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There Is No Such Thing as the Odd Man Out

Society: In a nation of joiners, everybody can find an association they can call their own.

September 30, 1997|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Which of these groups is fake?:

A) Flying Funeral Directors of America

B) Garage Door Council

C) Pickle Packers International

D) American Council of Spotted Asses

Sorry, trick question. They're all real. And there are hundreds more just like them, toiling in obscurity on behalf of assorted oddball causes and products.

Sure, other groups are better known--like the National Rifle Assn. and the California Milk Advisory Board--but they don't offer as many clues to our increasingly uncorked national psyche as, say, the Fertilizer Institute (can we nominate congressmen for membership?), the Assn. of Tongue Depressors (does it also accept Popsicle-stick makers?) and the Museum of Menstruation (shouldn't this be open only once a month?).

So here's a look at American culture as reflected in the pages of the two-volume "Encyclopedia of Associations" (Gale Research). Among our favorite entries:

* International Hibernation Society: When we called, everyone was mysteriously unavailable.

* Loners of America: Think about it. An association of loners.

* Hollow Metal Door Assn.: Does this mean there's a solid-metal door league? Of course it does! It's the evil Insulated Steel Door Institute in Cleveland.

* National Neckwear Assn.: Not to be confused with the Neckwear Assn. of America or the Bow Tie Manufacturers Assn. Those would be completely different types of organizations.

* Malaria Philatelists International: A club that collects stamps related to malaria. What's next, hemorrhoid philatelists?

* National Assn. for Continence: We're all for continence, of course, but we mention this outfit for its toll-free telephone number, (800) BLADDER.

* Society in Opposition to Human-Animal Hybridization: OK, but what do they think of werewolves?

*

All told, the United States lays claim to more than 138,000 national, regional and local organizations, says Ken Sommer of the American Society of Assn. Executives, which is an association of associations.

"We're a nation of joiners," Sommer says, echoing observations made more than a century ago by historian Alexis de Tocqueville.

In keeping with that tradition, about 1,000 organizations start each year, typically in response to nascent causes, professions or technologies, he says.

Some of the wackiest-sounding are industry trade groups. Whether it's the International Wheat Gluten Assn. or the National Frozen Pizza Institute or the (now defunct) American Squid Marketing Assn., no product or service seems too specialized to have its own confederation.

Occasionally, one turns out to be bogus. The Assn. of Tongue Depressors is described in the "Encyclopedia of Associations" as a manufacturers consortium striving for "safe, sturdy, sterile sticks." In truth, accountant Matt Schorr and some college pals made up the name in 1982 and submitted it to the encyclopedia.

"I've been getting mail ever since," Schorr says, "including letters from people who want to manufacture tongue depressors."

But the Garage Door Council is real. (We wish someone would start a carport council, so we could watch the two cartels do battle.)

And so is the Fertilizer Institute (slogan: "Fertilizer feeds the world"), a lobbyist group that is quick to point out that fertilizer is not, repeat not, manure. It's made from nitrogen, which is extracted from the atmosphere, and phosphate and potash, which are mined, says fertilizer spokesman Ron Phillips.

Other trade associations are repositories for bizarre statistics and trivia. For instance, Illinois-based Pickle Packers International (whose tongue-twisting address is 1 Pickle and Pepper Plaza), keeps a list of famous pickle lovers of the past, such as Cleopatra and Thomas Jefferson.

It also sponsors pickle research at a food fermentation lab in North Carolina--and publishes a newsletter with a logo of Rodin's Thinker contemplating a tiny floating cucumber. Motto: "For those who think pickles."

Such humor is deliberate, says PPI Vice President Richard Hentschel: "It's tough to be somber when you tell someone you make pickles."

*

Other offbeat organizations include the Flying Funeral Directors (for morticians who are pilots), the National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Mushrooms (address unknown), the Floating Homes Assn. (a San Francisco Bay group that examines such problems as "leaks and fish in the bedroom"), the Institute of Makers of Explosives (motto we'd love to see: "We light up your life"), Wives of Older Men (minimum age gap: eight years), the International Silo Assn. (a manufacturers alliance), the Vinegar Institute (a necessary counterpoint, perhaps, to the Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils), the American Assn. of Psychiatrists From India, the Embalming Chemicals Manufacturers Assn., the Marine Mammal Stranding Center (which actually does the opposite of what its name implies and, better still, publishes a newsletter called the Blowhole) and the American Council of Spotted Asses (we know what you're thinking, but it's really just a coalition of donkey owners).

Finally, there is the Museum of Menstruation. Located in a Maryland man's basement (and on the Internet at http://www.mum.org), it displays everything from old Kotex advertisements to mannequins dressed in such items as a washable, leopard-skin sanitary pad and a 1914-style rubber apron.

Also available: a report by curator Harry Finley on the latest scientific conference of--what else--the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.

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