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Your Friend 'Til the End: An Oral History of Child's Play

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Universal

As a film student at UCLA in the mid-1980s, Don Mancini was amused by the hysteria surrounding the Cabbage Patch Kids, those ubiquitous, slightly homely dolls that were disappearing from toy shelves and prompting physical fights between parents. Mancini’s father had worked in the advertising industry all his life, and his son knew how effective marketing could pull strings, resulting in consumer bedlam.

“I wanted to write a dark satire about how marketing affected children,” Mancini tells mental_floss. “Cabbage Patch was really popular. I put the two impulses together.”

Out of Mancini’s efforts came Child’s Play, the 1988 film written by a college student, directed by a horror veteran, and produced by a man who had just finished an animated family film for Steven Spielberg. Like 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, the movie was a well-received, effects-heavy twist on the slasher genre. And like that film, it birthed one of the great horror icons of the 20th century: Chucky, the carrot-topped doll possessed with the soul of a serial killer.

The portable monster—or, as Mancini puts it, an “innocent-looking child’s doll that spouted filth”—went on to star in five sequels, a Universal Studios horror attraction, and a comic book, launching Mancini’s career and providing horror fans with another antihero to root for. With a new Collector's Edition Blu-ray from Scream Factory, mental_floss spoke with the cast and crew members who endured an uncooperative puppet, freezing weather, and setting an actor on fire to break new territory in creating a highly animated, expressive, and iconic tiny terror.

I: BATTERIES NOT INCLUDED

After two years as an English major at Columbia University, Don Mancini transferred to UCLA with an eye on becoming a filmmaker. A teacher was impressed with his first script, Split Screen, about a small town overtaken by a horror production. Riding on that enthusiasm, Mancini tackled his second script by exploring the idea that a doll could be a child’s violent alter ego.

Don Mancini (Writer): Being a horror fan all of my life, I had seen Trilogy of Terror, I had seen the Talky Tina episode of The Twilight Zone, and I knew the killer doll trope. But what I realized was that it had never been done as a feature-length film in the age of animatronics.

Howard Berger (Special Effects Artist, KNB): Animatronics were not exactly booming, but we were doing what we could with them. At the time, they were not nearly as advanced as what would eventually be required for Chucky.

David Kirschner (Executive Producer): I had just done my first film for Steven Spielberg, An American Tail, and was in London where I bought a book called The Dollhouse Murders. I read it, got back home, and told my development person that I’d love to do something with dolls.

Mancini: This was shortly after Gremlins, and effects had progressed to the point where you could create a puppet that was extremely articulated.

Kirschner: Talky Tina terrified me as a kid. My sister’s dolls did, too. They had a night light under them, like when you hold a flashlight up to your chin.

Mancini: Before, the doll jaws in movies had been kind of floppy or Muppet-like, but there was a new level of nuance I thought I could take advantage of.

Kirschner: I later co-wrote a movie with Richard Matheson, The Dreamer of Oz, which we did with John Ritter. He was a paternal figure in my life, and strangely, I never did ask him about [co-writing the 1975 TV movie] Trilogy of Terror.

Tom Holland (Co-Writer, Director): I quoted Trilogy of Terror to everyone. I basically got involved with this movie due to the sequence, “Prey,” and how they put a camera on a skateboard for a doll to terrorize Karen Black, shaking it from side to side. It looked terrific.

Mancini: This was shortly after A Nightmare on Elm Street, which was really important in the development of the slasher genre. Freddy was a villain with a very distinct sense of humor, someone who could taunt victims verbally. I was quite consciously influenced by that with Chucky, the idea of an innocent-looking child’s doll that spouted filth.

Kirschner: It was in many ways what Spielberg had done with Poltergeist, which was about suburbia and bringing the terror home.

Mancini: It was originally titled Batteries Not Included. I was living in a house off-campus with three other film students, one of whom had graduated and was working as an assistant to a producer at Orion Pictures. She passed it on to his boss, who read it and passed it on to an agent. He got wind Steven Spielberg was doing a movie with the same title and suggested I change it. So it went out as Blood Buddy.

Kirschner: The development person said, “Actually, there’s a script that’s been making the rounds called Blood Buddy, but everyone’s passed on it.” I read it and loved Don’s idea.

Mancini: It's not completely true [that everyone passed]. I did get some bites. Charles Band was one producer who saw it and liked it. He had a studio that turned out really low-budget horror and exploitation films. I don’t remember why he didn’t buy it, but he did end up doing movies called Dolls and Puppet Master. And he hired me to write a movie called Cellar Dwellers, which I used a pseudonym on.

Holland: In Don’s original script, there needed to be a way to sympathize with the son and mother.

Mancini: In my script, the doll was not possessed by a killer. The doll was a manifestation of a little boy’s unconscious rage, his id.

Kirschner: The idea of what brought the doll to life wasn’t there yet.

Mancini: If you played too rough with him, his latex skin would break and he’d bleed this red substance so you’d have to buy special bandages. So the boy, Andy, in a rite of brotherhood, cuts his thumb and mixes it with the doll’s blood, and that’s the catalyst that brings the doll to life.

Kirschner: At that point, I was a relatively new father and wasn’t sure anybody would buy a doll with blood in it. It didn’t make sense to me, but there were a lot of cool things in there, some cool deaths.

Mancini: He starts acting out against the boy’s enemies, which he might not even be able to express. Like a babysitter who tells him to go to bed, or a teacher who gives him a bad grade.

Holland: What Don wrote originally felt more like a Twilight Zone episode. The little boy fell asleep and the doll came to life. It didn’t emotionally involve you.

Mancini: Ultimately, the mother was a target, too. The kid had an unconscious resentment toward her. She was an ambitious single mother who wasn’t around, so she got him the hot toy.

In my script, the doll wasn’t really seen until the third act, where he's spouting one-liners and killing the kid’s dentist. I should really bring that back at some point.

Kirschner: I did two drawings of the character and went out to studios. A guy I had never heard of named Tony Thomopoulos from United Artists came to my office and said, “We want to make this movie.” He was wonderful and he lived up to everything he ever promised.

With Kirschner attracting interest in Blood Buddy, he began the process of revising the script on the belief that audiences needed a more sympathetic character than a boy with a murderous alter ego.

Kirschner: The studio did not want Don, so we brought in John Lafia.

John Lafia (Co-Writer): I believe David and I were at the same agency at the time and got introduced that way. He showed me Don’s draft and that’s how I got involved. He told me his take on it and I did two drafts. This was after Tom had come on for the first time.

Holland: I had come on the project once before and couldn’t solve it. In horror, the audience is involved in direct proportion to how much you care about the people. And that wasn’t the situation here. So I left to go do Fatal Beauty with Whoopi Goldberg.

Lafia: I went to a toy store and looked around. I remember picking up a Bugs Bunny, pulling the string, and hearing a scratchy voice. There was also a freaky Woody Woodpecker that talked.

Holland: You had to set up a situation where you can believe in a possessed doll, which sounds silly in the light of day, but that was the job.

Lafia: I was thinking of The Terminator, actually, but in micro form. Just this thing that keeps coming.

Kirschner: John got us to a point where we could go to directors. I met with William Friedkin, who I was terrified of, but he was a wonderful man. And I talked to Irvin Kershner, who did The Empire Strikes Back.

Lafia: I think the biggest contribution I made was to give the character a back story so it was a human who somehow became a doll. In my draft, it became Charles Lee Ray. I coined the name Chucky.

Holland: By the time I came around a second time, Lafia had done a rewrite and I think they had spoken with Joe Ruben, who had done The Stepfather. In the year or so I spent away from it, I figured out how to involve the killer.

Kirschner: I had seen Fright Night, which I loved. Tom seemed nice. I called Spielberg because Tom had done an Amazing Stories for him. He said Tom was an arrogant guy, but talented.

Mancini: I was still just a kid in school. It was just sort of this unspoken thing—pushing you out the door. Let the adults take over.

Lafia: My take on it, and I don’t think Don’s was that far off, was more like Poltergeist, with a family threatened by supernatural forces. I remember David and I watching that movie to refresh our memory.

Mancini: I was excited. I was a fan of Fright Night, of Psycho II.

Holland: I learned so much by writing Psycho II about moving movies forward visually. I had to study Alfred Hitchcock.

Mancini: It was Tom or David or John who brought in the voodoo, which I was never thrilled with and a mythology we got stuck with for six movies.

Lafia: My device was not voodoo. It was more of a Frankenstein-type of moment at a toy factory. A prisoner was being electrocuted on death row and his spirit got into the doll. We would cross-cut with his execution and the doll being manufactured.

Mancini: Tom has said over the years that it’s an original screenplay even though the credits say it isn’t, which is complete bullsh*t.

Holland: The Guild is set up to protect the writer. It is what it is. Failure has no fathers, success has many.

Securing Holland gave Blood Buddy—now titled Child’s Play—a strong anchor, but the film would succeed or fail based on whether the movie could convince audiences a malevolent doll could go on a killing spree. To make that happen, Kirschner enlisted Kevin Yagher, a 24-year-old effects expert who had worked on A Nightmare on Elm Street 3. Yagher and a team of effects artists, including Howard Berger, would spend months perfecting ways to bring the puppet to life.

Kirschner: I drew Chucky in graphite, and Kevin brought him to life incredibly.

Berger: David’s drawings were a great jumping-off point. We had so many versions of Chucky. The one we used most was from the waist-up.

Mancini: I was so involved with school that it was all just moving along without me. I had no involvement with the doll's development.

Berger: He really couldn’t walk. We tried putting him on a six-foot dolly, but it just sort of dragged itself along.

Kirschner: If you’ve got someone controlling the eyes, someone else the mouth, someone else the hands, something will go wrong. It’s going to take a very long time. But Kevin and his team were amazing.

Berger: We made the doll heads to look increasingly more human as the movie goes on. The hairline begins to match Brad Dourif’s.

Mancini: Over the course of the movie, his hairline is receding. At the top of the movie, he’s got a full mop of hair. Visually, it was cool, but I was never down with the story logic. Why would that happen? What does it mean? Does it mean he’d ultimately be a human thing?

Berger: We had different expressions. A neutral one, angry, one that was screaming. One Chucky we literally just hooked up to a Nikita drill motor. When you turn him on, he’d just spin and flail around, kicking.

Mancini: While I was still writing the script, a lawyer had encouraged me to describe the doll in great detail—in as much detail as I could think up. Because if the movie became a hit and if there was merchandise, there would be a scramble over who was legally the creator of the character. And sure enough, there was.

Berger: Chucky went through a few iterations. Originally his head was more football-shaped, like a Zeppelin.

Mancini: I was very distinct in the script: red hair, two feet tall, blue eyes, freckles, striped shirt. David designed the doll, but didn’t deviate from those details. 

Kirschner: After American Tail, I wanted to do something different. My agent was not happy about it. My mother was not happy about it. My wife thought it was great.

II: THE ASSEMBLY LINE

Child’s Play began production in the winter of 1988 in Chicago and Los Angeles—the former during the coldest time of the year. Holland’s cast included Catherine Hicks as Karen Barclay, Chris Sarandon as Detective Mike Norris, and Brad Dourif as Charles Lee Ray, the killer fated to become trapped in the plastic prison of a retail toy.

For shots beyond the ability of the puppet to perform, Holland enlisted actor Ed Gale, a three-foot, six-inch tall performer who had made his film debut as the title character in 1986’s Howard the Duck.

Ed Gale (“Chucky”): I knew Howard Berger from other projects. I met with Tom having just done Spaceballs. I wound up doing Child’s Play and Phantasm II at the same time. I don't take credit for being Chucky. It's Brad [Dourif], the puppeteers, and me.

Holland: Brad is wonderful, a genuine actor.

Alex Vincent (“Andy Barclay”): Brad’s voice was on playback on the set. The puppeteers would synch the movement to his voice, sometimes at half-speed.

Mancini: There was a Writers Guild strike and I wasn’t legally allowed to be on the set, so I didn’t rejoin the process until after shooting was over. But I don’t think I would’ve been welcome anyway.

Holland: I don’t remember ever meeting Don. I thought the writer’s strike was toward the end of shooting.

Mancini: My understanding through David is that Tom was the auteur and wouldn’t want anyone else around.

Holland: He certainly would have been welcome to come to the set.

Although a few of Holland’s leads struggled—Sarandon’s vocal cords once froze during a sub-zero exterior shot—nothing caused more trouble with the production than Chucky, a complex mechanism requiring multiple puppeteers. His presence led to differing opinions over how best to approach the tone of the film. 

