Grouseland is the inelegant name of a more elegant-that-expected house, supposedly named after the plentiful birds in the area, and thought to be the first brick building in Indiana — the Indiana Territory in those days. It was the home of territorial Gov. William Henry Harrison and his family in the early years of the 19th century. Long before Tippecanoe and Tyler too.

Even longer before “We Are the Mediocre Presidents,” though I’d argue that Wm. Henry Harrison was one of the great U.S. presidents. And one of the worst. He didn’t have time to be anything else.

Last Sunday we arrived in Vincennes, Indiana, hard by the Wabash River, and Grouseland was our first stop. Guess I need to add it to my vanity list of presidential sites, which I haven’t updated in more than three years. Maybe next Presidents Day.

Grouseland, Vincennes, Indiana

Patterned after the Harrison manse in Virginia, Grouseland probably would have been no great shakes in the early 19th-century Old Dominion, but out in the wilderness of Indiana, it must have been impressive. It’s still impressive in small-town Vincennes. The exterior walls were built sturdy enough to endure for more than two centuries, but most of the interior is a faithful re-creation, considering that after the Harrisons left, the property was given over the other uses, including a period as a barn.

Grouseland, Vincennes, Indiana“As governor, Harrison saw his principal task as opening lands belonging to the local Indian tribes to white settlement,” the NPS says of Grouseland’s heyday. “He negotiated a series of treaties that provided for the cession of millions of acres of land, but his success generated strong resistance.

“Tecumseh, the famous Shawnee leader, who was trying to recruit other tribes to join him in armed resistance, met with Harrison at Grouseland in 1810 and warned that his people would fight to prevent further white encroachment. Located to the left of the center hall, the ‘Council Chamber,’ is where Harrison held many meetings with Indian leaders and conducted much of his business as governor.”

We got to the house just in time for a guided tour, given by a fetching Vincennes University history major undergrad volunteering for the gig. The campus extends off in the distance from Grouseland. Until I looked it up, I knew nothing about the school except as a spot on the map. (Pretty much the same could be said for Vincennes.)

From its web site: “VU is Indiana’s first college. William Henry Harrison, the ninth U.S. President, founded VU in 1801 while serving as governor of the Indiana Territory. VU was incorporated as Vincennes University on November 29, 1806.”

So that’s another Harrison legacy. Attaboy, William Henry.


There’s no suspense to this narrative: we saw the 2017 total eclipse in its full glory on Monday (Moon Day, fittingly) beginning at about 1:22 p.m. CDT. That’s hindsight, of course. During the 30 minutes before totality, there was no way to know which way the wind would blow, and where it would carry the clouds.

As the Moon slowly ate the Sun, people gathered at the McCracken County Library courtyard for the event.

Paducah KY Total EclipsePaducah KY Total EclipsePeople tried on their glasses.
Paducah KY Total EclipseDudes were stretched out on the grass with their glasses. This dude, anyway.
Paducah KY Total EclipseThe library was giving away glasses, but also cold water, tea and Moon Pies.
Paducah KY Total EclipseWe stayed at the courtyard a while, but then I went over to the plaza across Washington St. to see whether the vantage was better. The sky was more open there, and so we all went.

Later I found out that the place is formally called Dolly McNutt Memorial Plaza, named after the first female mayor of Paducah, who was in office during the 1970s. The plaza is a square city block, ringed on four sides by trees but open to the sky inside, and featuring memorials to various branches of the armed forces.

A sidewalk inside the plaza forms a smaller square around an oval-ish fountain at the center. On Monday afternoon, kids were splashing around in the fountain — which looked pretty scummy, actually — just like they would on any warm day.
Paducah KY Total EclipseAt that moment, people were looking to the sky all around the plaza.

Paducah, KY EclipsePaducah KY Total EclipseAt first, we sat under some of the trees, since it was still fairly hot. The curious shadows of the leaves were visible.
Paducah KY Total EclipseSoon we moved to the short set of steps surrounding the fountain and sat there. By then the sky was dimming and the air was noticeable cooler, maybe 10 degrees F. It wasn’t exactly a comfortable spot, but good enough for the minutes leading up to totality.
Paducah KY Total EclipseThe clouds had held back. I knew we were going to see totality unobscured from Dolly McNutt Memorial Plaza, at about 37.083543 degrees North, 88.598450 degrees West, according to calculations I later made using Google Maps, so take that for what it’s worth.

