“Way up North in New York City, they have no possums, and that’s a pity.”
Millions of Americans gather around the television every year to watch the New Year’s Eve ball drop in Times Square, drinking champagne and making resolutions for the next year. In Atlanta, they drop a giant peach.
But two hours before 2011 came to a close, I was far from televisions, alcohol or large pieces of fruit. I was stamping my boots to stay warm amid cigarette smoke and inscrutable Southern accents at a gas station in the Appalachian mountains. Peering between the hats of taller people around me, I was focused on the main attraction: a plexiglass box festooned with tinsel, suspended with ropes high above the crowd of about 2,000 people.
The possum inside the box stared back at me. Welcome to #possumdrop 2012.
Brasstown, N.C. has been dropping a possum to mark the new year for about 20 years now, suspending the ubiquitous mountain roadkill in a large box at Clay’s Corner, a gas station about three miles north of the Georgia state line and 15 miles east of Tennessee.
Clay Logan, organizer of the annual event and owner of Clay’s Corner, procures the local, live possum each year for the event, which has grown in size each time. Approximately 2,000 people swarmed the gas station and hill opposite the road at this year’s event, which gained notoriety when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals issued a press release opposing the possum-dropping practice:
Opossum are sensitive, small, wild prey animals who avoid human contact at all costs. Being suspended for hours in a see-through box over a screaming crowd and subjected to excessive noise and smoke would be pure terror for the animal. The smoke and noise can damage an opossum’s sensitive hearing and respiratory system, and the chaos can cause such a shy animal to suffer from severe and potentially fatal stress-induced conditions.
Yet there was no doubt that the folks at Clay’s Corner love their possums. The Clay’s Corner website notes: “The opossum is not actually ‘dropped,’ it is lowered with great care. We treat our little friend with respect, hold him in awe, and do not inflict any injury or traumatize God’s creature of the night.”
Locals laughed at any mention of PETA, and seemed to agree that a night in a plexiglass box would be preferable for the animal that so often ends up flattened on the side of the road. U.S. Congressmen Heath Shuler served as one of the sponsors of the event.
Over the course of the evening (which was humming by 9 p.m. and ran past midnight), we heard two possum-themed songs, purchased possum t-shirts and shot glasses, listened to possum poetry and were admonished not to forget the possum’s contribution to American history. (Apparently the trusty, slow-moving possum has provided food for countless hungry Americans from the Civil War to the Great Depression. No word on possum popularity in modern grocery stores.)
“The eagle never did for this country what the possum has… salute him, and pay him with respect,” an emcee told the crowd, populated mainly by local Georgian and North Carolinian families, eager for the marsupial to drop at midnight.
There was no shortage of non-possum entertainment to keep the crowd busy till drop-time. We heard gospel music, bluegrass, and church hymns from local bands, and were ordered to join in on group numbers. “Y’all know the words to this one. Come on,” we were told.
“We advertised this as, in the first part we’d let the Lord have his way. But then we’d let the Devil loose,” Logan told the crowd around 10:30 p.m. “So now, it’s time to set the Devil loose.”
The crowd cheered and whooped as young (and older) men competed for the title of Miss Brasstown, a crown earned by donning women’s attire and shaking real (and not-real) body parts to the beats of less religiously-themed music. Later, women donned inflatable horses to compete for the bull-riding title.
As a companion noted, the possum-dropping was probably one of the more politically-correct moments of the night.
On the hill opposite the road, someone had erected large lit letters spelling “BRASSTOWN.” Apparently local boys have successfully removed the first two letters in year’s past. The local Brasstown Brigade lined up on the ridge shortly before midnight to fire off several muskets and a canon. No one immediately noticed when the canon lit part of the hill on fire.
Logan took the stage several times during the night to perform acts of stand-up comedy, and by far his most popular routine was, “You’ll Never Hear a Southern Boy Say…” As in:
- You’ll never hear a Southern boy say, I’m a vegetarian.
- You’ll never hear a Southern boy say, we don’t need another dog.
- You’ll never hear a Southern boy say, this sweet tea ain’t sweet enough.
The one that brought down the house?
- You’ll never hear a Southern boy say, I’m a member of “PETA.”
It’s safe to say that no members of PETA were in attendance that night. Or if they were, they weren’t publicly claiming membership.
About five minutes before midnight, the show turned to honor local servicemen on stage and a performance of the Star-Spangled Banner. Organizers started to look nervous as 11:59 approached and the music went on.
“If PETA really wanted to make a difference, they’d get Clay Logan on a schedule,” a local noted.
As soon as the last note of the national anthem ended, Logan grabbed the mic, and Thom Tillis, Republican Speaker of the N.C. House of Representatives, took hold of the ropes keeping the plexiglass display cage in place. The possum wiggled and swayed in his box.
“Ten, nine, eight…”
[youtube width="640" height="544"]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-pUo97L9eY&t=16s[/youtube]
At the stroke of 12:02, the possum dropped. 2012 began with exceptionally close fireworks raining smoke and paper bits on our faces, ‘Dixie’ playing over the loudspeakers, and our cameras pointed at Speaker Tillis and the marsupial. We shrieked with glee and disbelief, wiping ash from our eyes.
Happy #possumdrop, everyone. We’ll be back.