December 21st, 2010
11:45 AM ET

Letters to the President: #701 'Goodnight moon'

Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

Reporter's Note: The White House has a nice yard, so even with the city lights you would think it might be nice for some stargazing. That’s what today’s letter is about.

Dear Mr. President,

Not sure what happened in your house last night, but in mine everyone crawled out of bed around 2:20 am to watch the lunar eclipse. First one to come on the solstice in more than 300 years. Pretty cool stuff. We were fortunate because it was visible through a big window in our house, so we didn’t have to stand out in the cold to see.

When I was a child, my father and I arose in the middle of the night to watch a lunar eclipse deep in one winter. I can’t recall if it was before Christmas, but it seems to me it was after the holiday. At the time we lived in an old farm house that we were renting from a very nice farming family, the Shumans, who remain family friends to this day and are some of the finest people we’ve ever known.

The old house was built back in the days when insulation was at best a distant rumor, so it was impossible to heat, and when the cold of January and February came calling it didn’t merely beat at the doors and windows; it came right into the kitchen and pulled up a chair. Nonetheless, on that night the house was a veritable furnace compared to the yard. A brutal storm had swept through a few days earlier and everything was coated with a thick layer of hard, clear ice. Each blade of grass seemed as thick as a finger, and the air bit into every piece of exposed skin like a cup of instant frostbite.

Still, my father and I crawled from our beds at some unholy hour of morning, pulled on as much warm clothing as we could find in the dark without waking the whole family, and stepped out into the back yard; walking out between the house, the old white barn, and the chicken house; clear of the trees, surrounded by the vast fields of corn stubble from last autumn’s harvest, and we looked up. There, between billowy clouds of our breath, we watched the shiny white moon being eaten away by the shadow of earth. The cold enhanced the experience in a strange way, because it seemed to bespeak the unfathomable temperatures and hostility of space itself. We were thrilled.

These eclipses are not a quick process, contrary to what I had imagined as a smaller child, what with all the tales of ancients firing their bows at the sky to chase away evil spirits. I mean, who knew they would’ve had enough arrows to last for several hours? I thought when I was very young, that eclipses were kind of like someone accidentally turning off the light when you are quietly reading in a corner of the room. You shout, “Hey!” and it comes right back on. Instead, that bitterly cold night, I learned just how beautifully, elegantly, magnificently slow and measured an eclipse is.

My father and I stepped inside several times to warm up as we tracked the events in the winter sky. We would rub our hands and faces, beat our arms against our bodies, all while talking excitedly about how it looked; how we were surprised at the reddish hue that bathed the moon, and how lucky we were that the sky was utterly clear, and how in the deepest moments of the moon’s darkness previously unseen stars bloomed like crystals in the heavens and then faded again as the moon’s light returned.

I don’t remember what I was given for Christmas presents that year, but I remember the gift of that night - my father’s natural interest in science, and our shared commitment to stand against the elements to witness a wonder.

Last night, as the moon faded, we picked out constellations like Taurus and Orion. And we spotted individual stars like Sirius, and tried to catch glimpses of meteors streaking from distant places and falling stars that would no doubt contain the magic for special wishes if spotted during an eclipse on the longest night of the year.

After the whole family had fallen back asleep, I lay in the darkness looking at a window and once again marveling at how much darker the night had become with the moon’s departure, and how it was now brightening again. And imagine: I didn’t even have to shoot any arrows.

Wish you could have been here. You would have enjoyed it, I suspect. Call if you can.


Follow Tom on Twitter @tomforemancnn.

Find more of the Foreman Letters here.

soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. C

    Mr. Foreman,
    I did not get to view the eclipse. I was resting from a head cold. However, reading your letter, I felt as if I were there even back when you were a kid.
    I love your writing a lot. Just want you to know that. Hope your Christmas is wonderful. Thank you.


    December 21, 2010 at 11:00 pm |
  2. Annie Kate

    Well, we didn't get to see the eclipse. We had too much cloud cover. Thanks for the video clip of it – that's as close to seeing it that I got. I hope you and your family enjoyed watching the eclipse and didn't get too cold.

    December 21, 2010 at 7:01 pm |

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