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This possum's got pretty ears," said fellow judge Louis Moore, and I agreed. Just a gut reaction. That is what you go by, mostly, on show possums, though to be sure, the Beauregard, the world's most perfectly developed possum, was sitting up there on the stage for purposes of comparison. "You can just tell a good possum," says Basil Clark, president of the Possum Growers & Breeders Association of America, Inc.
In a person show Clark would win best-of-breed by default: "There isn't but one Basil," says his wife Charlotte. He has a Coldstream Guards mustache, a bald head, a potbelly and, usually, a doleful expression. He wears a cowboy hat, snakeskin boots and a hand-tooled belt buckle with his name and a pair of possums on it. He says, "I was the only one who flunked sub-college English at Western Carolina College, but I am the only one from that class who ever got paid for saying anything." Talks on the possum is what he gets paid for. He says that a possum will fold the white part of its ear down in the winter to hold in the heat and stick it up in the summer to catch the sun. I don't know whether that is true or not, but I didn't need to know in order to judge possums. I gave this one a full five points on "Ears." Next, "Feet and Tail."
There I was, at the annual PGBA International Possum Show at the Chilton County Fair, which takes place outside Clanton, Ala., which is near Thorsby and Jemison and between Montgomery and Birmingham. I was down on my hands and knees in the pine shavings, on the floor of the livestock show building, trying to get a good view of a domesticated possum's feet. It was hard. This possum, nice as its ears were, was showing bad character.
(Note: Throughout this account, except where sources outside the PGBA are quoted directly, the animal will be referred to as a possum, not an opossum. "The 'o' in 'possum' is invisible," says Basil Clark. "Like the 'p' in 'swimming.' ").
"General Character, Size and Balance" counts for 25 of the 100 points a possum can ideally score. "Feet and Tail" is 15. A possum—and this is something not everyone realizes—has an opposable thumb on its hind foot, as a monkey does on its paw. A possum also has 21 fingerprints—one for each of its toes and one for the tip of its tail. I didn't need to check this possum's prints, but I did need to get a good look at his feet in order to judge him properly. And his character was already down around 18 in my book because he kept scrabbling in the shavings trying to get away (his handler had him by the tail) and his feet stayed covered and moving. The assumption is that a possum that won't hold still for judging is showing bad character, though his balance may be fine.
I wasn't sure what a good-looking possum foot looked like anyway. I did know how the tail ought to look—clean. A possum's tail looks bad enough without being scruffy and stained; a conscientious possum owner will not only shampoo his possum's fur before a show, but will also take some kind of strong cleanser to its tail. The night before, Dr. Kent Johns, a leading owner in Clanton, had come to the back door of his house dangling a bubbly possum (shampoo was still foaming on it) by the tail and asked his wife for some Bon Ami. "Nobody uses Bon Ami anymore," she said. She gave him some Comet.
"What should I look for in his feet?" I asked the man next to me on the floor.
"Well," he said, holding up one of the feet of the possum of the moment, "that's a good one there. See, shaped like that."
I realized I had just consulted the possum's handler, Jack Carlisle, who was biased. I put down 11 points for "Feet and Tail" and went on to "Head and Jaws."
When I first heard of the PGBA show I had no idea I would someday be a judge in it—or, for that matter, that my friend Joan Ackermann, out of Cambridge, Mass., would be named Miss Possum International. It was last May that I saw a story in the Nashville Tennessean, under the headline 'EAT MORE POSSUM' NO JOKING MATTER TO SOME.