When the nation's first coast-to-coast total eclipse since 1918 began to show up in New Orleans early Monday afternoon, 8-year-old John Oliver Steigner was ready.

Even though the eclipse would be only partial in Louisiana, his mother, Julie Steigner, had bought them protective solar glasses in Chicago over the summer. She also helped him make a pinhole viewer — a device that projects the image of the eclipsing sun like a periscope — out of a cardboard box, paper and tape.

And when she learned his school planned to keep students inside during the event out of fear that the children would harm their eyes while under the school's watch, she pulled him out of class so he could observe the phenomenon outside with her and his 71-year-old grandfather, Aaron Robicheaux.

"We have literally been talking about it since last fall," said Julie Steigner, 43. "We've been reading about it, studying it."

The Steigners weren't the only ones ready to go. As the much-anticipated alignment of the heavens began to take shape, hundreds, including several dozen children playing hooky from school, gathered on an open area at the University of New Orleans.

UNO had supplied about 100 pairs of eclipse glasses for viewers to share, provided a live feed from NASA and recruited professors to give miniature crash courses on the mathematics and science behind the solar phenomenon beginning shortly after 10:30 a.m.

Anticipation mounted on the crowded concrete outside the school's library, as Dr. Joel Andrew Webb explained in a spherical trigonometry lesson that the area of total darkness would cover a narrow arc about 2,600 miles long through 14 states spanning from Oregon to South Carolina.

The real show began just before noon. Shortly after the dark shadow of the moon began to cross over the orange-yellow disc of the sun, creeping in over the upper-right quadrant of the solar sphere, John Oliver slipped the protective glasses on his face.

As he took them off later, he had trouble articulating exactly how he was feeling, but his eyes were wide, and he was smiling.

"I mean, it's hard to explain," he said somewhat breathlessly, about his emotions. "It's like a lot of things at once."

At times, clouds obscured the view, and as they floated away residents and college students reacted with applause, cheering and howling.

However, by 1:29 p.m., when the moon appeared to cover nearly 80 percent of the sun during the height of the event in New Orleans, a hushed excitement fell over the crowd. Hundreds craned their necks toward the sky, and many passed around the precious viewing glasses, which had been nearly impossible to find locally in the past few days.

Residents gathered in other parts of the city, too, at parties, in classrooms, outside businesses and even in the parking lot of a Rouses supermarket in Mid-City, all seeking to have a shared experience of the eclipse.

Indeed, the attention of millions was captured nationwide as the moon blotted out all or part of the sun. Many reacted with a sense of wonder and awe, especially those in the narrow band of the country where the eclipse could be seen in its totality.

Much of the hype was due to the extreme rarity of such an event. According to Dr. Gregory Seab, an astrophysicist at UNO, total solar eclipses occur only about once every 400 years in any one place.

That's because the alignment of Earth, the moon and the sun has to be just right, allowing for a nearly perfect match during a total eclipse.

From the ground, the moon and sun appear to be the same size, but in fact, the sun is 400 times larger than the moon. However, the moon, by chance, is 400 times closer to the Earth than the sun, allowing a view of just the sun's corona, or outer bands of heated plasma, when the moon passes in front of it.

"The trick is to be in the right place at the right time," Seab said, noting that the next total solar eclipse in the U.S. will be in 2024, and the next coast-to-coast eclipse will not happen until 2045.

The last time parts of the United States experienced a total solar eclipse was on Feb. 26, 1979, when ABC News' Frank Reynolds uttered words that would be often quoted later, as he anchored the network's live coverage.

“So that’s it — the last solar eclipse to be seen on this continent in this century," Reynolds said before signing off. "Not until Aug. 21, 2017, will another eclipse be visible from North America. That's 38 years from now. May the shadow of the moon fall on a world at peace."

World peace had not arrived by Monday afternoon, and, for some, neither did the true wonder that many have felt seeing the rare celestial event firsthand.

"I thought it would get darker. I'm surprised at how light it is outside," 24-year-old Becca Bergeron, a New Orleans-based nanny, said at the height of the event. Several others echoed her sentiment.

Others, however, seemed content just seeing the sun in a new light — or darkness — including Vicky Sadin, a UNO graduate who said she is almost 60 and had been the first in line to secure the coveted viewing glasses.

"It seemed like the rays had a bit of a different angle to them," Sadin said. "There was a bit of an eerie quality."

Julie Steigner agreed.

"There's this otherworldly feeling about it," Steigner added. "It doesn't matter how much you've read about it. It's such a special experience to go and see it, outside."

Follow Della Hasselle on Twitter, @dellahasselle.