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Sunday Journal: A time for hissin', hollerin' and possum tales

One summer when I was 10, my dad was invited to judge the National Hollerin' Contest and Prettiest Possum Pickin' at Spivey's Corner, N.C. So we needed a possum. Dad bought a trap and baited it with I don't know what. One morning we got one. It was the biggest and ugliest possum we had ever seen. It shuffled around the trap and hissed with unhappiness. Dad moved it to a carry cage and named it Hurricane Hank.

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Dad attached an "Eat More Possum" license plate to the front of his Rolls-Royce. And we drove to the Hollerin' Contest with Hank in the front seat and my sister and me in back. Mom flew to North Carolina with the three youngest kids. Miami to North Carolina was a long, long drive. The possum started to smell and we whined.

In Spivey's Corner, we pulled into the Holiday Inn, where the marquee read, "WELCOME LES CIZEK — HOLLERIN' CONTEST JUDGE." I felt so important. That was my dad. We checked in and, when the coast was clear, Dad sneaked Hank into the room. We set his cage in the bathtub. The next morning the hotel maid arrived to clean. She came running out of the bathroom shouting, "What kind of dog you got in there?"

Dad was taken away by a local radio station while we stayed at the hotel, huddled in front of the radio. Dad told them how he ran Dade County's only possum ranch, and how, unlike cattle, his herd didn't have to be rounded up, they were just there. He said they had a processing plant and sold the product as "Ranch Chicken" throughout the Americas. The business was very successful until the USDA got wind of it and made them label the cans: contains possum parts. Things went bust.

In our hotel room, we looked at each other wide-eyed. When Dad got back, we greeted him with astonishment. "Daddy, you lied on the radio."

Mom gathered us, Dad got Hank, and we loaded into the head-turning Rolls-Royce and soon arrived at this rustic place where the contest would take place. It was hot and dusty. No neon signs advertised corn dogs or cotton candy.

Dad caught sight of something interesting. The Spivey's Corner firefighters, all suited up, hoses in hand, were shooting water full force at the rear ends of contestants. While being pummeled, they carried watermelons to a finish line 20 yards away. Dad urged on my 6-year-old brother, the youngest. He pulled off his shirt and took his place on the mark. A large woman handed him his watermelon. He flashed Dad a look of terror; Dad smiled and held up his Nikon. He caught the zany event in four frames. The photos would hang in a collection of black and whites on a wall in our den, a hilarious reminder of a simpler time. My brother, all muddy, crossed the line.

Meanwhile, under the shade of trees was a small stage with a microphone. People lined up to compete in hollerin'. Long ago, churchgoers in Spivey's Corner would clap and sing gospel music in the name of the Lord. The rejoicing did not stop in the pews. Church let out, and families loaded into their horse-driven wagons, still singing praises. The hymns of praise grew louder so as to be heard over the clopping of the horses' hooves pulling away from the church. As the wagons went their separate ways, these hymns grew even louder. This ritual became known as hollerin'. The winner that day was an old man named N.O. Barefoot. He hollered the hymn What a Friend We Have in Jesus.

It was now time to pick the prettiest possum. We couldn't imagine what was pretty about a possum. But, the crowd oohed and aahed at the stage as young girls handled baby possums. We did too, though somewhat reluctantly. We waited for dad to show our Hank. He, of course, remained in his cage and hissed in fright at the commotion. Hank was not well received. But Dad was proud; after all, it took a lot of effort to get that possum to Spivey's Corner. The winner that afternoon was Blossom Possum, a baby dressed in a bonnet and apron, handmade by her young owner. Blossom was pretty I suppose, as pretty might pertain to a possum.

So now we were left with Hank. And despite my father's yarn-spinning, Hank had no ranch to go back to, no home on the supermarket shelf next to the Spam and tuna. Dad released him into the scrub, still ugly but free.

Suzanne Cizek Moore, who is married and lives in Tampa, studied writing at the University of South Florida.

Sunday Journal: A time for hissin', hollerin' and possum tales 08/09/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 2, 2010 10:39am]
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