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Johnny Vardeman: Maybe eclipse this year will overshadow one from 1970s
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Excitement is building in the Northeast Georgia mountains, where a total eclipse of the sun is expected mid-afternoon Aug. 21.

The event will be hyped even more in the coming days as eclipses don’t visit the continental United States that often, and especially Georgia. The last one to generate such interest was March 7, 1970.

This year’s eclipse should darken the streets of Hiawassee, Clayton, Blairsville and Toccoa, less in such places as Cleveland and Cornelia. Gainesville is in what is called the penumbra, when the sun is partially blocked by the moon. Those Towns, Union, Rabun and Stephens counties’ communities are in the umbra, or darkest part of the eclipse.

The Gainesville area is said to experience 90 percent of an eclipse, when it won’t get totally dark, but kind of “dusky dark,” as old-timers out on the farm used to say.

But exactly how dark is debatable. Rudi Kiefer, professor of physical science at Brenau University, says it depends on the cloud cover that day.

You have to be careful to estimate just how dark it will get in any one place. The Gainesville area was estimated in the 1970 eclipse to have about 90 percent darkness even though the darkest part would be in the Savannah area, some 250 miles away. The umbra this year would be as close as 40 to 50 miles away.

But with all the buildup to the 1970 eclipse and Hall County being in the 90 percent darkness range, The Times newsroom back then figured it better be prepared to cover this rare event. Phil Hudgins, then city editor of the newspaper, put his A-team onto the assignment. Besides, it was a slow news day, Hudgins recalls, not much going on besides the eclipse.

Ace reporters Eddie Stowe, Johnny Solesbee and the late Bimbo Brewer were deployed around town to record the event at the designated time.

Stowe was to take a picture of a kid looking up at a street light that would come on as darkness fell.

Solesbee was stationed shoeless and cross-legged “Sitting Bull fashion” atop his 1967 Volkswagen Beetle to capture then-First Federal Savings and Loan Association’s time-temperature clock on Green Street and cars passing by with their headlights on.

Brewer, armed with the paper’s only camera with a telephoto lens, got on top of the then-Dixie-Hunt Hotel to see if he could get pictures of pigeons roosting in the darkness.

Photographer Ed Beazley had four cameras poised to capture whatever during the eclipse.

The sun eclipsed, all right, but not so you could notice in Gainesville. Clouds obscured the sun and the moon’s shadow. Even then it didn’t get that dark.

Stowe was the first to give up, returning to the newsroom, street lights never coming on. His main memory from that day 47 years ago: “I got a big pain in my neck from looking so long up at the sky.”

Solesbee followed soon after. “Did I miss it?” he asked. “Is it over?” Today he recalls, “I felt like an idiot sitting on top of my car with all those people riding by looking at me.” All he got were a few honks of horns from the passing cars and some strange looks from motorists.

Brewer was the last to report in from his assignment atop the Dixie-Hunt. None of the pigeons he was to photograph was roosting. “Some might have been resting,” he said at the time.

Hudgins, having counted on eclipse photos and stories to help fill Sunday’s front page, was forced to write a story about how well The Times had been prepared for the big eclipse. The headline read, “The Times covers the eclipse like the clouds.” And “Big flop in Gainesville.”

Chances are this year’s eclipse will be different because we in the penumbra are so close to those in the umbra. Protect your eyes wherever you are. Maybe it will darken enough for the street lights to come on, cars will turn on their headlights, farm animals will huddle together in the corner of a barn, and roosters will crow when the sun comes back from behind the moon’s shadow.

But don’t count your pigeons before they roost.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.

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