Taking the pulse of the heartland

October 18, 1998|By Dave Barry | Dave Barry,Knight Ridder/Tribune

ON THE WEEKEND that Kenneth Starr released his Official Big Book o' Smut, I went to America's Heartland to see how ordinary citizens were handling the continuing traumatic national crisis involving President Clinton. (Motto: "I Am Really Sorry, Although Legally I Did Nothing Wrong.")

As you know if you read this column regularly, America's Heartland is located in Arcola, Ill., which is immediately south of its arch-rival city, Tuscola. To get to Arcola, you take jet airplanes as far as they will go, then switch to a "commuter" airline, which gets its name from the fact that "commuter" sounds better than "terrified passenger." You can tell when you're dealing with a commuter airline because your flight number is longer, in linear feet, than the wingspan of your airplane. Also there's only one counter person, who is also a baggage handler, mechanic and pilot, and who is making announcements like:

"Be advised that Flight 36548257 from Moss Haven has been delayed by sheep. Flight 5380235324576 to Sludgemont will be boarding as soon as we find the whaddycallit, the thing that goes on the motor. If you are on Flight 35309086453456795 for Weeberville, we have a weight limitation due to a wing hole and we are asking that you remove any excess jewelry, car keys, breath mints ..."

The cockpit crew on my flight consisted of two teen-age boys. OK, that's an exaggeration: One of them was 11. I'm pretty sure that, once they closed the little curtain between the cabin and the cockpit, they played "rock, paper, scissors" to see who would get to be the pilot. After a 40-minute flight that lasted, in Commuter Airline Passenger Time, 163 hours, we landed at Willard Airport, which services Champaign, Ill. (Motto: "Gateway To A Whole Lot Of Flatness.") From there I rented a car and drove past a number of scenic tractor distributorships to Arcola, where the annual Broom Corn Festival was in full swing.

The Broom Corn Festival celebrates the era when Arcola was a leading supplier of a type of corn used to make brooms and thus was a major player in the high-stakes, fast-paced world of international broom manufacturing. Those hectic days are over, andtoday Arcola has diversified into other economic areas, such as being the home of the World's Largest Rocking Chair. But the Broom Corn Festival is still the highlight of the year in Arcola, drawing people from as far as Paris. (I refer to Paris, Ill., which is 32 miles away.)

During the festival, the streets of downtown Arcola are lined with booths, many offering wares that reflect the essence of American Heartland consumer needs: things on a stick. You can buy brooms on a stick, lawn ornaments on a stick and several major food groups on a stick, including lollipops, ice cream, corn dogs and - I am not making this up - pork chops on a stick.

(Don't laugh: There is big money in food on sticks. A friend of mine, Jeff Arch, claims that he lives near the guy who invented the corn dog, and Jeff reports: "He has millions. I think the Eagles played over there at a birthday party.")

So anyway, as a journalist, I spent several minutes gauging the reaction of the Broom Corn Festival crowd to the continuing traumatic national crisis. Although I did not hear anybody actually mention the Starr report, it was clear to me that many Heartland residents - I estimate 63 percent - were feeling concerned, based on the reflective manner in which they chewed their pork chops.

The only direct reference to the national crisis that I saw occurred at the annual business meeting of the World Famous Lawn Rangers precision lawn mower drill team, of which I am a proud member. The Lawn Rangers are an elite corps of men who, after a training regimen that sometimes lasts for several kegs, march in the Broom Corn Festival parade, carrying brooms and pushing lawn mowers. Along the parade route we astonish the crowd by performing intricate maneuvers such as: (1) holding our brooms in the air; (2) tossing our brooms to each other; and (3) picking our brooms up off the ground. Naturally, we do this for a good cause, namely: To improve the morals of our nation's youth. Parents along the parade route can say to their children, "You better be moral, or you'll wind up like these men."

Anyway, at the Lawn Ranger business meeting, which is held in Ranger Ted Shields' driveway, several Rangers gave a thought-provoking presentation on the current traumatic national crisis, in which one of the Rangers put on a blue dress and ...

Well, I'm not going to tell you what he did. As far as I'm concerned, there is no room for that kind of disgusting, immature, low-rent, pathetic, repulsive, sleazy behavior in this great nation. Outside of the White House, I mean.

Pub Date: 10/18/98

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