This one’s a two-parter, from February of 1999.
FEBRUARY 3, 1999: The Day The Groundhog Died
A friend forwarded me the following story, of which I will quote the opening graph:
TORONTO (Reuters) — The untimely death of a groundhog named Wiarton Willy cast a cruel shadow over a traditional rite of Canadian winter Tuesday.
Apparently Willy, who was 22 years old — well beyond your average life expectancy for any rodent, much less a groundhog — just upped and died last Sunday. His owners, either too dazed to react, or perhaps hoping for a two day resurrection (besting the previous record by a full day!), didn’t inform anyone until Tuesday. At which time they broke it to the crowd that was waiting for the groundhog to appear. The kids in the crowd burst into tears. The Groundhog Day officials noted, however, that the spirit of Willy said it would be a short winter. Somehow I always knew that the first recorded incidence of groundhog clairvoyance would come from Canada.
I thought the story might be a hoax until I went to the CNN site and saw a picture of Willy lying in state, mourners in topcoats and tails surrounding his sad little coffin. Perhaps they’ll preserve him in his own shrine, not unlike Lenin, who, it must be noted, served at the helm of the Soviet Union for only six or seven years. Willy made the scene every year for two decades. If anyone deserves cult adulation and a failed political system that oppresses its practitioners to be built around him, it’s this very groundhog.
The story notes that the groundhog people are now looking for a replacement, a “Wiarton Willie II,” as it were. Which makes me wonder. These people knew that their groundhog was the rodent equivalent of the phrase “older than God.” They had to know the end was coming. They should have found a replacement already. I’d like to know why they didn’t think about it before. Perhaps they feared some sort of disturbing “All About Eve” type scandal, where Willie, drunk on too many fermented carrots, smashes his plastic water bottle and threatens to cut his younger, furrier rival. We may never know.
To tell you the truth, the most disturbing thing is not that the groundhog died — certainly this animal earned his eternal rest — but that his handlers couldn’t think of anything better to do but tell a festival crowd that he had croaked. Those kids in the crowd will be forever traumatized. Groundhog Day will no longer be a happy time, but a constant reminder of death and mortality in the bleak midwinter. 10 years from now, I expect that Wiarton, Canada will become the new North American epicenter of dark, gothic teenage poetry.
Lying frozen in the snow
The groundhog soul resides far below
Gone to a place of doom and gray
Now winter will always stay.
Die Groundhog Die!
Mommy and Daddy Lied!
I can’t help but think that it’s a Canadian thing. If this had happened in the United States, they would have figured some way around it. They would have dressed up some guy like a groundhog and played it for camp. They would have borrowed a minx cat, inked it with a brown marker, and just moved through ceremony very quickly, before the cat could scratch out anyone’s eyes. Or they might have just used the dead groundhog carcass. I mean, they’re up on a stage. No one in the audience would ever know. All the guy holding carcass would need to do is position his thumbs so it looks like the groundhog head is moving from time to time. Just like a hand puppet, filled with greasy grimy groundhog guts.
And then, a day or two after the ceremony, they’d announce the rodent’s demise; a little groundhog stroke, perhaps. And everyone would be happy, because they’d think: At least he was able to perform, one last time. Like it matters to the groundhog.
Well, maybe it does. Maybe, in its own little furry brain, Groundhog Day is not just some seemly random event, in which the animal’s normal daily routine of eating, pooping and sleeping is rudely interrupted by being grabbed at daybreak and thrust in front of a crowd of howling, drunken bipeds. Maybe it’s a day of groundhog empowerment. Surely there was some band of Native American who worshipped the groundhog as a god; groundhog day, then, would simpy be a return to the species’ formerly exalted position. So maybe, that groundhog would want one last moment in the sun, to see his shadow, or not. I’d bet that would have been the way Wiarton Willie would have wanted to go.
FEBRUARY 4, 1999: The Day The Groundhog Died, Part II
Now, on to the groundhog Wiarton Willie, who, as you know from yesterday’s entry, died before Groundhog Day and whose body was photographed lying in state in a dinky little pine coffin. Or was it? Now news comes from the sordid little burg of Wiarton, Canada, that the rodent corpse in the coffin was not Wiarton Willie at all, but a stuffed stand-in. The real Willie was apparently found so decomposed that the gelatinous remains were unsuitable for public display. So the town elders found a stuffed groundhog that just happened to be lying around (apparently the body of a previous “Wiarton Willie,” who was no doubt poisoned by the current, and now rotting, Willie in an unseemly palace coup), plopped it into that Barbie coffin, and presented the remains to a horrified public. Here’s the groundhog you’ve all been waiting for! And he’s dead! Winter for the next ten years!
The people of Wiarton meant well, I’m sure. But I’m having serious doubts as to their combined mental capacity. First off, the real Willy was found in a state of advanced decomposition, which means he had been dead for weeks. Weeks. How could that happen? This rodent is the cornerstone of Wiarton’s entire tourism economy for the month of February, and no one bothers to check on him from time to time? Did they just stick him in a cage after last Groundhog Day and then forget to feed him? Every kid in the world had a hamster they forgot to feed, but you’re usually, like, five at the time. These were actual adults. They say he was hibernating when he died. Sure he was. I used that excuse about the hamster.
Second, the folks of Wiarton thought enough to present a fake corpse, but they didn’t think of using the stuffed groundhog to actually go ahead and get through the ceremony. As I said yesterday, they’d've been up on a stage. They could have made it work — very few people who aren’t around groundhogs on a daily basis are even aware of how a groundhog should move. It the groundhog were a little stiff and wooden, most people would have probably thought the little furry thing had stage fright, and who could blame him? But they chose instead to tell everyone he’s dead and display the remains, making the townsfolk deceitful and morbid at the same time. Wiarton: We have values!
Death, corpse switching, lies, deceit. The folks from Wiarton say they’re now looking for a replacement for Willie. If there are any groundhogs reading this, I have one word for you: Run. Run as fast as your little furry feet will carry you. Wiarton is the village of the damned. If they catch you, you are doomed.