It rolled at you across the land at 1800 miles per hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it….we saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed before it hit.
Annie Dillard, in her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk, said that she and her husband once drove across the mountains of central Washington state to a place that would put them in the path of a total eclipse of the sun. Early in that morning in 1979 they pulled off the highway and waited. She said:
The deepest and most terrifying [memory] was this: I have said that I heard screams….people on all the hillsides, including, I think, myself, screamed when the black body of the moon detached from the sky and rolled over the sun. But something else was happening at that same instant, and it was this, I believe, which made us scream. The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us. We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. It roared up the valley. It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon….it was 195 miles wide. No end was in sight—you only saw the edge. It rolled at you across the land at 1800 miles per hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it….we saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed before it hit.
Today is November 22, fifty years after that terrible day when the wall of darkness came roaring across the land at 1800 miles per hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it. Except we didn’t see it coming at all. We had already felt the tremors in September when a bomb killed four little girls in Birmingham. The next five years brought wave after wave of inky darkness, as though we were floating down into the Marianas Trench, where, my boyhood books told me, there were sea monsters of unimaginable strength sufficient to live in pressure seven miles under the ocean. Darker than dark. Night with no light at all. Cave darkness.
That is the only way I can describe November 22, 1963. As far as “where was I” I was a fourth grader in Delaware, Ohio, at Boardman Elementary School, an old building that I hope has been dynamited by now and replaced with something cheerier. It had long, narrow dark stairwells. I was a stranger, a fourth grade son of the South, transferred among these Yankees by my Daddy’s job.
I know it is in my subjective imagination, but I only remember cloudy, cold days in Delaware, Ohio. I’m sure the sun shone that year. We moved away after only nine months, to another job, another town. Only four things come to me from that year and that place, other than learning about Cooties and that someone always was trying to give them to me. First, the roof blew off the little Southern Baptist Church where we went. Second, Mrs. Keller, my teacher, grabbed my face so hard one day it left marks, at least on my spirit, when I was talking on the way to lunch, put her big, long face up to mine and said, “Be QUIET!” Third, the other kids laughed at my Southern accent when I read the spelling words in class, something we took turns doing.
But the other thing, the big thing, was one day, Mrs. Keller came running into the classroom, crying, and said, “Children, the President has been shot.” Some of us cried. Most of us were numb. The only people we’d seen shot were on the Rifleman, a show on TV where the hero gunned down four of five bad guys an episode. Later Vietnam would make blood and killing death a nightly experience, but now, what was this?
She sent us to the playground, and we walked around, quietly, surreal for a playground, not knowing what to do. And then we went home. My mother cried and watched the television for three days, so we did, too. We saw a little boy like us saluting, I saw another man, the one they said did it, shot in the stomach, right there on television. It was confusing. We watched the funeral, the sad horsedrawn caisson, the thousands of people filing by, and wondered, “What will become of us? What has happened to the world? Is it safe?”
That’s all I can ever call up of that dreary year, in that dark and outdated school. We had no adult words to understand, so we played football in the yard, and went back to school. We only knew that something had changed in our world. We didn’t know what it was. We were afraid, of the shadow that fell across the land, so quickly that no one had time to get ready. For the next fifty years, we would try to make sense of it, but there is none to make. Conspiracy theories finally are a last-ditch effort to somehow say, “See? It did make rational sense after all. Here’s why they did it.”
Because the truth, that there is some Darkness so deep, so horrible, that nothing can save us from it, is too terrible to face. We have felt it again and again since then—in Memphis, at Cape Kennedy, at Oklahoma City, at Ground Zero, many others. The same sudden wrenching of the sun out of the sky, the shiver of all of our carefully constructed “worldviews” and the Shadow, violently drinking everything in its path. And then there is stillness, and fear, and wonder as we consider, “What are we to do?”
And for just a while, ever so little while, there is the kindness of the refugee to one another, as we feel the frailty of human life on this little ball of earth. Where was I? Same place you were, if you woke up on December 7, 1941, and all those other places where the world shook, the Shadow fell, and we walked around wondering what on earth to do.
When Jesus had breathed his last, all three synoptic gospels include the observation that “It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon” Luke 23:44. It was not the end of all things, but there are moments when only darkness and silence suffice.