Recently I had the honor of marching with the world-renowned Lawn Ranger precision power lawn mower drill team at the famous Arcola Broom Corn Festival.
Just in case you never heard of this famous event, let me explain that Arcola is a town in Illinois, just north of Mattoon. Arcola (slogan: "Amazing Arcola") claims the proud distinction of having formerly been "one of the nation's top producers of broom corn, the primary ingredient in brooms." The town is still a major power in the broom industry.
Each September, Arcola holds the Broom Corn Festival, featuring, among other events, a parade. For 11 years one of the key marching units has been the Lawn Rangers, who are considered by many observers who have had a couple of beers to be the finest precision lawn mower drill team in the world.
When the Rangers invited me to march this year, I accepted eagerly, although I was concerned about being able to live up to the unit's high standards, as explained in this excerpt from the official Ranger newsletter, written by Ranger co-founder Pat Monahan:
"As always, we will be living our motto, 'You're only young once, but you can always be immature.' "
On the day of the parade, Monahan picked me up at the Champaign, Ill., airport and drove me through large quantities of agriculture to Arcola. In addition to some nice grain elevators, Arcola boasts the nation's largest collection of antique brooms and brushes.
En route Monahan explained the philosophy of the Lawn Rangers, which is that it is possible for a group of truly dedicated men to have a lot of fun, yet at the same time do absolutely nothing useful for society. The Rangers' archenemy marching organization is the Shriners, who are regarded by the Rangers as being dangerously responsible.
Ranger Orientation took place in the garage of Ranger Ted Shields. About 50 Rangers were gathered around a keg, engaging in intensive mental preparation as well as "shanking," which is when you sneak up behind somebody and yank down his shorts. Next we had the annual business meeting, which I can't describe in a family newspaper except to say that at one point a Ranger, using a strategically placed ear of corn, gave a dramatic interpretation of the song "Shine On Harvest Moon" that will haunt me for the rest of my life.
Then it was time for Rookie Camp. We rookies were each given a power lawn mower and a broom, and told to line up on the street, where we received intensive instruction in precision-drill maneuvers.
"Listen up, you gravy-suckers!" shouted our Column Leaders, who carried long-handled toilet plungers to denote their rank. "All maneuvers will start with the Brooms-Up position! The brooms will always come up on the curb side!"
We learned two maneuvers: Walking the Dog, which is when you hold your broom up while turning your lawn mower in a circle; and Cross and Toss, which is when you cross paths with another Ranger, then each of you tosses his broom to the other. These maneuvers require great precision, and we rookies were forced to train in the grueling sun for nearly two full minutes.
Finally it was time to march. We formed two columns, each of us wearing a cowboy hat and a Lone-Ranger-style mask. We were pushing a wide variety of customized lawn mowers, one of which had a toilet mounted on it. As we neared the main parade street, we stopped, gathered together, and put our hands into a huddle, where Monahan delivered an inspirational speech that beautifully summed up the meaning of Rangerhood:
"Remember," he said, "you guys are not Shriners."
Thus inspired, we turned down the parade route, went to the Brooms-Up position and executed the Cross and Toss with total 100 percent flawless perfection except for a couple of guys dropping their brooms.
When it was over I stood with my fellow Rangers, accepting the compliments of the public ("Do you guys have jobs?"). At that moment I knew that I was part of something special, something important, something that someday, I hope, can be controlled by medication. But until then, Amazing Arcola, Ill., will serve as a shining example of why America is what it is. Whatever that may be.