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Looking Back
The solar eclipse of 1955

By Ambeth Ocampo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:25:00 08/07/2009

Filed Under: history, Science (general), Astronomy

Antonio Pigafetta describes the last moments of Ferdinand Magellan in Mactan after he was wounded in the arm by a bamboo lance, and had a javelin thrust into his left leg by the defenders of Mactan. Having been recognized and falling on his face, a band of angry Mactan warriors gang up on Magellan and Pigafetta says tearfully, ?they slew our mirror, our light, our comfort, and our true guide.?

(Where was Lapu-lapu in all this? I leave that to your imagination and a future column.)

Pigafetta?s description of Magellan came to mind the other day as I watched the farewell given to Cory Aquino. Seeing the golden sun on the flag that draped her coffin, I realized that while she has passed away, her memory will linger and continue to inspire people more than when she was alive.

The golden sun on our flag seemed brighter than ever before, reminding me of a column I wrote on the recent disappointing solar eclipse. I wrote that there has been no total solar eclipse in living memory and it seems that many people older than I had experienced a total solar eclipse at noon in 1955, long before I was born. I will share their impressions here so that the historian who writes about another eclipse will know how people reacted.

Arturo G. Nazareno of Cavite wrote: ?I just don?t remember if it was a total or partial solar eclipse but at that time it seemed to me like a total eclipse. I remember that we were asked to bring a piece of glass blacked by candle smoke so we could look at the spectacular sight without damaging our eyesight. We could see the sun slowly being blocked by the moon until there was darkness over the city.?

Lina Angsico wrote: ?I?m sorry to disappoint you. But perhaps you were not yet born when we had a solar eclipse at about noon time. I was in Grade 2 then in 1955. I don?t remember the exact date it happened. That was the time we still spent the whole day in school even in the elementary grades. We were told to go home early for lunch break because there was going to be a solar eclipse. And, indeed, there was! What an experience it turned out to be! There was total darkness for a few minutes. We had to turn on the lights like it was night time. Perhaps you could ask other senior citizens like me.?

Liberato Ramos of Quezon City wrote: ?I was in grade school in the 1950s when a total solar eclipse occurred at noon. I looked it up and this was on June 20, 1955, and lasted for 7:07 minutes in Southeast Asia, the Philippines and the Pacific Ocean. That means I was in Grade 2, LOL! Our teachers prepared us for this unusual event some days before. We were told not to look at it but asked to go to the town?s photographer for negatives, or to fill up palanganas with water and look at the reflection of the eclipse there. Us kids were greatly amused as the sun turned black with a bright rim (that?s how we put it then). We had a big suha tree in the yard and we had plenty of chickens on the range. As day turned into night, the chickens started to roost up the tree. And when the sun started to rise again, our father?s fighting cock crowed. That?s the picture still clearly etched in my mind. I missed the eclipse this time as I am abroad. But there would be no more chickens on the range roosting.

?I came across a study (I don?t know if it has been vetted) on the behavior of makahiya during an eclipse: the leaves close (go on vertical orientation, the study says). The Jesuits who manned the Manila Observatory may have kept records of their observations during total solar eclipses (TSE), although these have nothing to do with the acacia or makahiya. Fr. Federico Faura, for example, organized/led an expedition to the Celebes to observe the TSE in 1868, three years after the observatory was established. During the TSE in June 1929, Fr. Charles Depperman led a team in Cebu to observe the phenomenon. Fr. James Hennessey and his assistant Jesus Torres measured the characteristics of the ionosphere layers during the TSE of June 20, 1955. It?s reported that they wrote an article concerning the effect of the shadow of the moon on the ionosphere layers.?

Francisco H. Bautista of Parañaque consulted his wife before writing: ?I was in high school... Classes might have been suspended (my wife from Paco Catholic School recalls), but I remember we were in our school?Torres High School in Gagalangin, Tondo, Manila?with our teachers, who provided used X-ray films, wide basins half-filled with water to see the reflection with, and similar paraphernalia. Some of my rich classmates, I seem to recall, had sunglasses (this was before they acquired the hipper term ?shades?). It must have been around noontime. We waited an eternity for the sun to completely darken. But when the light went out, it was an eerie feeling. I don?t recall how long it lasted. It was brief, not as long as the six or more minutes reported in some parts of Asia, but I could not be sure. I wonder why you could not find any record of this awesome event. Yielding to your authority in our history, then maybe my wife and I were living in a dream.?

One of the wonderful things about living in the 21st century is that columnists get immediate responses and as always I welcome letters that also look back and teach me about a world before my own.

* * *

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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