Jack Simpson - 02/13/09
Weather Forecasting

I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania. Many European immigrants were attracted to the area to work in the forests and coal mines. People like the Lombardos, the Palowkaskis, the Hansons, Scollons and Boughers brought many of their customs with them.

Those coming from Great Britain and Germany had customs about weather forecasting involving a woodchuck, or groundhog, as most knew him. The groundhog was a small animal with thick, short legs, a broad head and a bushy tail.

My grandfather told me the animal was not good for the fur trade. You see, my grandpa had a mink ranch and he raised mink, selling their fur to the New York markets. No, he said the groundhog was only good for weather forecasting, and he was not too dependable doing that. Ladies liked mink wrapped around them, but they had no desire whatsoever for a groundhog fur coat!

The groundhog usually went into his hole for a winter's nap. As custom dictated, he came out on Feb. 2, looking for his shadow. If he saw it, folks could count on six more weeks of winter. If the critter saw no shadow, spring was just around the corner.

Evidence that this method of predicting weather is not very scientific rests with the emergence on Feb. 2 of two groundhogs. General Beauregard Lee (in Georgia) and Punxsutawney Phil at Gobbler's Knob in Pennsylvania. Phil and Lee disagree. Phil saw his shadow and predicts six more weeks of winter. Lee did not see his shadow ... so expect spring to roll around soon!

That is the way it is with groundhogs. You cannot always depend on them, and I can tell you this firsthand.

My uncles were woodsmen. They mined coal, cut timber and hunted in the Pennsylvania forests. They were always finding small animals in the woods, often bringing them home to me for pets. Once they brought me a groundhog that I promptly named Mugsey. I worked hard to tame and train him. In spite of my efforts, Mugsey was a wild animal and reminded me of that by biting my fingers now and then. I did get him to be civil enough to accept a collar and leash to walk with me around town.

Neighborhood children had a laugh at our expense and often yelled out, "How much wood will that woodchuck chuck?" Actually, I never saw Mugsey chuck any wood. He ate clover in the lawn and plenty of different vegetables from the family garden.

When the groundhog was not biting me, he turned out to be a fun pet, at least until he got old enough to be released back into the forest. He never did offer to forecast the weather, leaving that job up to the famous Punxsutawney Phil.

In listening to some of our current weather forecasters, with their specialized training, I often wonder how much of a leg up they have on Punxsutawney Phil or General Beauregard Lee!

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Jack Simpson is a former educator, veteran, author, and a law enforcement officer. His column appears each Friday.