The dimming of the sky proceeded, unlike any dusk. I saw streetlights come on, and a flock of birds head out from a tree. The last of the crescent sun, seen through our glasses, dwindled to nothing. Then it happened. Glasses came off, people in the plaza mostly expressed themselves without words, cheering and whooping and even clapping, and the show was on. We were swept up by it.

Much has been written about totality. A common theme is that photos do it no justice. This is completely correct, even an understatement. The event doesn’t look like its pictures, not even the best images from the best machines. We fool ourselves into thinking that cameras capture images like the eye. A solar eclipse puts the lie to this. For human beings, eyes are the thing.

I’d never seen anything like it. The black disk — the corona’s tendrils — wisps — curls — glowing ringlets — luminous strands — and the surrounding darkness where sunlight should be — were awesome. As in, inspiring awe.

It wasn’t a religious experience. It didn’t make me appreciate the wonders of the cosmos any more than I did before, which is a lot. It didn’t change my life in any fundamental way. But the black sun and wondrous corona did make me very glad to be alive and fortunate enough to see such majesty.

One Hot Morning in Paducah, Kentucky

The weather forecast for Paducah, Kentucky, on August 21, 2017, called for partly cloudy skies. Ah, but which part? As good as weather forecasting has gotten in recent decades, that’s beyond its competence. When waiting for a solar eclipse under partly cloudy skies, you just have to hope for the best.

In the mid-morning that day, at least, partly cloudy meant high, thin cirrus clouds that probably wouldn’t obscure the eclipse too much. They certainly didn’t block the bright sunlight. So we went about our business. Mine was business. I got up early in the morning and wrote and filed and edited and so forth, continuing what I’d started Sunday afternoon and evening, compressing the day’s work into the morning, so I’d be free to watch the sky in the early afternoon.

Late in the morning, we checked out of the motel and headed to downtown Paducah, to seek out a late breakfast. We didn’t want to be distracted by hunger while looking up at the totality, nor during much of the drive home afterward. A scattering of stores along the way, and a few downtown, offered eclipse-related souvenirs.

That was the case even before we got to Paducah. One small-town restaurant not actually in the path of totality had a marquee advertising eclipse burgers and eclipse shakes, whatever those were. Officialdom, in the form of flashing highway signs, had also taken to warning drivers about traffic around the time of the eclipse. One sign — in rural Indiana, I think — said that pulling over to the side of the road to watch the event was unsafe.

All the way down to Kentucky, the radio mentioned the event, both in the form of news and deejay patter, some of it not very bright. On the morning of the eclipse, I spotted people wearing t-shirts commemorating the event. I know it was a superstitious feeling, but I thought that was a bad idea. Wearing a shirt about an event that hadn’t happened yet, and which could be spoiled to errant clouds? That’s just asking for cloudy trouble.

We arrived at about 11:00 for late breakfast/early lunch at the Gold Rush Cafe on Broadway. Gold rush indeed. The place was doing a land-office business. There was a 30-minute wait for a table, we were told. While the rest of my family waited, I took the opportunity to scout out the place where I’d planned to see the eclipse, a few blocks away at or near the McCracken County Library, which was holding an eclipse-themed event starting around noon.

I made my way from the restaurant south on 4th St., to Washington St., where I turned west. At Washington and 5th St. is the library, a modernist joint with a small area of greenery and trees next to the building. People were already gathering there, their cars filling the parking lot behind the library. Looked like an OK spot, as did the plaza across Washington from the library. I turned north on 5th past, amusingly, the offices of the Paducah Sun, and headed back to Washington. Another block east and I was back at the restaurant, sweating profusely. (Is there any other way to sweat on a hot summer day?) It was about 90 F and the sun was strong under those thin hazy clouds. Not perfect, but very good skies — if it would last another two hours.

