Punxsutawney loses its mind on Saturday, when members of the Inner Circle gather around a stump outside of town to consult with a groundhog named Phil about the weather for the next six weeks. Phil and the guys in tuxedos will share the moment with a few thousand close friends, television crews from Pittsburgh and beyond, and if the network morning shows have their shit together, a national television audience.
At the same time, The Wife and I will be preparing for our own observation of Groundhog weekend. As members of the Fraternal Order of the Groundhog, this is the biggest weekend of the year, an extension of the Holiday Season when dozens of our members converge on castle in a ritzy suburb of Columbus for our convention, communion, reduction and ritual brain-cell sacrifice.
This started in 1975 as a wintertime gathering of friends from Columbus and Cleveland. Somewhere along the line, the group agreed that the party should revolve around Groundhog Day. A leader — the Grandhog — emerged, and rituals and traditions began to take hold. After a couple years, they got tired of looking at each other and decided to accept new members. Newbies were required to serve as pledges, who bootlick the elders, entertain the entire group and suffer ceremonial abuse. If they withstood the barrage, they were welcomed as new members of the burrow.
We went through a period of time when this thing was huge with overall membership probably close to 200. The party used to be held in a farmhouse outside of Mansfield, which was overrun by at least 50 people on the weekend closest to Groundhog Day. Bonfires. Hogwash. The parties are a little smaller these days, but most of the traditions remain intact, regardless of where we gather.
So what is all this about? It’s difficult to explain to the uninitiated — in fact, the Grandhog warns against too much public disclosure, because, he says, “It just doesn’t translate.” But it is about friends, altered states of consciousness, the primal stirring of gathering around a wintertime bonfire and the spiritual awakening that comes when you turn over the next six weeks of your life to a marmota monax whose fame in central Pennsylvania is eclipsed only by that of Joe Paterno.
There’s deep meaning here. Deep meaning. As we like to say (over and over and over), our significance is our insignificance.
This year will be a little special for us — and a little sad — because of the passing last week of our original Grandhog. Remembering Ron will be a central part of this year’s event, because he was the embodiment of our group. It’ll be special also because we’re welcoming our first pledges — the Coochie Doctor and Matlock — since we took a year off in 2005. They’re going to rock this weekend — skilled in the fine art of suckuppage, outstanding ceremonial headgear and a polished entertainment portion of the program. They’re a little nervous, our pledges, and they should be — but they’re going to be an excellent addition to the group. Pledge-of-the-year material, both.
So Friday morning, The Wife (class of 1993) and me (class of 1983), will head to Ohio, ready to help our pledges through a rough day and ready to welcome them into the fold. The madness begins upon arrival.