground had a paved part, with swings and basketball hoops, and an unpaved part that was sort of grassy but had gravel scattered around it. We used to play tackle football at recess, but kids were coming in bloody from hitting the gravel. So they made a rule: tackle football is OK (hey, this was northeast Ohio), but you have to play it on the football field, adjacent to the playground. We would go straight to the football field in the dead of winter. We didn't get hurt because we all had those ridiculous puffy down jackets and rubber snow boots. Some kids even wore leggings. It was tough to run in that getup. Kids would do that old trick of putting bread bags over their feet before putting their boots on, to keep their socks dry.

When it rained, kids would come to school in yellow rain slickers and rubber overshoes. What a hassle getting in and out of those things. Today when it rains, I usually don't even grab an umbrella. It's just water!

The school was close to town and some kids were "walkers". If I recall correctly, the walkers got to leave a little early, before the buses came into the driveway. We would put our coats on at 1:45 and sit back down in our seats to wait to be released. They would announce the buses over the PA. "Bus 7 may now line up on the sidewalk."

The town library was about a quarter mile down the road, and once in while if the weather was good, the teacher would walk us over there and we'd check out a couple books. That was a real treat. We would walk right past the house of the lady who gave me piano lessons. My lesson was in the early morning and her house always smelled like burnt toast. I would be dropped off, and then after the lesson would walk over to school. I would get there about 15 minutes late, which the adults thought was OK but which made me really feel uncomfortable. Kids would say, "Why do you come in late every Tuesday?" and I'd have to tell them I took a piano lesson. I hated the piano lessons and really enjoyed being able to walk past her toast-smelling house without going in.

In the fall of the fifth grade, I got a paper route. That was not an easy job for a 10-year-old. I had to deliver about 25 papers seven days a week, rain or shine, 365 days a year. The weekend edition was a morning paper, so I didn't get to sleep in on a weekend for the whole three years I had the route. It was like something out of a Dickens novel. OK, maybe that's an exaggeration.

The principal, Mr. Hambor, was a tall, good-looking gay guy in a time when adults did not talk about these things, but all the kids knew. He would get fussy in a slightly gay way when we misbehaved. During lunch, if we got too loud and the teacher aide couldn't shush us, Mr. Hambor would come in and flip the lights off. The kids would go "Woooooo!" and then quiet down. He'd always say the same thing: "Boys and girls, hey! It's getting a little looooud in here."  At assemblies, if there was a reason to clap, sometimes we would start to clap in unison. After a while, he said, "Don't do that! Do you think you're in Europe?" I have no idea what he meant by that. He punched a kid in the shoulder once, right in front of us all. Not hard, just enough to get the kid's attention, but it was a punch.

There were two teacher aides, a nice one (Mrs. Toth) and a grouchy one who I won't name. The grouchy one was really mean sometimes. Once, she quieted the kids down, but I didn't realize it and kept talking. She said, loudly so all the other kids could hear, "Do you think you're some kind of an exception?" Embarrassing.

There was no air conditioning and the boys weren't allowed to wear shorts even though the girls could wear skirts. That still sticks in my craw. Today all the schools have air conditioning, and the boys can wear skirts.

1980 was fifth grade and that was the year my friend died. I wouldn't say we were best friends, but we were as good friends as a boy and girl can be at that age. She had sat behind me in the fourth grade and had a kickass set of magic markers that were scented. Yellow was lemon, purple was grape and so on. She would let me borrow them. Then we were in the fifth grade together. Our fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Wilson, was athletic and liked to take us down to the gym to play warball, and would get in and play with us. (Mrs. Wilson could really sling the ball and wouldn't hesitate to take you out. I ended up getting a Ph.D. in engineering, but Mrs. Wilson gave me a C in arithmetic one quarter and I deserved it.) My friend and I would make a pact not to throw the warball at each other.

She had been out of school with a cold for, if I remember, two or three weeks, and then she came back to school on a snowy day. There was a snowball fight at recess, and she was getting the worse of it, and was crying. She caught the cold again and was out of school. Then one morning all the girls were clustered up in the back of the classroom. I was sitting at my desk, reading, if you can believe it, a big hardcover edition of Roots. I wonder what the kids thought of that. Then Mrs. Wilson said, "I guess you've all heard about []...she died yesterday." Wow. No, I hadn't heard. They gave her aspirin and she got Reye's Syndrome and died. It was in March.

Today, they would have grief counselors and the whole bit, but the adults never mentioned it after the morning bell rang. I don't think they even made a schoolwide announcement. A few weeks later they built her a little stone memorial that sat in the grassy area in front of the school. The school is gone, but the memorial is still there, in a little clump of trees in the middle of an otherwise empty field. I wonder how many people who see it have any idea who it was for. Eventually they'll take it down.

Now I'm getting upset, so I'm gonna quit. Next time: Manchester Elementary School.