We only waited about 20 minutes to get a table. The restaurant was abuzz with eclipse talk. The people at the next table, two of whom were wearing science-nerd t-shirts, talked about it. A woman at another table talked of seeing another eclipse in Australia. A bearded fellow at the table next to ours, eating by himself, talked to his waitress about where he might find some eclipse glasses. The place was full — more business than they usually get on a Monday, I figure — and the event seemed to be on everyone’s mind.

Later, I saw the restaurant’s Facebook page, which posted that morning: “Ok folks, I don’t imagine many of you are running around downtown today…. we’re taking our last orders at 12:30 so that way we can go see the eclipse as well. Thanks for your understanding!”

As for eclipse glasses, I’d acquired some Celestron brand shades online the month before, when I’d read that such glasses shouldn’t be used after more than three years. The ones we have from the Transit of Venus are five years old. That’s erring on the side of caution, since I don’t really know whether they degrade enough to be hazardous after five years.

Then, of course, there were reports of substandard glasses, either made carelessly or purposely so. If made with intentional disregard for eye safety, that’s as bad as making bogus antibiotics. Bastards. So that’s in the back of one’s mind, though I’d tested the glasses the week before in my back yard without ill effect. I’m glad to report that our Celestrons seem to have protected us.

As for a shortage of eclipse glasses on the day itself, there was none. The library was giving them away, and so was an antique shop across the street from Gold Rush Cafe (or maybe selling them, I didn’t ask).

While eating lunch, the skies outside dimmed for a short spell. I knew it was too early for the partial phase of the eclipse, so that meant only one thing: clouds. When we emerged from the restaurant some time after noon, white, fluffy cumulus clouds punctuated the sky. The kind you don’t mind seeing any other time. Some were sizable. This was bad. Periodically the sun would be obscured for a few minutes.

There was nothing for it but to wait. We spent a while in the antique store. I bought some postcards there, because of course I did, including an eclipse souvenir card. Glad I found it. The artist is Jane E. Viterisi, apparently a local artist.

At about 12:30, we went to the McCracken County Library. The crowd wasn’t enormous, but sizable. People were milling around, parked in chairs and sitting on the ground. Just about everyone had glasses. We tried our eclipse glasses out for our first look at the event while in the library parking lot.

There it was, through the shades that excluded all other light: a fat orange crescent sun. Quite a sight all by itself, and getting leaner all the time. Meanwhile, the skies around the sun were clear, but clouds lurked elsewhere. Totality was coming.

The Great American Solar Eclipse Road Trip

How long did I know about this week’s solar eclipse? I don’t know. It wasn’t because of the recent media buzz. The better part of a decade ago, probably. Sometime back then, I filed away the notion: I am going to see the solar eclipse of August 21, 2017. In the path of totality.

So I did yesterday, along with my immediate family. And some unspecified millions of other people. It was an event among events. During totality, we were in Paducah, Kentucky, which occurred there for a bit more than two minutes beginning at 1:22:15 pm CDT. All my remaining days, I will remember where I was at that moment, and what I saw, and so will the other members of my family.

I’d like to report that I overcame various trials and adversity to arrive at that place at that time, like an intrepid 19th-century scientist off to see eclipses over remote parts of the globe, but all it really took was a modest amount of planning, plus a bit of time and money. Back in October, for instance, I booked a room at a limited-service motel in Paducah for the night of August 20. I mentioned this to the clerk.

“That’s why you paid the regular rate,” she said. “People who booked this month had to pay twice as much.” Surge pricing among motels. She also claimed that nearby motels, only a bit better than the one we were staying in, charged $400 a night for some rooms. “And they’re getting it.”

We left on Saturday and drove from the northwest suburbs via Champaign-Urbana to Terre Haute, Indiana, where we spent the night of the 19th. On the way, we stopped at Shades State Park in Montgomery County, Ind.

The next day we went from Terre Haute to Paducah, spending a few hours in between in Vincennes, Indiana, on the Wabash River. We saw three things there: Grouseland, home of William Henry Harrison as governor of the Indiana Territory; the splendid Basilica of St. Francis Xavier, and the monumental yet obscure George Rogers Clark National Historical Park.

