Needless to say, I set out early for Pennsylvania. The first major town over the state line was Butler, where I was delighted to see comparatively few private cars on the road, but plenty of people on the buses.
Another phone-in show on the radio had one caller who was very concerned what the folk of New York were going to make of all this food aid that was being sent to Afghanistan. He couldn’t make sense of it at all. The only rationale that he had been able to come up with was that the US was going to drop the food out in open areas and when the Afghans ran out to get it, it would be easier to bomb them to smithereens.
The driving was getting tricky. I wasn’t following a major route and had to change roads several times during the course of the morning, before finally reaching Punxsutawney at around lunchtime. It was only a few miles but it took hours, and constituted the slowest progress that I had made yet.
Given my previous experiences at places like the Roseman Bridge in Madison County, I had expected to see references to the film everywhere. The initial signs were promising, with the Punxsy Phil Brasserie on the road into town, but once in the center there was nothing. There were no photos of Bill Murray or Andie McDowell and no signs indicating where the main bits of the film had been shot.
That’s not to say that Groundhog Day wasn’t important to Punxsatawney, more that their celebration of it had nothing to do with the movie. I pulled in and parked at the Groundhog Plaza and went to buy some supplies. There was a gift shop there with loads of Groundhog memorabilia and postcards celebrating Punxsatawney’s status as the Weather Capital of the World.
I asked the woman behind the counter where I could find the Groundhog Day stuff in town. It depended upon whether I wanted to go to Gobbler’s Knob or to see Punxsatawney Phil. She explained that the former was up a hill outside the town, and the latter was now kept in a library next to the Town Hall. It transpired that Phil didn’t live at Gobbler’s Knob, he just got taken there each year on February 2nd to be given the chance to spot his own shadow.
I should have left my car at the plaza and walked to the Town Hall, but I took the “shoppers only” sign seriously and tried to drive around the corner. I had already noticed the Town Hall, but I couldn’t figure out which building might be Phil’s library home. After driving back and forth a couple of times, I realized that I wasn’t going to find it, but it was no great sacrifice. Presumably it was just a caged woodchuck whose turn it was to be called Phil for this lifetime.
A turning up a hill had paw-prints painted on the road. I followed these for a mile and a half, until they suddenly scampered off the road and left into a field. It was just as I remembered it from the film, hardly surprising given it was shot there. It was a large park with trees and slopes and in pride of position was a small hut with the word “Phil” written over the door. There were crash barriers – like those that used to be on the terraces at football grounds – on the slope facing Phil’s hut. The only thing that was different was that there were no crowds. I was the only person there. October 1st was obviously not as popular a date.
Once I had got beyond Shaffer, the scenery returned to the astonishing. The road followed the river along the edge of the Moshannon State Forest, and was a glorious sight. I’d not yet reached New England, but the colors of Fall were appearing on these trees too.
An NPR broadcast on the need to provide the public with proof of bin Laden’s guilt segued into the Paul Harvey review of the news (and promotional bonanza). In the midst of today’s bulletin of serious subjects, he informed the listeners that in his household he always made sure to give Interferon Alpha to any of his guests who suffered from Hepatitis B. Apparently, he found that it cured most of them.
The much faster US 6 took me the final 26 miles in about half an hour. Surprisingly perhaps for a Monday night, most of the accommodation in town was showing “no vacancy” signs.
After trying a couple of numbers, I managed to secure the last available room in the Penn Wells Hotel. It was an old building, and had a dining room that you needed to walk through to get to the reception. I asked if there was a bar, and the receptionist pointed to a door across the lobby.
The bar was in keeping with the age of the hotel. It was dark and wooden, with alcoves and nooks. I sat on a stool and ordered a beer. I had just taken a sip when a hail-fellow-well-met appeared at the counter beside me and called for a drink.
I looked at him and he introduced himself as Chip. He handed me his business card, which was printed on wood. He explained that his business was lumber, and that he was here for a lumber conference. Most of the delegates were staying in the hotel.
