Eclipse Day: North Forkers turn out to look up

By 2 o’clock, the parking lot at the Custer Institute in Southold was overflowing with cars, as more than 100 skywatchers equipped with beach chairs and special glasses set up on the lawn to watch the afternoon’s solar eclipse.

No place on the North Fork – or anywhere on eastern Long Island, for that matter – is better suited than Custer for experiencing the rare celestial event. The observatory, which was built in the 1930s for the purpose of studying the heavens, had a half dozen specially filtered telescopes set up on the lawn for visitors to gaze through. Members of the institute went out of their way to make sure everyone who came had a quality view.

Inside one of the buildings, two large telescopes tracked the sun as it transited the sky from east to west, one of which projected an image onto a television screen. Inside the institute’s main building, a live NASA feed followed the progress of the eclipse across the “path of totality,” where the moon completely blocked the sunlight.

On the North Fork, as Custer member and astronomy enthusiast Farhan Ali explained, the eclipse would peak at 89% of totality at 3:27 p.m.  At roughly 2:16, Mr. Ali walked through the crowd shouting, “It’s starting! Put your special glasses on! Everyone – it’s starting.”

A look through a piece of dark glass Mr. Ali shared with dozens of visitors revealed the bottom right corner of the sun partially blocked as the moon moved into position. As the minutes ticked by, anyone holding Mr. Ali’s glass could see the sun slowly being covered by the moon.

“I have loved astronomy since I was four or five years old growing up in Pakistan,” he said, his enthusiasm for the science unfolding in the sky above unbounded. The next significant eclipse that will be visible form the area won’t happen until 2044.

More than 160 guests preregistered for the event prior to Monday, said Anne Spooner, the Institute’s president. “There’s way more people than that here now,” she noted as more cars parked up and down Main Bayview Road.

Like Mr. Ali, Ms. Spooner was thrilled to share the Institute’s telescopes – and members’ love of science – with everyone who came. “This is one event that all of humanity can participate in, wherever you are,” Mr. Ali said. “It doesn’t matter what religion or nationality you are – the sky belongs to everyone.”

The entrepreneurial operator of a Mr. Softee truck cleverly parked on the grounds as the crowd grew. The line for ice cream was soon ten deep. Inside the main building, J.K. Hodge played the piano as visitors watched the NASA feed, which began in Mexico and showed the eclipse unfolding all the way across the continent to northern Maine.

Also in the building, members of the Peconic Amateur Radio Club set up equipment and began receiving messages from all over Europe. “We are collecting information,” club member Gary Utz explained, “and scientists will later look at the data to see what they can learn.”

Michael Scicchitano of Manorville came with his family to watch through their special classes as the sky darkened and the afternoon temperature dipped.

He remembered the last partial eclipse in the U.S. – August 21, 2017. “I was on a golf course in Atlanta,” he said. “I feel lucky to be here today.”

Fred Hartman chatted with other visitors as the clock ticked towards 3:27. He said he moved to Southold in January and the first thing he did was become a Custer Institute member.

“I love astronomy, and I love astrology,” he said. “I am a clinical psychiatrist in Williston Park. I have a lifelong interest in both these things because they provide meaning in our lives. It helps us communicate with the sky.”

When 3:27 arrived – the sky dark as if it were closer to 8 p.m., the air even cooler – shouts and applause rippled through the large crowd. It was as if the team they were rooting for just scored the winning touchdown.

“This is amazing,” several people shouted. “This is just amazing.”