75 Years Ago

From the Vineyard Gazette editions of September, 1932:

“Millions viewed the eclipse.” So said the mainland newspapers, and the Vineyard added its thousands to the common mass. Plans for obtaining the best view of this unusual display in the heavens were formulated days previous in many cases, several of the larger pleasure craft of the Island ports setting sail early Wednesday morning with groups of guests on board, bound easterly where the eclipse was more nearly total.

But there were many thousands left on the Island who drove to the hilltops armed with all sorts of paraphernalia with which to gaze at the dwindling face of the sun. The equipment ranged from exposed Kodak film with three-foot window panes well-darkened with candle smoke. It was easy to tell who had been gazing skyward by the smoke marks on their noses, and they were legion.

In Edgartown some of the old time widow’s walks and cupolas were used as observatories by householders and their guests. Most of the watchers were at their observation stations more than an hour before anything occurred, and for some the eclipse appeared to be a trifle tardy. Many persons were at Gay Head Lighthouse and the Coast Guard station where a few seem to be laboring under the impression that the eclipse was regulated by the U.S. government, and that someone was to blame at the tardiness.

The bank of clouds that had hung in the west since the early forenoon melted and blew away like a curtain shortly before the eclipse took place, as if forces of nature were lending their aid to insure the finest possible view, and had drawn the screen from before their work at the moment when anticipation was at its height.

Slowly the curved shadow intruded itself over the sun’s face, cutting a thin ring from the edge of the brilliant orb. Steadily it crept onward, the ridges remaining clean-cut, without a sign of vapor or cloud to obscure the effect. The shadows grew long and longer. Twilight came. All traffic ceased on the highways and as the twilight deepened the far-off crowing of a rooster could be heard through the still air. No voice was raised. Nature and humanity observed their minute of silence and for that minute the shadow of the moon appeared to stand still, leaving but a thin crescent of the sun’s orb showing below the shielding edge.

This point lengthened, broadened, and the earth quickly grew lighter. A far-off fowl began to crackle, the rooster crowed once more. Voices began to break the silence, and the whirr of a car starter was the signal for the start of the homeward parade. But even after the sun began to shine once more there were still sungazers on the hilltops adding more candle smoke to their already camouflaged noses or peering through colored glass.

But the eclipse was over. The eclipse was all it could have been, given only about ninety-nine per cent totality. There could be no shadow bands, no corona, no sudden blackening of the face of the earth. But here was a strange twilight, yellowish and cool, with long shadows stretched out queerly in the evening that was not evening. As the eclipse progressed the clouds were swept away. When the sun was almost covered there were only a few clouds anywhere near, and these were tinged with the colors of the rainbow, made pearly, and brought out in relief. With smoked glass and other protection to the eye, the Island looked up and saw the burning sun reduced to a sliver.

The sliver which was the left lower slide of the sun suddenly vanished, and became the right lower side of the sun. The maximum came and went almost on the instant. The light of the thin rind of the sun, red or reddish through smoked glass, seemed to creep down one side of the shadow and up the other. It was like pouring something out of a pitcher, as casual and almost as rapidly done as that.

Most of the effect of the eclipse seemed to be in the light, yellow, gentle, changing the whole landscape. The air was almost still, the water blue and calm. Warmth changed to coolness and there was a temptation to shiver as the sun and the moon kept their appointment. Again the scientists were right. The celestial bodies passed and curtsied as astronomers said they would. The time of the heavenly event was foretold to a fraction of a second.

Would the eclipse have terrified all of us had we not known that it was coming? Probably not at first. But then, when it became dark indoors and the whole face of the earth changed in color and appearance, and the air chilled, and there was such an unmistakable heavenly pause ­— then, indeed, ignorance of the nature of the event might have meant fright or panic. As it were, we all saw an eclipse which had been advertised. We saw a great occurrence stripped of most of its mystery. Sophistication affected our attitude and our state of mind. Sometimes one thinks it might be as well to taste a little fear and more than a little uncertainty about nature, rather than to be so securely and so easily informed. One can fancy the Vineyard before the day of Gosnold, with Indians gazing at an eclipse of the sun with an awe we cannot feel. How much we have gained, yet how surely we have lost.

Compiled by Eulalie Regan