Whatever X, Day XVII

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.

14 Comments on “Whatever X, Day XVII”

  1. Now we know how the Snow Queen caused that eternal winter. She just killed off all the ground hogsin Narnia.

  2. We Canadians take our furry rodents very seriously. They (and moose) make us what we are. I mean, look at the way we idolize beavers.

  3. Please, if you ever start podcasting your blogs or, even better, posting video, please, please, please make one of you reading this one. Coffee has shot out of my nose twice while reading this and I can only imagine how hard I would be laughing to actually hear you reading it aloud. I find it on the same level as “cake or death”.

  4. This brings back many fond memories.

    In 1999 I had just started business school. I was doing it part-time while working full-time. I lived in suburban Toronto, worked in Hamilton and went to school in Downtown Toronto. The distance between home and work was about a 1/2 hour to 40 minute commute. The distance between home and school was about 40 minutes, in the exact opposite direction from work. On work days I would spend between an hour to an hour and a half on the road. On school days I would spend between two and three hours on the road.

    In those days I routinely listened to the local all news station and given my driving habits, listened to it alot. On February 2, 1999, they sent one of their weather reporters to Whiarton to cover the festivities. He was the guy who broke the story in the Toronto media market.

    February 2, 1999 was also a really slow news day so Whiarton Willy was the big news story for the day. This station, tongue planted firmly in cheek, report the Whiarton Willy story just like they would have reported the Kennedy Assinnation. News is rarely funny; on february 2, 1999 listening to the news brought laughter.

    The world would be a better place if the news were funny most of the time, instead rarely.


  5. I disagree with your assumption that Willie’s death would have been handled better in the US. I think the discovery of the rodent’s body would have prompted a MASSIVE cover-up. Pres. Bush would have arrived for the ceremony, watched a bloated corpse be pushed through a hole in the ground by his secret service guys, and muttered something to the effect of “Heck of a job, Willie;” after the public discovered that the entire groundhog ceremony had been a rouse the White House would have sent spokesperson(s) out to the talkshows to blame, in order: The Democrats, Al Queda, The Democrats.

  6. This was before my first exposure to Whatever, but I do have a theory as to why a successor had not been picked out before WW’s demise. I’m thinking it’s like the Dalai Lama, and they have to search many groundhogs to find the one containing the reincarnated soul of Willy.

  7. This is the best blog post revisited that I have read so far!

    Thank you for making my 2008 Sept. day more fun.

  8. Heh. I live in London, Ontario, which is 49 Google kilometres south of Exeter Ontario. Exeter’s main claim to fame is that it is home to many white squirrels. According to Wikipedia:

    Exeter, Ontario in Canada is known for having non-albino white squirrels, believed to be the result of a genetic mutation in the early 20th century.

    So come to Canada everybody! The country where there is more than one national rodent! And none of them are Mickey Mouse!

  9. Wow. Unbelievable. Of course where I live, one of our local groundhogs is stuffed. I’d been hearing about “Wildwood Willie” for years. I was shocked and appalled one day, when I walked into the park office after his prediction and found his lifeless body laying abandoned on the counter. I’d never seen Willie before; only his photograph. They just pretended he was alive. I was angry, I felt ripped off. That groundhog didn’t SEE anything! Was I the only one who CARED? That was an EX-GROUNDHOG! ‘K I’m gonna go calm down now.

  10. This kind of moral decision making is why this election I’ll be voting for the party with small town values.

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