Kirschner: This was my first live-action film project. I was a real quiet, shy person, and Tom was a real presence.

Gale: Tom was very driven and focused. I very distinctly remember a scene where Alex needed to cry and Tom was spitballing how he could get him to react. He was asking the social worker, “Can I blow smoke in his face? Can I pinch him?”

Holland: I was very sensitive to Alex’s feelings. He was not an actor with experience. I hugged him after reach take.

Vincent: Tom was very passionate about getting specific things from me and being really happy when he got them.

Gale: I think he wound up telling him scary stories.

Holland: I don’t remember any scary stories. I just kept having him do the scene. 

Vincent: I don’t remember anything specific he said. I do remember that they ran out of film when I was doing it and I told them, “Don’t worry, I’ll keep crying.”

Gale: When you look at the crying scene, it’s pretty convincing. Tom is a genius director. As a person, I won’t comment.

Kirschner: I felt he kept showing too much of the doll. I wanted to be gentlemanly about it and kept whispering in his ear, and he was getting fed up with me.

Berger: The doll was a pain in the ass. Everything was a hassle. I remember the scene where Chucky was in a mental hospital electrocuting a doctor. It took 27 takes to get him to press a button.

Vincent: I was aware of the puppet [being slow] because I’d be standing there for 43 takes. Having him flip his middle finger was this whole process.

Kirschner: The doll was not working great. Jaws had come out and I had seen how great that worked. You were postponing the fear. Tom wanted to show the doll.

Holland: The studio was applying pressure because of costs. It became more tension-filled.

Berger: Chucky made a horrible noise when he moved because of the servos—like scree, scree. He was very noisy.

Kirschner: I felt it should be more like Jaws or Alien where you don’t see anything for a long time.

Holland: There was a disagreement as to tone. David made movies for children.

Vincent: I remember being taken off set a couple of times when there was a fight or disagreement. I’d have some big production assistant put me on his shoulders and carry me out.

Berger: What you have to remember is, it took quite a few of us to make the doll work. Someone was doing the hands, then someone else the eyebrows, and someone else the mouth. It was like we all had to become one brain.

Gale: It didn’t really involve me, but I do remember David calling me up at 3 or 4 in the morning just to talk. I told him, “You’re the producer. Put your foot down.”

Kirschner: I won’t go into the near-bloody details of the fight we had. 

Holland: David was a skinny kid then. It never got physical. There was just a difference in temperament.

A difficult performer, Chucky would go on to become the catalyst for strained working relationships on the set.

Kirschner: Kevin Yagher was brilliant at what he did, but he didn’t have a ton of experience. And Tom is screaming and shouting at him.

Holland: It was no knock on Kevin, but it was all the doll could do to take a step.

Berger: Chucky’s fingers would get worn out quickly. The aluminum fingers would begin to poke right through the latex skin. I had this big bag of Chucky hands and changed them three times a day.

Holland: I had a terrible time with the eyeline of the doll. He couldn’t look at actors. The puppeteers were under the set and for reasons I could never figure out, the monitors they had were reversed. He'd look left instead of right.

Kirschner: It took like 11 people to make the puppet work.

Berger: This was a puppet that was radio-controlled who was in half the movie. It was brand-new territory.

Holland leaned on Ed Gale to perform broader movements. Because he was significantly larger than Chucky, the production built sets 30 percent larger than normal to maintain a forced perspective.

Holland: That was something I learned from Darby O’Gill and the Little People. You use forced perspective with overbuilt sets.

Mancini: I thought that was really cool. I love those sleight of hand things.

Gale: Facially, nothing can beat a puppet. But to make it actually work full body, running, or jumping, they needed me.

Mancini: Tom had directed him to walk in a sort of mechanical way, almost like a clockwork. He just marches.

Gale: The puppet would move more smoothly and I’d walk a little more like a robot and we’d meet in the middle. The problem was that I had zero visibility. I’d rehearse and walk through a scene with my eyes closed. It’s like taking a drink while blindfolded. You look like an idiot. I was also set on fire.

Holland: Ed is a very brave guy. 

Gale: I got weaned into it. They set one arm on fire first, then my chest, then both arms. You wear an oxygen mask.

Vincent: I did not want to see that. Ed was my friend and I didn’t want to see him spinning around on fire.

Gale: I did the scene in segments. First I was on fire in the fireplace, cut. Kicking the gate open, cut. Walk out on fire, cut. Each was only about 45 seconds, which is a little less than a lifetime when you’re on fire.

The only close call was when they wanted to drop me into the fireplace. They could see the assistant’s shadow, so they wound up hoisting me up further and I dropped six or eight feet, hurting my back. It put me out of work for a few days. I also got burns on my wrists. Nothing bad.

III: CHUCKY UNLEASHED

After filming on Child's Play was completed in spring 1988, Kirschner wanted to separate himself from Holland, with whom he had developed an acrimonious working relationship.

Kirschner: The film did not screen well. It tested horribly. Tom had a right to his cut. After that, we took him off the film.

Mancini: David invited me to watch the original cut, which was much longer. It was about two hours.

Kirschner: We invited Don in at certain times to bring him back into the process.

Mancini: At that point, David needed a relatively objective opinion of where the movie was. For him to have me voice mine was very gracious. Not all producers would do that.

Kirschner: We cut about a half-hour out of the movie.

Mancini: Seeing the edit was my first time seeing Chucky, which was thrilling. But the voice in the cut was not Brad. It was Jessica Walter [of Arrested Development].

Holland: I tried to use an electronic overlay to the voice, like a Robbie the Robot kind of thing, because that’s how the toys with sound chips worked. Then I tried Jessica Walter, who had been in Play Misty for Me. She could make the threats work, but not the humor. So we went back to Brad.

Mancini: Tom’s logic was that the voice of the devil was done by a woman in The Exorcist. But her voice, while being creepy, just didn’t fit.

Child’s Play premiered on November 11, 1988. Mancini and Kirschner had already gone to test screenings to gauge the reaction of an audience.

Mancini: The scene where the mom finds out that the batteries are included and still in the box was like a cattle prod. The audience just roared.

Holland: I kept building up to that moment where Chucky comes alive in her hands. The doll does a 180 with his head, which is a nod to The Exorcist.

Kirschner: Brad Dourif ad-libbed the line where he’s in an elevator with an older couple and the wife says, “That’s the ugliest doll I’ve ever seen.” Chucky says, “F*ck you.” The audience loved it.

Vincent: My grandfather rented out an entire theater in our hometown for a screening. I wore a tuxedo.

Lafia: I actually didn’t like when they had a little person in the Chucky outfit, only because he looked thicker and bigger. No matter how well a human being moves, your brain just knows it’s not the puppet.

Mancini: There’s a good shot of Ed climbing on the bed with a knife. I thought most of his shots were very successful.

Earning $33 million, Child’s Play became the second-highest grossing horror film of the year, behind the fourth installment of the Nightmare on Elm Street series. But United Artists, which had supported the production, made the decision not to be involved in a sequel for a reason almost unfathomable in Hollywood: moral grounds.

Kirschner: It was the second highest-grossing film for United Artists that year after Rain Man.

Mancini: The studio initiated a sequel immediately. I was set to work on writing the script by Christmas 1988. John Lafia, who did a draft of the first, was going to direct it. By summer of 1989, the script was done and going into production. Then United Artists was sold to Qintex Group, and they had a reputation for family entertainment. And it wasn’t a project they were interested in pursuing.

Kirschner: I got a call from the head of the studio, Richard Berger. He said, “David, I’m embarrassed to tell you this, but the company buying UA doesn’t want it. They want to be more like Disney.”

Lafia: We were green-lit and all of a sudden they make this ridiculous pronouncement.

Mancini: Because David was under an overall deal there and they wanted to maintain that relationship, they literally just gave it back to him. And he went out and made a deal with Universal, where we’ve done all the subsequent movies.

Lafia: They basically gave him the franchise for next to nothing. It was an unbelievably stupid thing for them to do.

Kirschner: They were decent guys. I got a call from Spielberg who said, “I know you’re getting calls about this from all over the place, but do me a favor and give Universal the first shot.” Well, of course, Steven.

Child’s Play 2 opened at number one in November 1990.; Child’s Play 3 arrived less than a year later. In 1998, the franchise took a turn into dark comedy with Bride of Chucky, where the maniac finds a love interest.

Vincent: I did the second [movie]. We shot it on the same lot as Back to the Future Part III. I had lunch with Michael J. Fox. It was awesome.

Mancini: John wanted to shoot with a puppet 100 percent of the time, but Ed was around for the whole production.

Gale: Lafia was a complete idiot to me. He did an interview with Fangoria where they asked him if he used me like Holland did, and he said, “No, I hired a midget but never used it.” That’s an offensive word. When Child’s Play 3 came along, I hung up the phone.

Lafia: Ed did a great job, but I wanted to avoid it. He moved too much like a person.

Gale: On Bride of Chucky, they begged and begged, and I finally did it. And then they used the word “midget” [in the movie]. So I refused Seed of Chucky. They filmed in Romania, too, and I don’t fly.

Mancini: It [the line] was wrong, and it's my responsibility.

Gale: One of the reasons they credited me as Chucky’s stunt double was so they could pay me fewer residuals.

Mancini: One reason we used fewer little actors as the series went on is because it’s expensive to build sets 30 percent larger. Each successive movie, we have less and less money. On Curse of Chucky, I used Debbie Carrington to double Chucky—partly because she’s a good friend of mine, and partly because bodies change as people age. Ed physically became too large to play Chucky. It’s just the reality we were facing.

In 2013, Mancini wrote and directed Curse of Chucky, a critically-praised return to Chucky’s more sinister roots.

Mancini: To this day I prefer my concept of the doll being a product of the little kid’s subconscious, but the concept used ended up being gangbusters. Tom was a seasoned writer who made improvements.

Vincent: Starting with the second one, the movies really became Don’s. He came into the forefront.

Mancini: We start production on the next Chucky in Winnipeg in January. It continues the story of Nica, who was introduced in Curse of Chucky. At the end of that movie, she’s taken the rap for the murder of her family and has been institutionalized in an asylum. That’s the basic premise and setting.

Vincent: What’s interesting is that you can tell different types of stories with Chucky. There’s a balance between playfulness and that anger.

Mancini: Even in the movies that aren’t overt comedies, there’s an amusement factor of a doll coming to life. It’s disturbing on a primal level. Dolls are distortions of the human form. They’re humanoid. There’s something inherently off and creepy about them.

Kirschner: Chucky’s become so iconic. When you refer to a kid being awful, you refer to him as Chucky.

Lafia: Chucky has a very unique skill set for a villain, which is that he can be sitting in a room and you don’t think he’s a threat at all. He’s hiding in plain sight.

Mancini: He’s an ambassador for the horror genre, for Halloween, for why we as a culture enjoy this stuff. It’s celebrating the fun of being scared.

Gale: I have the screen-used Chucky hands. No one else does. So if you buy a pair that claim to be worn in the film, you got ripped off.

All images courtesy of Scream Factory.

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Public Domain // Lucy Quintanilla
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History
The Polish Doctors Who Used Science to Outwit the Nazis
Original image
Public Domain // Lucy Quintanilla

The young man wanted to cut off his arm. Maybe it would kill him. Or perhaps it would save his life—and his family.

It was 1941. The man was 35 years old, and after enduring months of forced labor in a German factory, he had just received good news: He had been permitted a temporary leave of two weeks.

When the man returned home to Poland, he found his family impoverished and with little food. In vain, he tried to think up schemes for how he could remain with them. Nothing felt feasible. If he refused to return to the labor camp, the Gestapo would likely arrest and kill him. If he and his family fled into the woods, they risked capture—the Germans would ship them all to a concentration camp. Even if he eluded the Nazis, the police would surely find somebody else in his extended family to take his place. The man’s only escape was through a doctor. If a physician could provide some medical excuse, perhaps he’d be allowed to leave the factory.

The man thought about hacking off his arm. True, it might kill him—but he also might live and escape life as one of Hitler’s slaves.

His doctor, also a Pole, had another idea. He rolled up the man’s sleeve, cradled a syringe, and carefully inserted the needle into his muscle. The doctor calmly explained that he did not know if the injection would do anything—if it’d cause a rash, an infection, or worse—but it was worth a try. He sent the man home with a two-part admonition: Come back in a few days, and don’t tell a soul what happened here.

The man followed orders. At his next appointment, the physician took a blood sample and, following wartime protocol, mailed the sample to the county’s Nazi-operated laboratory for testing.