He seemed OK and was very friendly, wanting to know all about my travels. He told me that he already had a collection of 1500 books in his library, and would love to add mine to it if I could send him a signed copy. I didn’t tell him that I was yet to secure a publishing deal.
After about half an hour, he excused himself because he wanted to get back to hear the main speaker’s speech. He bought me a drink and promised to return. To my right was another drinker who appeared to be on his own. I’d seen enough to believe that this meant he had to be dangerous, deranged or alcoholic – or possibly all three – and I made a point of avoiding his gaze.
I’d left my Zippo in the car and was trying to get the barman’s attention to see if he had any matches. To my alarm, the fellow loner reached over and lit my cigarette for me. I thanked him and he said that I could keep the lighter as he always carried a spare. I decided to take a chance on making conversation, safe in the knowledge that Chip would be back to rescue me if things went horribly wrong.
I was glad that I did. He turned out to be safe, mentally stable and only slightly boozed up, and also very engaging company. He was a construction worker who laid roads and now lived in Cocoa Beach FL. He’d lived and worked all over the US in fifteen different states to date. Where he was now was his favorite, but he’d also liked Salt Lake City UT. The worst place that he’d been was Atlanta GA and he’d not been too wild about Flagstaff AZ either.
He had been born in Wellsboro and had come back to help his mother prepare the home for winter before she left until the spring. She’d already gone down to Florida, and he was staying around to finish things off for her and to catch up with some old buddies. What was more, his name was Kevin, the only other one I’d come across to date.
Chip returned from the speeches along with a load of his lumber chums. I was engrossed listening in on the conversations. One of his mates had a load of 8-foot clear white oak, but was upset because he couldn’t use it for facan butter. Or something like that. It was riveting stuff.
Chip tried to introduce me to a number of the other delegates, but each in succession quickly lost interest in me when they realized that I wasn’t up to serious timber talk. Chip was in his element and was working the room a treat.
Chip explained that his family had been in lumber for generations. He didn’t believe in advertising in a commodity market. His best advertisement was his product, and he got a better return on his money by investing in taking potential customers out for a day’s golf. He said that he’d like to take me to play golf if I was ever back in that neck of the woods. I explained that we would probably need more than a day if we were to get round a complete 18 holes. He seemed to think I was joking.
I said that football was more my sport. Chip said that he didn’t get soccer. His sister played it, and he just didn’t get it. He understood the rules, but said that he couldn’t see the point. There was so little to the game. If American Football was chess, then soccer was checkers. He said that his sport was Formula 1, which he was mad about.
As usual, the subject of September 11th came up. Chip was the first American I had heard voice the view that it was less comparable to Pearl Harbor than it was to Hiroshima. It was an event that had redefined the rules, and things could never be the same again as a result of it.
Presumably those who had named the site Ground Zero had also spotted this similarity (it had been the codename for the atomic target in 1945). We agreed on a number of aspects, notably that this wasn’t some macro-political event that ordinary people could do nothing about.
Beyond the terrible destruction and loss of life, there were emerging three striking legacies of the event. Firstly, the American people were in a state of feeling terrorized and were all taking conscious steps to go about their daily lives differently. Secondly, it had caused social divisions to erupt with outright hostility being suffered by totally innocent Americans of Asian or Middle Eastern extraction, which in turn was destabilizing entire communities. Thirdly, as a consequence of the shock and panic people felt, they were not going out and spending their money and this was in danger of turning a mild recession into a severe one.
In these three ways, the terrorists had won and they were all things that ordinary people could and should do something about. Otherwise, the “war on terror” was likely to develop into the political leitmotif for a generation, an ongoing disruption to the “normalcy” for which all decent folks yearned. With plenty of nodding and yessing, we congratulated each other on our consensus and insightful analysis of the situation.
I noticed that our chat was being listened in on by a balding fifty-something who was sitting to my right. Chip caught my eye as it flicked over. He turned and recognized the bloke and introduced him to me as Allen.
Chip returned to circulating and left me in Allen’s hands, who gave me his business card (which was only made of card but did have a picture of a tree on it). He was a bit more gnarled and cynical than the fresh-faced enthusiastic Chip.
