It was a once-in-a-lifetime event … and it was almost totally missed 

The cosmos promised an extravaganza, a show so epic, so rare, that tens of thousands of pilgrims journeyed to Southern Illinois for a front-row seat to Monday’s total solar eclipse.

But Mother Nature reigns on Earth and she can have a cutting sense of humor.

RELATED: The Post’s complete coverage of the total solar eclipse

As towering cumulus clouds boiled up in what was a clear blue sky, a feeling of dread, of stomach butterflies, spread through the 15,000-seat sold-out Saluki Stadium at Southern Illinois University. The first bite of the eclipse and through more than half of the moon’s solar takeover was plain to see. People craned their necks, glasses on, and marveled.

Then, 10 minutes before totality at 1:10 p.m. CDT, a cloud like a fat dollop of whipped dessert floated overhead and sat.

PHOTOS: The solar eclipse, as seen from Palm Beach County 

For many, Monday’s eclipse — the first to cross coast-to-coast in 99 years — was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Limited by money, or Father Time, they filed into the stadium amid cheerleaders and a marching band with the hope that at 1:20 p.m. the moon would slide into place, the skies would darken, and a glittering corona like an angel’s halo would appear.

Thousands from Jupiter to Boca pause to watch total solar eclipse

“We really wanted to be where people were getting into it,” said Ellen Gertzog, 66, who traveled from Rochester, N.Y. “The next one in 2024 comes over Rochester, but at our age, we are always aware that there may not be a next time, so we wanted to take advantage of this.”

Carbondale was a key viewing location because totality lasted 2 minutes, 40 seconds — the longest period of darkness in the country.

NASA chose it as the place to broadcast its live NASA EDGE show, which followed the eclipse from Oregon to South Carolina as the dark inner shadow of the moon traveled across the country at between 1,500 and 3,000 mph.

SIU’s stadium show began at 9 a.m. A troupe of people dressed in “Star Wars” regalia appeared at the front gate, thrilling children with quotes from the movie. The cheerleaders shook pom-poms at the line of eclipse-eager ticket-holders. A medley of Michael Jackson music began at 12:35 p.m. with the tune “Beat It” blaring and an announcer prompting everyone to do the moonwalk. Celebrity meteorologist Jim Cantore, of The Weather Channel, broadcast from the sidelines.

“We’re not so different than the druids,” said Steve Rogers, a Venice, Fla. resident and former attorney for students at SIU. “They had their rituals for the eclipse, and here we are celebrating, too.”

Rogers was on the roof of Saluki Stadium with a telescope that had a special filter that projected the sun’s image as big as a baseball on a screen attached to a plastic car oil funnel.

The eclipse forecast began looking iffy 24 hours earlier. By daybreak Monday, meteorologists at the National Weather Service in Paducah, Ky., said earlier concerns about thunderstorms and cloud cover looked like “they may be a reality.”

People waiting for the main event were hopeful but pragmatic.

“Whatever happens, happens,” said Carol Bennett, 65, of Chicago. “Nature is pretty amazing, but it will do what it wants.”

That was clear when the clouds began creeping over the filled stadium where T-shirt guns were firing and Girl Scouts were trying, and failing, to show shadow bands in the shadow of the cloud.

People outside the stadium, who were more mobile, began jockeying to get to the edge of the cloud, stalking toward a carnival at the northeast edge of campus. A small child was knocked over unhurt by a family member angling for a better view. People stared up at the heavens when they walked, rather than at their cellphones.

Someone screamed: “Go away! Dear God, go away!” at the cloud.

A hazy whiteness opened to a clear pocket of sky for those outside the stadium and the final phases ahead of totality were revealed in a burning orange crescent before the cloud marched forward again in a solar system-sized game of hide-and-seek.

The darkness came whether anyone could see the sun or not. It was a slow creep with a surreal gray color, like looking through sunglasses with Vaseline rubbed on the lenses. Then complete dark. Around the edges of the cloud, shining Venus and Jupiter appeared like sparkling jewels on felt.

An announcer called over a loudspeaker that totality had begun. The temperature dropped in one minute from 91 to 83 degrees, according to the Paducah NWS.

And then, just when people seemed resigned that they would not see totality, aiming their smartphones at the unusual dusklike horizon, the cloud moved ever so slightly and a brilliant white circle appeared around a black-as-coal hole in the sky.

A scream of praise came from somewhere, “Thank you, Jesus!”

It glowed like magic. The corona emitted a feathery soft light that seemed to undulate around the black of the moon. People stared with their naked eyes for at least 30 seconds before the speaker announced totality was over and everyone put their glasses back on.

For those in the stadium, witnessing totality was more hit or miss.

”Mother Nature, she deals from the bottom deck,” said Ed Ban, 68, who, with his wife, MaryAnn, were able to see several seconds of totality from their stadium seats.

Rogers said the roof offered a glimpse of the diamond ring — a single point of sunlight that shines through at the moment before totality — a flash of the corona during totality, and Venus and Jupiter. He was disappointed but had also seen a total eclipse before.

“You didn’t have to go more than half a mile to be in totally clear skies,” Rogers said. “This brought people together from all over the world, and that’s not lost.”

A half-hour after the eclipse, the clouds cleared out.

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