Paul Juser: Groundhog Day 2014—In Memory of Egon

Every year, Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, is given a drink of magic elixir that gives him an additional seven years of life. This is how a mild-mannered groundhog has been able to continue living and predicting 128 years of weather. To the Creationists in the audience, this will sound like damn good science. But it’s sure to raise an eyebrow for the rest of us.

Your average groundhog, also known as woodchucks, ground squirrels, or “whistlepigs,” live between 2-4 years. This means it was most likely not Charlie I saw when I took the shuttle bus to Gobbler’s Knob on a rainy Superbowl Sunday morning. Attempts to contact the Groundhog Club for an answer went without response. Charlie was found on the side of the road by the mother of my childhood friend. His eyes weren’t yet open, and his mother or den were nowhere to be found. A life-long country mom, she put the infant in her truck and took him home.

In the wilds of Upstate New York, you find some interesting pets. Before I was born, my parents kept racoons, and at my grandmother’s funeral one family photo had my young dad holding a woodchuck. I didn’t give this a second thought until it was mentioned by my aunt. Before I was around, he’d domesticated rats, mice, and crows, and once unsuccessfully gave CPR to a dying fawn. He advised that adult woodchucks take a day or two of captivity before they become friendly, but you can have a baby sitting in your lap purring after only a couple hours of handling. I tried this myself once, but I couldn’t get the baby woodchuck to like me at all. After two days he escaped in the yard when I wasn’t looking and was never seen again.

Humans were the only family Charlie ever knew, and he didn’t mind being an inside hog. He was fond of beer, pizza, and Fritos, but if you left him alone with a chocolate cake he would wreck the kitchen and chew holes in every wall. Through winter he hibernated in the closet. After his first birthday, Charlie was starting to feel his oats. He was becoming aggressive and couldn’t be kept in the house. Shooting him would have been more humane than releasing him to the wild. That’s when Charlie found the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club and went off to play Phil. He’s the most famous celebrity I know.

The closest hotel I could find was in Dubois (pronounced “do-boys”), 21 miles, or 36 minutes from the heart of the action. Skipping the Friday night Groundhog Ball, where the Groundhog Queen and King are named, I arrived in Punxy Saturday afternoon and parked in Groundhog Plaza. Every business had a cartoon groundhog on the sign. Tres Amigos Mexican Restaurant had three, all dressed in sombreros and bandoleers. One shop owner complained to another of the Amish, “They talk smack about Punxy Phil, but they’re out here today selling his stuff!”

Fiberglass Phils were all over town. Statue of Liberty Phil, Fire-Fighter Phil, and the original statue of Phil in the trademark top-hat and tails of the Groundhog Club’s “Inner Circle.” The largest crowd gathered to be photographed here. In front of the McDonald’s was a concept-art Phil, his plump stomach bearing a motif of a groundhog in his den, lapsed in a food coma from gorging himself on poisonous McDonald’s food. In the statue’s hand was the Extra Large box of french fries that did the damage.

The groundhog’s love of french fries has been scientifically proven. My grandfather was a chemist and in his retirement continued running scientific experiments on every facet of his life. One experiment determined what human foods the groundhogs in his backyard would be willing to eat. They became so comfortable they would take food off the paper plate at his feet even while his attack-toy-poodle sat barking on his lap. Eventually my brother sealed the opening to their burrow with concrete, and the area was leveled to build a carpet store.

In the country, the most common roadkill is woodchucks. The least common is carp. One stretch of road could yield five dead woodchucks, but I’ve only seen roadkill fish three times any appreciable distance from a body of water. Deer are a close second, especially on the highways. New York offers up a regular distribution of woodland creatures baking flat and hard on the blacktop from toads and snakes to possums, and the occasional fox. Groundhogs outnumber all of these combined.

Woodchucks are casually shot by rednecks for utility or entertainment. Burrows cross crop fields with openings that ruin farm equipment and can break the leg of a cow or horse. Groundhogs are the fat kids of the squirrel family, lacking all the upper body strength to pull their beanbag bodies up the rope in gym class.

Despite open warfare against them, the groundhog stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the threat of humans and will openly burrow under front and back porches. When they see you, they freeze until you move and then dart for the nearest hole or tall grass, only to return moments after you are gone to graze. Even urban gardens risk merciless groundhog attack for fruits and sweet peppers. Despite my redneck heritage, I have never knowingly eaten woodchuck; but it may have happened. I’m told it tastes really good.

Gobbler’s Knob opens at 3:00am, but some revelers boasted of arriving much earlier. The last buses left town at 6:30, and the woodchuck was presented at 7:20 sharp. Phil’s tree stump burrow was at the base of a hill creating a natural amphitheater. The Weather Channel was already doing live broadcasts when I left my hotel at 5:00am, and the park was full. Continental breakfast started early for guests headed to Punxy.

Temporary street signs directed drivers through the twisting forest-land of western Pennsylvania. I had to make up my own parking spot in Groundhog Plaza. The Punxsutawney school district provided the shuttles, which ran as quickly as they could be filled. I waited in line only a few minutes before I was on my way to Gobbler’s Knob, about two miles out of town. No parking was allowed on the Knob. The buses also picked up passengers at the nearby Walmart.

