Well, I finally got to hear the story.
I’ve heard it attributed to various tellers of the tale, so I won’t credit any one person, though I’ve heard the late Beloved Man Jerry Wolfe delivered an unparalleled rendition. Having seen him in action at several events, I don’t doubt it. And I wouldn’t be surprised if he came up with it.
Anyway, the short version goes like this:
“If you’re lost in the woods, don’t panic, don’t run around. Just find you a comfortable log and sit down. Wait for a possum to come by.
“When the possum moves on, get up and follow him. Possums are experts at getting lost hikers back to civilization. Just follow him.
“Sooner or later, he’ll lead you to a road.”
Now this is one of those stories that have a lot more flavor being heard than being read, but the punchline rings true either way.
When I was younger I had this theory regarding possums, whose ancestors can be traced back to the time of the dinosaurs. It generally went along the lines that these critters saw the rise and fall of many creatures great and small, from the T-Rex to the passenger pigeon. One day, as a group, they took a look at themselves: Rather unattractive, not particularly athletic, and their defense is playing dead.
I imagine that out of the sheer embarrassment of having outlived worthier species, they decided they’d speed up the whole extinction process by making a date with the interstate.
Not that they’re all innocent victims. I still maintain some have – well, I don’t know what you’d call it. Anti-survival instincts.
Back in the 1980s I lived for awhile at a remote end of the Norton community. On my commute I rarely encountered vehicles, and as such I’d scan the roadsides for the flora and fauna of the season while cruising along.
On one such commute, out of the corner of my eye, I picked up something on my left speeding down the bank toward the road cut, intersecting with my car. I slammed on the brakes and screeched to a halt just as a possum broke through the ground cover, airborne.
It was a really remarkable scene, like one of those action movies where the Secret Service agent dives in front of the bullet meant for the president, everything going in slow-motion as the agent mouths “Noooooooooooooo.”
It was just like that. Only I’d stopped, and the possum missed the grill of my car by a good two yards. He landed with sort of a splat, but I saw him shake it off and scramble out of my vision.
As I leaned out the window to see which way he was going so as not to quash him, the car gently rocked.
I’d been rammed by a possum.
Long story short, he wound up getting under the car and I think was headed for the engine in search of possum Valhalla. I shut the motor off, but it still took a stick and some salty language and about 10 minutes to get him out from under there.
I was afraid he might be rabid, but I finally concluded he might just be a possum following the possum Prime Directive.
Fact is, I like possums. In reality they’re generally docile and beneficial – they suck up ticks like a vacuum cleaner, and their blood is said to possess immunity properties against snake venom that scientists hope to harness.
But in the end, the evolutionary jig may indeed be up. Let’s face it, freezing and/or playing dead are traits that must have worked well for a long time.
But they’re no match for Henry Ford.
Buchanan is editor of The Sylva Herald.