I have a secret. I wear a mask in public. I’ve been doing this for 16 years. While wearing a cowboy hat. And pushing a lawn mower. And twirling a broom. You see, I am a member of the World Famous Lawn Rangers of Amazing Arcola. And on January 20, 2009, I pushed that mower past 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, made eye contact with the leader of the free world and made him smile. My life is complete.
That I got to do that with my two sons and 56 of my closest friends made the occasion even sweeter. It may help to explain that the motto of the Lawn Rangers is “You’re only young once, but you are never too old to be immature.”
The Lawn Rangers are the brainchild of Pat Monahan of Arcola and John O’Halloran of LaGrange who, in 1981, matched their limited talents with available resources and came up with the concept of wearing Lone Ranger masks, pushing lawn mowers in intricate patterns and tossing brooms as an homage to Clayton Moore, the original TV Lone Ranger, who happened to be the Grand Marshal of the Arcola Broomcorn Festival parade that year.
Since that fateful day, the Rangers have marched in hundreds of parades, including the Fiesta Bowl, the Holiday Bowl, the NFL Hall of Fame parade, the Indy 500 parade, the Chicago and St Louis St. Patrick’s day parades and one of our favorites, the Forest Park early St Patrick’s day parade (we call it the “Mile of Dreams”; 30 bars line the parade route).
In 2003, while waiting for the Chicago St. Patrick’s day parade, we were goofing around and getting “parade ready” in our unique manner, which involves mass consumption of an amber liquid, when another parade participant grabbed the green toilet plunger used to signal our maneuvers and hoisted it above his head. A photo was taken and this, we believe, propelled this unknown skinny kid from Chicago to become the 44th President.
So we applied, along with 1,380 others, to participate in the 56th Presidential Inaugural Parade, never thinking the vetting process would be so haphazard that we would be selected. When Barack saw the list of applicants, he recognized talent, and saw the need to draw large crowds to DC for the event, and we got the call.
We quickly realized that an error must have been made, but we kept our mouths shut and dusted off our lawn mowers, submitted our identifying data to the Secret Service for screening, and made travel plans.
The media barrage started early and on January 20, 2009 we were in the top 10 Google searches worldwide. The Chicago Tribunearticle about our participation was their number-one clicked-upon online entry on January 19. It was an orgy of publicity*
On parade day we awoke at 4:00 a.m. and rode the Metro to the Pentagon for security clearance. It was 15 degrees. We were not wearing coats. We did have red choir robes, which gets you some stares on the subway. In order to dispel any thought that we actually were a choir, we would occasionally break into a round of “This Land is Your Land,” always off-key and with botched lyrics. The straphanger crowd loved it.
Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry is a long-time Ranger and he joined us for this trip. His post-parade column (Miami Herald, 1/22/09) summed it up: “After the screening we go into another tent, where we’re given box lunches, which most of the Rangers wolf down immediately, even though it’s only 9:30 a.m. All around us are military units and marching bands wearing immaculate matching uniforms; next to them, the Rangers, hunched over their box lunches, dribbling sandwich crumbs onto their graduation gowns, look like homeless people. It occurs to me that the other parade groups have been practicing their routines for months, if not years; whereas we have not yet even discussed our upcoming performance.”
We clear security at the Pentagon and board a rusty yellow school bus, along with two military “handlers” (packed 15 persons over capacity) and get an eight-member police motorcycle escort to the staging area. As we cross the Potomac, we lay our eyes on a sea of two million people who turn to see who the goofy guys are in the yellow bus being led to the Capitol with sirens blaring.
There we sit in a holding area, the only bus that is overcrowded and does not have a toilet on board, for two hours, listening to the oath and the inaugural address on a transistor radio.
Finally, the new President safely in office, they let us out of the bus where we see our mowers for the first time since Arcola. Final adjustments are made to the decorations and we eventually roll to a holding pattern on 4th Street in the middle of the National Mall, which looks like Woodstock, the day after the concert, in winter. The crowd has moved from the mall to the parade route and we wait outside for three more hours, huddled like penguins watching the sun go down. Finally the MPCO (Merge Point Control Officer) shouts over the megaphone: “Lawn Rangers, Go!” and we make the turn onto Pennsylvania Avenue.
One of my sons calls out: “Hey Dad, look back” and I turn around to see 50 Lawn Rangers following me and the US Capitol building bathed in bright light against the night sky and instantly forgot that my fingers and toes had frozen solid two hours earlier.
Twenty-five minutes and 1.6 miles later, we made our final left turn from 15th street onto Pennsylvania Avenue, which was lit up like a surgical theater. Breaking all rules, we performed a signature “cross and toss” maneuver for the First Family and Barack elbowed Michelle as they laughed and pointed at individual mowers, including one with a beer keg mounted on it, another has a toilet, a replica Washington Monument, one has a large stuffed beaver, and a mower displaying a large poster of the historic photo of Obama waving the plunger.
Another motto the Rangers live by is “It is easier to ask forgiveness than permission,” and since the end of the route was in sight we ignored the rules and tipped our hats to the President. Another band’s drum major saluted the President and was promptly suspended from his band. We have contacted him and made him an honorary Lawn Ranger.
It was an honor to be part of a national celebration of patriotism, renewal, the peaceful transition of power, even if our role was that of the Court Jesters, and I wore a mask.
The event, now passed, will forever rate as one of the top 10 days of my life, a perfect respite from the daily grind of the practice of law.