Sunday, October 15, 1995



It was Saturday night in the beer tent, which is where everybody goes after the day's festivities at the annual Broom Corn Festival in Arcola, Ill. A group of us guys were standing around, shouting snippets of conversation over the din of the band, when we saw a man's naked rear end advancing toward us through the crowd. The owner of the rear end was walking backward and bending over, so we couldn't see his head or upper body -- just a disembodied, naked butt shuffling our way.

Next to us, a group of women suddenly noticed the oncoming butt. To say they were startled would be an understatement.

"Look!" they gasped, pointing at the butt. "He's . . . He's . . . It's . . . "

"It's OK!" we assured them. "It's only Ranger Reeder!"

Ranger Doug Reeder is a member of an organization I belong to, the World Famous Lawn Ranger Precision Lawn Mower Drill Team. It was founded 15 years ago by some guys in Arcola, a small central-Illinois town that each fall hosts the Broom Corn Festival, a celebration of the glory years when Arcola was a leading producer of the corn used to make broom bristles. The highlight of the festival is the Broom Corn parade, and the most elite marching unit in the parade, as measured in per capita consumption of keg-dwelling beverages, is the Lawn Rangers.

When you talk about dedicated service organizations -- when you talk about decency, integrity and leadership -- you are not talking about the Lawn Rangers. We are not one of those organizations -- and here I am thinking of our arch-enemies, the Shriners -- that try to justify their existence by occasionally doing something useful. What we do is push lawn mowers and carry brooms. At various points along the parade route, we stop and astonish the crowd by performing broom-and-lawn-mower maneuvers with a level of smooth precision that you rarely see outside of train wrecks.

I've marched with the Lawn Rangers in four Broom Corn parades now. My friends ask me why I keep going back, but when I try to explain it ("We're pushing lawn mowers, see, and we're wearing masks, and we're tossing brooms, and . . . ") it just sounds stupid. This is, of course, because it IS stupid. But it is more than that: It is also extremely immature.

I refer here to what goes on during Ranger Orientation, which takes place before the parade in Ranger Ted Shields' garage. This is where we Rangers get ourselves into peak physical and mental condition by consuming refreshing beverages and a scientific training diet of bratwurst; this is also where we teach our precision maneuvers to the rookie Rangers via a brutal training regimen that can last as long as five minutes. And above all, this is where we hold the Ranger Business Meeting, which could well be the single most tasteless annual event in America, surpassing even the Christmas retail season.

Two years ago the governor of Illinois, who was running for re-election, showed up at the Business Meeting, apparently thinking it was a collection of normal voters. As he approached us, he realized that he had made a huge mistake and stopped, with his mouth maintaining a rigid professional smile, but his eyes revealing the stark terror of a politician who realizes that he's in danger of being photographed shaking hands with, for example, a man wearing a hat festooned with a lifelike replica of the male anatomical unit.

The governor left quickly, which meant he missed the Business Meeting, including the much-anticipated performance by Ranger Reeder. Out of respect for a fellow Ranger, I am not going to comment upon Ranger Reeder's mental state, except to say that he has the kind of penetrating stare and intense smile that would make him a prize recruit for the U.S. Postal Service, if you get my drift.

He is a legend among the Rangers. Each year -- this is the highlight of the Business Meeting -- he gets up a ladder, turns his back to the audience, and presents an extremely explicit dramatic rendition, using props, of a song or poem involving the word "moon." Each year his performance gets more elaborate; this year, it concluded with actual fireworks shooting out of a tube that was . . . Well, I can't tell you where the tube was, except to say we were all amazed that Ranger Reeder did not require medical treatment. But he showed no ill effects, and was in superb form that night in the beer tent, where he continued to personify the "moon" theme by backing slowly through the crowd. Every now and then you'd look down, and there would be Ranger Reeder, serving as a proud symbol of Rangerhood, making the rest of us proud to be part of this crack (rim shot) outfit.

For the next solid year, American voters are going to be relentlessly hounded by presidential contenders, all of whom are going to assure us that they represent mainstream, heartland values. I say to those candidates:
Maybe not everybody in the heartland has exactly the same values. Maybe it would broaden your perspective to come to Arcola next fall, march with the Rangers, hang out in the beer tent, watch Ranger Reeder in action. He would make an awesome secretary of state.


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