The Day the Sun Didn’t Rise

The Day the Sun Didn’t Rise

That fall had been dry, so dry that Grandpa said that the river might dry up.  I knew he was joking, but I tried to imagine the river without water, the river that marked the northeast boundary of our Michigan farm.  But I couldn’t visualize it; the river always ran full, a good two hundred feet across, or in my eleven year old mind, the length of three or four sections of my grandmother’s washing line, strung between the elm tree and the oak tree that stood in front of the house.  This time of year the river ran slowly, the water dark and chilling.  I stood on the river bank, looking across at the Merkel farm, imagining how soon the ice would begin to form in the quiet pools, and along the edges.  Although it was mid-September, we hadn’t had any snow; the ground was cold and hard, the grass crispy under my shoes as I helped my grandfather gather the eggs from the chicken house next to the barn.

The evening darkness was starting sooner now, and it was nearly dark by the time I walked in from the school bus, which let me off at the end of the quarter-mile road that wound along the bayou towards our old farm house.  I placed my school books on the kitchen table and walked back outside almost immediately, because my first chore was always to chop up the larger pieces of wood to make kindling, and to fill the woodbox next to the kitchen stove, bringing in four or five armloads of wood from the pile stacked next to the tractor barn, wood that had been cut in the warm days of summer, my uncle and grandfather helping my father move the long logs along the buzz saw that ran on a belted takeoff from our all-purpose Ford tractor.  I was too young to help them, my father worried that I might stumble into the whirling blade of the saw, as Johnnie Hemstead had done on their family farm the previous year.  His left arm was now useless, hanging limp in his jacket as he rode in the back of the school bus, where he sat after the accident.  Lucky to be alive, my father said, but we all knew his productivity was permanently ended, a one-armed man of little or no use on a working farm.

Although I was not then old enough to be familiar with the seasonal patterns of the weather that affected our lives on the farm, I nevertheless recognized that the fall was unusual, the dry leaves clinging steadfastly to the tall trunks and branches of the trees in the “grove,” as we referred to the five-acre stand of woods north of the farmhouse, the leaves not having yet been blown off by the usual autumnal winds and rain.

“Too dry for good hunting,” my uncle said.  When I asked why, he said “Too noisy in the woods.  Everywhere you step, the leaves will crunch under your feet.  The birds and animals will hear you coming a mile away.”  Grandfather’s radio told of fire hazards in the woods and the serious danger of forest fires throughout northern Michigan and Canada, it was so dry, but we didn’t think about that, because my father and uncle didn’t need to start fires when they went hunting.  They would load their guns and boots and hunting vests in the old pickup truck, call the two dogs, Silver Lady and Babe, who would hop in the back of the 1951 Ford pickup truck, tails wagging and barking with excitement, and off they’d go for a day of hunting upriver.

But this story isn’t about hunting or about farm life.  It’s about the time I began to lose my trust in the certainty of adult knowledge about the world.  It occurred one Sunday morning early that fall.  We had spent Saturday afternoon searching for the last of the potatoes, turning the sandy soil over before the hard winter frost made the ground hard as concrete.  I was trying to help, digging my potato-digging tool into the ground with great energy, thrusting the long thin spikes down as hard as I could until my father yelled “Not so hard!  You’ll ruin the potatoes!”  And sure enough, when I pulled up on the handle, one perfect potato was thoroughly impaled on the spikes.  “We’ll have that one for dinner tonight,” my father said, flatly.

While we worked, the sky grew darker and darker with a solid layer of clouds overhead, brought on by a chill wind from the north, blowing the leaves on the trees of the grove close by the rows of potatoes.  When we had finished we loaded the baskets onto the carrier box fastened to the rear of the tractor and my father drove it to the basement of the farmhouse, where we brushed the dirt carefully off the potatoes and carried them into the fruit cellar in our half-bushel baskets where we dumped them on top of the pile of potatoes which we had harvested earlier.  By the time spring came, the potato pile would be nearly gone, the few remaining potatoes sending forth thin white shoots in search of the sun that had been rarely present during the winter.