The live show was in full swing when I arrived. There was a light show, fog machines, dancing girls, fireworks from both the stage and the surrounding forest, all with original groundhog music and groundhog parodies of popular hits. Jim Cantore did a stand-up comedy set, but did not kick anyone in the nuts. He was upstaged by an impostor Phil Robertson that led the crowd in a new groundhog call. The estimated tally was 25-30,000 people, though sometimes crowds swell to 40,000.

Read that again, it’s 4-zeros-worth of people come to drunkenly shout at a woodchuck. It’s rare that I’m the least drunk in a crowd, but I was the only person without Irish coffee. Even the children looked drunk, drunk on groundhogs! Beach balls bounced over the singing, dancing, and stomping crowd that chanted “Phil! Phil! Phil!” The rain was getting heavy; but anyone who raised an umbrella was shouted down and maligned not only by people behind, but the performers on stage as well. The show closed with a version of “Shout!” that contained no reference to groundhogs, and the “Phil-ettes” cleared a path through the crowd for the Inner Circle to pass and read the woodchuck’s prediction on the end of winter.

The custom dates back to Germany, though Pennsylvania seems to have added the rodent. Phil is only the most popular of many local groundhog predictors. They come early from hibernation each year to predict if spring will continue an additional six weeks. The rest of the groundhogs get out of bed around February 25th. Recent studies suggest their hibernation is not one long sleep lasting several months but they do awaken during winter and occasionally leave their burrows. The Punxsutawney festivals have lasted since 1880, marking the days the men would begin hunting woodchucks. The event took shape through the 20’s and gained popularity after World War II. In the 60’s, Phil traveled to the Moon.  Much of the fame is attributed to the 1993 Bill Murray classic, but I remember the holiday taught regularly in elementary school. And in 1986, the sitting Phil paid a visit to President Reagan.

groundhog-dayBill Murray and “Phil” in Groundhog Day

Harold Ramis made the film in Illinois, but the story takes place in Punxsutawney. Around town can be seen much memorabilia on display. Walls were adorned with original posters, donated props, and news articles about visits from cast members. The museum features not only a personalized director’s chair, but a Czech VHS beside a copy of the script covered in signatures. Across the top Bill Murray scrawls, “This needs another rewrite ASAP.” The revision pages are colored Blue, Pink, Yellow, Green, Goldenrod, Buff, and Cherry.

The Inner Circle mount the stage in tops and tails and prepare the tree trunk for the ceremony. A tiny door in the base is labeled “Phil,” and the main attraction waits within. Two scrolls were placed on the red felt top, and the members of the Circle were introduced. There was the Shingle Shaker, and the Thunder Maker, the Big Chill with a round thermometer around his neck like Flavor Flav, and the Coal Front, whose name I’m not sure I entirely understand. Bill Deeley, President of the Groundhog Club, rapped his cane on the door the ceremonial three times, and Phil was dragged unwillingly from the burrow by his handlers. The woodchuck was placed atop the stump, and the first scroll he touched stated whether or not he’d seen his shadow. A “no” meant Spring was upon us, and a “yes” meant six more weeks of winter. Phil communicates to the Inner Circle via “groundhogese,” which is translated in advance into poetry. Phil declined to predict a Superbowl winner, but did give several nods to the other drunken holiday that would be taking place as the sun went down.

Over the weekend, games, shops, and displays of chainsaw art were set up in the park where Phil lives in the library. His glass cage is open  to the children’s reading area and to the park outside. We found him asleep in the back corner as children and adults pressed their faces against the glass and yelled. Only one winery had a tent in the park, and visitors were shamed for asking about it. All events in town are dry. The winery provided one sample of one wine that was not yet available to purchase, and took back the sample cup when you finished.

On the Knob, and in tradition, alcohol has always played a big part. As it happens, the “magic elixir” Phil drinks for long life is actually a drink called “Groundhog Punch.” Allegedly it is the only other liquid legally allowed to be used in place of gasoline. I did not take the time to verify that claim. In addition to human consumption, the drink was good for groundhog consumption as well, and the museum has many pictures of Phil receiving his grog through a funnel. During Prohibition, Phil threatened 60 additional weeks if he did not receive his drink.

This year, Phil predicted another six weeks of winter, and for the first time in my life I watched a squirrel booed by an army. This was the second day of February and we were standing in the pouring rain, so I have sneaking suspicions Phil may be a Climate Change denier. Phil’s crime was quickly forgotten. He was waved around to his adoring fans, and instructions were given to orderly board the buses. Pictures were promised on stage as long as Phil didn’t get too upset. He was kept in a round glass cage of about 50 gallons with a pile of vegetables and a water bottle.

A thousand people or more funneled in to the single stairs the public would be accepted from. Families posed with Phil as Inner Circle members fumbled to decipher the various digital cameras. Phil stood on his hind legs, proud as Vercingetorix facing the lens. But the rain wasn’t slowing and the Groundhog Club worried he’d get sick. Hundreds of people were still waiting. They shouted and catcalled, but the woodchuck was becoming stressed. After that, no amount of pleading could earn another picture with the woodchuck.

A fleet of school buses were rotating through, filling and dispensing as quickly as they could. My jeans were caked in mud to the knee, and I was soaked through every layer of clothing. It’s rare to find this much action before 9:00am. Punxsutawney, PA, calls itself “The Weather Capital of the World,” and the Groundhog Day celebration is a surviving piece of weird Americana that needs to be seen to be believed.

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Read Paul Juser’s novel, “The Salvation Shark” at www.printisbetter.com

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