Days later, a red telegram returned: “The Weil-Felix test is positive.” The young man had tested positive for typhus.

The doctor smiled.

Typhus was one of the deadliest infectious diseases a person could have, especially during wartime. The Germans went to great lengths to keep it out of their factories and forced labor camps. And when the authorities learned about the man’s diagnosis, they ordered him to be quarantined at home, where he would surely die.

What the Nazis didn’t know was that the man was not dying. He did not have typhus. The diagnosis was medical smoke and mirrors; the secret injection contained a substance that duped medical tests into returning a false positive.

A few weeks later, that enterprising doctor, named Stasiek Matulewicz, invited a fellow physician, Eugene Lazowski, to his lab. Matulewicz knew his friend would be interested in the discovery. After all, few people knew how to cheat death like Eugene Slawomir Lazowski.

 
 

More than a year earlier, Eugene Lazowski had watched Warsaw burn. He saw Germany invade Poland, saw the earliest bombs of World War II spill from the clouds and raze the city he called home. Born to devoted Catholic parents, Lazowski had grown up in Warsaw and had entered the city’s Army Medical Cadet School, which was located in the territory of an old castle near the heart of town. Sometime around age 26, Lazowski was engaged to a woman far above his station, an aspiring laboratory technician named Murka Tolwinska. He held the rank of Cadet-Sergeant and was just a few tests shy of his medical degree.

Warsaw in ruins.
The ruins of Warsaw after a sustained German attack.
Keystone // Getty Images

As Poland came under siege, Lazowski was ordered to leave his fiancée behind. He was promoted to the rank of second lieutenant. He was told the med-school tests could wait: He was a military doctor now. In September 1939, he was assigned to a hospital train full of wounded that was bound for modern Belarus.

“Hospital train” is a generous turn of phrase. Upwards of 500 patients, suffering from all kinds of injuries, were crammed into industrial freight cars with large red crosses painted on the exterior. These crosses were supposed to protect the medical convoy from attack, but German aircraft bedeviled the train anyway. Nazi machine-gunners saw the crosses as moving bullseyes, as invitations for target practice.

One day, the train stopped and Lazowski was ordered to secure food for the wounded. He ventured into a village, only to return finding the freight cars mangled and ablaze. His nurse was dead. A bloody stocking dangled from a nearby tree branch, a foot slung inside.

Lazowski joined a new battalion and, for a time, the worst wound he dressed was a blister. That was until the Soviet Army, which had joined Germany’s endeavor to overtake Poland, invaded from the east. Between them, the Soviets and Nazis squeezed Poland like a clamp. The Red Army opened fire on the Poles.

Lazowski stood next to a heavy machine gun and watched helplessly as a bullet pierced the forehead of the soldier charged with feeding the weapon ammunition. The man crumpled into blood-soaked dirt. Lazowski took over until a soldier relieved him and, in the deafening midst of gunfire, felt a concussive thump rattle his sternum.

He surveyed his chest for blood. It was clean. Then he checked his camera, which dangled from his neck. A gaping hole in the lens stared back at him.

Close calls kept coming. One week later, a Soviet biplane strafed a horse-drawn ambulance Lazowski was in. That aircraft had also ignored the red crosses and assaulted the ambulance with a hailstorm of bullets. Lazowski leapt into a ditch and watched as a bomb tumbled.

Hours later, Polish troops discovered him unconscious, caked in soil, lying along the rim of a bomb crater.

In the span of two months, both the Soviets and the Nazis would take Lazowski prisoner. The Russians nabbed him first. After Lazowski’s battalion surrendered, the Soviets packed the Polish troops into an overcrowded freight car. By a stroke of luck, they failed to successfully bolt shut the doors of Lazowski’s boxcar and he jumped from the speeding train. The Germans captured him in mid-October and transported him to a POW camp. He was their prisoner for a measly two hours: Lazowski scaled the camp’s 10-foot brick wall—a skill he’d learned as a Boy Scout—and escaped.

Lazowski scrambled to southern Poland, setting his sights for the town of Stalowa Wola, where his fiancée’s mother lived. (He traveled one segment of the journey by bicycle.) By the time he reached Stalowa Wola, Poland had surrendered and the streets belonged to Germany’s “General Government.”

But all Lazowski could think about was his fiancée. When he tracked down her mother, he asked: “Where’s Murka?”

She was there. She had survived the Warsaw Siege, escaped the city, and was living with her family. When they reunited, Murka tearfully refused to tell Lazowski all she’d seen in Warsaw. Instead, they discussed their impending marriage.

The ceremony would take place that November in the nearby village of Rozwadów. It was there, in late 1940, that Dr. Lazowski, taking a position at a Red Cross clinic, would try to build something resembling a normal life. Instead, the practice of this soft-spoken doctor would become ground zero for one of the most cunning conspiracies of World War II.

 

Rozwadów was a whistle-stop town on the banks of the San River. Before the German occupation, the region was a beehive of Orthodox shtetls—Rozwadów’s own formed a modest community of some 2000 Jewish shoemakers, craftsmen, and, carpenters. But by the time the Lazowskis settled there, Jewish life in Rozwadów had withered.

Eugene and Murka Lazowski.
Dr. Eugene Lazowski and his wife, Murka.
Alexandra Barbara Gerrard

Only a year before, on August 22, 1939, Adolf Hitler had given a speech to his military commanders at his Bavarian home The Berghof, calling for the annihilation of Poland and its Jews.

Our strength is our rapidity and our brutality. Genghis Khan sent millions of women and children to their deaths, consciously and with a joyous heart. History sees in him only the greatest founder of a state … Accordingly, I have placed my death-head formation in readiness—for the present only in the East—with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language.

About a month after the invasion, the Nazis had forced hundreds of Rozwadów’s Jews to cross the San River. Many could not swim. Many did not reach the far bank.

The Jews who remained were exiled. The shtetls of Rozwadów transformed into ghettos. Polish laborers in Stalowa Wola, home to an enormous steel factory, began constructing cannons and armaments for Germany’s military. The laborers were told that Poland had ceased to exist: Everybody in Rozwadów lived to serve the Reich.

Elsewhere, Germany greased the wheels of its economy with slave labor. Millions of ethnic Poles—who the Nazi party also termed Untermenschen, or subhumans—were deported to Arbeitslager camps and forced into labor. They were joined by Slavs, Roma, homosexuals, and Jews—who were often expedited to death camps. People were put to all kinds of work for the war: assembling aircraft, making military uniforms, forging weapons, munitions, and mines, and, later, the components of the V2 rocket. Their enslavement built profits for the German government and thousands of private corporations, many of which still operate today (and some of which were American). In total, about 1.5 million to 3 million ethnic Poles were forced into labor. Children were not exempt. Possibly 200,000 Polish children, some no older than 10, were kidnapped by the Germans.

Forced laborers of Polish descent had to wear a purple and yellow
Forced laborers of Polish descent had to wear a purple and yellow "Zivilarbeiter" badge emblazoned with the letter P.

“Almost every day in different parts of town they staged ‘roundups’ to capture people,” Lazowski recalled. “Police and soldiers surrounded designated areas and arrested everyone who was young and strong. These people were sent to Germany as slave labor. They released only those who had work permits and were employed by German approved institutions.”

Untold numbers of these prisoners were worked to death. At one of the largest and most brutal Arbeitslager complexes, called Mauthausen-Gusen, the prisoners (including Polish intellectuals and even scouting troops) were forced to work in a quarry for 12 hours every day, carrying 110-pound blocks of granite up a slippery and uneven 186-step staircase. The steps were crowded. Whenever a prisoner collapsed, a domino effect ensued. Cascades of heavy rocks tumbled down the stairs and crushed anybody unlucky enough to be standing below. Sometimes, when an inmate reached the top of these steps, the SS would direct him to stand at the edge of a cliff rising 120 feet above the quarry and jump. Inmates called the precipice “The Parachutist’s Wall.”

At its peak, slave labor would account for nearly 20 percent of Germany’s workforce.

The Reich had an interest in keeping some ethnic Poles out of slave camps. The Fatherland needed food, and rural Poland was the place to grow the grain that would keep Germany’s bellies full. Local farms, for their part, were given unattainable production quotas. The Nazis also hijacked Poland’s industry. And Lazowski, as a Polish Catholic, was conscripted to Germany’s cause, too. His job was to keep these Polish servants of the Reich—especially those working in the Stalowa Wola steelworks—healthy.

The doctor secretly saw his work differently: to help his fellow Poles live through the occupation so they could rebuild to the country they loved.

Lazowski’s Rynek Street clinic sat on Rozwadów’s town square. It was busy. The local steel works sent laborers to his clinic, as did the local monastery and the family of a local prince (who lavished the doctor with “coffee” contrived from dried roasted peas). Locals were grateful to have another doctor in town. Most of them self-medicated, managing headaches with cupping glasses and treating tuberculosis with dog lard. Lazowski, with the help of Murka, who worked as his laboratory technician, would help anybody who walked into his clinic. “Anyone who struck me as too poor or too proud to ask the [Polish Red Cross] for help, I treated anyway,” he wrote. For his first house call, the patient’s family paid with a live duck.

Lazowki kept it as a pet. According to his grandson, Mark Gerrard, “he cherished all creatures, great and small.” In fact, he’d keep a menagerie that included pet chickens, a goose, a tailless German Shepherd that followed him on house calls, and a hedgehog named Thumper that slept in his bed.

In the spring of 1941, a beefy man cloaked in a heavy sheepskin coat stalked into Lazowski’s Red Cross office. He resembled a peasant—solid mustache, tall boots—but swaggered with confidence. He introduced himself as “Captain Kruk,” and asked a question: Did the good doctor want to join The Resistance?

 
 

By 1941, Poland’s military was a memory. The Germans and Soviets had massacred thousands of Polish thinkers, political leaders, and military officers. After the occupation, the country’s armed resistance splintered into a messy collage of underground militant organizations: the Peasants Battalions, the People’s Guard of WRN, the Confederation of the Nation, the Union of Armed Struggle, the National Armed Forces, the Camp of Fighting Poland, the Secret Polish Army, and more.

Members of the Polish Home Army, one of the many military groups comprising the Polish Underground resistance.
Members of the Polish Home Army, one of the many military groups comprising the Polish Underground resistance.
Roman Korab-Żebryk: Operacja Wileńska AK, PWN, Warszawa 1988, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Captain Kruk commanded the Underground National Military Organization, or NOW. Lazowski did not hesitate to join. “At that time I did not care about the politics of the organizations to which I belonged,” he wrote in his memoir Private War. “All I cared about was fighting the Germans.” He took the codename Leszcz, presumably after a type of fish.

Lazowski’s primary job was to help ailing Underground soldiers. His other duty, however, was as dangerous as it was quotidian: Pass along the news. Poland’s press had been annihilated—all of the pre-war newspapers had been closed—and the only reading material available was propaganda. Owning a radio in order to try to listen to outside news could get you killed—but somebody in the Underground owned a Philips radio, took notes on scraps of toilet paper, and published the reports in Underground newspapers. Like a group of schoolboys passing notes behind the teacher’s back, conspirators would pass news of current events along a chain, one by one: One person informed Leszcz, and he, in turn, informed the next member.

Lazowski didn’t know who comprised the Underground. “One of the basic rules of a conspiracy is to know as little as possible about your co-conspirators,” Lazowski wrote. “The less you know the less you can reveal in case of arrest or torture.” But one unknown conspirator, codenamed Pliszka, became a vital link. Lazowski never spoke with Pliszka directly—they always communicated through a third party—but Pliszka helped organize first aid to wounded soldiers of the Underground and even supplied Lazowski with a much-needed nurse.

Conspiracy made Lazowski nervous. The Gestapo could barge into his house at any time—and they did. Once, a German officer pounded on the door and held Lazowski at gunpoint for the crime of not pulling his curtains fully during a blackout. In the event that he needed to escape, he loosened a few boards from his backyard fence.

Instead of an escape route, the hole became a portal to Rozwadów’s ghetto.

Law forbade Polish doctors from treating Jews. But, one day, as Lazowski and Murka relaxed in their backyard, a pleading voice emerged from the hole in the fence: “Doctor, we need your help.” Lazowski stepped through the hole.

Lazowski would eventually meet an old man, a family patriarch with a cloudy beard and a black, gangrenous toe. Lazowski treated him, and the man would become one of his regulars. The Jewish community built a clandestine routine: If somebody needed medical assistance, his neighbors would hang a rag near the hole to dry. The escape route opened up medical care to the entire Jewish neighborhood.

