Punxsutawney Phil predicts an early spring

Punxsutawney Phil's co-handler, Ron Ploucha, hoists Phil high for all to see, while Groundhog Club Vice President Jeff Lundy reads the scroll that Phil selected, deeming that this year's prognostication called for an early spring. Photo provided
ZAK LANTZ, The Punxsutawney Spirit
Staff Writer

PUNXSUTAWNEY — The time had come; it was the moment everyone had been waiting for. It was Groundhog Day. The Inner Circle members made their traditional trek down the hill through the crowd, thousands of people strong, to the stage that holds the resting place — speaking, of course, of literal rest or hibernation — of the celebrity of the day: Punxsutawney Phil. Fun is Phil's middle name, and plenty of fun had been had at the home called Gobbler's Knob, but now, it was time to get down to business. Everyone was eager to know what Phil had to say this year.
    If he sees his shadow, the tradition says he'll scurry back into his den and hibernate for a long winter — though, the weather in Phil's neck of the woods has been far from wintry thus far this year. If he doesn't see his shadow, he stays out to join the party. Sure, he still goes back to sleep afterward; it is only February 2nd, after all. There's still cold weather ahead, but no shadow means an early spring, and that's cause for celebration.
    The 2016 edition of Groundhog Day — Phil and his followers' 130th annual celebration — took place on a Tuesday, of all days, and anyone who knows a thing or two about the holiday can tell you that Tuesdays and Wednesdays tend to bring out smaller crowds than the weekend events might. But don't tell that to Phil, his Inner Circle members or anyone else involved in the annual party, because this year, the music was just as loud at Gobbler's Knob, the celebration was just as intense, and the grand finale — Phil's prognostication — lived up to the hype.
    After emerging from his humble abode — a sawed-off tree stump, hollowed out in the center — Phil, having already prepared two scrolls, was asked to determine which was the proper one by speaking to Groundhog Club President Bill Deeley. First, Deeley explained the process, noting that the cane he was holding in his hand enabled him to speak and understand Groundhogese, Phil's native language.
    With that, and with the members of the crowd shouting out to Phil their prognostication preferences, the Seer of Seers was presented to the crowd — to a roar of cheers, of course. Deeley and the groundhog got up close and personal, and the message was passed between the two.
    Then, the following scroll was read:
    “Hear ye; hear ye; hear ye. This second day of February, 2016, the 130th annual trek of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. Punxsutawney Phil, the Seer of Seers, Prognosticators of all Prognosticators, was awakened to the cheer of his thousands of faithful followers. In Groundhogese, he directed the Groundhog President to the precise prediction scrolls, which, translated, reads, ‘The Inner Circle goes to great ends, to keep me abreast of the latest trends. Down in my burrow, I never get bored, riding on my hoverboard. And I sure have fun flying my drone, but the weather forecasting is my comfort zone. Is this current warm weather more than a trend? Perchance this winter has come to an end. There is no shadow to be cast. An early spring is my forecast!’"
    The crowd roared — as most folks are typically hoping for an early spring — and the Inner Circle members invited those who were willing to stick around for a photo op with Phil down to the stage. Before long, though, the crowd had dissipated, leaving Gobbler's Knob vacated for another year and closing the book on the 130th edition of Groundhog Day.

    Of course, as the editor of Punxsutawney's newspaper — The Punxsutawney Spirit — and a hometown Punxsutawnian myself, I've seen a Groundhog Day or two come and go. The prognostication is a big deal for all of us, but if you've never experienced Groundhog Day in person, there's a lot more that goes on behind the scenes than the few minutes of face time that Phil gets in the televised versions that've made him a familiar face around the world.
Phil has become an international celebrity, but 364 days out of the year — plus one in leap years — Phil lives a simpler life, and so do all of those in Punxsutawney. The fun typically starts on Groundhog Eve — February 1st — and for 36 to 72 hours, depending on when the holiday falls, the streets of Punxsutawney are hustling and bustling with all sorts of activity. If you've never seen it, it's truly hard to describe. Vendors are selling groundhog-related items every way you turn; it's the souvenir collector's ultimate fantasy.
    But the experience in town is just the beginning. Once it comes time to make the trek up to Gobbler's Knob, that's when the real magic begins. Of course, now that I'm covering the event for the newspaper, I have press credentials that come with a parking pass. I have a deadline to meet, and so, making it back down the hill into town in a timely fashion is important. And shuttle buses run in all hours of the morning to take people to their destination. But plenty still set out to do it the old-fashioned way: Walking the path to Phil.
    No matter how you get there, the fact remains that when you do arrive, the fun's just beginning. This year's entertainment included many of the annual fan favorites — Phil's Dancers, sometimes referred to as the Philettes; a T-shirt cannon; lots of dancing; and of course, lots of music, with some of the live variety being tossed in this time around. In fact, the holiday now has an official house band — Pittsburgh-based, they call themselves The Beagle Brothers.
    Those who were feeling the chill of the night — remember, the temperatures were unseasonably warm, but you could still see frost on the surrounding grass and see your breath turn to a foggy haze when you exhaled — gathered around the bonfire over by the information center. Most years, the crowd around the fire proves to be a bit larger, but it's still a welcome sight for many who find themselves with a case of the shivers.
    Throughout the morning, there are all sorts of events planned just to begin the process of awakening Phil from his slumber. First, there's the aforementioned loud music. Blaring through the speakers at increasing volume levels, it had to catch the Prognosticator's ear. And if that weren't enough, it's also a part of the regular program to knock occasionally on the door to Phil's abode. He never answers early, but it's sure that he can hear. The grand finale of the awakening, though, comes annually in a fantastic display, as the official program kicks off with a bang — literally — when a fireworks show lights the sky. This year, the fireworks were set off around 6:30 a.m., letting those at the Knob and all around town know that Phil was starting to awaken.
    After that, with Phil likely making his way to the bathroom to brush his teeth and wash up a bit for his big appearance, the crowd in attendance returned to dancing to keep warm and singing at the top of their lungs — until, that is, the top-hat-clad members of the Inner Circle decided that it was time to make their way to the stage around 7:15 a.m.
    While the entire program lasts half the night, the prognostication comes and goes pretty quickly once it starts, and this year was no different. After arriving on stage and greeting what Groundhog Club Vice President Jeff Lundy called one of the event's largest weekday crowds, the Inner Circle members were introduced. Once Deeley takes over, it seems to pass in a flash, and before you know it, the scroll is chosen, read and made official. Town will buzz with activity throughout the day, but the reason they all came has played out fully before their very eyes.
    Next year, the town of Punxsutawney will do it all over again — the 131st edition of the trek out of town and up the hill. And for those involved in organizing the event, the planning begins today.

    Zak Lantz is the editor of The Punxsutawney Spirit, a sister publication of the Decatur Daily Democrat.