BEATRICE — As the moon moved in between the earth and its star, casting a shadow that crept diagonally across the country at 1,500 mph, the celestial convergence created an alignment of another sort.
Stargazers young and old and from far and wide, perhaps numbering 7,000 or more, gathered Monday at the Homestead National Monument west of Beatrice to witness a sensation few had experienced and one that many were chasing for the first time.
Lee Wolfson experienced totality -- the moment only the sun’s outer atmosphere, or corona, can be seen ejecting into space from around the edges of the moon -- during a Cape Cod wine party four decades ago.
“It was so astounding in the middle of winter -- I don’t even remember totality, just what led up to it,” Wolfson said on Monday. “It suddenly got very cold, very windy and all the birds came to rest and it suddenly became night.”
He remembers the mood that washed over his watch party, the sudden realization that you are very small and that the universe is very large.
Wolfson’s nephew, Jack Tisdell, 18, of Hoboken, New Jersey, will start his sophomore year at McGill University in Montreal in a couple of weeks, a triumph of scheduling that allowed him to pursue a view of the Great American Eclipse from the middle of the continent.
“I sort of decided I was going to go anywhere that had totality late in the game,” he said.
Uncle Lee’s idea to drive south from Mahtomedi, Minnesota, to Nebraska with the telescope that rests on his back porch for nightly stargazing sessions gave Tisdell the opportunity he sought.
“Any amount of driving is better than waiting for the next one," Tisdell said.
The hunt for darkness in the middle of the day brought photographer, amateur astronomer and rocket socks-wearing Joe Abraham north from Houston to a ridge overlooking Daniel Freeman’s homestead claim for a long-held goal of seeing a solar eclipse.
Abraham took up astronomy a decade ago, regularly photographing the sun. People wandering by on Monday were offered a peek of the sun through his telescope and an explanation that the darkest, densest sunspot on the right was roughly the size of the planet on which they stood.
“I’ve had all of the equipment, I just needed the filters and the eclipse,” he said.
Outside the NASA tent near Homestead’s Heritage Center, Andy Linderkamp adjusted the brightness on his professional welder’s helmet for optimal viewing as he waited for his brother.
“It’s almost halfway for us both, for me to come up from Albuquerque and him to come down from Minneapolis,” he said.
The space age-looking mask that covered all but his scraggly beard has a practical purpose as well from his job building sets for television shows like “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul.”
“I designed and built the stairs that descended into the superlab among other things,” Linderkamp said, referring to the fictional Walter White's lab used to mass produce methamphetamine on the show.
As the sun reached noon, Bill Nye and Dr. Amy Mainzer, a jet propulsion laboratory scientist and science adviser for the PBS show “Ready Jet Go!” warmed up the crowd.
Students from Lincoln’s Science Focus Program -- or “Zoo School” -- came to Homestead to be among a community of like-minded science enthusiasts.
Reuben Erickson, a senior, said it was inspiring to see how many people at Monday’s event were excited.
“Especially for Nebraska, it’s something that happens maybe every couple decades, so it’s a unique experience, and it’s cool to see all these people getting excited about science,” he said.
Just whether Mother Nature would agree with the plans was in limbo for much of the morning. Brief showers doused the enthusiasm intermittently as live music entertained the crowds.
As the sun, visible through high level clouds one moment and then obscured by puffy rain clouds the next, began being overtaken by the moon and darkness encroached, the festival took on the highs and lows of a back-and-forth football game.
A break in the clouds at 12:10 p.m. caused a cheer to ripple as hopes rose. The sun disappeared again only to emerge from hiding at 12:38 p.m. to another roar.
Finally, at 12:56 p.m., high level clouds filtered the view ever so slightly, revealing an eclipse near totality.
Then it happened: Two minutes and 34 seconds of moon obscuring the sun. Dusk washed over the prairie and into the crowd, buzzing with exhilaration.
As quickly as it came, the light turned on once more, and the Great American Eclipse of 2017 was over.
But those who were there will remember.
Jack Robbins, an eighth-grader at Lewis Central Middle School in Council Bluffs, Iowa, said he will hold onto the video he took on his cellphone “for a long time.”
“It interested me because these barely happen,” Robbins said.
Among a dispersing crowd, Theresa, 10, Francis, 8, and Margaret Yost, 5, said witnessing a total solar eclipse was everything a family from Winnipeg, Manitoba, could hope for traveling to Nebraska.
“I thought it was very, very fun,” Margaret said.
Wachiska Audubon Society recently purchased the Clarence and Ruth Fertig Prairie located southwest of Schuyler.
The 45-acre property consists of virgin tallgrass prairie near the Platte River.
“The purchase is part of our chapter’s 25-year program to protect native tallgrass prairies in each county in southeastern Nebraska," said Gary Fehr, president of the Lincoln-based group. “This prairie is a valuable one due to the stewardship of the Fertig family over many years. It has a wide variety of tallgrass plant species as well as insects and other animals. We plan to continue to make prairies like this one available for education as the Fertig family has done."
Wachiska Audubon Society received grant funding from the Nebraska Environmental Trust, Woollam Foundation, Cooper Foundation and Lower Platte North Natural Resources District to assist with the purchase.
"As with the other prairies that they own, Wachiska will leave Fertig Prairie open all year for students, hikers, researchers and birdwatchers. Visitors are welcome," Fehr said.
Wachiska holds half-day educational events, called Prairie Discovery Days, on their prairies each September for fourth-grade classes from nearby schools.
Fertig Prairie, which is located about 5 miles west of Schuyler on U.S. Highway 30 and 2 1/2 miles south, is home to some rare plant and animal species.
More information about Wachiska Audubon Society can be found at www.WachiskaAudubon.org.
Schuyler Public Library Director MeMe Smith will retire at the end of September.
Mike Rea, the library's assistant director, announced the retirement during last week's city council meeting on Smith's behalf.
Rea also told council members the library received $16,932 in e-rate funds from Universal Services that will go toward internet equipment and installation at the new library building.
In other business, the council approved the appointment of Barbara Raya to represent Ward 1.
Raya was selected to replace Ed Korth on the city council after he moved out of the ward.
The 2017 sidewalk improvement project was also approved.
The project includes construction of a sidewalk from Dollar General to Schwan Food and QC Supply and another at the B Street railroad crossing.
The total project cost is estimated at $99,620.
City Clerk Lora Johnson and JEO Consulting Group will work to secure the necessary permits and establish a timeline for the project.
Schuyler Community Development housing coordinator Brian Bywater announced that all eight units of the workforce housing project and nine of the 14 Kracl Meadows senior housing units are occupied.
The council tabled a motion instructing Oak Ballroom staff to check bags and purses during events.
The council also approved:
• Using the South Park tennis court area from 6 p.m. to midnight Sept. 2 for a Latino dance sponsored by the Heartland Workers Center.
• Allowing Gold Mine Antiques to place a sign on the city lot at the corner of 11th and Colfax streets on Saturdays and Sundays advertising the business.
• Allowing Schuyler Baseball Association to install a new batting cage at North Park. All costs will be covered by the association.
• A change on the East 16th Street asphalt overlay project that lowers the cost paid to Pavers Inc. by $6,819. The final payment amount of $269,485 was also approved.