A total eclipse in Wellheim

How I did not get to see a total eclipse in the Bavarian hometown of my ancestors

This is going to be a two-part story — I can feel it. I want to tell you about my experiences with total solar eclipses, but family history plays a role, and Roman history in the final section. Also some remarkable astronomical facts that have fascinated me all my life.

My father Alois was born in Wellheim, a small town in Bavaria, Germany. It lies in the so-called “Ur-donautal”, the valley the Danube carved out some 300,000 years ago on its way to the Black Sea.

Wellheim in 1999, with the house in which my father was born, over a century ago, smack in the middle.
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Towering over the city the ruins of an ancient “burg” or fortification.
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The “Schock-Haus, where my father was born, occupied by my cousin Robert (left) and his family.

The total eclipse of 1999

It had been my lifelong ambition to see a total eclipse. My father had in his profession of building navigational chronometers acquired substantial astronomical knowledge, and he had seen at least two in his lifetime. He told me all about them — including the celestial mechanics that brought about the lunar occlusion of the sun. More about that in part two of this article. Unfortunately I never got to witness a total eclipse, in spite of extensive travel around the globe.

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And then one day, in the last year of the previous century, they told me we were having one, and that the umbra, the part where totality was complete, would pass directly over Wellheim. I mean how auspicious, how portentous can things get? Of course I called Robert, packed my family into the car and drove for a mid-week stay in Wellheim.

It all boded well. The eclipse would occur on August 11, 1999, with the maximum at 12:38 local time. On the evening before the event we sat on the balcony of the Schock Haus and were treated to a spectacular sky — dark, clear, with the stars shining brilliantly and the band of the Milky Way clearly visible. Looking good! The next morning we got our equipment together, cameras, binoculars, eclipse glasses, and scaled the hill to reach the burg.

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Discussing the plan with Robert outside Schock Haus, with the burg in the background
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Up there we met a group of astronomy people with good equipment. But you see ominous things in the background.
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As the sun grew dimmer clouds gathered and further darkened the valley carved out by the ancient Danube.
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It grew darker and darker, the street lights went on (they do that automatically). But the sun, when it was totally obscured by the moon, was hidden from our view. We only saw the day grow mysteriously dark, and then light again.

What a tragedy, what a disastrous turn of fate! What could I do, except hum the famous Joni Mitchell song:

Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I’ve looked at clouds that way

But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way

Do me a favour: watch and listen to the above 1969 version of her landmark song. Better sound is available here.

It was the missed opportunity of a lifetime. The path of the shadow traversed the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, the Black Sea, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and India. It was one of the most-viewed total solar eclipses in history. Only I didn’t get to see it.

Well, I missed the personally deeply auspicious one, but actually got to see a total solar eclipse in its full glory, in the end. That is a tale for another day.

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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