Groundhog prognosticates more winter to a winter-weary crowd

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PUNXSUTAWNEY, Pa. -- On Sunday morning, thousands of winter-weary souls waited for hours in mud and drizzle in the hopes that Punxsutawney Phil would predict the early end of an unusually dreadful winter.

When the venerated oracle finally emerged from his burrow -- after a short struggle with his handlers -- he bore bad news. He could see his shadow. His forecast: six more weeks of winter.

Six more weeks of bone-chilling winds, frostbitten fingers and slush-soaked feet. Six more weeks of shoveling snow, salting sidewalks and scraping ice.

The crowd responded with a lengthy "boo" before shuffling back toward Punxsutawney through mud puddles made worse by thousands of footsteps.

There's still hope for the winter-fatigued, however. Phil's predictions have been known to miss the mark. Members of the Inner Circle insist that the errors come from faulty translations of his "Groundhogese," which is almost indecipherable even to the person holding the magic cane allowing communication with the ancient rodent.

PG graphic: How accurate is Phil?
(Click image for larger version)

"It's like going to Germany or going to Spain," said Inner Circle President Bill Deeley, who has translated Phil's forecasts for four years. "I can do uno, duo, tres but I can't do four, five or six."

In the hours before the forecast, many in the crowd proudly related stories of their suffering from the polar vortex that walloped North America in recent weeks. The sub-zero temperatures froze pipes in the home of Katie Wolf of South Bound Brook, N.J. The wind turned a tiny crack in the windshield of Rachel Tenuta of Washington, D.C., into a chasm, costing her $200. The icy weather caused so many snow days for 10-year-old Joey Brashears of Capon Bridge, W.V., that he'll lose a precious week of spring break.

Despite the travails, a sense of optimism rose from the crowd along with the steam of their cups of coffee and hot chocolate. Huddled in front of a stage bearing Phil's image, they shouted his name and sang groundhog-themed songs, including a version of "Gangnam Style" with rodent lyrics.

Some in the crowd chanted and held protest signs against winter, showing so much passion that the gathering seemed about to devolve into an anti-Jack Frost mob.

Ms. Wolf, who was wearing a groundhog costume as she attended for the 10th time, was more level-headed.

"Hopefully he'll have good news for us today," she said. "But either way, I'll respect Phil's decision."

Her friend, Sabrina Asper of Spring Grove, had dressed as a hotdog to show she was "ready for picnic weather."

It was Phil's 126th prognostication. He's been sharing his soothsaying talent since at least 1886, when the Punxsutawney Spirit, a local newspaper, recorded the first Groundhog Day. Since then, he's appeared every year except for a two-year break during World War II.

"We were afraid we were going to aid the enemy" by publicizing Phil's prediction, explained Butch Philliber, a member of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club Inner Circle, which emcees the Groundhog Day ceremony.

Now that his forecast is told, Phil will return to his abode in the Groundhog Zoo in downtown Punxsutawney, attending occasional public relations events and munching on his favorite foods -- carrots, granola and barbecue-flavored potato chips.

In September, he'll take a swig of the magic potion that has kept him alive so long past the typical seven-year groundhog lifespan, Mr. Philliber said.

Immortality has downsides for the rodent. His wife isn't offered the potion, meaning that he is doomed to outlive her. He has already seen countless of his wives pass away, all of them named "Phyllis."

His handlers aren't sure whether this takes a toll on him. He doesn't talk about his personal life much.

"We don't really know," Mr. Philliber said. "All he does is predict the weather."

Richard Webner: or 412-263-4903. First Published February 2, 2014 7:39 AM

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