The symbol of the Polish resistance being painted on a wall in German-occupied Poland.
The symbol of the Polish resistance being painted on a wall in German-occupied Poland.
Jake from Manchester UK, via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

All of these activities—joining the Underground, passing along banned news, treating Underground soldiers, and providing medical care to Jews—were punishable by death.

 
 

There was no way Lazowski could avoid contact with the Reich. As a medical doctor, he was required to report any infectious diseases he saw in his patients. Such diseases had the potential to devastate factories and hurt Germany’s productivity. But his clinic didn’t have the resources to perform the necessary tests for such diseases. Instead, he had to mail blood samples to a county lab where a Nazi scientist scrutinized the results. The process was frustrating. Sometimes Lazowski had to wait more than a week to get a diagnosis confirmed.

He wasn’t the only one bothered by the system. A friend of his from medical school, Stasiek Matulewicz, had recently started a job as a physician nearby and was living in a village six miles upriver. Sometime in 1941, Lazowski traveled to the town of Zbydniów to visit his friend’s cottage. There, Matulewicz revealed his secret to working around the Nazis. Impatient with waiting days for a diagnosis, Matulewicz built a laboratory in his backyard shed and taught himself to perform some blood tests himself.

That included the Weil-Felix reaction, the standard means of testing for endemic typhus.

A quarter of century earlier, two doctors, Edward Weil and Arthur Felix, had discovered that you could verify typhus by exposing a patient’s blood serum to a bacterium suspension called Proteus OX19. All you had to do was add heat. If the blood serum clumped, then the blood test was positive. Matulewicz had attained a stockpile of Proteus OX19 serum and jerry-rigged an electric heater to perform the test himself.

Lazowski was impressed. “The fact that Matulewicz was able to perform the Weil-Felix test in his lab was significant,” he wrote. “It meant that we could get a typhus diagnosis within a few hours and did not have to wait six to 10 days for the results from labs in Tarnobrzeg or Lublin.”

During their visit, Matulewicz asked Lazowski a question: What do you think would happen if, instead of adding Proteus OX19 to serum samples, you injected it directly into a patient? Lazowski wasn’t sure. Matulewicz smirked. He had already tried it.

Lazowski was gobsmacked. ”You injected Proteus bacteria suspension into a man without fear of infection?”

Matulewicz nodded and told Lazowski the story about the man who had wanted to cut off his arm to escape forced labor. The patient, he explained, showed no signs of infection, not even a rash. But there was a bigger surprise. “Six days later I examined the patient's blood,” Matulewicz said.

“And what?”

Matulewicz smiled. “The blood tested positive for Weil-Felix.”

Lazowski’s mind must have raced at the news: A doctor working in a wooden shed in the middle of a rural patch of Poland had discovered something that decades-worth of doctors and scientists in well-equipped labs had failed to notice. He was also the first to realize that this was more than a medical party trick. This could save dozens, possibly hundreds, of lives! As he later wrote, “I finally knew what my role in this War was to be.”

“I would not fight with swords and guns, but with intelligence and courage,” he explained in a 2004 interview with American Medical News.

He was going to give his village fake typhus.

 
 

The most lethal enemy in war is arguably neither bullets nor bayonets, but bacteria.

Typhus is caused by Rickettsia prowazekii, a rod-shaped bacterium named for H.T Ricketts and S. von Prowazek, two scientists who studied typhus in the early 20th century and were eventually killed by it. It’s carried by body lice. After gorging on human blood, the bugs transmit the bacteria by infecting the feeding site with their feces. Once Rickettsia enters the body, it multiplies inside cells lining small blood vessels.

Chills, headache, thirst, fever. The first symptoms can resemble the everyday flu. The only indication that something graver is amiss is a freckle-like rash, which usually appears on the chest or abdomen. That’s when victims begin to deteriorate. Patients grow skittish, mentally unfocused, even stuporous. Some plunge into a coma; others become prey to secondary infections. Renal failure is common. During wartime, as many as 40 percent of typhus victims may die.

Typhus loves war because lice thrive in crowded, unsanitary spaces—trains, buses, tenements, campsites, refugee camps. The risk is the worst for people who wear the same clothes every day, as soldiers often do. It’s also the worst in the winter, when people huddle for warmth and bathe less from cold.

Joseph M. Conlon, a Navy entomologist writing for Montana State University [PDF], details all of the ways typhus has hobbled history’s armies. During the Thirty Years' War, approximately 350,000 men died in combat—but approximately 10 million more died of plague, starvation, and typhus. Lice crippled Napoleon’s campaign in Russia, killing more than 80,000 of his soldiers in one month. (By the end, about half of his grand army had died of dysentery and epidemic typhus.) During World War I, the disease is said to have affected 25 million people, killing untold numbers—including Lazowski’s own uncle.

Typhus quarantine signage.

The Germans knew how dangerous typhus could be. “The immunological resistance of the Germans was lower and mortality was higher in respect to epidemic typhus than was that of Poles and Russians,” Lazowski and Matulewicz would write in The American Society for Microbiological News in 1977. Eastern Europeans possessed a greater resistance to typhus than Germans (the disease had an intense history in those countries). That very fact bruised a basic tenet of Nazi ideology: that a “superior race” had the right to destroy an inferior one. The truth was that Germans, in this case, were inferior. A well-placed typhus epidemic could cripple the Reich.

As a result, the Nazis didn’t dare go near anybody with typhus. To Lazowski, a fake typhus epidemic represented immunity, a way to help his townspeople avoid participating in the war. Every neighbor who came down with the disease would become safe from deportation, slave labor, and harassment from the Gestapo. And if enough people in the region reportedly had the disease, entire villages could be quarantined. He and Matulewicz could build peaceful oases in the heart of German-occupied Poland.

The two doctors hatched a plan. Any patient who visited their practices complaining of headache, rash, or fever would be diagnosed with typhus, no matter the true illness. They would secretly treat the ailments and then give the patient a shot of Proteus OX19, which they masked as “Protein stimulation therapy.”

When the patient returned for a checkup, the doctors would withdraw a blood sample and mail it to the Nazi labs. The Germans would mistakenly confirm the typhus.

The two decided that the fake epidemic would start with patients who hailed from the region’s more remote forested villages. When winter crept in, the doctors would increase the injections and move the disease closer to the village centers. To avoid any suspicion, they’d follow the pattern of a true typhus epidemic, decreasing injections at springtime. The doctors would tell no one: not their patients, not their wives, and not a soul in the Underground. Everybody—both the Nazis and townspeople—would believe typhus was ravaging the villages. Any panic gripping the villages was a small price to pay for freedom.

Dr. Eugene Lazowski and Dr. Stasiek Matulewicz.
Dr. Eugene Lazowski and Dr. Stasiek Matulewicz.
Alexandra Barbara Gerrard

Sometime near autumn of 1941, an electrician named Jósef Reft visited Lazowski’s clinic with complaints of fever. He dozed in and out of consciousness, a symptom Lazowski recognized as pneumonia. He prescribed Reft medicines that treated his true illness—and then injected Proteus OX19. A few days later, Reft’s blood serum sample was in a laboratory about 20 miles away in Tarnobrzeg.

The red telegram arrived: “The Weil-Felix reaction is positive.”

The epidemic had begun.

 
 

In the spring of 1942, a German military policeman visited Lazowski’s clinic. He was tall, red-headed, and dressed in full uniform. His name was Nowak. He had a venereal disease (likely gonorrhea), and he wanted to know how much treatment would cost.

Lazowski sized the soldier up. German militarymen were forbidden from seeking medical care from Polish doctors, but Lazowski was an obstinate moralist and believed a doctor was duty-bound to treat anybody who needed help—at least, in this case, for a price.

“Normally 20 zlotys,” Lazowski said. “But for you, 100.”

The doctor’s chutzpah surprised Nowak. “Aren’t you afraid to talk to me like that?”

Lazowski didn’t miss a beat. “Aren’t you afraid to seek help from a Polish doctor?”

Nowak sat down. The doctor hooked up an IV drip of Cibazol, and the two began to chat.

“If you only knew what I was doing September of ‘39, you would kill me,” Nowak said. During the siege of Warsaw, he gave directions to the Luftwaffe, telling them which buildings to bomb. Lazowski knew what that meant. He had seen the smoke rise over schools and hospitals, recalled witnessing 18,000 civilian souls getting erased. He called Nowak a “swine.” The Nazi did not wince.

The toll of the Warsaw Siege.
The toll of the Warsaw Siege.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When the procedure finished, Lazowski unplugged the IV and Nowak slid off the chair and walked outside without paying. “Let him go to hell,” Lazowski muttered to his mortified nurse. A hundred zlotys didn’t compare to his other worries.

Winter had passed and the first typhus epidemic was winding down. It had been a success. The doctors had targeted villages that the Germans were already hesitant to visit—wooded villages infested with guerilla forces hiding in the forest—in the hopes that the disease would scare them from visiting at all. And whenever the duo encountered a real case of typhus, they would send the patient to a different doctor in the region. It was like an advertising scheme: It got everybody talking about it. Even the county doctor would pull Lazowski aside and express his fears. “That was good,” Lazowski wrote. “We wanted them to be worried.”

But the first epidemic had to end, and it ended at the worst possible time. Months earlier, the Germans had broken their non-aggression pact with the Soviets and invaded Russia. The Soviets had responded to initial heavy defeats by drafting an astonishing 20 to 30 million people into their military. The Soviets began pounding back. Meanwhile, resistance was growing in Rozwadów too. Underground militants bombed bridges, roads, railroad tracks, and trains almost daily. Farmers who were supposed to send grain to the German front forged papers and smuggled provisions to hungry locals. Saboteurs targeted the local steel works. All of these attacks crippled German arms production in the region by 30 percent. Rocked back on their heels, the Nazi troops took their fear and frustration out on the Poles.

Word spread that German troops were deporting more and more Poles. In one month alone, an estimated 30,000 people had been rounded up. The news likely hung heavy in the Lazowski house: Murka, who was newly pregnant, attended church almost daily now.

Lazowski knew the typhus outbreak was Rozwadów’s sole hope. When autumn returned, he’d inject more locals with Proteus OX19, but in the meantime, he had to travel to Warsaw to fetch more Weil-Felix reagent and a stash of typhus vaccine. He planned to vaccinate the region’s most valuable Underground soldiers in case a real epidemic broke out.

Aiding the resistance was risky enough as it was—he was being dispatched by agent Pliska regularly to dress the wounded—but vaccinating Underground soldiers was another matter. Polish doctors were outlawed from owning or using the typhus vaccine. Months earlier, the Gestapo had tortured Polish physicians at the State Hygiene Institute for hoarding the medicine. Lazowski began carrying a cyanide pill in his breast pocket.

“I was not afraid of death,” he wrote. “But torture was another story.” If he were caught, he’d poison himself.

A crew of anonymous Underground contacts, particularly Pliszka, ensured that wouldn’t be necessary. “I was very curious to know who Pliszka was but was afraid to ask,” he wrote. Whoever it was, they did a brilliant job finding hiding spots for wounded soldiers. ”My respect for this unknown co-conspirator grew daily.”

Lazowski covered his back by keeping two sets of books, one for himself and one for the Germans, just in case investigators barged in to inspect his files. And one day, somebody did barge unexpectedly into his office: Officer Nowak.

“Ein Mann, Ein Wort,” the Nazi intoned. That is: A man, a word. He handed the doctor 100 zlotys and walked out.

 
 

On July 21, 1942, Lazowski peeled back his curtains and watched as a red-haired officer outside clutched a pistol. It was Nowak, and he and handful of armed German police officers were shouting orders. It didn’t take long for the doctor to piece together what was happening: The village’s Jews were being rounded up in Rozwadów’s town square.

Men, women, and children huddled outside, clutching whatever possessions they could carry. Soldiers jammed rifle barrels into their backs and shoved them toward the town square. Lazowski watched as people stumbled to the sidewalk and were treated to gunfire.

Nowak waved his handgun in the air. At first, it appeared that he was using it to point people where to go. Lazowski quickly realized that he was, in fact, using the weapon for its designed purpose: Gray-haired people fell everywhere Nowak looked.

The police targeted both the very old and very young. They used rifles, pistols, the butts of their guns, their own hands. In the town square, a young woman pushing a baby carriage tried to blend in with the crowd. Nowak noticed. He charged the woman, kicked the pram, and approached the infant after it tumbled to the dirt. Nowak raised his foot and brought it down.

