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Yes, looking at an eclipse can burn your eyes

Yes, looking at an eclipse can burn your eyes


Cardboard frames for solar eclipse glasses are stacked in the American Paper Optics factory in Bartlett, Tenn., earlier this summer.

You would think a welder’s helmet would cut it.

It made a whole lot more sense to Gene Willers than the pin-pricked pages of paper that the newspaper recommended as the 1963 solar eclipse neared.

Willers was 13 then, spending his summer working on the family farm near Neligh. He made sure to take some time away from the chores to take in the celestial display just outside the shop attached to the barn, and he believed he was aptly prepared.

He had the arc welder’s shield. That seemed safe enough. He had a plan, too. Look at it with only one eye, and never for too long. Plus, in Neligh, this was only a partial eclipse, which Willers thought sounded safer to look at than a total one. His optometrist would soon tell him otherwise.

“It was so bright, even through those welder’s glasses,” he said.

Even as the moon slides across the sky and blocks the path of light from the sun Monday, you're still gazing at the sun, said Bill Nye the Science Guy, who packed his eclipse glasses for a trip to Homestead National Monument near Beatrice.

"Eclipses are so fascinating, are so compelling, that you don't look away," Nye said during a phone interview in advance of his Beatrice appearance. "It's like seeing a deity. You just stare at it — 'Wow.' And then you stare too long."

That's what happened to Willers. As the moon began to block the sun, and the sky grew dim, Willers took a good glimpse through his right eye. And then another.

"It was kind of a weird light," Willers said. "And I think I looked at it about four or five times."

After he finished looking, it felt like the sun was still shining in his right eye even when he closed it, like how a car's headlights flashed in your face stay with you for a while after it drives past. 

The rest of that July day in 1963, he said he walked around with a throbbing headache, but told no one about it. Then the next morning, when he woke up with his right eye swollen shut, it was time to come clean.

There weren’t any other kids in the optometrist’s waiting room with him the day after the eclipse, he recalled. In fact, in the 54 years since he stared at the partially blocked sun, Willers has not met one other person whose eyesight was damaged by an eclipse-viewing session.

“There surely have to be some other dummies out there,” he said.

If you’ve ever wondered what’s really so bad about not following the viewing protocol that gets hammered home during events such as the total eclipse of the sun crossing Nebraska on Monday — Wear the glasses! Look at it through a pinhole! — Willers offers his cautionary tale.

He remembered his doctor describing it as a severe sunburn inflicted upon his eye, and warning that it could cause some permanent retinal damage. He had to get corrective glasses soon after that, coincidentally enough, but dodged the worst-case scenarios that can happen after staring at the sun. 

The only known cure for someone who experiences temporary solar retinopathy — a burn upon the retina across the back of the eyeball — is time. Experts say that people can recover within a month or take as long as a year to overcome the condition's symptoms, which can include experiencing blind spots, watery eyes and difficulty discerning objects and shapes.

But if the burn from staring at the sun damages the macula as well, retired Lincoln optometrist Ed Schneider said, glasses won't fix anything. You just have to live with it, he said, like the one eclipse-injured patient he treated in his career.

Schneider does not remember which eclipse it was, and could only guess at which eye the patient damaged. But he distinctly remembers the shape of the burn mark.

“If you see a crescent moon, where most of the moon is missing, that’s what I saw in his macula,” said Schneider, who retired from the Lincoln Vision Clinic 13 years ago. “I can see the retina right now in my mind’s eye.”

Map of eclipse hot spots in Nebraska

For one day, Lincoln could be the largest city in Nebraska that matters.

Nowhere else in the state should offer so many of its own residents prime views of the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse as its shadow sweeps from coast to coast.

Here's a look at some events and viewing sites planned in Lincoln and across the state (click on the photos for each location for full details).

-- Zach Pluhacek

To stare directly at the sun during an eclipse is to put your eye in essentially the same position that kids with magnifying glasses have for generations placed dried leaves and unfortunate ants.

“That’s exactly what happens,” Schneider said. “The light from the sun is so powerful it will burn the retina.”

Schneider, a staff member with the Nebraska Optometric Association, said he bought a five-pack of eclipse glasses off Amazon and was wary about trusting them even before the online retailer emailed him to say he would be refunded because the glasses did not meet the recommended specifications for viewing the eclipse. Even using glasses compliant with NASA's safety standard, Schneider said he'd take in the eclipse a glimpse at a time. 

Willers isn't sure he'll even look. He said he believes everyone has a book in them that could be called, "Dumb Things That I Did." Staring at an eclipse would get some pages in his, though he wasn't ready to call it the dumbest thing he's done.

"Let's say top-25," Willers said.

Nevertheless, Willers went on to become president of Midwest Bank in Pilger, and in 2014 was honored at the Nebraska-Iowa football game for risking his life to keep fellow employees safe inside the bank’s vault, which locked only from the outside. He sealed eight coworkers inside the vault and took cover in a crawl space while a tornado ripped through town and tore open the building. Willers retired last year but remains on the Midwest Bank board of directors, which just so happens to have a monthly meeting scheduled Monday.

Typically, the meeting would be held at the bank’s South Dakota headquarters, he said. When it dawned on board members that the meeting was scheduled on the same day as the eclipse, they decided that it should take place along the path of totality, at a York branch. And Willers, looking back instead of up, decided to finally share his teenage anecdote with the group.

“You want to hear an eclipse story?” he began.

After he told his story, Willers said one of his fellow board members, former Speaker of the Legislature Mike Flood, asked him to share the story with News Network Nebraska.

“Me and my big mouth,” Willers said.

But he said Flood convinced him that it might stop someone from making his mistake, which is why he’s fine sharing it here, too.

As for the upcoming total eclipse, Willers ordered a shirt. There will be a stack of protective glasses ready for eclipse viewers at the bank meeting, but he’s not sure if he’ll join in.

“I’m nervous enough about it that I don’t even know if I’ll actually look at the thing,” he said, and laughed. “That was 53 years ago ... 54 years ago, I guess. I still get nervous about it.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7438 or

On Twitter @LJSMatteson.


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Features reporter

Cory Matteson is a features reporter.

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