December 31, 2003 Keep Your Ball. We've Got the Possum. By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
BRASSTOWN, N.C., Dec. 30 — The lights are strung, the stage is set and Baby New Year is waiting in a cage, hissing. Brasstown, once again, is ready for the Possum Drop. Yes, the annual New Year's Eve Possum Drop, the one and only, inspired by the dropping of a certain illuminated ball 670 miles away. On Thursday, at the stroke of midnight, at the exact moment that hundreds of thousands of people holler in the New Year at Times Square, with millions more tipping back champagne flutes and watching it on TV, a few hundred people will huddle at a Citgo station in this little Appalachian town, wearing hunting jackets and hats with dangling ear flaps, to cheer the descent of one confused marsupial. Talk about parallel universes. It started 13 years ago, when someone said to Clay Logan, owner of Brasstown's only gas station and vendor of kitschy possum products, "If New York City can drop a ball, why can't we drop a possum?" Mr. Logan could think of no reason why not. At midnight, as he lets a rope slip between his fingers, lowering a possum in a plexiglass cage from the roof of his gas station, Mr. Logan will call out, as he has every New Year's Eve since 1990, "5, 4, 3, 2, 1!" And then, as the crowd starts going bananas, "The possum has landed!" The possum is alive, of course, and will be released at the end of the night unharmed, if a little shaken. The show is more than just the spectacle of suspending in the air a fuzzy-headed, pink-pawed animal that looks as if someone stuck it together with spare parts. There are fireworks, the firing of muskets, country food like peach cobbler and bear stew and the Miss Possum contest, a cross-dressing affair in which bearded truck drivers wear eye shadow and strut across the stage with hands like oven mitts swinging at the sides of bursting lace dresses. There will also be bluegrass music, including a crowd-pleaser that includes the line, "Down in the darkness, much to my delight, there's five pounds of possum in my headlights tonight." Life, Mr. Logan says, is full of possum-bilities. Over the years he has worked to promote Brasstown as the "Possum Capital of the World," not because it has an unusually large possum population but because Brasstown "desperately needed something." The town, tucked in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains about two and a half hours north of Atlanta, survives on cattle farming, a few small tobacco plots and industrial jobs where people can find them. Brasstown became famous for 15 minutes a few years ago when townspeople were said to be sheltering Eric Rudolph, the abortion-clinic bombing suspect who was captured in May after five years on the run. Mr. Rudolph grew up around here, not far from the Citgo gas station near Greasy Creek Road where Mr. Logan does a brisk trade in stuffed possum toys, cat-food-size tins of "possum roadkill" (actually filled with dirt), and T-shirts that proclaim possum to be "the Other, Other White Meat." As it says on his Web site, "One man's roadkill is another man's icon." "We love possums around here," said Mr. Logan, 57, as he spat an oyster of tobacco juice and wiped his gray beard. "They're an animal everybody says is the dumbest animal in the world, and they probably are. But they'll save your life. If you're out in the woods and you get lost, just follow a possum track and it'll take you right to the road." On Tuesday, Mr. Logan pumped gas and squeegeed windshields as his friends prepared the stage in front of his gas station, Clay's Corner. Electronics included a computer system and a 10-foot-tall TV screen known as the Possumtron. Mr. Logan is expecting up to 1,000 people, a lot for a town with 240 residents. In the afternoon, Mr. Logan and his buddies drove out to inspect this year's star, curled up in a wire cage on a breezy hilltop in an undisclosed location. Each year, several Brasstown hunters trap a cast of possums for Mr. Logan to chose from. "Ain't it pretty?" Mr. Logan asked as he scooped the male possum out of its cage and dangled it by its long, pink tail. His friend, Paul Crisp, nodded and said, "Now, that's a town possum." "Yep," Mr. Logan said. "Pretty face, nice slick fur." The possum thing is tongue-in-cheek, Mr. Logan explained. He is a firm believer of the rule that there is nothing funnier than laughing at yourself. "We're kind of poking fun at all the stereotypes of rednecks and hillbillies," he said. Mr. Crisp, who drives an enormous pickup and speaks knowledgeably about gigabytes and microprocessors, said, "We're high-tech rednecks." His job on Wednesday night is to run the lights, video screen and computer that controls the production, which culminates in the lowering of the possum from the 16-foot-high roof. The cage is pyramid-shaped, with a swinging door, air holes and a gold garland. "See, some people think of rednecks as ignorant skinhead types, waving the Confederate flag and living barefoot in the mountains," said Mr. Crisp, a building contractor. "We do live in the country. And we like to hunt. But besides that, we're just trying to have fun." Mr. Logan said the festivities cost him around $2,000, which he hopes to recoup by selling 2004 Possum Drop T-shirts and cast-iron bells. At the inaugural drop in 1990, witnessed by about 30 people, Mr. Logan used a ceramic possum. "But everybody told us, `Why don't you use a real one?' " Mr. Logan said. The next year, when they did, one man complained that "we were terrorizing it," Mr. Crisp said. "Everybody just laughed at the guy," said Mr. Crisp. "We weren't terrorizing it. That little fella is just sitting there." William Reppy, a Duke University professor who teaches animal law, said the possum drop was probably not illegal. North Carolina prohibits unjustifiable physical abuse to animals, but the law does not say anything about psychological pain. "I don't think any D.A. would touch it with a 10-foot pole," Professor Reppy said. That frustrates Brenda Overman, president of the Greensboro, N.C., chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "I'm sure the animal is traumatized," Ms. Overman said. "You walk up on a possum in the woods, they freeze; they're terrified. They're putting it through horror for hours. Instant death would be better." There are at least two other "drops" inspired by the ball drop in Times Square, including the 800-pound illuminated Peach Drop in Atlanta and the Red Shoe Drop in Key West, in which a six-foot-high, high-heel shoe carrying a drag queen is lowered from a balcony. Mr. Logan says he is constantly on the lookout for ways to jazz up his New Year's event. "Next year, I'd love to get me an albino," he said. "They're rare. And hard to catch. But imagine that. An albino possum drop."
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All materials written, drawn or otherwise Copyright ©1998-2003 Ben Cohn. Please ask before replicating anything contained herein. Don't worry, I'm easy.