Mack Williams: Shadows illustrate life

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 13, 2011

This past December, there was a total eclipse of the moon in the extremely early hours of Dec. 21. I set my alarm, as I usually do, to awaken and watch such astronomical events, many of which seem to happen in the wee hours.
The more immediate spectacles of parades, football half-time shows and infrequent weddings of the Royal Family, etc., impress us with our somewhat intimate vantage points. The Royal Wedding being as intimate as the particular camera placements and the distance in the den from the couch to the television set.
Great things sometimes occur in the sky, not intimate but far removed, on such an enormous scale that their spectacle is visible over great portions of the earth at one time. This sort of show is brought about not by the machinations and scurrying about of a tech crew, but by the constant and certain sponsorship of things that move about in the heavens.
The other night, I thought about the times when my late mother (a week after my fatherís death we watched the great Leonid Meteor Storm of 1966 from across the Old Concord Road in Mr. Clineís yard), wife, and the children would watch some heavenly happening with me, be it meteor shower, comet, lunar eclipse or partial eclipse of the sun.
In thinking about those past astronomical events, I remembered the funeral of my late wifeís cousin Earl in Burlington some years ago, which by happenstance took place on the day and during the time of a partial eclipse of the sun. Just before going into the church for the service, I stood under a nearby tree while the eclipse was already in progress. Dozens of small half-sun images were projected all over the ground, caused by the tiny, scattered spaces between the leaves acting as miniature pinhole projectors of the sunís image.
Earl was always a gentleman, and it was as if the sun were tipping its hat to a gentleman on the occasion of that gentlemanís funeral.
My train of thought brought me to memories of my old friend, Mr. Ed Jones of Caswell County. He was about 20 years my senior, but talked of astronomy and the subject of space travel as if he were a much younger person overcome with the excitement of thinking about such things.
Ed would often call me up when he saw some mention on television or in the newspaper of some upcoming astronomical event. If it wasnít very late at night, he would stop by and look through my telescope at such things as the moon, Orionís Great Nebula or Comet Hale-Bopp, which was visible in 1997.
If the hour were late, Ed would call me up and inform me of what he was presently observing at that moment through his binoculars, saying that he couldnít stop by, or probably wouldnít call back later, not wanting to inconvenience me, due to the lateness of the hour.
Some years ago, my old friend, Ed Jones, was murdered by someone robbing his home. A much greater inconvenience than just the lateness of the night prevents him from stopping by or calling me now, but I guess that somewhere he has a different vantage point on these currently announced celestial phenomena.
A couple of years ago, during a special observing session of a total lunar eclipse at the Danville Science Center, for which more than 40 people turned out, I asked the crowd to appreciate the simplicity of seeing, in that curved shadow of the earth moving across the face of the moon, proof with their own eyes that the earth is round, instead of just relying on pictures snapped from a vehicle in space.
Many grasped and appreciated that special simplicity of my point, but some didnít seem to comprehend. In regards to those who failed to grasp, I guess the world is still flat, where it hangs on the wall of their den, controllable with the aid of a remote.
As I watched the eclipse with the other observers that night and saw the progression of the earthís shadow, I had a thought that I kept to myself: In that great shadow of the earth, slowly passing over the moonís face, are included the shadows of everyone presently alive on the surface of the world, dear ones we know, but the greatest portion unknown to us.
Also included in that great curved shadow are the shadows of gravestones, cast on bright sunny days. Just as with those shadows of the living, some of these shadows represent graves of the dear ones we once knew and loved, with the greatest portion of these shadows also representing those we never met.