'Holy moly!' Eclipse chaser goes to great heights

The "Outta Sight" eclipse viewing festival will be at the Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School.

NASHVILLE — Mild-mannered Mark Manner is passionate about solar eclipses.

How passionate?

“The difference between a partial eclipse and a total eclipse is the difference between kissing and having sex,” said Manner, 65, a lifelong amateur astronomer and a partner with prestigious Nashville law firm Bass, Berry & Sims.

“The electric arc, where sunlight pours out from behind the moon?” Manner said, pausing.

“Holy moly! I’m getting goosebumps describing it.”

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Solar eclipse fever is sweeping Nashville in advance of the Aug. 21 event. And it’s likely no one in town is more enthusiastic than Manner, who has seen three total eclipses around the world since 1979.

Manner, of course, is doing something extra special for the hometown eclipse.

He and his wife will be 17,000 to 40,000 feet off the ground in a friend’s private jet, flying about 600 mph. That effectively extends their time in total daytime darkness to about three and a half minutes, nearly a minute longer than earthbound creatures will experience it.

The other advantage of being airborne: He and the other passengers are essentially guaranteed to see the eclipse, putting them above any clouds that might block the view for those on the ground.

“So the duration increase is fun, and doing it is fun,” he said quietly with a smile.

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While Manner can’t take all his friends on the plane, he is doing whatever he can to help people share in the experience.

Manner — who has helped set up observatories around Middle Tennessee, Arizona and New Mexico — is hosting a talk for 200 or more law firm colleagues on how to best experience the eclipse. And the firm has mailed a handout to clients, complete with special eclipse-watching glasses.

Manner's love of astronomy started when he was a little boy growing up in McKenzie, a rural town in western Tennessee. Manner and his dad would take a small telescope out to the front yard after dinner and take turns staring at the moon for hours.

His teachers encouraged the boy to take advantage of the library in the town’s one and only college, Bethel College, now Bethel University. Only 12, Manner began devouring books about science, the Big Bang theory and space.

On two-hour trips to Nashville, Manner would excitedly chatter to his dad about cosmology, the study of the evolution of the universe.

In high school, Manner loved chemistry, physics and biology, while delving into science fiction books after school.

He ended up studying chemistry at Vanderbilt University and law at the University of Memphis, where — still obsessed with astronomy — Manner built an observatory in the backyard of his small house, a homemade telescope made complete with a tube, a mirror and other parts. He used a coffee can filled with cement as a counterweight.

Unlike other nerds, though, Manner found he was good at connecting with people, and he used listening skills and his intelligence to help people solve business building problems.

You never forget your first one

While launching a law career, Manner kept feeding his interests in astronomy and other outside endeavors.

He experienced his first total solar eclipse in 1979. Married and newly employed as a lawyer, Manner got the cheapest ticket he could find, and flew to Winnipeg, just north of the Minnesota-North Dakota border.

He rented a car, stayed in a cheap hotel and drove 90 minutes to a field the next morning, where he ran into a fellow eclipse chaser, who had flown in from Los Angeles.

Looking west, the two men saw a dark object in the sky, and suddenly, in the middle of a sunny day, it was getting darker and darker.

“In my mind, it’s incredibly loud, like a freight train engrossing you — but there’s no noise.”

'The sun looks like a chained beast'

The most magical part is right before the moon completely blocks out the sun.

“There’s a brilliant light on the edge of the moon, and you can see points of sun blinking out. The shadow covers you, and it’s really hair-raising,” he said.

“The sun looks like a chained beast.”

Darkness enveloped the men for a few minutes, and just after the sun started to reappear, Manner ran back to the car and drove for the airport. He was late for his flight home.

His next total eclipse turned into a family trip to Hawaii in 1991, with an 8-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl in tow. That one, the longest one Manner has seen, lasted four minutes. And he loved sharing it with his kids.

“My daughter was beside herself with excitement. She was bouncing around, literally bouncing around.”

What's that loud noise?

In 1998, Manner and his wife, Anne, went with another husband and wife to Aruba for a total eclipse, one that brought something unusual.

About halfway through the three minutes of “totality,” the two couples heard a noise and saw a burst of lights on the ground about a mile away. A prison’s sensor-operated floodlights kicked on full force.

This next eclipse could be the most stirring of all.

The private jet will fly at an elevation of around 17,000 feet if it’s clear, about 40,000 if not. The altitude will give passengers a better view of the eclipse, letting them see more vivid colors and offering a much better look at the shadow cast when the moon starts to cover the sun.

The anticipation brings gratitude.

“I’ve had a great career, and I’ve also been able to do other stuff,” Manner said. “It has made me a happier person.”

Eclipse at a glance

What: A total solar eclipse will be visible on a 72-mile wide path, the first total solar eclipse visible in the U.S. in 38 years.

When: Aug. 21

Duration: About 2 minutes

Follow Brad Schmitt on Twitter: @bradschmitt

© Gannett Co., Inc. 2017. All Rights Reserved


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