Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, August 25, 2017


Dear Teacher, on my summer vacation I took a road trip across eleven states with seven children, including a seven-week-old baby, to see a total solar eclipse.

One feature of a long drive is the company you keep on the road. All across Tennessee, we kept pace with a compact white Hyundai towing a U-Haul and a horse trailer full of equines. Over 100 miles we bobbed and weaved, now passing each other, now being passed in our turn, jockeying for position. We began to look out for these friends and call them out when they surfaced. For a while we settled behind the horse trailer so we could watch the horses stamp and toss their heads and nudge around a little foal. Then we'd pass them so the kids could see all the horses further up. And then the little Hyundai would dart ahead, probably elated to pass up the big blue van from Ohio. We were saddened when we finally pulled off for dinner and fell behind our faithful companions. Goodbye, Hyundai; we hope your moving went well. Goodbye horses; may your manes grow ever thicker.

Other company was less congenial. We were stalked by turbines across the central Midwest. There may be things creepier than an oversized turbine rotating mindlessly, as oblivious to mere mortals as the eldritch gods, but I don't want to meet them. Not content to stand and haunt the farmland of middle America, they pursued us on trucks: vast blades arcing and tapering, flexing as we pulled alongside them, baring the serrated teeth along the thin edge of their fins. The size of them was all wrong, too big for comprehension. They lay in wait  us, though ever we fled them and their "Oversize Load" retinue forcing traffic into unnatural patterns, 65 in a 70 mph zone.

Perhaps due to being hounded by turbines, perhaps due to the motivation of the older girls, we made excellent time down to Texas. A joy of traveling is the chance to see old friends. We've known our hosts in Austin since college (and in Darwin's case, high school), and our children track in age. The kids are cultivating their own second-generation friendships now, emailing and video chatting and staying up too late when together. While the children were thus amused, Darwin and I were able to have some excellent and all-too-brief conversation with Brandon Watson, and at one point I stepped out for coffee with Leticia Adams. But the youngsters had other Texas friends to run around with too. We had dinner at Jennifer Fulwiler's house, where Darwin and I, just recovering from a laryngitis kind of cold, croaked out a radio interview about going eclipsing with kids, while the actual kids charged in and out and slammed the back door in a kind of aural punctuation. At one point Jennifer's husband Joe, out grilling on the porch, called in to his oldest son, "Bring me the blow torch!" And no one batted an eye.

On Sunday we joined the Great American Migration of 2017, heading up into the path of the eclipse. I have never seen such fertile grounds for the license plate game -- 40 states and 3 Canadian provinces. Perhaps it's because the eclipse lines up with that other great lifetime event, Back To School, but the nation seemed to be converging on certain trails. Certainly the highway managers were aware of the coming traffic -- interstates across America had up signs that said, "No stopping during the eclipse. No parking on the shoulder." We trekked due north across the plains of Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas to Lincoln, Nebraska. Lincoln is uniformly charming. The Capitol building stands like a beacon, the dome capped with a farmer sowing visible for miles over the prairie. Blocks of trim cottages give testimony to the homey work ethic of the Nebraska citizen. "I could leave a pile of hundred-dollar bills on my porch, and someone would come up with an armful of them and say, 'Your money is blowing away,'" said our host JD Flynn.

JD and his lovely wife were remarkably good sports about hosting a family of seven, considering that the last time we saw him was 16 years ago in college. It was a trip for old school reunions: just hours before the eclipse, which we were going out to view at a school event at the diocesan seminary, I discovered that a pair of college drama classmates, now married and coaching speech for two of Nebraska's famously competitive high school teams, were going to be chaperoning their school groups there. We had a delightful reunion -- just one more example of old friendships blossoming again when you least expect it.


Weather conditions on the day of the eclipse were iffy. Layers of clouds drifted across the sun, muting shadows. We sat out on unzipped sleeping bags, adjusting eclipse glasses and binoculars and passing around the big solar telescope filter. The filter was mostly used by the three-year-old because it covered his face. Baby napped with a big hat shading his eyes. Through our glasses, the waning sun was more and less visible through the haze, and anxiety and excitement grew apace. We could only expect about 67 seconds of totality. A wayward cloud could blot the entire eclipse, and it would be too late to seek bluer skies.