The thinking behind these stopovers was that seeing the eclipse at totality was no certain thing. Clouds don’t care about your peak-life-affirming-you-are-a-child-of-the-Universe experience, or even if you’re a scientist (or citizen scientist) looking to add to mankind’s body of total knowledge. It’s just another day to the atmosphere. So in case that happened — and the prospect kept me antsy for days — the trip wouldn’t be a total bust.

All together, the trip from our house to Paducah, using the most direct roads, is nearly 400 miles. St Louis is closer, about 300 miles, but I wanted to stay away from a large city for the event, which would mean adding crowds to crowds. Also, I’d acquainted myself with much smaller Paducah in 2009 at the same time as Metropolis, Ill. (misspelling Paducah in my posting), and found it pleasant enough.

Why see the eclipse at all? Because of the astronomy books I had as a kid that explained and illustrated the phenomenon, especially with maps of where total eclipses would be in far-off future years like 1979. Because of the eclipse of March 7, 1970, which was partial in Texas. My eight-year-old self made a pinhole box but, finding that unsatisfying — and this was before widespread eclipse glasses — I stole an instant’s look at it the thing itself in partly cloudy skies, very clearly seeing the black disk on the bright one. Because the subject came up at the planetarium I visited almost monthly in elementary school. Because men were going to the Moon at the same time. Because of the lyric in “You’re So Vain” that seems to reference the ’70 eclipse. The idea of winging off to Nova Scotia just to see an eclipse seemed (seems) impossibly intoxicating. Because of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and “Nightfall” and other stories and movies using an eclipse as a plot point. Because I read Isaac Asimov writing about the Eclipse of Thales, and later read Herodotus on that event, which probably was on May 28, 585 BC, and if so history’s first exact date. Because I read about the eclipse of May 29, 1919, which helped confirm general relativity. Because of the annular eclipse I experienced in Nashville (as a partial) on May 30, 1984, which dimmed the sky in a strange way. Because it’s a cool thing to see not before I die, but while I’m still alive, just like the Transit of Venus. Because, to paraphrase George Mallory, it’s up there.

What Kind of Dog Days Are These?

Time to knock off for a little while. Back to posting around August 22. Got stories to file, things to plan, maybe a marvel or two to see.

These ought to be the dog days, when Sirius returns and dogs lie around. Of course dogs lie around all the time. The swelter ought to be enough to make us all want to lie around. Hasn’t happened this summer, at least here in northern Illinois. We haven’t been oppressed by much heat this August, even by local standards (anything around 90 F. or more).

It’s also supposed to be the silly season. You know, when there isn’t much serious news. Maybe that’s an old-fashioned concept in our time, when information of all kinds and quality oozes from every medium. Even so, lately there’s been entirely too much serious news, too much for any time, much less August.

Got reading to do, too. Always that. Four or five books at a time. Always that, who would do it any differently?

Lately read the following passage by Jack Kerouac in The Dharma Bums, one that runs on yet holds together, as he had a talent for. The woods don’t quite have this effect on me. Too bad.

“I felt like lying down by the side of the trail and remembering it all. The woods do that to you, they always look familiar, long lost, like the face of a long-dead relative, like an old dream, like a piece of forgotten song drifting across the water, most of all like golden eternities of past childhood or past manhood and all the living and the dying and the heartbreak that went on a million years ago and the clouds as they pass overhead seem to testify (by their own lonesome familiarity) to this feeling.”

Fish Heads, Fish Heads

The main course of this evening’s dinner, still in its packaging, before it became dinner.

Snapper Supper

We didn’t eat the fish head. I was told long ago — I think by an elementary school teacher — that fish heads were eaten in Japan. I later discovered that wasn’t universally true, just more likely than in this country.

At least one writer argues that stubborn Westerners ought to eat ’em up, yum. I’m not persuaded.

Missed Perseids, a Satellite Flare and Saturn on a Saturday Night

Over the years, we’ve sporadically attended celestial viewings at the Spring Valley Nature Reserve, which isn’t exactly dark, but it’s darker than the surrounding suburbs. We went again on Saturday.