We washed off the field dirt and then assembled in the dining room, where we sat down to the dinner that had been prepared by grandmother with help of my mother, home from her job at the local military base.  Meat loaf, potatoes and gravy, canned beans, fresh bread, salad with tomatoes, with apple pie for dessert, everything on the table from the farm, including the milk and butter, provided by Ginger, our solitary heifer.  My father sat at the head of the table, directing the disposition of the serving dishes, which were passed around starting on his left, to my grandfather, then my uncle, then me at the other end, to my grandmother and mother and little brother, aged four, inserted at the corner between my father and mother.  The women were conveniently located closest to the doorway into the kitchen or the window into the pantry, through which empty dishes were exchanged for full ones.

Eventually the conversation got around to Sunday church, as I knew it would.  My grandmother was the first to bring the subject up, declaring that she would be attending and in fact had to be there a little early, as she was responsible for making sure the altar flowers were presentable prior to the start of the nine o’clock service.  My mother volunteered to help grandmother, as grandmother knew she would, and my father, who would have to drive the car, announced that “we would all go,” giving both me and my brother a meaningful look.  So it was decided.  My grandfather and uncle would remain at home where they would “keep the home fires burning,” as my grandfather was fond of saying.

After helping to clear and wash the dinner dishes, my task on a weekend night, when I couldn’t successfully plead the necessity of doing homework, I organized the evening card games, soliciting ideas on the game to be played (tonight it would be cribbage), setting up the well-used card table, and helping to arrange the chairs, rocking chairs for grandma and grandpa, two chairs out of the dining room, one for me and one for my uncle.  I got out the new cribbage board, a Christmas present to Grandpa last year, while Grandma spread a cloth over the table.  I passed the deck to Grandpa to cut for the deal, which he won, as usual.  He and Grandma were partners against Uncle Ken and me.  Grandma and I were the scorekeepers.  During an occasional break, Grandpa would step over to the cast iron stove, glowing with a wood fire, to ensure that we had adequate heat against the cold of the late autumn night, as the outside temperature dropped below freezing.  After three spirited games, everyone announced that the evening had been a success, and I prepared for bed, my brother having preceded me an hour before.

When my mother awakened me the next morning, it was dark as usual, for the sun rose later in September.  My brother and I huddled around the kitchen stove, dressing by the warmth of the fire my grandfather had started an hour before, standing in the atmosphere of heat and the pleasant smell of wood smoke, coffee, and the sound of eggs and bacon cooking on the stove.  I dressed for church, a clean shirt, my good pants, even a tie.  As we finished our preparations for church, I realized something was unusual.  It was still dark outside.  There was not the least glimmer of light to the east, over the hills of Merkel’s farm, no gradual greying of the skies.  All was as dark as if it had been the middle of the night.  Usually by this time, eight-fifteen in the morning, the skies would definitely be lightening in the east, either sunlight or the grey sky of clouds clearly discernible.

As we drove down our dirt road to the main road a quarter of a mile away, I asked my father why it was still dark.  He shook his head.  He didn’t know.  It was strange to be driving to church with our headlights on.  As we neared the main road, we could see lights of other vehicles coming into town, also destined for one of the churches in the main part of town.  Our church was located south of town, in an area where a fire forty years earlier had leveled twenty city blocks.  It seemed strange to drive down a dark and unlit road at eight o’clock in the morning.  As we drove into town, I looked again to the east, expecting to see a glimmer of light reflected on the surface of Lake Huron.  But all was dark.

We parked in front of the main church doors, and all of us stepped out, my mother, my brother, my grandmother, my father.  I looked in vain for the remotest sign of light from the skies.  All was dark, pitch dark.  My father ushered us towards the church, so I had no time to attempt further observations.  While we walked down the steps into the community room beneath the chapel, I scanned the sky in vain for evidences of light.  Inside, I saw one of my school friends, Tyler, standing by the clothing rack, hanging up his coat.  “Tyler!  Why is it dark?”  He just shrugged his shoulders.  “Don’t know,” he said.

While my grandmother made her final adjustments to the flowers arranged in the vases that would be placed on both sides of the cross at the center of the altar, I fidgeted nervously, becoming increasingly concerned about the adults’ apparent lack of interest in the absence of the sun.  I was not much of a scientist at that age, but I did pay attention to the basic elements of nature, such as the weather, the turning of the leaves, the phases of the moon, the changing positions of the stars.  And the regular appearance of the sun.  But the sun hadn’t yet appeared, and no adult that I could observe seemed to be paying much attention to the fact.  This in itself was as unbelievable as the fact that the sun hadn’t appeared.  I couldn’t think of a name for what I was feeling.