Although he had been genial with Chip, he commented that things weren’t like they used to be. Allen had been in the game for over thirty years and had got to know all the other guys, but now they were sending along their sons to do business: “college boys who know diddly squat about the lumber world”.
He bought me another beer and seemed glad that I gave him an excuse not to have to tour the room. Allen made the point that America’s great strength and weakness was that it was built on diversity. What had happened on September 11th had only been possible because of America’s tolerance of diversity and he felt that it might be time to rethink things. After all, the constitution had been drawn up for and at a very different time and place, and was now in need of updating.
Chip came back with a worried look on his face. He explained earnestly that he was a dyed-in-the-wool Republican and he didn’t want me to misrepresent what he’d said about Hiroshima. He wanted to make clear to me that that had been a justifiable military strike, but that nothing could ever excuse what had happened on September 11th. He implored me to make a note of that difference when I wrote my book.
I assured him that I understood his point and we agreed that there wasn’t any proper analogy to be drawn because this had been an utterly unprecedented event. He seemed to breathe a sigh of relief, as if a burden had been lifted from his shoulders.
I made the point that there was greater degree of delicacy in my subject matter as a result of September 11th, and that I would have to operate with a large amount of sensitivity when it came to putting the story into words. This seemed to anger Chip, who told me to “fuck sensitivity”.
He said that too many things were said and written with sensitivity nowadays, and that I should just go for what I thought. He quoted back the three ways in which we had agreed the terrorists had won. “If you hold back on your story, then they would have won in a fourth way too.”
The three of us started talking about Europe. Chip liked the sound of England, but had only been on a lads’ holiday to Copenhagen when he was 19. Allen wanted to know about Amsterdam, and whether it was true about cannabis cafés and prostitutes in the windows.
Sensing that they were showing signs of being a bit cosmopolitan, I told them the story of Pat in Maryland with his pigs called Napoleon. They looked uncomfortable. They got it when I came to the point about France and England being the same place, it was just that they clearly had no idea who Napoleon was. Perhaps they thought that their forebears had made the Louisiana Purchase at Walmart.
I was flagging, but I’d had about six beers since I last bought one myself so I offered to get Allen and Chip a drink. Allen was off to bed himself, and Chip said that he needed to go home soon. He had to drive thirty odd miles back to Troy, and the police were super alert to drunk drivers around this area. He’d already had six or seven himself, and just didn’t want to risk it.
I asked Chip whether the state police scampered around really quickly and threw custard pies at each other. He obviously didn’t get the Keystone reference, and just gave me a derisory look. I made a mental note to shelve gag-telling until after this trip was over.
We were just about to get up and leave when Chip came back to the bar, and asked if the offer of a drink was still on the table. He’d decided to stay for just one more. I felt uncomfortable about buying him another now that I knew he was intending getting into a car. I didn’t know him well enough to tell him not to drink any more for his own sake, and the barman was already pouring two more beers before I could construct a delicate enough line of objection.
As we waited for them to be served, Chip grasped my shoulder and said that he had one question to ask me as an Englishman. I invited him to go ahead. “I’m going to say two names. You know who I mean, don’t you? You do, don’t you?”
I hadn’t even the slightest idea, and had to admit it. Chip glanced around the room, as if he was worried about being overheard. He moved his face closer and, in almost a whisper, let me in on what I assumed would be a secret: “DC and Eddie. Your boys. What do you think?”
I was still none the wiser, until he followed it up with wanting to know why Jordan had fired Heinz-Harald Frentzen. He was blathering about Formula 1 again. But not for long. He swept up his beer as soon as it hit the counter, and was off across the room again.
The bar had thinned out now to the last few lumber diehards, and Chip was on a mission to squeeze out one more deal. I looked around in search of someone vaguely sober, but with little success as it was almost midnight.
I struggled my way half way down the glass, and saw Chip return to the other end of the bar. He was buying a round for three people sat at a table at the far end. The barman delivered the drinks and came over and put a token in front of me. Chip had got one in for me too.