This time, the event was more popular than I remember it ever being, since besides viewing through a telescope set up on one of the reserve’s paths, a marshmallow roast was held near one of its buildings. Volunteers gave away marshmallows on prongs for a fire that had already been built. Such family-friendliness is going to attract people will kids. We had a few marshmallows ourselves.

There was a short line to see through the telescope — an expensive-looking piece of equipment, though I didn’t get the brand or model — and while we waited, we naturally did some naked-eye observations. While I was looking one way I heard, “Look, a shooting star!”

I was looking the wrong way. Of course. A few minutes later, the same thing happened. So I spent some time looking to where I thought the Perseids would be. Last weekend was the peak for this year, I’d read. I saw none. That has happened before. A few times.

So it goes. I did see a satellite flare, which was a first. I’ve seen a number of objects before that I’ve been sure were satellites, but this was different. This object was moving across the sky at the pace of a satellite, not a high airplane, and it was flashing for a few seconds at a regular interval. I’d read, years ago, that this can happen when the satellite reflects sunlight as it rolls — or pitches or yaws or whatever — in its orbit.

It might have been a Iridium satellite. Wiki, at least, has this to say: “Occasionally, an [Iridium] antenna reflects sunlight directly down at Earth, creating a predictable and quickly moving illuminated spot on the surface below of about 10 km (6.2 mi) diameter. To an observer this looks like a bright flash, or flare in the sky, with a duration of a few seconds.”

That’s exactly what I saw. Maybe they account for some number of UFO sightings, too. (If Venus can, why not an Iridium satellite? Unless Venus is where the UFOs are coming from.)

A few people in line had iPads with stargazing apps. I guess they’re called that (there are many, it turns out). I’d never seen one in use. You hold the iPad up toward any direction of the sky and the app will draw a not-overly-bright rendering of the constellations in the area. I didn’t get a close look, but it looked like a fair amount of information, including standard constellation patterns, star names and even fanciful illustrations.

I ought to think that’s cheating. Learn your constellations the old-fashioned way, dammit, from Chaldean herdsmen. But how different is an iPad app that from taking your paper star charts out and reading them by red light, and then looking up to see what you can see? Maybe the app should display red to help keep your night vision intact, but other than that it’s really no different, except easier to use.

After about 15 minutes in line, we arrived at the telescope, whose owner was enthusiastic about sharing with the public. Good for him. He had enormous spotting binoculars, too.

Jupiter was already beginning to set, so he turned it to Saturn, about midway up in the southern sky, and away from the clouds covering some of the sky that night. Yuriko, Ann, Ann’s friend and I all took a turn. Always nice to see Saturn.

Mighty Stonehenge

Notes from a day’s drive in southern England. My friend Rich and I were young and doing what people — tourists — do in that part of the world, seeing very old places.
Wish we’d known about Glastonbury Tor (about 50 miles to the west of Stonehenge; nothing is really very far away in England, not to a Texan). Even so, I’m not sure we could have seen Stonehenge and Bath and Glastonbury Tor in the same day, but we could have given it the old post-college try.

August 11, 1983

Mrs. Dow drove us to Gatwick Airport, and we paid our pounds [wish I’d recorded how much] and rented a blue Ford Fiesta. The plan is to drive various places until we need to return the car at the airport on the 14th, to catch our flight home.

Driving on the left side, with the steering wheel on the right, took some getting used to. Soon we were lost on the small roads south of Gatwick, very narrow ones with a surprising amount of traffic, and confusing roundabouts (traffic circles) appearing suddenly and often.

So we were edgy for a while. Fortunately, you get used to the roads. We even got unlost. Rich drove and I navigated, and we each took to those roles before long. We listened to BBC1 as miles of English countryside rolled by. Entertaining, no commercials.

At about 1, we arrived at Stonehenge. [Ah, mighty Stonehenge.] We saw it from some distance at first, driving along the A303. Looked almost luminous from a distance. The road runs remarkably close to the ruins. Maybe an ancient road did likewise.