I didn't see the bands of shadow racing along the ground, but it started growing cooler. As the darkness approached, the quality of the light began to change and desaturate. The sun shrank to a sliver, then flared out in one last protest -- the "diamond ring" effect. A whistle blew, and we took off our glasses.

In a deep sky, the disc of the moon was surrounded by waves and flares of pure white light -- a phenomenon of incredible beauty and power. Just enough clouds remained to glow silver and violet in a halo behind the corona. The entire horizon glowed sunset orange. Two or three stars, less than I'd expected, twinkled. Voices all around were gasping and exclaiming, or choking with emotion, but it was impossible to look at people, to look anywhere but the sky where the black moon glowed.

And the whistle blew again, and we all covered our eyes, and the blinding light of the emerging sun was filtered and dampened to something dull and inconsequential. The crowd of students dispersed under the lightening sky to their buses, but we stayed. The sun emerging was not less impressive for being the mirror image of the sun disappearing a few moments earlier. And the clouds burned off, ushering in a beautiful, blue, breezy Nebraska day.


Our trip home was more leisurely than the long drives out. We had two days of easy treks, finally rid of the company of a fly we'd picked up in Texas and transported across three state lines. And we amused ourselves. On the drive out we'd listened to Northanger Abbey, part of The Odyssey (read by Dan Stevens, sigh), Hamilton, the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack, and a vacation playlist created for a trip four years ago. Coming home, we played car games. Someone finally wrote up an itemized list of the license plates we'd seen. We tracked turbines. I resolved to write down the roadside jingles posted in fields, and virtuously made a note of what turned out to be the last one we saw on the trip:

Got a gun
It's pretty and pink
Made the bad guy
Stop and think. (altered to
--Vermilion County, Illinois

We also expanded our family vocabulary of Mad Lib quotes, most of which come from Penguin Classics Mad Libs.

Mr. Rochester to Jane Eyre: "I owe you a McDonalds."
Little Women: "Say what, Jo! I can never show my bum at the party now."
Pride and Prejudice: "In vain have I lounged."
"In the name of Wog."
"punishable by mandate"
"buried in a plot hole"

Thanks to the miracle of iPhones, we learned about the landmarks we were passing:
The Nazareth Convent and Motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia
The Holy Family Shrine
The Amana Colonies: self-sufficient villages founded by German immigrants, known for a tradition of handiwork (and also Amana refrigerators).

And the miles of farmland rolled on.


But all good things must come to an end. The first thing to end was the easy traveling. The kids had been real champs up until the last night, but at our hotel the three-year-old started unraveling in the way children his age do: by bouncing off the walls. Half an hour in a local park took a little steam out of him, but he revived and tormented his sister and baby brother until forcibly suppressed. There's not much you can do in a hotel room to take a young man down a few notches, without provoking screams that will get you reported to the authorities. So we spent all evening hushing him. Hushing has its own irritations. Frequently it's louder than the noise it attempts to quell. Only total lights out would stem his unvanquished spirits, so we all went to bed ASAP.

On our last day of the trip we had one more unexpected joy: a two-hour layover with Elizabeth Duffy at her farmhouse, where we sat in comfy chairs and chatted over coffee and tea. The children tore around again, the once-a-year friendships revived as if they saw each other every weekend. We get snapshots of the other family's growth. Every time we see them, her older sons are taller and broader, whereas my daughters have gotten curves and lost their braces. The changes are more noticeable from the outside. No one can see such incremental changes in the course of day-to-day life. It is a gift to know the golden age while you're living in it. Usually we can only see the rapidity of the sun's progress when it's being eclipsed.


The next total eclipse will be in 2024. To our delight, our hometown, our very house, is in the path of totality. By our calculations, we'll only have four children at home by then, so the house will be practically empty. You're all invited to Delaware, Ohio in seven years! Everyone should experience a total eclipse if they can -- such beauty must be viewed, and viewed with friends, their awed voices in your ear as you gaze together at the hidden sun.

1 comment:

Foxfier said...

Beware, we might go for it... from my cousin's tales of Eclipsers, probably not, but the fever may not be so nasty then. :D

Sounds like you had a blast.