Finding family in the Path of Totality

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When the author snapped this photo, he had no idea it was four dear friends he hadn’t seen in over 30 years.

STEINAUER, Neb. – When the Path of Totality rolled over us on Monday, I was standing with my several families in a mowed off field at the south end of this small village in southeast Nebraska. People cheered and shouted and hugged in the midday darkness.

I wish there was a way that I could feel  every day, as I felt in Nebraska, standing alongside dozens of strangers who became once again a family.

I had come here to Steinauer, pop. 71, at my brother’s suggestion because he expected little traffic, but plenty of fifth-cousins-once-or-twice removed. Steinauer is the village near where my Wenzl ancestors homesteaded as immigrant peasant farmers in 1867. I brought along my stepson Henry, a science nerd finishing his last semester at Oklahoma State University. Henry had never seen a solar eclipse, or a town so small.

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Henry watches the eclipse begin in downtown Steinauer.

We’d come for a rare celestial event – the first of its kind here since 1979 — and found a place of temporary refuge from the everyday world, where people in the news either predict cataclysms, or seem to be creating them.

Up here, strangers like me came early, on the Saturday night before the grand eclipse, to listen to an astronomer, to see the stars through a strong lens, and to be embraced by the hospitality of rural Nebraskans.

They were glad in Steinauer that their village, settled by Czech and German peasants long ago, was centered in the eclipse Path of Totality, a 70-mile wide swath of land that would experience the total eclipse. My great-grandfather had left this village for Kansas in 1911 because the rolling hills that surround it didn’t appeal to him as a farmer. But I watched the low light of the sunset paint colors on those same hills on Saturday near dusk, and I thought they were gorgeous.

When the gold and pink faded and the stars came out, we peered at the moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, and an immense, globular cluster of hundreds of thousands of stars, burning many light years from Earth.

And two days later, we watched the moon blot out the sun.

Writers sometimes trot out the cliché about how we humans are all one big family, but for me and Steinauer, this was literally true. Descendants of Franz and Josephina Wenzl of Bohemia (and their friends) threw a low-key three-day party. They’d prepared coffee and beer, hot dogs and cinnamon rolls. They’d unlocked their fire station in the south corner of the village so we’d have a restroom for celestial events. Willard’s tavern stayed open far longer than it usually does, and offered not only Sam Adams on tap but custom-made black Koozies, to hold beer cans and glasses, and the Koozies said: “I blacked out at Willard’s Tavern, Solar Eclipse, 8-21-17.”

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Roy, Tom and Larry Wenzl in Steinauer, Neb. for the eclipse.

One of my distant cousins, Tom Wenzl from Bellevue, Washington, had come all the way to his ancestors’ home having never heard of the town or his own family history until a few months ago. When he found out that there’s a good solid house in Steinauer, available for only about $5,000, he called his wife. They are now talking seriously about moving here. His pension will go so much farther here than elsewhere.

I might want to move here myself.

Wenzls weren’t the only family I found in Steinauer. I took a photo of four random people posed around a marquee reading, “WELCOME TO STEINAUER, SOLAR ECLIPSE” only to discover they were some of my best friends from decades ago. In another work life, we had been a work family: Olser, Diana, Mary Lou, and her husband, Alan. We’d been young editors at The Kansas City Star.

I had not talked to them in decades, but Monday was a day of days. An hour or so before the eclipse, attracted by my Facebook post that said the traffic would be light in southeast Nebraska, they all showed up in Steinauer. Osler and Diana had driven nearly 800 miles up from Austin to do this. And we picked right up in conversation where we’d left off 32 years before.

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Diane and Olser traveled 800 miles to kiss during the eclipse in Steinauer, Neb.

When everything went nearly dark for two minutes, and Diana kissed Osler, I took a photo of that kiss that all of us will keep handy, as a reminder about life, in all the years to come.

I will keep it as a reminder of the joy we all felt that day, freed from the routines that wear us down, united by a celestial event that brought us together.

I’ve heard from many friends who went elsewhere for the eclipse, and they talk as I do, with a sense of wonder, about this communal event we gave ourselves in celebration on our small planet in the Milky Way galaxy.

Together we saw how powerful the heavens are, and how tiny we all are.

And so when the light dimmed to darkness on Monday, people cheered and shouted. And the Nebraska Cornhuskers weren’t even playing football.

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