|This is neither Phil, nor Pete.|
On this Groundhog Day, 2015, we are all quite fed-up with Punxsutawney Phil, the prognosticating groundhog of seasonal change, who makes his home in Gobbler's Knob and who - let's be honest - wouldn't know his shadow if it reached up and bit him. He supposedly saw his shadow, this morning, which, according to legend, means six more weeks of winter - as opposed to an early spring. I won't bother you with the boring fact that winter officially ends seven weeks from now anyway, because the whole exercise is supposed to be fun. I do have a problem, just on principle, with the fact that it could be pouring rain during a total eclipse of the sun, and that furry little f**ker would still "see" his shadow. Whatever, Phil. There are 17 more days until the REAL turning point.
This is not a story about Punxsutawney Phil. This is about his predecessor. For decades before Phil took over in 1952, the prognosticating job belonged to Punxsutawney Pete. Obviously, since captive groundhogs typically don't live much longer than ten years or so, there were many Petes.
Only one, as far as we know, was stolen by a hobo.
It happened on February 2nd, 1936. The Inner Circle had proclaimed that Pete, having seen his shadow, was predicting six more weeks of what had already been an especially cold, icy winter. But there was a problem.
Late that morning, Nicknameless Norris Shine, the local hobo, was passing through. He regularly wandered the rails between Youngstown and Scranton, so to the citizens of Punxsutawney, he was "local." He helped at the freight depot when he could, and made a point of looking after the youngsters in town, and was treated with much more respect than the average feckless rail-rider of his day. Norris happened upon the gentlemen of the Inner Circle on the bank of Mahoning Creek Lake, near the east end of the train yard. They were arguing over the best way to kill their famous groundhog, given the fact that the frozen state of the creek had rendered drowning impossible.
After a heated debate, it was decided that Mayor Aldous D'Zmjcka, since his house was closest, would fetch his rifle. The rest of the Inner Circle accompanied him, leaving only one man, young Heiko "Bud" Niederlenten, to mind the wood-and-wicker clothes hamper that contained poor Pete.
Nicknameless Norris Shine shambled out of the woods. "Say, Bud," he called, "what's going on?"
Bud knew Norris. Everyone did. They liked him, too. They just never bothered to give him a nickname. "Huh? Oh, hey there, Norris. Don't sweat it, fella. Let's just say it's time for a new Pete. This one's... this one's, uh, maybe a little bit rabid, or something. Gotta put him down. You probably ought to move along."
Norris hated being lied to. "I heard what the Circle was saying, and the one word I didn't hear was 'rabies.'"
"This don't concern you, man," Bud said. "Suppose you just keep walking, okay?"
Norris shook his head. "You know, if I thought that critter had rabies, or was lame or suffering in the slightest, I'd dispatch him for you and feel fine about it. But if I heard you fellas right - and I know I did - ol' Pete ain't rabid at all. So if you don't mind, I'll just be relieving you of custody of the little guy." He strode purposefully up to Bud and reached for the hamper.
Bud Niederlenten grabbed Norris' arm. "I can't let you do that, friend. This guy saw a shadow, today..."
"So? That's his job, ain't it?"
"So... It wasn't his shadow. It was the shadow of some kind of bird."
"This animal cast some other animal's shadow, and it's got the old-timers in the Circle spooked something awful, so this accursed varmint has to be put down."
Norris snorted. "That has to be the dumbest thing I've ever--" he snatched the hamper from Bud, used it to shove the young man halfway across the frozen creek on his ass, and sprinted off into the woods. He headed east, but kept to the wooded creekside, knowing the men of the Inner Circle would be all over the train tracks. He didn't stop until after noon, as he approached the village of Big Run.
The barking - of men as well as hounds - had faded into the distance. He sat on a dead tree by the creek, opened the hamper, and looked inside. Punxsutawney Pete glared up at him.
"I don't care what kind of shadow you threw this morning, pal. You don't deserve to die, and you shouldn't have to live in a cage and get hauled by the scruff of your neck out of a sound sleep and held up in front of a bunch of hooting drunks, once a year. You are a smart and handsome fellow, and--"
The groundhog sprang up and bit Nicknameless Norris Shine on the thumb, instantly drawing blood. "Ow! Goddammit!" the hobo shrieked.
Pete scampered across the frozen surface of the creek, stopped and stood on his hind feet, and glanced over his shoulder at the human who had freed him. He sniffed twice, then turned and raced to the far bank, and disappeared into a thicket of holly and pine.
Despite the cold, burning pain in his thumb and the knowledge that he would now have to find a new stomping ground, Norris felt good about himself, and about what he had done for Pete.
Almost five weeks later, as central Pennsylvania enjoyed an extremely early, warm spring, the kindly hobo with no nickname died of rabies, in a barn on the outskirts of Wilkes-Barre.
This bit of drivel was prompted by - guess who - my friends at STUDIO 30-PLUS, who this week gave us FECKLESS. Hoboes... Groundhogs... feckless... It practically wrote itself!