October 20, 2012 8:21:37 PM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
Hand-painted Mississippi State Bulldog cutouts jockeyed for space between inspirational yard art and houndstooth purses. Beaded jewelry and pink hair bows sat alongside painted pillows, pickled okra and Rebel flags.
Unbeknownst to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, there was a steady trade in underage gun sales, with little boys snapping up toy rifles made of wood and PVC pipe almost as fast as parents could open wallets.
If you couldn't find what you were looking for at Saturday's ninth annual Caledonia Day festival, you weren't looking hard enough. With more than 149 vendors, there was a little something for everyone.
Caledonia native Howard Hughes and Michael Shizak, who moved here eight years ago, were selling rattlesnake eggs to raise money for a monument to Mississippi veterans at Shiloh National Military Park.
Hughes is a member of the Stephen D. Lee Caledonia Rifles Sons of the Confederacy, but when he was a student at Caledonia High School, he was just a rascal -- a rascal with a rattler.
He picked up one of the small manila envelopes and handed it to a customer, inviting them to feel the round bulges beneath the paper.
"Those are the rattlesnake eggs," he said. "Open them up."
The quick hiss and forked tongue exploding from the paper startled more than a few would-be buyers. As an eighth-grader at Caledonia High School, his clever contraption -- made from pinto beans, a bobby pin, a button and a rubber band -- earned him the worst paddling of his life.
He and his classmates thought it would be funny to lay one of the envelopes on the teacher's desk during study hall. When she opened it and was "bitten," she screamed, leaped backwards and fell down.
"She carried me out in the hall and her paddle was the curved slat of a chair," he recalled. "I didn't think that woman was ever going to stop."
Of course, these are the homespun games older generations remember with fondness. For the younger set, more comfortable in front of an Xbox than outdoors, there was a darkened trailer where they could pay $4 to play video games.
Cub Scout Matthew Wiggins, of Caledonia's Pack 9, was too busy hawking popcorn to bother with such frivolities. As he bobbed and weaved through the crowd, he endured more rejection than sales, but though he occasionally looked dejected, his face brightened when he talked about his hour on the sales circuit.
He had no idea how many bags he had sold, but he figured it must be around 50 or more. Of course, like most good popcorn salesmen, he had his own recipe for raking in dollars.
"The secret is..." he paused, squinting into the sun, sizing up his next potential customers -- a couple pushing a baby stroller. "The secret is just to get out and sell. Hey, would you like to buy some popcorn?"
Sold, for one whole dollar, to the boy in blue.
Caledonia Mayor George Gerhart had dollars on his mind as well as he strolled Main Street, clutching a styrofoam cup.
He estimated the town topped its goal of 10,000 festival attendees this year, but until the armbands are counted, no one will know for sure. One thing he does know is the more money the festival organizers have to spend, the more things they're able to do. This year, they had $20,000 -- $12,000 from the town and $8,000 from the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"It's getting bigger and better every year," Gerhart said, yelling over a raucous live performance of The Beatles' "Come Together."
"The more money we get, the bigger we can make it. The Caledonia Day committee did a great job."
By late afternoon, many of the hard-core shoppers had gathered along the sidewalk to people-watch and sip washtub lemonade.
Seven-year-old Kaitlyn Harris checked out her freshly-painted cheeks, sporting a blue peace sign on the left and a "K" on the right. Caledonia Middle School student Lexi Childers cradled Roscoe, a Yorkshire terrier puppy, as she stood alongside Caledonia Class of 2000 graduate Tiffany McKay. In McKay's arms, her Chinese Crested dog, Deville, peered out at the crowd from beneath tufted bangs of gray.
Somewhere in the distance, a voice could be heard.
"Hey mister, would you like to buy some popcorn?"
And so the sun set on a Caledonia tradition -- until next year.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.