Herald Columnist

WEIRDSVILLE, USA - Lately a lot of media attention has been focused on the Mideast, so I felt that it would be a good idea to go out and personally review the situation in the Midwest. Here is my report:

FRIDAY I arrive in Champaign, Ill., and proceed to the University of Illinois agriculture school, which I am able to locate easily because I have clear directions, plus I can smell it. I am greeted by Dan Weber and Jeana McAllister, two alert readers who wrote me a letter claiming that the university has cows with research portholes installed in their sides. Enclosed with the letter was a photograph of Dan with his right arm up to his shoulder inside a cow. I'm not sure that I should shake his hand. Dan and Jeana introduce me to George Fahey, professor of animal sciences, who informs me that the holes are installed because scientists are very interested in finding out what goes on inside the cow digestive system. (I already know what goes on: Cows convert grass into cow poop. But I'm not going to spoil the surprise for scientists.)

Fahey leads me to a cow named "Fussbudget," who is very large, a cud-chewing aircraft carrier. In Fussbudget's left side is a porthole, maybe eight inches in diameter, with a rubber plug in it. Fahey tells me that Fussbudget doesn't mind the porthole, but I'm not so sure. If I were a huge hoofed animal, and humans had put a porthole in my stomach, I'd pretend not to mind, but I'd definitely be plotting to stomp some random human until he had no more skeletal structure than a bag of grits.

"What gender is Fussbudget?" I ask.

"He used to be a boy," says Laura Bauer, a lab technician.

So Fussbudget has TWO reasons to want revenge.

Now Bauer is removing Fussbudget's plug. And now she is REACHING INTO THE HOLE.

"You can see what he just ate," says Bauer, pulling out some dark-green material.

"Gack," I remark.

But it's clear that these people expect me to put my hand inside the cow. Apparently this is a traditional agricultural gesture of hospitality. I put on a long plastic glove and approach Fussbudget, who is eyeing me with a giant cow eyeball.

"I have nothing to do with agriculture," I tell him.

Squinting hard now, I stick my hand into the mass of dark- green glop. It feels, to use a scientific term, really yucky in there. It's also warm. In fact, it's almost hot. Plus, I can smell methane. Fearing an explosion (scientists call this "The Big Moo"), I pull my arm out. This is when Tom Nash, manager of the Beef Research Farm, tells me about a recent incident wherein a 4-H Club was checking out Fussbudget's interior, and Fussbudget coughed, and a young man standing in front of the porthole was covered with stomach contents.

"If he had a date that night," says Nash, "he didn't any more."

"Ha ha!" I say, backing away from the hole.

I leave the University of Illinois with a new appreciation of the benefits that agriculture will some day provide, especially in the field of interrogating captured spies. ("Tell us who your contact is! We have ways to make this cow cough.")

I am now 30 miles down the road in Arcola, Ill., to attend the annual Broom Corn Festival. Arcola has long been a major power in the broom industry; it also boasts the world's largest rocking chair, the world's largest collection of brooms and brushes, and the world's only combination bowling alley and gourmet French restaurant.

I am not making any of this up.

I am here to march in the Broom Corn Parade with Arcola's world-famous Lawn Rangers, a top precision lawn mower drill team. This is my third year as a Ranger. I've tried to talk my wife into going to the Broom Corn Festival with me, but she resists.

"It's just a bunch of guys who drink beer and push lawn mowers around and act juvenile," she says.

"Yes!" I say, not understanding her point.

Anyway, the Rangers do more than just "push lawn mowers around." We also carry brooms, and we perform precision broom- and-lawn-mower maneuvers, such as the extremely difficult (for us, anyway) "Cross and Toss." Plus, this year we are marching with - get ready - a 10-foot high painted concrete statue of Elvis. It belongs to Clark and Sandy Stafford of Seneca, Ill., and it is available for rent. It's mounted on a trailer, facing backward, and it weighs 5,000 pounds, almost as much as The King himself near the end.

It's difficult, using mere words, to describe the scene as the Rangers, more than 50 strong, stride in two columns down the parade route, pushing our mowers in front of us, raising our brooms on high at the command "Brooms Up!"; meanwhile, bringing up the rear, glinting in the Midwestern sun, is: Elvis' giant concrete butt.

After an evening of fellowship with the Lawn Rangers, I return to my room at the Arcola Inn, which is also where Elvis is staying. Looking out my window, I can see him on his trailer in the parking lot, looking into the distance, as if waiting for somebody to deliver a giant concrete pizza. I reflect back on my trip - on Elvis, the Lawn Rangers and Fussbudget the cow.

Things are good here in the Midwest. Weird, but good