Night Watch

If you were swept up in solar eclipse mania—as was Jessica Wilde, who writes about her obsession in this issue (“Corona Chasers,” Tuning Up)—then you may have read about the place now dubbed “the total eclipse crossroads of America.” That would be the small southern Illinois town of Carbondale, which, for the second time in seven years, found itself in the path of totality. On April 8, some 50,000 people descended on Carbondale to gaze up at the sky, increasing the town’s population on that day by 230 percent. Housing was at such a premium that the Motel 8 was booking rooms for $1,000 a night.

I was born in Carbondale in 1973, and I can tell you, nothing like this happened when I lived there. Indeed, nothing much ever happened in my sleepy hometown. If you wanted action, you drove the two and a half hours to St. Louis. The two events that do stand out in my mind were a Police concert in 1984, part of the band’s Synchronicity tour, and the announcement in the spring of 1987 that Senator Paul Simon was running for president. Simon lived in nearby Makanda, and my ninth-grade class took a field trip to the campus of Southern Illinois University to witness that jubilant occasion.

There was also an important astronomical event from that time, though it wasn’t an eclipse and I’m fairly sure nobody came to town to see it. In 1986, Halley’s Comet was visible to the naked eye for the first time in 76 years, capturing the popular imagination every bit as much as the recent eclipse did. My father was the chair of the physics department at SIU, and a viewing party was arranged on the rooftop of the physics and astronomy building. I recall waking in the middle of the night and, bleary-eyed and cranky, getting in the car for the short drive to campus. We climbed the stairs to the roof of the Neckers Building, where a crowd had gathered near a line of telescopes, and when my turn came, I looked briefly at that dirty snowball with its distinctive coma and tail. Here was a celestial body that had inspired fear in the ancients, famous enough to have been depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry and in a story by Edgar Allan Poe. This, I realize only now, was the biggest thing to have come to Carbondale, Illinois—bigger even than The Police.


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Sudip Bose is the editor of the Scholar. He wrote the weekly classical music column “Measure by Measure” on this website for three years.


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