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River Bend Astronomy Club

River Bend Astronomers Club members attend public star gazing at Annie's Frozen Custard in Edwardsville. Photo courtesy of the group

St. Louis sporting events have had their fair share of “Where were you when …?” moments over the years.

There’s the Blues 1986 Monday Night Miracle. The 1999 Rams Super Bowl victory punctuated with “The Tackle.” And who can forget David Freese’s 2011 World Series Game 6 heroics keeping the dream alive?

Now, St. Louis-area astronomers want their own unforgettable experience, and Aug. 21’s total solar eclipse provides the perfect stage.

“It’s like an opportunity to go to the Super Bowl,” said Jeff Menz, president of the River Bend Astronomy Club. “I feel like I have seats on the 50-yard line and I can’t wait for the halftime show.”

Since he was a youngster, Menz has been fascinated by astronomy. He remembers man landing on the moon when he was 7 years old but cannot remember a time when he did not own a telescope.

When he discovered the River Bend Astronomy Club in 2006, just two years after the group’s inception, Menz recalls thinking: “Oh my gosh, these are my people.”

Now those people, with Menz at the helm, will get to experience firsthand one of the most unique celestial phenomena.

The group plans to set up on a cattle ranch between Chester and Ava, Ill., keeping the location private due to space restrictions. Group members and family will come, leading basic eclipse education sessions, pointing out the various happenings the eclipse causes and setting up a scale model of the event. According to Menz, if the sun were the size of a basketball, then the Earth and moon would be just pinheads 94 feet away.

James Small, president of the St. Louis Astronomical Society, shares Menz’s excitement for the upcoming event, even if his organization lacks a similar plan for observance.

“People keep asking me ‘Where are you gonna be?’” Small says. “I’m like, ‘I don’t know. I haven’t seen the weather report yet.’”

The St. Louis Astronomical Society decided two years ago that it wouldn’t host an event of their own so as not to interfere with any preferred plans its members may have. “They have the flexibility to go where they need to go,” Small says. Meanwhile, the society has been busy helping to plan eclipse events for other organizations as a founder of the St. Louis Eclipse Task Force.

Because the eclipse is such a unique experience, the task force has worked for two years now to prepare the community for what to expect. From nocturnal animals waking up and streetlights flipping on, to the temperature dropping and stars coming out, some of the unusual occurrences are readily apparent as long as you know what to look for.

Some of the more astronomically minded like Menz and Small are particularly excited about viewing the sun’s corona, which is too faint to be visible in the daytime and Menz says is “probably the highlight” of the whole eclipse.

“I’ve never seen (a total solar eclipse), but they tell me it’s very vibrant and almost like it’s alive,” Small says. “It will be the most exhilarating experience you will ever have.”

While both Small and Menz will have their own elaborate set-ups of camera equipment and other technology, that doesn’t mean the layperson needs to drop a dime for a one-of-kind viewing experience.

With just a colander or a leaf pocked with holes, Small explains that someone can project mini replicas of the eclipse on the ground. It’s the same idea as a pinhole viewer, just multiplied for maximum effect.

Despite not having his own plans set in stone, Small knows he’ll get a move on early, waking up around 2 or 3 in the morning to check the weather, find the perfect spot and set up his equipment. He’s already on the 50-yard line for his Super Bowl, why not put the extra effort in to score some seats in the first row?

Wes Jenkins • 314-340-8104

@wesjenks17 on Twitter