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The emotions and impact of seeing a total solar eclipse — a reporter’s firsthand account

The following is a firsthand account from PIX11 reporter James Ford, who traveled to Oregon to see Monday's solar eclipse in its totality.

LEBANON, Oregon — A total eclipse is the only time that the difference between 99 percent and 100 is infinity.

I had heard, and seen on TV, my entire life, reports and dramatic images of total solar eclipses and the effect they can have on people fortunate enough to view them. Then on Monday, here in Oregon, I became one of the fortunate ones.

I won't go on too much longer discussing the event, since words cannot convey what any of us in the zone of totality — where the entire sun is covered by the moon — experienced.

Instead, as I try to do in all of my reporting, I'll just stick with the facts.

During the split second as the moon's coverage over the sun went from partial — 99 percent — to whole, a white flash of light sped across the ground.

I didn't notice this phenomenon, even though it's something that veteran eclipse watchers crave. My wife and my daughter were with me on this trip, and it was my 10 year-old girl who saw the momentary groundflash, which she described as looking like the wave effect of sunlight sparkling on the bottom of a swimming pool, for a split second.

She saw it because she happened to be looking down at that moment, while my wife and I were among the vast majority of people in a park in this small city, looking up. And while we missed that momentary, unforgettable groundflash, what we saw above us was like nothing you've ever experienced, unless, of course, you've experienced it.

Think about it — we've spent our entire lives counting on the sun to rise, illuminate the day, and then set — every day, for decades and decades. Suddenly, even for just a minute and a half in my case, that entire paradigm was upended. It makes it completely understandable that many past civilizations viewed total solar eclipses as messages from higher powers, that portended dramatic changes, including, even, the end of time itself.

The 1 minute and 38 seconds of totality that I had was... again, there are no words for the emotions, the feelings.

I took off my eclipse glasses and let out a long yelp — a full-lung shout at the top of my lungs. It was an unfiltered release of my emotions, or so I hope it was, in retrospect. My wife wiped tears from her eyes. My daughter wept. Then tears came from my own eyes.

Venus became visible in the darkened sky right above us, and we were surrounded by nightfall, even though the horizon, on all sides, had traces of a sudden, eerie dawn. I took a very brief video on my iPhone, which did little justice to the scene visually, even though it did aurally capture my awe pretty well. "Whoa. Whoa, Whooooooa," I repeated. Never experienced anything like it. Never.

I saw the so-called diamond ring for a split second, where the corona of the sun, made possible by the moon blocking it, is visible to the naked eye. For two, maybe three, seconds.

And then, it was like a heavenly being turned on the most intense laser beam you've ever seen. A white-hot flash of light was emitted from the celestial scene above and we all knew it was over. Totality had passed. Time to throw the eclipse glasses back on, because the sun was returning.

The ground still had lower than normal light on it. The 12-second video I posted in the aftermath is most noteworthy not because of me, but because of the crying you hear in the background. That's my daughter, a fifth-grader, responding to the most indescribable thing ever. That's not an overstatement.

My wife had a similar, but ever slightly more rational response: it was the most awesome thing she's ever experienced other than childbirth.

So for those of us who will never experience childbirth, we may now, at least, have some vague idea.

People started leaving the park, knowing that there was still more than an hour and ten minutes left before the sun was back to its normal shape. On the ground, though, things looked normal once again to the naked eye. Except for the shadows of the leaves on the trees, which remained crescent-shaped, until the sun reached about 80 percent of its normal form.

I chose to stay, watching this phenomenon until the very end. At the moment the very last shaving of the moon passed out of the face of the sun, I applauded, sitting alone in a field.

The American memoirist, essayist and poet Annie Dillard writes that "seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him," in her classic 1982 essay "Total Eclipse." It is a tremendously pretentious piece of non-fiction writing, but the essay happens to be one of my wife's favorites. She introduced me to it the night before the Great American Eclipse of 2017.

But I now know exactly what Dillard means. And the fact that one of Dillard's fans — my wife — chose to marry me, having read the essay years ago, means that she got it, too, a very long time before I got a clue.

If you've done more than just kissed someone, and really meant it, reflect on that. The more deeply you do, the better you'll understand what anyone who was in the zone of totality went through.