It was the summer of 1963. I had just finished first grade, and my days were split between going outside and wandering up and down Magnolia Avenue (I was limited to our side of the street, so there wasn’t very far I could go, and the alley was right out) and sitting in front of the TV, watching game shows and Art Linkletter’s House Party and whatever else happened to be on at the time.
One afternoon, there was a commercial from the Hadley School For The Blind, a Chicago institution (actually Winnetka), talking about eye safety during the coming solar eclipse. I had no idea what an eclipse was, so when Mom got home from school (her year ended about three weeks after ours), I asked her, and she told me that it was when the Sun, the Moon, and the Earth were all lined up and it looked like the Moon was covering the Sun. I sorta-kinda understood, so the next day she brought home a book that explained the whole thing. (Remember, 1963, no Internet.) The book was good enough to explain why we didn’t have them all the time, too, so I didn’t have to ask her about that.
The next time I saw the commercial, I paid a little closer attention. They were showing how one could watch the eclipse safely, without looking directly at it, which they said was a definite no-no. Not even if you wore sunglasses, or looked at it through a piece of smoked glass or several photographic negatives. They were so emphatic about this that, to my seven-year-old imagination, I believed that catching so much as a casual glance at the Sun during the eclipse would strike a person immediately and absolutely blind.
On the day of the eclipse, July 20, I was scared to leave the house. I was terrified that I would slip and gaze toward the sky and BAM! never be able to see ever again. Mom chased the three of us out, but none of us left the front porch, which was shielded from the Sun and the Moon and the deadly corona.
As the time approached, we could see the shadows get longer and it get darker, like during late afternoon. It didn’t go completely dark, because it wasn’t supposed to be a total eclipse near us. People in Mexico might be able to see the total eclipse (that is, if they used two pieces of paper with a pinhole punched in one and faced away from the sun).
The eclipse was almost over when one of the neighborhood kids ran up and said “Me and my grandpa watched the whole eclipse through his telescope!” This prompted a huge argument between me and the kid, me contending that the kid was now blind as a bat, so either he was lying that he saw it or lying that he had looked at it through his grandfather’s telescope. The argument got loud and angry enough that my dad told me to come in the house and quit yelling at the kid.
Turns out, the Hadley School was being a little overcautious in its warnings. They just didn’t want people standing outside, staring directly at the sun, which lots of people probably would have done had they not warned us about it. Charles Schulz did an entire week of Peanuts cartoons with Linus sharing the hows and whys of eclipse watching, that didn’t make it sound quite as terrifying. Wish I had seen that…
Here are some YouTube videos that cover the eclipse (as well as later eclipses) for your viewing pleasure.