Rehearsal for blackout

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Rehearsal for blackout (1923)
by Magner White
3049043Rehearsal for blackout1923Magner White

The biggest shadow in the world—235,000 miles high, 105 miles wide and 75 miles thick in its densest part—fell across San Diego today, the shadow of the moon as it crossed the face of the sun.

The heavenly appointment was carried out as predicted, 120 years since the last time, 120 years until the next time.

One hundred and twenty years ago, scared Indians fled over the hills at the sight, or the more civilized ones knelt before shrines in the comparatively new San Diego mission and received the comfort of padres, wise in the mysteries of the heavens.

Today, white successors to the Indians gazed from housetops, landpoints and from airplanes at the sight. Some, calm in the meager knowledge of science, were unafraid; others trembled like the Indians of old as the earth's satellite blotted out the sun, leaving only its pearly corona flashing through the blackness like a halo in the sky.

Indian ceremonies of yesterday on the hills found their counterpart in a "Fête of the Sun" at Coronado, where 500 actors dramatized the awe of the multitude during the eventful moments of the midnight that came at noon.

Smoked glasses and exposed films by the thousands were turned toward the phenomenon. Scientists strained every eye nerve, keenly aware of the tremendous possibilities for discovery that attended the fleeting moments.

Clouds and fog of the early morning added 500 per cent to the inky depth of the shadow. Whatever was lost to science by the meanness of weather conditions was gained in impressiveness for the lay spectator.

Traveling 25 miles a minute, the shadow came.

The moon, which had been unseen in the morning fog, began to encroach on the sun's apparent rim. The contact was signaled immediately by a sudden "turning down" of the sun's light, more sensed than visualized.

Behind its prepared glasses, San Diego presented its composite face to the fiery convergence.

Toward the gazing city, at the top of the 235,000 mile shadow, was the greatest mystery in the neighboring heavens, something the eye of mortal man has never looked upon—the "other side" of the moon, the coldest and deadest side of one of the solar system's coldest and deadest orbs.

Steadily the moon moved on, obscuring more of the sun's face, and the shadows deepened ominously.

Nervous scientists twisted thumb screws and made final adjustments of their costly instruments along the coast, from Point Loma to Ensenada.

Airplanes laden with scientific instruments whirred overhead, exploring the outskirts of the speeding shadow, tiny spots that grew dimmer as the moon continued her encroachment on the sun's blazing rim.

Sudden cool gusts of wind, released from the command of solar energy, swept in from the sea as darkness fell.

In the residential districts and on suburban farms chickens, puzzled by the abrupt night, took to their roosts; and cattle stirred restlessly in the yards, the routine of their lives distorted by the happening in the sky.

Animals in Ringling Bros. circus, waiting for the afternoon performance, paced their cages and roared and whined, disturbed by this sudden lighting up within a few hours of morning.

Noon whistles sounded—the first time a noon whistle ever sounded in San Diego during an eclipse of the sun. Midnight at midday! Paradox of 120 years. . . .

The black pattern weaves, from lacy dimness to deeper gloom. Imaginative forebodings become deeper, shaking at the foundations of the security the human being feels in ordinary times; suggesting, in the thought which we hide from each other through sheer bravado, that perhaps this time something may happen that never happened before, something disastrous, something gigantic and overwhelming that will take no account of mankind's limited past experience.

And now still darker. The Mistress Moon moves on in her eternal path, prompt in her appointment. Tiny humans on the globe below, the Earth—how inconsequential before this relentless, dogged power of the solar bodies moving in their orbits.

Darker! The real shadow is coming! Incredible speed. It bursts in from the sea, going 25 miles a minute.

Night is upon us.

What is this fear we can't keep down? The hint of the infinite night—a world with no sun!

Our friends give us ghastly smiles, pale lilies they are. Shadow bands stripe the earth; quivering crescents of light flit on the sides of building.

The city glows in puny artificial light.

The blot in the sky is now complete. The sun is gone!

A tiny streak shoots out from behind the blot—a solar prominence. A scientist tells us that "tiny streak" is 80,000 miles long! Blazing and glowing at a heat beyond human imagination. It is a real hell fire. One lick of its tongue across this earth—!

Oh, war—thou feeble destructionist!

And yet this is a small demonstration we are witnessing. The Indians of Pala in 1806 and we mental aborigines of 1923 are all together as much less than nothing before this sight of the heavens—and yet it is nothing in the universe. The burning of vast stars, such as the giant sun that exploded last winter and consumed itself in a space thousands of times greater than our entire solar system, was a greater characteristic of the magnitude of the universe than is this temporary darkening of a small strip of our planet.

But this terrible awe. Children on the doorsteps catch it and cry out at the darkness.

Why is everything else so still? We realize it all of a sudden—there is not a laugh in the city!

By telephone we get a picture of "quaint Tijuana" during these three minutes. There is no wickedness there now.

The saloons have no customers during this sample of absolute night. Painted women stand in their doorways and look out on the heavens for the first time, perhaps, in years with wondering minds. Before the spectacle they are moved inwardly with misgivings. The background of childhood superstitions and those years, long ago, of contact with churches comes to the front.

Their poor souls, dormant and obscured by the fast life, begin to scratch inside their broken bodies—and the pain of that passing experience is sweet, because it is so rare.

"What makes it? What makes it?"

The universe has played a dark card—and that card is a trump card, for Tijuana, quick with arguments for worldly ways, has no answer to the riddle of the universe.

Ah, it's lighter now. The gloom is passing. It lifts, speeds by and again the shadows are lacy.

The crescents are back on the sides of buildings.

The sun shoots a glaring signal from around the edge of the moon. The sun is escaping from the interloper. The inexorable laws of space that forced this illusion are now destroying it.

Boundaries of the densest portions of the black night are fleeing eastward and to the south, across Mexico.

Breezes slowly die as the sun's rays resume control of the terrestrial temperature.

Soon it is morning of the "night that came in the day."

Puzzled chickens flock down from their roosts. Cows go back to their grazing. Street lights are turned off. Frightened children are reassured.

San Diego drifts back into its marts and households.

Tijuana shakes its languor.

The spell is gone, gone for 120 years.

When the shadow returns, we shall not see it. We shall be with the Pala Indians of 1806.

And the event will be the all-absorbing topic then to those strange creatures whom we may never meet except in our imaginations—our children's grandchildren.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1929.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1980, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 43 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

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