Murka fell to her knees and began to pray. Lazowski wrote that he “felt the grinding in my own head.”

With the exception of the barking of orders and the firing of bullets, there was little noise. Hardly any screams or cries rose from the crowd. The people looked numb, traumatized into collective paralysis. They did not put up a fight. They waited quietly for the trucks that would transport them to the train station.

These were one-way freight trains. Lazowski recalled tales of boxcars littered with shredded money—stocks, bonds, and currency from countries across Europe—which the Jews, realizing their destination, had destroyed “so the Germans couldn’t profit.”

The doctor watched from the window as the trucks pulled out of the town square and his neighbors, his patients, his friends disappeared.

The popping of gunshots continued into the evening. The police swept one last time through Rozwadów’s old shtetl and discovered people hiding in closets and under furniture. Lazowski later heard rumors that some people successfully fled into the woods. Nobody knows how many, if any, eluded capture.

As the sun set and the sound of gunshots grew infrequent, Lazowski peered into his backyard. On the other side of the hole in his fence, his neighbor’s home sat empty. His favorite regular patient—the elderly man with with the long beard—had been shot while lying in bed.

The cyanide capsule in Lazowski’s pocket had never felt so heavy.

 
 

The nightmare was always the same. The gestapo had detained and restrained him. They told him they knew the typhus epidemic was a hoax. They knew he was behind it. Then they gently placed a metal rod against his temple. Out of the corner of his eye, a hammer came into view.

The middle of 1942 was a restless time for Dr. Lazowski. Night after night he’d lunge from bed screaming. The quietest of noises would wake him.

It also didn’t stop him from waging what he called his “Private War."

Winter neared. Lazowski and Matulewicz prepared to inject more patients with Proteus OX19. Lazowski would write very little about the details of the people he injected, but we do know that red telegrams from the Nazi testing facility confirming typhus poured in. Each positive result, he wrote, was an “epidemiological statistic and was registered with the Germans as a case of a dangerously contagious disease.” By snowfall, the county doctor again expressed concerns that the epidemic was going to decimate the town.

One day, signs appeared across the villages stamped with the most poetic words in the German language: ACTHUNG, FLECKSFIEBER!

Attention, Typhus! The Germans had declared a territory of about a dozen villages as under quarantine. “Our epidemic now covered over 8000 people,” Lazowski wrote.

The designation brought “relative freedom from oppression” because “the Germans were inclined to avoid such territories and the population was relatively free from atrocities,” Lazowski wrote in ASM News. The epidemic became something of a bargaining chip. When the “Governor Oberleiter,” who controlled much of the region, personally complained to Lazowski about the village’s health, the doctor used it to drop hints: Perhaps, he suggested, you should give your people more soap?

Jewish civilians repair road damage in March 1941.
Jewish civilians repair road damage in March 1941. The fake epidemic saved thousands of ethnic Poles from such forced labor.
Fox Photos/Hulton Archive // Getty Images

Lazowski and Matulewicz planned to expand the outbreak to the center of Stalowa Wola, but their own success hobbled their progress. Dr. Richard Herbold, the Nazi Chief of Medicine at the local steel works, became worried and began asking the doctors questions about the epidemic.

This was trouble. During the war, typhus reportedly killed hundreds of people every day. Yet in the villages around Rozwadów, fatality rates were miraculously low. “When questioned by the patients, I always answered that yes they had typhus but by the grace of God they had a very mild case,” Lazowski wrote. The explanation was unlikely to soothe Nazi doctors.

“We could not afford to spread the epidemic … in case Dr. Herbold personally started treating our typhus patients and discovered that whatever they had, it wasn’t typhus,” he wrote. The doctors limited the epidemic to the outer villages.

All of this was accomplished as Lazowski faced a private war of a different kind. His wife was fighting for her life.

On December 15, 1942, Murka had given birth to a healthy baby girl. The baby was fine, but a post-natal infection left Murka bedridden.

For three weeks, Murka slipped in and out of consciousness, plagued by fever dreams of the Warsaw Siege. Murka’s husband wrapped her in wet sheets and sat by her side. He checked her heartbeat, applied a cold compress, gave her medicine and injections of caffeine. None of it seemed to work. Her pulse was a whisper. “Death was lurking in the background, not in the form of a skeleton with a scythe, but in the form of mercury in a thermometer which climbed above the measurable level,” Lazowski wrote.

The fever persisted. Murka grew gaunt, her arms mottled with bruises from the IV. Friends flooded the house to help. Matulewicz carried on the typhus epidemic by himself as Lazowski “lived only for taking care of her and trying to save her life.” When the priest visited, Murka said goodbye to her friends, her mother, and, lastly, her husband.

At one point, she gestured for him to come closer. He bent over and put his ear to her lips. In a frail voice, she whispered: “I am Pliszka.”

 
 

Murka would live. Lazowski later learned that his wife had been attending church daily not just to pray, but to retrieve information from the Underground. “I felt that Murka was a better conspirator than I because she knew that I was Leszcz and I did not know that she was Pliszka,” Laskowski wrote.

But she didn’t know that her husband had staged two giant typhus epidemics and would soon embark on a third.

The summer of 1943 came and went. And with it, so did Laskowski’s co-conspirator, Dr. Matulewicz. Over the two years he’d lived in the area, Matulewicz had witnessed many examples of German brutality. Once, a neighbor of his had slaughtered one of his own pigs without a permit. Within days, the neighbor’s house sat empty. (The offense was punishable by death.) The last straw likely came during the summer of 1943 when Governor Oberleiter ordered a raid of a nearby farming estate during a wedding celebration. Twenty-one people, including children, were massacred.

It appears Matulewicz had seen enough. He escaped the region. His friend would have to stage the epidemic alone.

Lazowski didn’t falter. As usual, he left few notes about the specifics of his work, but the third staging appears to have been a success. “The benefits of the epidemic for the local population were enormous,” he wrote, “especially the delivery of the required food quotas.” The Volksdeutsche (Poles with a Germanic heritage and outspoken Nazi sympathies) made their living by delivering food to Germans. But with so many Poles quarantined and out of work, their treasonous profits plummeted.

The Volksdeutsche grew suspicious. After all, Lazowski’s biggest problem had returned: Nobody was dying. That winter, the county doctor, Ludwig Rzucidlo, visited Lazowski’s office to deliver a message he dared not utter over the phone: The Germans suspected the typhus epidemic could be a sham.

 
 

The Germans knew nothing about Proteus OX19. Rather, they suspected a local doctor was withdrawing blood from a single typhus-infected patient and splitting it among multiple test tubes. The Germans decided to perform an in-person inspection: They wanted to see Lazowski’s patients.

Lazowski’s nightmares of torture at the hands of the Nazis were never far from him. He knew he needed a plan. Blood samples were not a huge issue—the new tests would most likely be positive—but the problem remained that few people in Rozwadów diagnosed with “typhus” actually showed physical signs of the disease. Any experienced doctor would see they were not seriously ill.

Lazowski pored over his charts and dug up files on the most infirm of the patients he had injected with Proteus OX19. He planned a grand tour of the invalids. First, he’d show the Germans the unhealthiest patients in town, people with telltale signs of typhus: fever, dry cough, rashes. (One patient had a blotch on his forehead from cupping glasses. It would do.) He’d also stage a feast. A village elder would throw a bash overflowing with food and drink. The elder would insist that everybody make merry. Lazowski would tug the inspectors in the other direction and insist they see patients first. Hopefully, the siren call of the feast and the revelry would compel the Germans to rush through the investigation.

On a frigid February day in 1944, a truck of German soldiers—a colonel, two captains, an officer, and two NCOs—pulled into Rozwadów. The village elder greeted the men and invited them inside for libations, as planned. The colonel was pleased. He stayed behind and sent a handful of men into the cold to perform the check ups.

Lazowski led the Germans into the homes of the sickest people in the village. He regaled the Germans with horror stories of lice infestations. Get close at your own risk, he said. The truth was, the first “typhus” patient on the tour only had pneumonia. The visiting doctors never noticed. Lazowski had stoked their paranoia to such a pitch that they were too afraid to perform a physical examination. They took a blood sample and left.

The same was true of the next patient, and the next, and the next. The winter cold was so biting, and the Germans’ fear of typhus so great, that it took only a few visits for the group to quit. They returned to the party and drank. “The house was warm and everyone had a jolly time,” Lazowski wrote. Not once did they perform a physical exam. All of the tests would later test positive for typhus.

After the investigation, Lazowski slept soundly through the night for the first time in months.

 
 

In July 1944, artillery fire rumbled from across the San River. The Soviets had pressed into Poland—Operation Bagration, the largest military confrontation in history, was underway—and now the Iron Curtain was knocking on Rozwadów. The knife’s edge of Germany’s front abutted the river, but their retreat was imminent. As both Russia and Germany exchanged fire, military vehicles kicked up dust down Rozwadów’s roads as the Nazis high-tailed it deeper into Poland.

A motorcycle came to idle in front of Lazowski’s clinic. An officer in army fatigues rushed into the doctor’s office.

It was Nowak.

“Doctor, run!” he yelled. “You are on the Gestapo hit list. They are going to eliminate you.” The Germans, he explained, knew that Lazowski had helped wounded members of the Underground.

Lazowski took news of his nightmare becoming a reality rather coolly. “Why?” he said. “I worked loyally as a doctor.”

Nowak shrugged. “Do what you want.” He hurried out the door.

A field of abandoned vehicles in Belarus after German troops retreated from the Soviet advance.
A field of abandoned vehicles in Belarus after German troops retreated from the Soviet advance.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Murka was the first to react. She snatched up their baby, and together the family snuck through the hole in the fence and ran. Missiles screamed overhead. Mobs raided warehouses. The town fell into chaos. For some reason, rolls of toilet paper flapped from tree branches. “The people were not afraid of the Germans any more, and the Germans were afraid to shoot at the mob,” Lazowski would write. The family took refuge at Murka’s mother’s house in Stalowa Wola.

It’s here that Murka became violently ill. Her breathing turned shallow and her stomach hardened to steel. Lazowski recognized her symptoms as a terribly timed case of peritonitis, a possibly deadly inflammation of the abdominal membrane. She needed surgery. The closest surgeon, however, had been arrested. So, as shells whistled overhead, Lazowski pushed his wife in a wheelchair five miles through an active war zone to the nearest hospital with a surgeon.

The doctors placed Murka in a pleasant room on the second floor. Sunshine poured through the window and lit up a vase of flowers on a nightstand. Explosions rumbled ever closer. The couple were the only people on the floor and, feeling increasingly at risk, decided to move. Lazowski picked up his wife, carried her into the hospital basement, and laid her on a cot.

An instant later, the building rattled, lights vanished, and dust rained from the ceiling.

The last missile of the battle had struck the hospital, destroying Murka’s room. When Lazowski surveyed the rubble later, he saw that “the wall and the bed were gone.”

Over the coming days, Murka’s health improved. The Germans retreated for good. And for the first time in nearly five years, the people of Stalowa Wola saw the flag of Poland flap over their homeland.

Shortly after, Lazowski removed the cyanide pill from his breast pocket and tossed it into a stove.

 
 

When Eugene Lazowski was born,, his father argued with the local priest over what to name the newborn. Mr. Lazowski wanted to name his baby boy Slawomir. The holy man wouldn’t allow it: No saint, he scolded, ever had that name. Mr. Lazowski was beside himself.

“He will be the first!” he said.

The priest didn’t buy it: “I doubt it.”

In a snub to the priest, Lazowski would go by the nickname Slawek—short for Slawomir—for most of his life. It was a name fit for a saint. And to the people of Rozwadów, few people deserved the honor more than the man who spent three years conspiring to save thousands of his countrymen, all the while successfully hiding the story of his success from his wife, his patients, and his enemies. For years, Lazowski hardly spoke about it.

Eugene Lazowski
Eugene Lazowski adored animals

He didn’t tell Murka the truth about the epidemic until 1958, when they left Communist-ruled Poland to emigrate to the United States. (Lazowski hated what the communists did to Poland and never forgave Roosevelt for acquiescing to Stalin.) For the next two decades, Dr. Lazowski continued saving vulnerable lives in a quiet fashion, working for the Illinois Children’s Hospital-School. In 1981, he joined the faculty of the University of Illinois in Chicago, where he taught pediatrics.

