PUNXSUTAWNEY — The hour was 7:28 a.m., and right on time, Punxsutawney Phil emerged from his humble abode to the thrill of what the members of his Inner Circle predicted to be a record crowd that had been patiently awaiting his prognostication for hours in the single-digit, below-zero-wind-chill temperatures they'd been battling all night.
After his introduction, Phil spoke to Groundhog Club President Bill Deeley in his native language — Groundhogese — and gave the report that so many wanted to hear, a message delivered by Inner Circle member Bob Roberts: no shadow, and an early spring around the corner.
With the bitingly cold temperatures, an early spring was the last thing the as-large-as-30,000-plus people packed into Gobbler's Knob could have imagined, with the low for the evening reported over the loudspeaker being 1 degree above zero. And according to reports from the various weather stations there, it felt many degrees colder, with the "feels like" temperature reaching negative double digits.
In fact, cold was on the mind of so many that some of the folks farthest from the stump from which Phil emerged misheard the prediction, hearing halfway through that Phil would choose between six more weeks of winter and an early spring. Upon hearing the words "six more weeks," a large crowd headed for the buses that would take them back down the hill into town. But encouraging calls rounded most of them back toward the Knob to hear the good news.
While it was a cold evening, the large crowd was treated to quite the night of entertainment.
To those who watch Phil's prognostication from the warm comforts of their living rooms via television, it may seem as if the whole event starts in the wee hours of the morning when spectators begin to make the trek up the hill to Gobbler's Knob.
But in all actuality, Groundhog Eve, as Feb. 1 is known throughout the town, is a day filled to the brim with preparations and activities leading up to the big event.
What follows is a first-hand account of a home-grown Punxsutawney boy — Zak Lantz, editor of The Punxsutawney Spirit — and the plans and preparations he went through as he prepared to cover his first Groundhog Day as editor at his hometown newspaper. In the account, the essence of the day and what it means to the town comes to light.
• 10 a.m. — Like Phil arising from his slumber, I crawled out from my own personal burrow, made of warm blankets, to face the morning. My typical day begins around 9 a.m., but knowing that I was going to be pulling an all-nighter after a full day's work at the paper, I figured I should do my best to be prepared with a bit of extra sleep.
• 10:30 a.m. — Taking in my two morning essentials — a hot shower and a hot cup of coffee — I see a pattern developing, as I know coffee will be my best friend over the next 20 hours or so. The coffee tastes good, but I'm sure the life-saving coffee I'll be drinking as I stand in predicted single-digit temperatures afters sunset will taste even better.
• 1 p.m. — Fast forward to after lunch, and I'm standing in front of my closet, sifting through two very different styles of clothing. At this time last year, I was the town's local sports writer, and the Groundhog Banquet was not something I had to cover. I don't mind dressing up, but I'm not as used to it as I ought to be. So, I try on a few acceptably formal outfits before settling on a black shirt-black pants combination. Then, I turn to warmer thoughts, planning my wardrobe for the overnight event. Longjohns and my warmest hat are in order, so I pull them from their hiding places and make sure they all fit. Now, enough about fashion. It's time to get the day started.
• 2:15 p.m. — I arrive at the office a bit earlier than I would on a normal day, knowing that the Groundhog Day rush and the pending banquet will mean making deadline will be quite a bit tougher tonight. Luckily, when I walk through the office doors I'm informed everything has been going smoothly throughout the day, and we hit our feet running with Saturday's edition of The Spirit.
• 6 p.m. — Banquet time (6:30 p.m.) is rapidly approaching, and I find myself back in front of the mirror, making sure my tie is straight enough and my sweater looks OK. Deeming them acceptable, I head up to the high school, where the banquet is to be held, wondering what to expect, as it's my first time at the Groundhog Eve dinner.
• 9:20 p.m. — After what felt like hardly any time at all, the banquet comes to an end, and what an entertaining, action-packed event it was.
The banquet, hosted by the members of Phil's Inner Circle, highlights the local personalities that make up the town and pays tribute to many of the town's dedicated volunteers. Two such volunteers are especially honored with the naming of the previous year's Man and Woman of the Year awards capping the evening's activities.
The 2012 Woman of the Year was Jennifer Roberts, who has given countless hours of her time helping countless organizations benefit their own cause, and the 2012 Man of the Year was Scott Anthony, the owner of a local pizza place — Fox's Pizza Den — who is known for his love of and dedication to all things Punxsutawney.