But nothing, it seemed, would disrupt the church service, which always began promptly at nine.  Due to the fact that Grandma had gotten into a conversation with some other ladies about some topic pertaining to church activities, we were late leaving the community room; we walked outside and back up the steps to the front door of the church, there being no entry to the assembly room of the church from downstairs.  The only set of stairs that led up from the basement, where the community room was located, led to the area behind the altar, where the minister and acolytes dressed for the service.  As we walked up the steps into the darkness, I eagerly, almost desperately, looked up into the night, hoping to find some signal that the sun would soon appear.  But still all was dark.

Standing outside the main door to the church were the minister, Canon Warner Forsyth, and the few members of the choir, who were waiting for the last of the worshippers to arrive before starting the processional entry into the nave of the small church.  Perhaps because of the darkness, an unusually large number of people were arriving late.  We made our way down the aisle and found space in a front pew, not where we normally sat, but due to the unusually large turnout, the only space remaining.  Normally the parishioners engaged in a little small talk before Mrs. Colbath struck the chords of the opening processional hymn on our small pump organ, but today it seemed unusually quiet.

I sat at the left end of the front pew, next to one of the small frosted glass windows that ringed the nave, where the parishioners sat.  The church was called a mission, not large enough to be officially known as a church.  It had been erected some time after the great fire of 1911 had leveled the previous church, which I had been told was an impressive structure, an imposing wood edifice, built in the days of the lumbering boom, that had the unmistakable look of a church.  This building was clearly a smaller, plainer, less authoritative structure, one that, though made of wood with some care, did not have, even to my youthful eyes, the sanctity of true religion.  It was an assembly hall with frosted glass windows and a small elevated altar area on the north end on which sat the few significant religious elements in our church: the polished brass flower vases, filled with Grandma’s selection of gladiolas, and in the middle, a modest polished brass cross which sat on a small raised platform.  On the far sides of the flower vases rested the candelabras, which had been lit just prior to the start of the service.  This morning the light of the candles actually shed light in the darkened altar area.  Even though the clock behind the choir stalls said 9:10, it was as dark as if we were attending a Christmas Eve service.

The one concession to true religious artifacts was the small set of stained glass windows, high above the cross, depicting the patron saint of the mission, St. John, holding a staff before him.  The dominant colors of the stained glass were red and blue and yellow, richly glowing on a sunny day, but today dark as if it were night.  Thus I sat surrounded by windows through which no clear vision of the outside was possible, and apparently I would not be able to obtain any visual evidence of the sun’s appearance until the service ended, an hour and a half later.  At least it wasn’t Holy Communion Sunday, when the service could last two hours or more.

As I sat I listened nervously for any evidence that others in the group were as worried as I was about the fact that the sun had failed to rise this particular Sunday morning, but nothing was said about it.  It was as if all thoughts were focused on the church service, and none on the external world.  Did no one around me care that the sun was not rising?

The processional began and Canon Forsyth led the small but earnest choir down the passageway between the pews as we dealt with the first and second verses of the hymn.  Butch Thomas carried the crucifix proudly in front, striving to hold it steady as the procession moved slowly up the few steps into the area where the choir sat and then into the area around the altar.  The choir members filed past the communion rail, turning left and right into their positions in the choir pews.  When the hymn ended, Butch placed the crucifix into position at the communion rail and retired to his seat, a folding chair next to the padded bishop’s chair on the right side of the altar.  Canon Forsyth began the service by leading us through the opening prayers and we all focused on the appropriate pages of the Book of Common Prayer.

I hardly noticed what I was reading or saying.  I kept glancing at the windows, on the west side of the building, where I was sitting, and on the east side, where the sun should eventually appear.  But all was dark.  When the time came to collect the offering, I thought that Canon Forsyth would say a short prayer requesting God return the sun to its rightful place.  But no, he reminded us of the fund drive for African mission work and how there were always those who were needier than we.

Then it was time for the sermon.  Now, I thought, now he must address this obvious anomaly of the natural world.  I tried to remember where the Bible spoke of darkened skies but the only instances I could recall were the arrival of the locusts to plague the Pharaohs or, worse yet, the darkening of the skies in the hour before Christ’s death.  Neither occasion would be the topic for a sermon designed to raise the hopes of the listeners.  Instead, he spoke on a topic appropriate to the church calendar, and I began to think of other things.