In the 1970s, he reconnected with Matulewicz, who was teaching radiology at Kinshasa University in Zaire, Africa. In 1975, Lazowski wrote an article describing their conspiracy for the London-based Polish newspaper, Orzel Bialy. Nobody noticed. In the 1990s, he wrote a Polish-language memoir entitled Prywatna Wojna, or “Private War.” The book was published in Polish but not in English. The only public English-language version of Lazowski’s tale, translated by his daughter, Alexandra Barbara Gerrard, sits in the Special Collections & University Archives of the University of Illinois Library of Health Science in Chicago. It is from that single, string-bound account that most of this story has been taken.

During World War II, nearly 2 million ethnic Poles died, many of them in forced labor camps. But thanks to Dr. Lazowski’s and Dr. Matulewicz’s epidemic, people from more than a dozen villages eluded deportation. By some estimates, the two doctors saved more than 8000 people over three years. If that number is true, then the doctors were far more successful than Oskar Schindler.

“I was just trying to do something for my people,” Lazowski told the Chicago Sun Times in 2001. “My profession is to save lives and prevent death. I was fighting for life.” As his grandson Mark Gerrard says, Lazowski would say he was just doing his part: “He always insisted that anyone who had his training and knowledge would have done it. It just happened that they came upon this idea in the midst of war.”

In 1996, Lazowski lost Murka. In her waning days, he became her nurse. “They were the kind of old couple you see and think, ‘Oh, nobody can be into each other that much in their 70s,” Gerrard says. “But they were. They were very much in love their whole lives.”

Four years later, Lazowski, then 86, returned to Rozwadów for the first time in more than five decades. Stasiek Matulewicz joined him, and locals greeted the two doctors with a jubilant homecoming. Some were unaware that the typhus epidemic that had ravaged their town was fake.

At one moment, a man would approach Lazowski and thank him for saving his father from typhus. Lazowski grinned and gently corrected him.

“It was not real typhus,” he said. “It was my typhus."

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How Eclipse Chasers Are Putting a Small Kentucky Town on the Map
Original image
Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images

The most anticipated eclipse in American history is coming this summer. At the heart of it is Hopkinsville, Kentucky, which anticipates 100,000 visitors. Mental Floss takes a look behind the small town's preparations—and a deep dive into the passionate subculture of people who chase eclipses for a living.

 

In 2007, Cheryl Cook received an email from an out-of-towner planning a trip to Hopkinsville, Kentucky. As the executive director of the town's convention and visitors bureau, Cook was used to reading messages from potential tourists. There was one hitch, though: The visitor's projected stay was 10 years away.

The purpose of the visit: A total solar eclipse was coming to the U.S. on August 21, 2017, and Hopkinsville represented a plum location to observe it. The event would be huge, the traveler said. What exactly was the town doing to prepare?

Cook says she laughed when she first read the note.

"I didn't know what to say," she recalls. "We don't work 10 years out." Then she started Googling.

Hopkinsville, it turns out, was not only smack in the middle of the eclipse's path, but was also 11 miles from what astronomers dub the "point of greatest eclipse," where the Sun, Earth, and Moon form a nearly straight line. This was more than tavern night trivia. It was a big deal. The chance of seeing a total solar eclipse hover over your front porch is itself improbable—one appears over your location, on average, every 350 years. But the odds of living at the point of greatest eclipse was, statistically speaking, zero.

In other words, Hopkinsville—a Kentucky farm town of 33,000 whose main export is bowling balls—had won the cosmic lottery.

In the years since, Hopkinsville—or Eclipseville, as it's billing itself—has done a great deal to promote itself as the place to watch the 2017 eclipse, which will trace a path from Oregon to South Carolina: the first total solar eclipse to sail over the continental United States in 99 years.

a street in hopkinsville, kentucky
Hopkinsville, Kentucky
Jimmy Emerson, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

"We've been trying to get the idea out for years that Hopkinsville is going to become very, very busy that weekend," says Scott Bain, an astronomy professor at Hopkinsville Community College. "I started my job here 10 years ago and the eclipse was one of the things they used to lure me here."

"Busy" is putting it lightly. This year's solar eclipse could be the most viewed celestial event in history. Roughly 12 million people already live in its main path. On August 21, all they have to do is step outside and gaze up. Another 78 to 88 million more Americans live within 200 miles of the eclipse's trajectory. Many of them are expected to hit the road to see it.

Most drivers will set their GPSs for rural America, aiming at modest towns like Carbondale, Illinois (pop. 26,192), home of Southern Illinois University, which expects up to 60,000 visitors on campus. Or Idaho Falls (pop. 58,374), which is predicted to double in size. Or Prineville, Oregon (pop. 9000), which may see 30,000 people show up for an eclipse-themed music and arts festival in the Ochoco National Forest.

But Hopkinsville in particular expects to draw visitors from all over the world. The town of 33,000 expects to triple in size. Some locals, such as Cook, estimate the town's population could bloat to as high as 150,000.

For many, swimming through that crowd will be a small price to pay: A total solar eclipse is a sight so beautiful and so powerful that it's known to radically shake the course of people's lives.

 
 

The first thing you'll notice is a small, dark dent. It will be difficult to see—the Sun will shine bright like every other summer day—but, if you're standing in the right spot, a dimple will appear and people will cheer.

Over the next 71 minutes, that scallop will grow. The Sun will glare like a husky crescent moon. If you're standing under a leafy tree and look down, you'll see hundreds of tiny sickles of light dance among the shadows—the attenuating sun transforms foliage into natural camera obscuras. Step out from under that canopy and you'll notice that your own shadow appears sharper.

The western sky will blacken. Above, the blues of the sky will deepen and flirt with shades of violet. On the ground, the grass, trees, and any people will assume a leaden pallor, sapped of their vibrancy as if somebody had turned the dial on the landscape's saturation settings.

a solar eclipse at the Tian'anmen Square in China
A solar eclipse from Tian'anmen Square in China
Feng Li/Getty Images

About five minutes before the total eclipse begins, the Sun, narrowed to a sliver, will remain too bright to stare at with the naked eye. The sky will be dark enough, however, for a pinprick of light to emerge: Venus, shining now even in the daytime. More planets and stars will follow.

The western horizon will loom ominously, as if a thunderstorm were brewing. People observing the eclipse from a beach may see faint shadows undulate over their toes in the sand. These ripples, which resemble the folds of light wobbling at the bottom of a swimming pool, are called shadow bands. (If there are children in your crowd, they'll enjoy chasing them.)

The Sun disappears. Lights along the lunar rim will flicker, sparkle, and pop: These are Baily's beads, the last gasps of sunlight hurtling through the valleys of the moon. They will fade until one last torch of sunlight beams along the moon's edge like a gemstone. As it fizzles, a warm red halo, for one brief instant, may gleam around the moon.

It will become eerily quiet. Birdsong will cease. Then the darkness will swallow you.

People on mountaintops will see it sweeping across the landscape, a cloak of darkness careening in their direction at more than 2000 miles per hour. This is the moon's innermost and darkest shadow, the umbra. Mabel Loomis Todd, a 19th-century eclipse writer, described it "like a wall, swift as imagination, silent as doom."

Things will get weird, and fast. The chirp of crickets may replace that of birds. Fireflies may emerge; bats may flit. Cows may low and jangle back to the barnyard. Pigs may wallow, flowers close. Chickens may return to roost or—as happened when an eclipse passed over Easter Island in 2010—freeze in place, standing flamingo-like on one leg.

A gust may sweep across your face as the wind shifts direction. Even here in August, you may shiver as the temperature sinks 10 degrees. Anybody who brought telescopes or binoculars that aren't filled with nitrogen may be disappointed as the plunge causes lenses to fog.

The Moon's umbra is so small—this year, barely 71 miles wide at most—that spectators who gaze into the distance will see to the shadow's edge. In all cardinal directions, the horizon will radiate with the oranges, reds, and purples of sunset. Directly above, the planet Jupiter, the star Regulus, and other members of the constellation Leo will sparkle.

Most people won't notice them. Their eyes will be glued to the corona.

A total solar eclipse in Svalbard, Longyearbyen, Norway
A total solar eclipse over Norway
Jon Olav Nesvold/AFP/Getty Images

Wispy tendrils of light, frothing and flailing around a deep black disc. That's the corona, a thin shell of gas millions of degrees hotter than the surface of the Sun. Our star's interior light usually renders it invisible—with the exception of this moment.

Humans have tried to describe the corona for more than three millennia, and every account is said to not do it justice. It is ineffable. But all accounts agree: It is the most beautiful phenomenon in the natural world. The corona makes sunrise over the Grand Canyon feel like a sightseeing trip to a vacant strip mall.

The only people who will see the curtain of darkness, the 360 degree sunset, the corona—what's called totality—are those lucky enough to stand underneath the moon's narrow umbra. Everybody outside of this roving path of darkness will have a much less dramatic view. Standing under the moon's wider penumbra, people in Pennsylvania or Arizona will have to shield their eyes with special eclipse-viewing glasses the entire time and will only see a small bite taken out of the Sun, like a celestial Pac-Man. It will be, in comparison, remarkably disappointing.

"Make no mistake. The difference between whether you're inside the path of totality or outside it is literally the difference between night and day," writes astronomer Tyler Nordgren in his book Sun, Moon, Earth. "No other experience comes close to the multisensory strangeness of this most unnatural of natural events."

Totality will first appear over a rocky spit of land in Oregon called Governor's Point. It will zoom over Volcanoes Stadium in the town of Keizer, where the minor-league Salem-Keizer Volcanoes will be playing the Hillsboro Hops, prompting what's believed to be the first solar eclipse delay in professional baseball history.

Within 14 minutes, the umbra will slip over the Cascades into Idaho and, fittingly, the tip of Craters of the Moon National Monument.

2017 Eclipse Path
iStock // Lucy Quintanilla

The shadow will make stops in Grand Teton National Park and rove over Alliance, Nebraska to visit Carhenge (a replica of Stonehenge built from 39 automobiles spray painted to resemble monolithic bluestones). The umbra will divide Nebraska and hurtle over dozens of small towns before barely clipping Kansas and Iowa. In Missouri, it will fly over the towns of California, Cuba, Washington, and Mexico. It will also visit a crowd of 71,000 spectators packed in Faurot Field, home of the University of Missouri Tigers.

By the time the eclipse enters Kentucky, the umbra will have slowed to approximately 1451 miles per hour. At 1:24 p.m. (CT), the Sun, Moon, and Earth will nearly align. For two minutes and 40.1 seconds, the moon's shadow will mask a quilt of corn, tobacco, wheat, alfalfa, and soybean farms a few miles northwest of Hopkinsville, Kentucky.

In the crowd will surely be a handful of people who live for this moment. They go by many names: umbraphiles, ecliptomaniacs, total(it)y nuts, even lunatics. Most, however, call themselves eclipse chasers.

 
 

When James McClean was 12 years old, a lunar eclipse cruised over his house in suburban New Jersey. It was a hot August night, and McClean asked his mom for permission to drag a lounge chair outside to watch it. When a concerned neighbor—confused by the sight of a prepubescent squatter on one of the neighborhood lawns—saw McClean, they called the police.

At two in the morning, a cop pulled in front of McClean's yard.

"What's going on?" the officer said. Without missing a beat, the 12-year-old spent the next 20 minutes lecturing that police officer on the quirks of celestial mechanics. By the time McClean finished, the cop stood convinced: The two watched the lunar eclipse together from the lawn. "I've been hooked on this kind of stuff since," McClean says.

Today, James McClean is an eclipse chaser. That's not the name of some cute weekend hobby. It's a lifestyle. For the past two decades, McClean, a professional photographer, has given up everything resembling a normal life. He has no permanent home base, opting instead to trot the globe, work odd jobs, and live on tight budgets to see solar eclipses.

Every. Single. One.

James McClean
James McClean

McClean has made a living as a cartographer and an aurora borealis tour guide. He's lived on an island near Sitka, Alaska and taught photography. (When he needed Internet, he'd kayak an hour and a half to the nearest library.) He's spent summers in Germany doing archaeology and winters in Sweden constructing, and living in, a hotel made of ice. He's slept in bamboo huts on top of volcanic islands, backpacked through Egypt, and trudged the snows of Svalbard, Norway. One time, in Indonesia, he was invited to sip coffee in a sultan's palace.

As he told me, "You know, I've struggled with, 'Do I take this job? It pays more money, but then I won't see the eclipse. Or do I take this job where I know I'll lose money, see the eclipse, and do good for people? That's the job I took."

Currently, McClean works as a park ranger at South Dakota's Jewel Cave National Monument. I met up with him this spring as he passed through New York City, where we rendezvoused, fittingly, by the telescope and binoculars section at the B&H Photo Video superstore. He's a mutton-chopped man, 50, with an encyclopedic knowledge of photography and an infectious zeal for what he calls "that corona-action."

