Groundhog Day is pretty much a useless observance in the desert Southwest. If a groundhog came out and saw his shadow in Arizona, he’d probably get on a bus and go back to Pennsylvania.
Whether he saw his shadow or not, we’d be in for six more days of winter–a cold day here, a cold day there, spread over six weeks.
However, Arizonans have never been able to decide whether to be distinctively themselves, or to be like the people back east, where they came from. (A few of us were born here, and we’re really confused.) So Arizonans have kept groundhog day alive, using gophers, porcupines, prairie dogs, stray dogs, even rattlesnakes. A rattlesnake comes out of his burrow this time of year, but he casts a very small shadow.
Let me tell you about a young Arizonan who capitalized on this silly custom many years ago. His name was Chuck Wood and he grew up in the town of Blackeye, the other side of Buckeye. One day his teacher was calling roll, and she decided to do it last name first: “Wood, Chuck.”
The other kids started giggling. They knew from science class that a woodchuck and a groundhog are the same. Children are so cruel. They began pointing out that Chuck Wood looked like a groundhog: a severe overbite, because orthodontists always lived in some other town back then. Small ears, close to his bullet-shaped head.
Late in January, the other boys started calling him “Groundhog,” and taunting him about his looks. Chuck thought about skipping school on Groundhog Day, but he wasn’t a coward. At school, he hid in the boys’ outhouse until he heard other kids gathering. He came out and pantomimed looking for his shadow, clowning around as he thought a groundhog should act. He couldn’t think of any groundhog jokes, so he told a couple of cow jokes.
Chuck got a big laugh, and the teacher and the bus driver applauded. That was a powerful feeling for a homely, self-conscious boy. Chuck began to develop his material. By the time he graduated from high school, he was the emcee at all the school programs, and he had done his groundhog act for all the service clubs in an 80-mile radius.
He entered a talent contest at the Orpheum Theater in Phoenix. He did is groundhog impression and a soft-shoe routine to the tune “Me And My Shadow.” That propelled him onto the vaudeville circuit, performing in cities all over America. He’d tell jokes like:
Q: How many groundhogs does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: Two–one to screw in the bulb and one to watch for shadows.
Q: How does a groundhog make love to a porcupine?
A: Verrry carefully.
Chuck made enough money to fix his “buck teeth,” as an overbite was called in those plain-spoken days. He had a set of false tombstone teeth made to wear in his act. He’d tell the audience: “These are my buck teeth. I paid a buck for them.” And he’d tell more jokes.
Q: When a female porcupine has an affair with a groundhog, what is she called?
A: His concupine.
Q: Why did the farmer butcher his pig and make sausage?
A: To get ground hog.
Chuck told about the groundhog who goes into a bar, carrying a little chip of asphalt between his teeth. He sets it on the bar and says, “Give me a drink, and one for the road.”
Chuck stopped billing himself as “Groundhog” and ventured into other kinds of humor. But he always included a groundhog joke or two in his act. One of his favorites was about the three intellectually challenged men who went to Heaven. St. Peter gave them an entrance exam. He asked the first moron, “What is Easter?”
He answered, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s in November and we all eat turkey…”
“Wrong,” St. Peter said. “You can’t come in.” He asked the second guy, “What is Easter?”
“Oh, that’s in December, when we celebrate the birth of Christ, and exchange gifts, and eat lots of turkey.”
“No, no,” St. Peter said, looking discouraged. He turned to the third little moron and said, “Can you tell me what Easter is?”
“Of course,” he said. “Jesus was crucified by the Romans. They nailed him to the cross, made him wear a crown of thorns, and pierced his side. His friends buried him in a cave and sealed it with a stone.”
“Excellent,” St. Peter said. “Go on.”
“On Easter, they roll away the stone, and Jesus rises. If he sees his shadow, we’ll have six more weeks of winter.”
Chuck Wood invested wisely, and became wealthy. He went into politics, and eventually became lieutenant governor of New Jersey. He bought a farm in a rural region rife with groundhogs, or woodchucks, if you prefer.
After his death, they found a man-size burrow out behind his barn. The old man apparently had gone weird in his final years. On the eve of each Groundhog Day, he’d sleep in his burrow and rise with the other groundhogs to see if he could see his shadow.