It's February 2nd, hours before dawn and 25,000 people mill about at Gobbler's Knob, a natural amphitheater two miles from Punxsutawney in the Pennsylvania Wilds. They huddle around a bonfire, sway to the music, and guffaw at the skits enacted by 15 top-hatted men. Suddenly, brilliant fireworks pierce the cold, dry air. The crowd parts, and the men in hats file down a hill toward a large stump, in which a groundhog named Phil awaits, poised to predict the timing of "The End of Winter."
Unbelievable? Michael Johnston, vice president of the Inner Circle of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, explains the inexplicable and unfolds the secrets of Pennsylvania's most famous rodent.
Mary Tarkowski: Just who are you men in top hats?
Michael Johnston: The Inner Circle perpetuates and protects the legend of Punxsutawney Phil. Two of our members are Phil's designated handlers, who care for his needs.
MT: The first official trek to Gobbler's Knob was made in 1887. How old can Phil be?
MJ: Actually, Phil is 122. Normal groundhogs, who don't sit at the pinnacle of the animal kingdom such as Phil does, have a life span of five to six years. But Phil is given a sip of the Magic Elixir of Life every September, extending his life by seven years. We've experimented with the elixir on human beings with disastrous results. I look like I'm 58 years old, but I'm actually only 19. The elixir has the opposite effect on humans, so we've never been able to market it.
MT: How does Phil make his predictions?
MJ: Our president, Bill Cooper, taps on the door of the Ceremonial Stump three times, using his mystical Acacia wood cane. Phil is extracted from the stump and placed on the red-carpeted top, and he communicates his prediction to the president. If Phil sees his shadow, he's frightened and goes back and goes back into the ground, and we're going to have six more weeks of winter. If he doesn't see his shadow, then we'll have an early spring. As VP, I've prepared an "Early Spring" scroll and a "Six More Weeks of Winter" scroll. The president tells me Phil's wishes, and I read the appropriate scroll.
MT: How does Phil communicate with the president?
MJ: The person within the Inner Circle who possesses the mystical cane naturally has the ability to understand Groundhogese, Phil's language. It's not spoken, but a body language, with maybe a click and a chirp and a wink.
MT: Finally, are Phil's predictions always right?
MJ: Phil has never predicted that Chicago will have six more weeks of winter, or that Erie will have an early spring. He is not burdened with being site-specific. So Phil's predictions are unquestionably accurate. We're constantly amused by people who take a hard-line look; if you have to question the science, perhaps you're missing the point.