Standing by a sea of telescopes, he gestured toward the equipment. "Eclipse chasing is a stupidly expensive hobby," he said. "I can do it because I have nothing. I walk the Earth like Cain." He wasn't kidding. At one point, when we got on the topic of home offices, he motioned to a book-sized tin perched under his arm, a former chocolate box adorned with depictions of Mickey Mouse, in which he kept plane tickets, documents, notebooks, and his iPad. "This is my office," he said.

McClean is not alone in his pursuit. There are hundreds of people just like him, somewhere between 300 to 800 who are so passionate about solar eclipses that they will drop everything and travel to the ends of the Earth to experience one.

"We all come from different walks of life, different countries, but there's that one thing: We love a total eclipse of the Sun—that unites us," says David Makepeace, a Canadian eclipse chaser and professional videographer. "I've become friends with people I would have never met in any other way, and I might not have anything else in common with them but this. We love this shit. It's our whole existence."

Eclipse chasers are as evangelical as they are dedicated. In 2010, an eclipse passed over Chile's Easter Island, one of the most remote inhabited places on Earth. It's home to roughly 6000 people and is notoriously difficult to reach. Four thousand visitors still showed up.

A similar scenario played out in 2015 when a total solar eclipse passed over the Faroe Islands, a small archipelago 200 miles north of Scotland. The islands, which only have 800 hotel beds between them, expected somewhere between 3000 and 5000 visitors. Actual attendance surpassed 11,000.

spectators on the beach for a total solar eclipse in Palm Cove, Australia
Spectators gather in Palm Cove, Australia
Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images

In 2012, Australia learned the hard way what happens when you don't heed the warnings of eclipse chasers. "Astronomy clubs and other eclipse chasers there had tried to warn them: This is a much bigger deal than you think!" Makepeace recalls. "It wasn't until the last minute that they took it seriously—they tried to control traffic, but it was a fiasco."

Months out, officials had estimated that 30,000 people would visit the northern reaches of Queensland, Australia. They were wrong. Twice as many showed up.

It's these kinds of numbers that Cheryl Cook, Hopkinsville's tourism director, discovered when she opened her search engine 10 years ago. "I was looking at ones that had been in China, and how many people were there and what they did, and I said, 'Oh my gosh, this is a really big deal!'"

Which makes you wonder: What's the fuss about?

 
 

McClean and I were walking and talking along Manhattan's High Line on a soggy day when, suddenly, his sentences started growing exclamation points. "The problem with solar eclipses is that everybody has seen pictures! They think they know what it's like! But their whole perception is based on bad photography!"

You know the photos: A black hole in the heavens circled by a soft, opalescent halo. Even the best photography, McClean insists, can distort people's impressions. That's because total solar eclipses aren't something you see, but something you experience. "Don't think you know what this is," Makepeace said with a rhetorical wag of his finger. "Don't think you already saw one in school when you were a kid. You didn't."

Watching the star disappear during daytime stirs something deep within the brain. Our circadian rhythm, which regulates biochemical processes within the body, is braided to the light-and-dark rhythms of the Sun. When that's radically disrupted, it may spark an innate chemical rush that many describe as pure primal fear. As Nordgren puts it, "[M]y mind screams at the wrongness of what I am seeing."

John Dvorak, a science writer and trained planetary geophysicist, agrees. "The sight of a total eclipse—the sudden darkening of the sky, the radiant corona, the blood-red prominences circled around the edge of what had just been a brilliant Sun—was the most primal experience I have ever had," he writes in Mask of the Sun. "It was as if the most primitive part of the brain—the part inherited from reptiles—kicked into play and now controlled my emotions."

Primal fear is a complex nervous system response. When the brain processes unfamiliar or unusual surroundings—such as, say, a colossal sheet of darkness hurtling in your direction at Mach 3—the amygdala, the brain's fear center, goes haywire. It incites an unconscious reaction that is difficult to articulate, even for those expecting it. McClean, for instance, felt afraid when he witnessed his first eclipse. "I was terrified," he says. "I felt a sense of dread … It was like the Eye of Sauron was peering through your SOUL."

Kate Russo, an eclipse chaser and psychologist, describes the response in her book Total Addiction. "Our logical minds understand what is happening, but our basic primitive warning systems go into overdrive." Like the first drop of a rollercoaster, this experience can be deeply thrilling—and addicting. For people like McClean, the rush can make drugs look unimaginably lame. "I have, let's say, preparatory research with psychedelics," he says in Russo's book. "[A]fter an experience like a total eclipse, I realize, who needs the stuff? Reality alone is weird enough."

You can't blame the brain for freaking out. Total solar eclipses are an anomaly. Our Sun, which is 400 times larger than the Moon, is also 400 times as far from the Earth. According to the book Totality: Eclipses of the Sun, if the Moon were a mere 169 miles smaller in diameter—or if the Sun were a pinch closer—total solar eclipses would never occur. The corona would remain the stuff of imagination. The sight, in fact, would resemble Martian eclipses, where the asteroid-sized moons Phobos and Deimos prance across the Sun like cosmic googly eyes.

An annular eclipse, as captured by the Curiosity rover on Mars
An annular eclipse, as captured by the Curiosity rover on Mars
NASA

That natural we-are-doomed feeling is probably why many cultures have viewed eclipses as portents of misfortune. The Tlaxcala people of Mexico sacrificed people of ruddy complexions at the sight of an eclipse; the Aztecs targeted dwarves. The Ojibwe Indians of North America tried to relight the heavens by shooting flaming arrows into the sky. In the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, pregnant women still follow Vedic scripture and rub their bellies with a mixture of ghee (clarified butter) and cow dung to avoid an eclipse's contaminating air. In ancient China, where eclipses were regarded as indictments of the current ruler—a cosmic approval rating, if you will—record-keepers would fabricate eclipse reports to thumb their nose at unpopular leaders.

People across the globe went to great lengths to predict an impending eclipse, in hopes to prepare for the ensuing havoc. In ancient Mesopotamia, officials protected the royal bloodline by hiding kings and queens and hiring "stand-ins" as the eclipse approached. In 1628, when astrologers predicted an eclipse would kill Pope Urban, the Holy Father was whisked away to a secret room and treated with rose vinegar, silk cloths, music, and magic. He lived. Two years later, when astrologers again predicted an eclipse would kill Urban, cardinals flocked to Rome to usher in his replacement. After surviving this second eclipse, the annoyed pontiff made history by banning astrology from the Church.

(That didn't stop believers. Days before a partial solar eclipse in 1654, Catholics in France scrambled to confess their sins. One parish priest, drowning in requests, fibbed and told parishioners the event had been postponed.)

By the 19th century, terror would cave to awe. The astronomer Francis Baily wrote he was "electrified at the sight of one of the most brilliant and splendid phenomena that can well be imagined." His contemporary in Vienna, Adalbert Stifter, witnessed crowds crying at the sight. "I have always taken the old descriptions of eclipses to be exaggerated," he said. The event changed his mind. And when the poet Emily Dickinson saw a total eclipse, even a veritable garden of dashes couldn't help her describe it.

It sounded as if the Streets were running -
And then the Streets stood still -
Eclipse - was all we could see at the Window,
And Awe - was all we could feel -

In 1925, when a total solar eclipse passed over New York City, Alvin Peterson, the Navy's chief quartermaster, stood atop a dirigible and recorded a video. His description of the event was admirably succinct:

"It was the weirdest sensation I have experienced."

 
 

In 1764, a foal was born at the stables of Windsor Great Park in England. A total solar eclipse towered overhead. The horse, named Eclipse in honor of this fact, would later win 18 of 18 races and retire a stud. More than a century later, his great-great-great-great-great grandson, Aristides, would win the first Kentucky Derby in two minutes and 37 seconds—a time nearly equal to this year's totality.

Kentuckians like to riff on the Derby's slogan—the "most exciting two minutes in sports"—and joke that the Bluegrass State will be the starting gate of "the most exciting two and a half minutes in astronomy."

Most of that excitement will fall on the Orchardale-Shepherd Farm, located 11 miles northwest of Hopkinsville. The 170-acre farm will be the point of greatest eclipse. The prize for winning the solar system's Powerball? A whole bunch of strangers on the lawn.

The farm has been in Mark Cansler's family for about a century. When he learned that the farm would be cosmic ground zero, he was unsure what to do. "We tried to make some arrangements like food vendors and insurance, but we weren't sure we wanted to do all that," he says. A share of other farmers had decided to close their property off to spectators—they have crops, and a living, to protect—but Cansler, with his farm at the epicenter, "guessed it would be a shame if people wanted to come and look at the eclipse and there was no place for them to see it." He and his family, like many other locals, set aside a viewing area and is renting spots for RVs on a few acres of fallow land.

Nobody knows if that will be enough room.

Farmland in Christian County, Kentucky
Farmland in Christian County, Kentucky
Stephen Conn, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

That uncertainty is rippling across the country right now. The eclipse will pass over five state capitals—Salem, Lincoln, Jefferson City, Nashville, and Columbia—cities that likely have the resources and budgets to prepare for a tidal wave of visitors. It's a different story for the small towns riding the eclipse's centerline. As Steve Kemp, a services director for the Great Smoky Mountains Association, told the Asheville Citizen-Times, the best views will be "way out in the boonies." And people are coming.

Kate Russo, the psychologist who also works as an eclipse-planning consultant, pointed out that the 2017 eclipse will pass over 1000 communities, "and most of them will be under-resourced. These small communities, they usually have one person who does multiple jobs, and they're not able to think on this scale. They just don't usually need to, because nothing this big happens."

She said, "I've been saying this repeatedly to people, the hidden story is how all of these communities are preparing for what's going on. It's an unprecedented event."

The logistical challenges involved in managing a rural town that may quintuple in size for 24 hours can be intimidating. Gas stations could run out of fuel. Grocery stores and restaurants could run out of food. ATMs could run out of cash. Roads that rarely see traffic could clog.

Hopkinsville, however, is emblematic of the Herculean efforts small towns across the country are making to ensure that none of this happens.

The town, which expects visitors from across the U.S. as well as from as far as Germany, Brazil, and Japan, has hired a full-time eclipse coordinator. They've requested 85 National Guard and a handful of state police be on hand to help control traffic on the two-lane highways lacing the countryside. They've advised locals to avoid eating out on the days before the eclipse to ease the food crunch, and they've hired at least 50 food vendors to set up shop downtown (50 more vendors will be located at different spots around the county). Officials have encouraged locals to acquire temporary health and safety licenses to hawk snacks.

If roads jam on August 21, ambulances could be marooned on country lanes, a scenario that's prompted Hopkinsville's local Red Cross and other nonprofits to certify more residents in First Aid. The town even designated extra landing zones for med-evac helicopters and established a makeshift alternative care site in the northern reaches of the county. Emergency managers from Lexington and Louisville are on speed dial in case Hopkinsville needs reinforcement choppers.

Hopkinsville's regional airport, which has space for 40 small airplanes, expects twice as many aircraft to land that weekend. It will install extra tiedowns. Aviators better have rooms booked: A night's stay for that weekend at the local Hampton Inn or Comfort Suites, according to Cook, is currently running "anywhere from $400 to $800." Pickings are slim on Airbnb too, where, as of press time, a one bedroom ranges from $170 to $4050 a night. To make more space, the town plans to transform its parks into campsites and RV lots, building communal dump sites so visitors can safely dispose of gray and black water. Some areas have already sold out.

To prevent light pollution, the city teamed up with utility companies to manually stop streetlights from flipping on during totality. It's more complicated than it sounds. "It's not like one big switch on the grid!" says Brooke Jung, Hopkinsville's eclipse coordinator. The town has also worked with shop owners to stop light-sensitive business signs from flickering when the sky blackens.

A lack of technology outside of town, however, is a bigger concern: The farmland near the point of greatest eclipse, where thousands of people are expected to gather, has no cell service. AT&T will install a MEGA-COW, a temporary cellular tower on wheels, to transform the wireless desert. In the meantime, Hopkinsville has stockpiled everything from folding lawn chairs to porta-potties. "I tell you what. If you had a share in porta-potties right now, you'd be doing well," Russo says.

You'd be cashing in if you held stock in eclipse-viewing glasses, too.