Why was it dark?  I knew that something couldn’t have happened to the sun, for there would be dire consequences causing conditions too unpleasant for such trivial activities as attending church.  But what would block the light of the sun?  I recalled some of the science fiction stories I had read, especially one in which the natives of a distant planet went mad when their twin suns both set simultaneously, an event that happened every two hundred years.  Could something like that occur on earth, if day were never to appear?  How would it be possible to prevent daylight from appearing?  That was the question that seemed to me to be the most important issue of the hour, not anything to do with Joseph’s return to his family or Saul’s letters to the Ephesians.

More puzzling than the event itself was the apparent lack of reaction to it on the part of the adults I was able to observe, even those of my own family.  How could a normal person show so little concern about such an exceptional, unusual phenomenon as the sun’s failure to be visible?  As I listened to the sermon, I thought to myself, what are we doing, sitting here?  We should be outside, staring at the darkness, coming to some kind of rational solutions for the problem.  We should be driving in our cars to places where there were powerful telescopes or powerful airplanes, to bring us closer to the darkened skies.  We should NOT be in church, listening to sermons about improved Christian behavior.

Suddenly, I broke out of my meditation to notice that the light outside our frosted glass windows was growing imperceptibly lighter.  I looked at my watch.  It was after ten o’clock, less than two hours until noon.  Yes, the light outside was less dark, beginning to glow with a blue-grey hue I had never seen before.  Slowly, slowly, the darkness waned.  But inside the church service continued.  I looked around to see if the adults were noticing the change and if they were showing some concern.  One or two were looking at the windows, but that could have been the result of a desire that the sermon should end.  I grew more and more restless.  I wanted to get up and walk outside to see for myself what was happening.  But I knew my father would never allow that, that I should leave my seat in the middle of a church service.  So I sat, suffering with increasing impatience.

Finally, the sermon ended and the final prayers were said, and the recessional hymn began.  Canon Forsyth and the members of the choir slowly made their way down the aisle and out into the cool half-light of the late November morning.  Because we had been sitting at the front of the congregation, we were the last to leave, the front door being the primary entrance or exit.  I had to politely fight my way through the adult bodies that had come to a standstill as soon as they had set foot outside the church doors.  All were looking up at the sky.

I broke free of the mass of adults and stepped out on the sidewalk, almost hesitant to see the cause of the strange light that was filtering down.  When I found a space where I could gaze with undisturbed concentration, I looked up.

Above, not far overhead, I saw a solid mass of clouds stretching from horizon to horizon, in a solid layer but with a pebbled pattern, as if the sky had been knitted into a thick dark blue sweater of cloud, with a rough but regular texture that if you could touch it, would feel like you were running your hand over a dark, knotted carpet.  The clouds were thickly packed together, dark but with a deep blue color, like that cerulean blue crayon that came only in the largest, most expensive box of crayons.  As we watched we could see that the thick cloud blanket was moving slowly south, moving at a slow but determined rate.  The rich blue color that was coming down from the clouds spread across the landscape giving all the objects beneath a blue sheen.  We were living in a world where the only colors were shades of blue.  Even the shadows were blue, dark and rich with a promise of mystery, as if we were standing on the surface of some strange planet, bathed in a blue half-light.

It seemed that we stood there for hours but it must have been only minutes.  I couldn’t stop looking up, examining all quadrants of the sky, admiring the tight patterns and the wonderful, disturbingly deep blue color of the clouds.

By the time we arrived home, the blue clouds were giving way to grey.  Grandpa was waiting for us in the kitchen.  “Isn’t it something?” he asked, his unlit cigar extending from the corner of his mouth at an exceptional angle.  “It’s from the forest fires in Canada.  The clouds are covering a four-state area.  That’s why it was so dark.”  While we were sitting in church, he had been listening to his radio and checking the sky.

That afternoon the skies continued to lighten until finally the sun, barely visible, sank into the western sky.  The next day the skies were back to normal and the sun rose on schedule to lighten the way to school.  I never saw clouds as wonderfully, strangely dark as those again.  If I had ever taken comfort in religion before that day, I took less after.  And I grew increasingly doubtful about the ways in which most adults reacted to the world in which they lived, clinging to routine in spite of unexplained unnatural circumstances.