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Meet the retired science teacher who trekked 600 miles to see the 1970 solar eclipse

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Hundreds of thousands of tourists are traveling to all parts of the country to view the total solar eclipse on Monday when the moon will completely obscure the sun for three minutes. That will bring back cherished memories for one retired science teacher in northern New York. He saw a total eclipse more than 50 years ago and says it is the memory of a lifetime. Monica Sandreczki from member station North Country Public Radio has more.

MONICA SANDRECZKI, BYLINE: In high school, Andy Sajor wasn't exactly, in his words, a socially active kid. He and his good buddy Dennis Cassia were self-described astronomy nerds. They even built their own aluminum-domed observatory in the backyard of Cassia's Westchester County home. And in the fall of 1969, they hit big. A total solar eclipse was going to cross the Eastern Seaboard the following spring. We got to go see it, they thought.

ANDY SAJOR: I have to give 100% credit to Dennis. He's the one that was like, oh, yeah, we could do this.

SANDRECZKI: Sajor pinpointed their destination. Cassia inventoried their telescopes, sun filters and cameras.

A SAJOR: I think our film of choice was Ektachrome on the telescopes and Kodachrome for just the cameras in plain use.

SANDRECZKI: Then in early March 1970, Sajor, Cassia, a few other buddies, their physics teacher, Dr. Nelson, and their folks trekked 600 miles from Westchester County to Kinston, N.C.

A SAJOR: And my dad - thank God he had that little cheap cassette recorder (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LADD SAJOR: About one more minute.

SANDRECZKI: So it's kind of distorted, but this is the original audio that Ladd Sajor, Andy's dad, recorded as he talked to physics teacher Dr. Robert Nelson. It was March 7, 1970.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

L SAJOR: And then you are down here on this beautiful day in Kinston, N.C. Do you think you will have a successful event?

ROBERT NELSON: Well, I don't see how it could possibly go wrong.

SANDRECZKI: It was a sunny, late winter day in an open field on the campus of Lenoir Community College.

A SAJOR: There had to be, oh, probably a hundred people scattered around, some of them set up with telescopes, but a lot of them just hanging out there and kind of looking to us. We were probably the most complete, quote, "science team" there.

SANDRECZKI: Sajor's dad interviewed everyone in their cohort that day in the style of an old-timey news anchor, including Cassia's mom, Viola.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

L SAJOR: Very good. Very good. Very good. Do you have anyone else with you?

VIOLA: Oh, yes. We're a group of 10 people.

L SAJOR: Ten people - that's wonderful. And who is your associate over here on your right?

VIOLA: That's my son, Dennis.

L SAJOR: Dennis - let's go over and talk to him.

VIOLA: All right.

L SAJOR: And what kind of equipment do you have here?

DENNIS CASSIA: Well, we have a 6-inch reflector and right here is a sheet for someone to take pictures of shadow bands.

L SAJOR: Pictures of shadow bands - what are shadow bands?

CASSIA: Shadow bands are...

SANDRECZKI: Shadow bands, he's saying. Those are wavy lines of light that makes surfaces look like they're undulating before and after an eclipse.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

L SAJOR: Your name, sir?

A SAJOR: Andy Sajor.

L SAJOR: And where are you from?

A SAJOR: Pleasantville, N.Y.

L SAJOR: Where is Pleasantville, N.Y?

SANDRECZKI: It was more than 50 years ago, but Sajor's memories are vivid.

A SAJOR: I had set up a 6-inch Newtonian telescope with an equatorial mount, and it had an electric clock drive. Running up to the actual start, it was checking everything, rechecking everything and being so involved in that you weren't paying attention to anything else except the equipment that you were going to be responsible for.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

A SAJOR: Also, we're shooting 16 millimeters black and white to possibly make a movie for future use in my high school physics class.

Then as it started getting closer, you could hear the crowd start to get quieter and quieter. Then the gasps started coming.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

L SAJOR: Here come the shadow bands.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Where?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Look at them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Where?

L SAJOR: Yes, look at it.

A SAJOR: And it looked as if the ground was undulating towards us, like it was rolling. It was an optical illusion like an earthquake roll.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

L SAJOR: Bring the camera, Andy. Oh, yes, yes, I see it. All right. Hey, look at the horizon.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Look at that.

L SAJOR: Quick, look at the horizon.

A SAJOR: Having totality hit was such a shock because the temperature dropped. It felt like 20 degrees. Everything went black. The animals, birds stopped singing, and all this other noise around - that quieted right down to nothing. But the roar of the people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

L SAJOR: There's Venus to the left.

SANDRECZKI: They went to work shooting on infrared black and white and infrared color film. They timed their photos, varying their exposures and shutter speeds between them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

L SAJOR: Next one I'm going to do will be 20 seconds, twice as long. 101, 102, 103.

SANDRECZKI: This is Sajor's dad shooting on one of those old-fashioned 1920s plate cameras he brought for fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

L SAJOR: That's two down.

SANDRECZKI: They captured complete shots of sunlight passing through gaps in the moon's rugged terrain, known as Baily's beads, and also the faint corona of the sun starting to peek out at the end.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

L SAJOR: Hey, yes, look at the red spot at the bottom. Look at the...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: The bottom. Wow.

L SAJOR: Yeah. Look out. Here comes the sun. Don't look.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Don't look.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Don't look.

L SAJOR: Don't look. Andy, don't look.

A SAJOR: And it was over. That was it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

L SAJOR: Six hundred miles (laughter).

A SAJOR: It's funny 'cause I heard my dad say 600 miles for 90 seconds or something like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

L SAJOR: All that. All that just for that. But that purple flash - did you see that purple...

A SAJOR: I got the bands.

L SAJOR: Oh, wonderful.

SANDRECZKI: They packed up their telescopes, filters and cameras and hit the road home, wringing their hands over how their photos would develop. They didn't need to worry, though. Their photos turned out great.

A SAJOR: Seeing one is really awe-inspiring. You'll never forget it. To me, it's on a par with when I went to Antarctica. It was at par of being in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. It's right up there.

SANDRECZKI: Now, 54 years later, Sajor and Cassia are hoping to reunite on April 8. For Sajor, experiencing totality is one of our peak moments of being human on Earth.

For NPR News, I'm Monica Sandreczki in northern New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Monica Sandreczki
Monica Sandreczki heads up the socioeconomic desk at WSKG, covering stories about how social structures affect people who don't earn much money. Before that, she hosted Morning Edition at the station for two and a half years.