Another highlight of the banquet were the three speakers who took to the platform.
First was Pennsylvania's Lieutenant Governor, Jim Cawley, who praised the members of the community for their dedication to the cause of putting on such a grand show for Phil's special day.
Then, with Punxsy being the Weather Capital of the World, Jim Cantore of The Weather Channel was already in town as the 2013 inductee into the Punxsutawney Weather Discovery Center's Meteorologist Hall of Fame, thanked the community for welcoming him.
Finally, the show's big speaker, Danny Rubin, took the stage. Rubin, the writer of the film "Groundhog Day," which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, spoke of Punxsy as his "third hometown." He said that while he has never lived here, he feels a special connection to the community.
For Rubin, the best part of writing the movie, he said, has been knowing that it has had a positive influence on people's lives.
In closing, Rubin presented the town of Punxsutawney with a plaque, which offered the town — instead of the key to the city — the keys to his apartment.
• 12:45 a.m. — After finishing up Saturday's edition of the paper, complete with stories about the banquet, the Man and Woman of the Year and a special column discussing Punxsy as "my town," I sit at my desk mentally preparing myself for the temperatures I'm about to expose myself to. Hand-warmers in pockets, faux fur hat on my head and camera and thermos-o-coffee close at hand, I make one last check with the pressmen in the back to assure they received all of our pages. And then, I'm off. I head to my car and begin my trek to Gobbler's Knob, where over the next seven hours I'll be keeping track of every trick as the magic unfolds before my very eyes.
• 1:47 a.m. — You've heard of the calm before the storm right? Well I must say, I've arrived at The Knob. And with no shuttle buses running anxious fans of Phil here yet, it is eerily quiet, but I know that in just a few short hours, this place will be shoulder to shoulder. I better take advantage of the porta-johns while the lines are short!
• 2:39 a.m. — The sound system at The Knob comes to life, as the Black Eyed Peas' "I've Gotta Feeling" kicks things off. The temperatures have continued to drop. It sure looks like it'll be a chilly one. I've gotta feeling there will be lots in attendance this morning with hopes high for an early spring!
• 2:54 a.m. — About a dozen of Phil's most faithful followers have huddled around the front railing at The Knob. From the looks and feel of things, they'll soon be hoping for others to gather around them in hopes of sharing some body heat.
• 3:48 am — As the crowd continues to grow in size, the party has officially started with the introduction of Dave Gigliotti, who brings the pre-ceremony entertainment and Phil's Dancers — the Philettes — a group of six ladies who are seniors at Punxsutawney Area High School. They just announced that the plan for the rest of the morning is to dance away the cold!
• 4:42 a.m. — Many of the entertainment acts that will be stationed throughout the town of Punxsutawney during the weekend make their way to the stage including a local Zumba group, to give the Philettes a short break from their dancing. The crowd is growing by the minute, and with less than three hours between now and Phil's awakening, it's starting to feel very real.
• 5:43 a.m. — Quite appropriately, weather has been the topic of conversation overheard the most at this year's Groundhog Day celebration, and just as the weather man predicted, snow begins to fall at The Knob. After the lowest report being 1 degree throughout the early morning hours, the temperature climbs to double digits, a hopeful sign for Phil's faithful.
• 6:30 a.m. — Right on cue, the lights go down at Gobbler's Knob, and the crowd is treated to a fireworks show by the local Walston Club. The show goes on for some time, with a grand finale worthy of the round of applause it receives.
After the fireworks, the crowd knows it's inside an hour. By 7:30, Phil will emerge from his stump and give his prediction. With that, the ceremonial trek to The Knob by the members of the Inner Circle takes place, and after their introductions, it seems like no time at all passes before Phil chooses the lucky scroll blessing his fans with a promise of warmer weather.
For all who made the trip to Gobbler's Knob on Groundhog Day 2013, it was a worthwhile, fun occasion. But with sleepy eyes and cold feet, you would probably be safe to bet that most in attendance are also hoping to not wake up to the same occurrence Sunday as would have been the case in the movie Groundhog Day.
• 8:22 a.m. — I arrive back at the office, exhausted and still shivering after cautiously weaving through the thousands of pedestrians walking down the hill. Before you know it, I'll have this story posted and get to head home for my own slumber. Punxsutawney treated all who showed up this year to quite the spectacle, as is always the case. But after a show like that, everybody deserves a day of rest.
Enjoy your early spring, and Happy Groundhog Day!