Every so often, the celestial wanderings of the sun, earth, and moon will cause our nearest neighbor in space to become completely immersed in the earth’s shadow, in turn producing one of nature’s most beautiful sky shows: a total eclipse of the moon.
In my lifetime, I’ve watched the moon become “just a shadow of its former self” 18 times. But for me, the eclipse of April 12, 1968, stands out above all the others.
I was not quite 12 years old and living in the Bronx. The midpoint of the eclipse was to occur around midnight, but since it was a Friday night, I had no worries about homework or going to school the next day. I had received a telescope for Christmas and was so excited that I had already set it up in my backyard that afternoon. It was a perfect early spring day, with promise of a beautiful, clear night.
But there was a catch. April 12, 1968, also happened to be Good Friday, and there was no way my mother was going to let me skip church.
So I did the math. The service at St. Benedict’s Church started at 9 p.m., and the eclipse would commence at 10:10 p.m. I knew from experience that the average service in our parish lasted about 45 minutes. I had plenty of time.
A Good Friday ceremony is a very somber affair: Everything is draped in black, and there are long periods of absolute silence. On this particular night Father Patrick O’Kada felt a need to make it an especially drawn-out and mournful affair. Add the fact that on this particular night the packed service started late, and I was anxiety-ridden. I squirmed with uneasiness as I eyed the big clock at the back of the church. By 9:45, Father O’Kada was still deep into his homily. I kept whispering to my mother that if the sermon didn’t end soon, I’d miss the eclipse.
My mother, unmoved, just stared straight ahead and said nothing.
Finally, just before ten, I did something that to this day I am surprised did not land me in the netherworld roasting on a spit: I bolted out of my pew and hightailed it for the exit.
“Joe! Joe!” my mother whispered between gritted teeth. My fate was already sealed, so why stop now? The only sound other than Father O’Kada’s voice was that of my church shoes slapping against the marble-floored center aisle as they propelled me toward the exit. Every eyeball—shocked, horrified, envious—was on me as I threw open the massive wooden front doors and let them slam behind me with a resounding boom.
Adrenaline kicked in as I raced toward East Tremont Avenue and caught sight of the full moon glowing brightly in the southeast sky. Dodging cars and pedestrians, I crossed three streets and two major thoroughfares and arrived home with only minutes to spare. I was consumed with glee and had not yet considered the potential consequences of my display back at St. Benedict’s.
When the service finally ended, my mother and sister took their places in the line of people filing out of the church. Waiting near the front entrance was Father O’Kada, along with the other priests, greeting the parishioners as they left.
When Mom finally reached Father O’Kada, she apologized profusely. “For some stupid reason, Joe just had to see the moon eclipse from the very beginning,” she said, before promising to severely reprimand me as soon as she got home.
Father O’Kada’s response, which my mother shared with me later, saved my life.
“If your son wanted so badly to see this wondrous spectacle of nature—an event that God himself has brought to all of us tonight to enjoy—then I cannot fault him at all.” Looking in the direction of the other priests, he continued. “We were all discussing the eclipse before tonight’s service, and we, too, are interested in seeing it.”
Then, taking a few steps outside, the priests, as well as my mother, my sister, and a coterie of parishioners, gazed upward toward the moon. A small scallop of darkness had made itself evident on its left-hand edge. “Isn’t this an amazing example of the precision of the universe?” Father O’Kada asked no one in particular. Even Mom was impressed.
Back at home, I was a wreck. As I watched the eclipse through my telescope, I considered the implications of my mini-rebellion at St. Benedict’s. In retrospect, maybe I should have stayed to the end of the service. Retribution, I knew, was nigh.
So when my mother’s car pulled up in front of our house, I kept my right eye firmly pressed against my telescope’s eyepiece as the moon slowly morphed into a burnished coppery-red ball. Surely, I thought, this would be my last view of the event before all heck broke loose.
I heard the front door creak open and shut. I heard my mother’s footfalls grow louder as they came closer and closer until she reached the backyard. I soaked in the night sky’s performance, hoping to imprint it on my brain before being dragged away by an ear.
My mother stopped behind me.
I braced myself.
She leaned in.
I leaned away.
And then she … gave me a peck on the cheek. With my sister in tow, she headed inside, saying merely, “Enjoy your eclipse.”
On Sunday night, January 20, 2019, in a play whose celestial script was written eons ago, the moon will once again plunge completely into the earth’s shadow, producing a spectacular total eclipse of the moon. Totality will be particularly dramatic for those of us in North America, where the ruddy moon will burn high overhead against the backdrop of a cold and starry winter sky.
I hope all of you enjoy your eclipse.
Next, read these beautiful nature quotes that will fill you with awe.