We parked (no charge!) and visited the ruins. You can’t get too close to the stones. Close enough, though. Impressive, and puzzling, that ancient people dragged these some distance across England, long before it was ever called that, for the purpose of building a stone circle. I won’t speculate on their motives. The center uprights and lintels were especially impressive: big and white and somber. [Not quite this crowded that day, I’m glad to remember.]

Drove on to Bath. No problems until we got snarled in traffic in Bath, a town not built for cars. We eventually parked in a garage that featured the following emphatic signs: Thieves are active in this car park. Remove your valuables or they will be stolen.

We went to the tourist-i, booked a room, and drove there: a place called Toad Hall. Very nice, £7 each. We walked into the center of town from there, visited a number of bookstores there, then the Roman baths. [No detail about that, but I remember such scenes such as this.] Ate. Wandered back to Toad Hall. Just after sunset, a beautiful scene just outside our window: a church steeple with a nearby crescent moon.

I used to have a business card I picked up at Toad Hall, but I can’t find it. I remember it featured a gentleman Toad, whom I guess would be Toad of Toad Hall. Though a children’s book, I never got around to reading The Wind in the Willows as a child, so the name didn’t resonate with me when I stayed there. Only later I appreciated the whimsy of naming a B&B that.

I checked, and it’s still there. I also checked the rates: a double in August is (gasp) £95. (We paid the current equivalent of £42 between the two of us.)

Thursday Whatnots

Yesterday I picked up my copy of the Federalist Papers and read No. 1 (Hamilton). It’s a beat-up paperback, a somewhat yellowing Mentor Book, published in 1961. Somehow fitting in its republican simplicity. Seems like I got it used in the summer of ’81 at the University Coop in Austin, probably for the Government class I took that summer at UT.

I read some of them at the time, and a scattering more later in the ’80s, but little since. Time to take it up again. Its 18th-century educated dialect — call it Enlightenmentese — was a little hard to unpack as a callow lad. Not as much now, though now and then I need to re-read a sentence to make sure I understand it.

Each paper is conveniently short: pamphlet sized, you might say. So I’m reading one a day. I ought to have time enough for that. Today was No. 2 (Jay).

Hamilton’s wisdom shines through from the get-go. From Federalist No. 1: “So numerous indeed and so powerful are the causes which serve to give a false bias to the judgment, that we, upon many occasions, see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society.”

And a notion that foretold Internet comment sections, among many other things: “To judge from the conduct of the opposite parties, we shall be led to conclude that they will mutually hope to evince the justness of their opinions, and to increase the number of their converts, by the loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invectives.”

I also recently acquired The Shipping News and The Dharma Bums, and plan to read them soon. Reading should involve variety.

Besides this vanity map of the states, a while ago I made a map color coded according to my visits to the state and provincial capitols. It’s a minor hobby of mine.

CapitolsGreen represents the state capitols and provincial parliament buildings that I’ve seen inside and out. The orange-pink means that I’ve seen the capitol, but for one reason or another I didn’t go inside. White is for capitols I’ve never seen at all.

As for the two gold-orange states, Hawaii and Utah, I can’t remember whether I’ve seen or been in the capitols. You’d think I’d remember something like that, but the visits in question were in 1979 and ’80, respectively, years that are otherwise known as a long damn time ago. I was in Honolulu and Salt Lake City. I could have gone. A few years later, I would have made a point of going. But I’m not sure I did then.

Ice Cream Truck, August 2017

How did “Turkey in the Straw” become the universal song for American ice cream trucks? This article suggests a lineage for the association. This YouTube video plays another song to the same tune, one I wasn’t familiar with.

Back Yard Flora ’17

Today was a mostly sunny, warm August day. The beginning of declining summer, though the grass and bushes are so green — there’s been a fair amount of rain this summer — that it looks more like June. The dry browns of August are missing this year. So far.

Around noon, I wandered around my back yard taking pictures of flora. Why? Why not?

I also spotted some back yard fauna, lurking in the greenery.
The dog chews on the plants this time of year.

Why? Why not?