It goes without saying that, unless you want to look like a pirate for the rest of your life, staring directly at the Sun is a bad idea. Thirty seconds is all it takes to cause permanent eye damage, which often goes unnoticed because it rarely causes pain [PDF]. Injuries have plagued every solar eclipse. In Europe, in 1999, 70 people lost some vision. Four years earlier in India, 21 people suffered eye damage. Since sunglasses don't cut it, Hopkinsville ordered 100,000 pairs of eclipse-viewing glasses, which Cook sells for 50 cents a pop. (The school district also purchased a pair for each student.)

This story playing out in Hopkinsville is quietly playing out in small towns across the U.S., from Oregon to South Carolina. "That doesn't mean it won't be chaotic," Cook says. "But it will be organized chaos."

When I asked her what the people in Hopkinsville's tourism office would be doing the day after the eclipse, Cook's voice lilted with excitement: "Oh, we're gonna take the day off!"

 
 

The experience of watching an eclipse can be so intense it spurs some people to reevaluate their lives. Before Makepeace saw his first total eclipse in 1991, he had set life on cruise-control. "I liked my job in film and video. I liked girls. That was pretty much it," he says. In fact, he was chasing a woman when he traveled to Baja, Mexico, to see his first eclipse: His girlfriend was working for a travel agency promoting the event and he decided to tag along.

David Makepeace
Makepeace in Indonesia
David Makepeace

That eclipse lasted almost seven minutes—one of the century's longest—and it shook Makepeace. He spent the next few days sitting on the beach in a daze of suspended awe. "It took two days for me to say, OK, how am I actually feeling about this? And then I started digesting that. I've been digesting it for 25 years." He's chased eclipses ever since.

Kate Russo had a similar experience. Being a science enthusiast who loves to travel, she figured it'd be a fun one-time event. "I thought a total eclipse would be something I see and move on," she said. "And then when I went, I was completely overwhelmed. It blew my mind. I knew it was going to be a good experience, but I had no idea it was going to be completely overwhelming, smacked around the face, wake up and go WHOA. And straight after that, I thought, I have to do this again—I didn't even know there were eclipse chasers—I just knew that I had this full compulsion to see this again, I have to feel that again, I have to see it again. I got to do it."

When she returned home, she checked a science textbook and discovered a map depicting future eclipse paths. "I saw that and thought: This is my life."

Future eclipses
iStock // Lucy Quintanilla

Russo's eclipse-chasing has brought her to Mongolia, to the brink of deportation in Russia, and to the muddy rivers of Mozambique, where she paddled dug-out canoes with tribesmen. It's led Makepeace to visit all seven continents, fly prop planes in the Australian outback, spend 30 days on an Antarctic icebreaker, and flirt with the Iraq-Turkey no-fly zone.

All to see eclipses.

An idea from the 18th century might help explain why, for some, the experience can transfigure lives.

Today, people slap the word sublime on oversized cheesecakes and graceful tennis volleys, but in the 19th century, philosophers such as Arthur Schopenhauer had a different meaning in mind: The sublime was an overwhelming feeling of awe that overcame people when they confronted something so powerful, so incalculably grand, that it forced in his words a "turning away of the will"—that is, viewers lost themselves in pure contemplation. The sublime transcends beauty. It's paralysis by awe.

Eclipses are arguably the sublime at its most potent. "Because it is so compressed in this time, and it's so intense, nothing else comes close," Makepeace says. The Moon's shadow could basically put the country's mindfulness gurus out of work. "We're all intensely focused on the same thing, and there's nobody whose focus is elsewhere."

Easter Island
A total solar eclipse over Easter Island, Chile
Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images

Such responses aren't new. For centuries, eclipses have had a reputation of causing people to remake their lives for the better. In 585 BCE, as the Lydians warred the Medes, an eclipse supposedly appeared over the battlefield and inspired the soldiers to call a truce. In 1183, the Minamoto and Taira clans of Japan were in the midst of a three-year civil war, yet, when an eclipse appeared, both sides dropped their weapons. In 1988, when the astronomer Sir Patrick Moore visited the Philippines to view an eclipse, people feared terrorists would target visitors. "But when we went there, the three terrorist groups issued a combined statement that they weren't going to shoot at us, and they didn't," he recalls in Total Addiction. "It was jolly sporting of them!"

A story McClean tells about the 2009 total solar eclipse in China sums it up well. As totality ended, another American in the crowd—an eclipse virgin—fumbled for his cell phone to call home. "Mom! Remember that time we saw that documentary about those crazy eclipse chasers?" he yelled. "Well, I'm one of them now!"

 
 

Ask anybody in Hopkinsville, and they'll tell you that August 21 is an uncanny date for an eclipse to arrive. The people of Christian County have a history of seeing otherworldly objects in the sky that day.

On August 21, 1955, a blinding light tumbled over rural Kentucky. Billy Ray Taylor, a visitor staying in a packed rural farmhouse a few miles outside of Hopkinsville, was drawing water from a well when he saw the light whisk across the horizon, leaving a contrail of "exhaust all the colors of the rainbow."

Taylor ran into the farmhouse and yammered about having witnessed a UFO. Nobody listened. As suppertime passed, and as dusk crept in, a hound outside began to bay. Taylor and a man named Lucky Sutton grabbed two guns and stepped out to investigate. Outside waited a group of creatures. One eyeballed the men from a tree branch.

It stood two and half feet tall: silver, with spindly legs, pointed ears, a large head, luminescent yellow eyes, and a long talon protruding from its hands. It could float. Sutton and Taylor shot at the creature and scrambled into the house, watching nervously from the window as night fell.

Big golden eyes glowed from the other side. The farmhouse matriarch, Glennie Lankford, shoved her youngest children under the bed as the roof rattled, the sound of claws scraping above. Gunshots rang out. The creature in the window dodged. Then the eyes peered again through the hole.

This game of peekaboo reportedly continued for hours.

Eventually, the family sprinted outside and drove eight miles to Hopkinsville's police headquarters. As the Kentucky New Era reported the next day, the family's distress appeared genuine. "We need help," one of them said. "We've been fighting them for nearly four hours."

Four city police, five state troopers, three deputy sheriffs, and some military police drove to the farm, but when they arrived, nothing was there but a hole in the window and, according to lore, a graveyard of spent shells and casings. After investigating for two hours, authorities found no signs of the creatures.

Today, the "Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter" is a favorite among UFO-philes [PDF]. Explanations range from extraterrestrials to monkeys that escaped from a traveling circus. The FBI's famed investigation into UFOs, Project Blue Book, calls the account a hoax. Paranormal investigator Joe Nickell, however, believes the family genuinely saw something: a dusk-loving critter with large yellow eyes, skinny legs, claws, talons, and the power to hover … called the great horned owl.

Avian or Alien?
Sarah Turbin

Avian or alien, the Kelly-Hopkinsville creature is cheekily celebrated by the town every August 21 with the "Little Green Men Days Festival," a celebration full of arts and crafts booths, cheesy T-shirts, bouncy castles, and excuses to eat fried dough. This year, however, the county is pulling out all the stops for the eclipse. In addition to the Little Green Men Days Festival, there will be a three-day music festival, a mini comic-con, a bluegrass bash, a bourbon mashoree, and more than 20 other events, including visits from NASA scientists and a lecture from the director of the Vatican Observatory.

The total economic boost may exceed $30 million.

For some, the coincidence of having the eclipse fall on the same date as a purported extraterrestrial encounter remains too eerie. "I like to say they came to pick up their viewing spot, they just came early," Cook says. "It just gives you the chills!"

 
 

In 2013, James McClean boarded a pondhopper in Nairobi, Kenya and flew two hours north to the town of Lodwar. He flagged down a taxi—which "cost about $2 and the time it takes to fix three flat tires"—and traveled 36 miles to the village of Kalokal, a sandy hamlet along the western shores of Lake Turkana. A park ranger sat there waiting for him, propped atop a motorcycle. McClean grabbed his backpack, hopped on, and puttered to his base camp.

For the next two weeks, he prepared for an eclipse that would last 12 seconds.

McClean shuttled between Lodwar and Kalokal to scout different viewing locations, build rapport with locals, and set up equipment. On eclipse day, it was a balmy 80 degrees with a few puffy clouds in an otherwise blue sky. McClean placed his cameras along the shore of Lake Turkana, framing a small grass hut and thousands of pink flamingos standing in the shallows.

In the mid afternoon, the Moon chewed into the Sun, right on schedule. In the distance, darkness steamed across the landscape.

This was not the Moon's shadow.

fisherman from the El Molo tribe walks back with his net at sunrise in the village of Komote
A fisherman from the El Molo tribe walks along Lake Turkana.
Carl De Souza/AFP/GettyImages

Eclipses generate shifty winds. As ground temperatures cool under the umbra, warm air may stop rising and wind can alter course. The currents had caused a sandstorm. McClean chuckled as it rolled through a camp of moneyed tourists who had just flown in. "I thought, Look! all of those people who paid $8000 for that fly-in adventure are in the middle of this epic sandstorm."

Twenty minutes later, he stopped laughing. Minutes before totality, McClean watched a small island in the middle of the lake disappear. The sandstorm barreled straight for him.

"It was a dark wall of DOOM," McClean says. "Straight from the Scorpion King!" Large shards of sand—hard, painful pieces resembling "powdered glass or candied sugar"—swirled in the air. McClean abandoned his equipment, jumped into a taxi, and found shelter among a few grass huts.

The sky darkened. McClean looked up and saw sand. Twelve seconds later, daylight returned. "We all got skunked," he says.

That's the hard truth of eclipse chasing: Mother Nature holds the steering wheel. Many people who chase the 2017 eclipse, including those in Hopkinsville, could get skunked too: All it takes is one well placed cloud. In fact, a number of diehard eclipse chasers are avoiding the point of greatest eclipse in favor of states such as Wyoming where foul weather and big crowds are less likely.

"As ironic as it is, as large and open and free to move around in as this country is, this one's gonna be really hard to find a place in the west unless you arrange something with a rancher or if you're very skilled with rock-climbing," McClean says. In other words, the bulk of casual chasers will funnel to towns like Hopkinsville that are not only close to major cities, but are also ready to put on a party regardless of the weather.

Assuming skies are clear, the number of people who could catch the eclipse-chasing bug is anybody's guess.

"People say to me, 'I wish I could chase eclipses … if only I had the time," McClean said. He leaned in and carefully weighed his words. "Look. I have given up so much in my life just to have the time. I have nothing. I have this iPad, some Nikons I need to sell—I've given it all up to see eclipses. I have my backpack and my health, thank God, and I'm starting to think if I'm not crazy."

Is it crazy to give up expectations of a normal life, to take gigantic financial risks and literally go to the ends of the Earth, to experience something that may last only 12 seconds? What if those 12 seconds make you feel incandescently alive? Is that as crazy as having a passion you neglect? As crazy as actively choosing to spend most of your waking hours staring into the bug zapperish glow of a computer screen?

Russo is a psychologist, so I had to ask: Am I—your typical city slicker desk jockey—the crazy one? She just laughed. "Everybody is passionate or obsessed about something. Maybe they haven't found it, or maybe it's not as developed as other people's may be … but when you find your thing, and it becomes a part of who you are, it becomes a way of life. That's why I call [eclipse-chasing] an addiction. It's a positive addiction though, because it doesn't take anything away from your life. It gives you something."

portrait of Kate Russo
Kate Russo
Paul McErlane

Makepeace can vouch for that. When asked if he's made sacrifices, he shook his head. "I think there have been consequences for the way I've lived, to be less stable and more spontaneous—but those are things I love about life," he says. "I generally have spent 100 grand or 150 grand traveling, that could have gone into a house, and I could have equity. But then I'd be a boring son of a bitch."

Say what you will: Eclipse chasers are finely tuned to what matters most to them.

 
 

In Hopkinsville, the total eclipse of the Sun will last two minutes and 40.1 seconds. After that, the Sun will reappear, cleanup will begin, and the umbra will bolt into Tennessee at speeds tickling Mach 2. After giving Nashville a show, it will graze the corner of Georgia and North Carolina and sail over Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Its last stop will be South Carolina, where it will, appropriately, make its curtain call by visiting a lineup of small towns—like Anderson (pop: 26,686), Saluda (pop: 3565), Kinards (pop: 810)—before tipping its hat in Charleston. At 2:49 p.m. EDT, the 2017 eclipse will charge over two lighthouses, a sandy barrier island, and disappear over the Atlantic Ocean.

Who knows what will be left in its wake.

 

Kate Russo's new book about ordinary people experiencing an eclipse for the first time, Being in the Shadow, is available now.

Also out now: David Makepeace's latest documentary about the hunt for eclipses, Still Hooked.

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