The lights were strung, the stage was set and "Baby New Year" was waiting in a cage, hissing.
Brasstown, once again, was 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 1,078km miles away.
Last night, at the stroke of midnight, at the exact same moment that hundreds of thousands of people hollered in the New Year at Times Square in New York, and millions more tipped back champagne flutes and watched it on television, a few hundred people huddled together at a Citgo station in this little town in Appalachia, wearing hunting jackets and those hats with the dangly ear straps, cheering the descent of one confused marsupial.
Talk about parallel universes.
It all 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?"
Logan totally agreed.
At midnight, as he let a rope slip between his fingers, lowering a possum in a Plexiglas cage from the roof of his gas station, Logan yelled out, as he has every New Year's Eve since 1990, "Five, four, three, two, one!"
And then, as the crowd started going bananas, "The possum has landed!" The possum was alive, of course, and was released at the end of the night unharmed, though a little shaken.
And the show was more than just the spectacle of suspending in the air a fuzzy-headed, pink-pawed animal that looked as if it someone stuck it together with spare parts. There were fireworks, the firing of muskets, country food, including peach cobbler and bear stew, and the Miss Possum contest, a cross-dressing affair in which bearded truck drivers wore eye shadow and strutted across stage with hands like oven mitts swinging at the sides of bursting lace dresses.
There was also blue grass music, including the crowd-pleaser that went, "Down in the darkness, much to my delight, there's five pounds of possum, in my headlights tonight."
Life, Logan says, is full of possum-bilities. Over the years he has worked assiduously to promote Brasstown as the "Possum Capital of the World," not for any scientific reason having to do with an unusually large possum population but because Brasstown "desperately needed something."
The town, in the foothills of the Appalachians, 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 townsfolk were rumored to be sheltering Eric Rudolph, the elusive abortion-clinic bombing suspect who was captured in May after five years on the run.
Rudolph grew up around here, not far from the Citgo gas station near Greasy Creek Road where Logan does a brisk trade in stuffed possum toys, cat food-size tins of "possum roadkill" (they're actually filled with dirt), and T-shirts that proclaim, "Possum -- 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," explained Logan, 57, as he spat out an oyster of chewing 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."