Celebrating the road kill without the kill

June 12, 1992|By New York Times News Service

ARCADIA, La. -- You can still visit the highway site just south of town where six law officers riddled Bonnie and Clyde with bullets 58 years ago. You can sample Snuffy's Pizza, billed as "The best cotton-pickin' pizza y'all ever ett."

But unless Rodney Cook comes to his senses or local businessmen succeed in keeping his dream alive, this could be the last year Arcadia will host its annual Possum Festival.

Thereby hangs a tale common to thousands of towns throughout the South, where an annual salute to some beloved foodstuff, critter or cultural peculiarity often tends to take on a life of its own.

Like the Clute Mosquito Festival in Texas, Hillbilly Days in Pikeville, Ky., Swine Time in Climax, Ga., and other small-town festivals throughout the South, the Possum Festival started small, 10 years ago.

"I got to looking at all the furballs in the road," said Mr. Cook, who is 55, referring to the familiar roadside aftermath of one-car, one-possum collisions. "And you can collect all this money for ducks and send it off, and they just fly over you in the fall going South. So I just decided we needed to help possums, so I formed Possums Unlimited, or PU for short."

Things began slowly with a handful of members, $2.89 lifetime memberships in PU, and a gala inaugural banquet in downtown Arcadia. Mr. Cook said he sold only 10 tickets but

200 or 300 people showed up.

Since then, the Possum Festival, scheduled for June 27 this year, has become a major annual event attracting up to 4,000 people, with festivities like a preach-off, where various clergymen, ordained or self-appointed, preside over a possum funeral.

There are T-shirts -- Batpossum, Ninja Possum, "Run over to the Possum Festival" -- and annual posters, this year featuring a possum in a '57 Chevrolet tooling down the road leaving squashed people lying behind.

Events this month include a weed-arranging competition in containers suitable for being thrown from a speeding pickup, to pay homage to the possum's natural habitat.

Charities get the proceeds, about $120,000 in nine years, Mr. Cook said. And unlike many festivals, he said, this one makes a point of not consuming the honoree.

Mr. Cook says he's interested in promoting some of the little-known ways possums can be beneficial.

"We advertise compass possums," he said. "You can carry them hunting, and if you get lost, just turn it loose, and he'll head for the nearest road."

But, as Mr. Cook has learned, putting on an annual festival is no small job. He said he had lost money putting the event on, and after nine years, he's ready to bow out.

"You do get burned out," he said. "A festival, it takes probably three, four, five months to get ready for one. And I live possum the year around. I mean, it's Possum Day every day for me."

But Mr. Cook's plans to retire have sent shock waves through Arcadia, which has counted on the festival to draw visitors to town.

Many here wonder if Mr. Cook's expertise, particularly in promoting the event, can be replaced.

"We were in Spin Magazine one time, in a Bon Jovi ad," Mr. Cook said. "I don't even know how that got in there."

But he says he's serious about getting out of the festival business. He plans to continue with Possums Unlimited, but even that involvement may have peaked now that he's found the answer to the ultimate question in possumdom: why so many commit highway hari-kari.

"We've found out the reason they're in the highway is incoming car tires sound like a crate of apples overturning," he said. "They do like fruit."

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