One spring evening in Minnesota, after a meager dinner, I sat at the table with my books and my notes, daydreaming. I lived alone, surrounded by miles and miles of farmland. It was very quiet, one of those awkward silences when you are in an embarassing situation and have no idea what to say…except I was the only one in the room.
Then, I heard him coming, Mr. Edwin Nathaniel Dowdley, like a specter, like a meddling apparition in a horror movie that can’t keep to itself. He was always surrounded by an aura of little noises—rattling his spoon in his coffee cup, squeaky shoes, sniffing & clucking. He was easy to detect at any distance. He would have been different if he had married.
“Hallo,” he said. “Are you bored?”
“I don’t know. I have a few options yet before it comes to that.” I was thinking of the oatmeal cookies and whole milk in my fridge.
“Well, I came to tell you: we’re having a meeting tomorrow.”
“I heard about it already.”
Somehow a pretentious, progressive minority in Pequod county had managed to open a debate about converting over to the metric system. I value my feet and inches, but I liked to stay out of politics. I didn’t think it would get anywhere anyway.
But he would not be put off. “Come on, it’s just what you need to rouse yourself out of this shrinking world of yours. Get involved with a cause.”
“I don’t want to get involved in a cause. Getting involved with causes can only end in Disillusionment.”
“Only if you take it too seriously. Anyways, if you hang around in here all the time you’ll end up like me.”
“I’ll be there.”
The meeting was on a windy day in spring, a brisk day, and the leaves had just turned out. Of course we all had cabin fever, and we all felt the whole business was a nasty distraction, but no one said so, because we were supposed to be All Fired Up about it. It was hot in the town hall.
Mr. Wasserman, to whom I have elsewhere alluded, was there, his points all memorized and his electric old mind ready for debate. He always wore a bow tie, and he had white curly hair, but the main point about his appearance, as I have said before, was his very thick glasses, which made his eyes look somewhat big. And he had (we all said, you could tell just by looking at him) a very clear conscience, so that he could look you right in the eye, and those eerie optics would bore down on you like heat-seeking missiles.
The leader of the Metricrats looked to be a man named Mr. Graaf. He had gone to the university in Duluth, and had seen the light, and now he had returned and was going to save our backwards culture and revive our sagging farm economy by reason of the metric system. His uncle Bud was also there, but from the fact that he was wearing his feed cap indoors, I guessed that he was trying to avoid attention; perhaps he was kind of embarrased to be related to the guy. Truly, a prophet is not without honour, but in his own county, and in his own home.
“All right, sit down, let’s get started,” I said loudly. As I hoped, people continued conversing, or looking out the window. I grabbed the gavel.
WHACK! WHACK! WHACK! WHACK! WHACK! WHACK! WHACK! WHACK! WHACK!
Everyone sat down as I discarded the pieces of the gavel. As it turned out, I would not need it for the rest of the meeting.
Mr. Graaf rose and began to speak at us.
“Folks, it is hot in here and it is nice outside. Thankfully, the question before us is a simple one: whether we will stumble along in our use of the English system of measurement, which is clumsy, outmoded and mediocre, or embrace the Metric system, which is simple, elegant, and in widespread current use.
“I know most of you are asking, why should we bother with the hassle of switching the county over to the meter? Well, the advantages to us are threefold. First, there is the obvious increase in efficiency. The craftsman’s task is greatly simplified by the use of meters. Additions and subtractions in metric can be done easily, and with fewer errors, because metric units are decimal, not fractional. This may seem like a small thing, but our local tradesmen’s minds are exercised to the tune of hundreds of small calculations every day. To make all of those—”
Mr. Wasserman interrupted. “Mr. Graaf, what is the name of a third of a meter?”
“Eh — a third of a…what are you talking about?”
“A third of a meter! What is it called?”
“Mr. Wasserman, will you let me finish??”
“No, I want an answer. Now speak up.”
By now, the question had taken root in some of the men’s minds; they too began murmuring for Mr. Graaf to reply.
“A third of a meter is simply 0.33 meters, Mr. Wasserman.”
“Zero point three three meters. I see. And what is a third of a kilometer?”
Mr. Graaf thought for about eight seconds. “333.3 meters, Mr. Wasserman.”
“I see. Mr. Graaf. A third of a meter is zero point three three, and a third of a kilometer is three hundred and thirty-three point three meters.”
“Will you be quiet and let me finish?”
“Mr. Graaf, do you know what a third of a foot is?”
“Mr. Graaf, what is a third of a yard?”
“One foot of course, but—”
“Mr. Graaf. What is a third of a mile?”
“I don’t know offhand, and besides it doesn’t—”
“1,760 feet, Mr. Graaf! 1,760 feet, and no decimals! Mr. Graaf, which is simpler, which is more exact: four inches or 0.333 meters?”
“Well, if you put it that way, four inches, but suppose you want to add—”
“Gentlemen, Mr. Graaf is proposing that our county cease to use Feet, Inches, Yards and Miles. He has further proposed that we convert to a more elegant system of meters and centimeters and decimeters and millimeters and kilometers and thisameters and thatameters. Of course, unlike the foot or yard, none of these units can be divided into thirds or sixths; but I’m sure Mr. Graaf, with his vast training, can explain why this is not a detriment to his wonderful system.”
Murmers of agreement. Mr. Graaf’s voice rose. “Mr. Wasserman, you have not allowed—”
“Have you been to Europe, Mr. Graaf?”
Mr. Graaf pursed his lips in an almost feminine manner. Meanwhile, Ed Dowdley was cracking his knuckles with fiendish excitement.
“The lumberyards: what dimension do you think the lumberyards use to size wood in Europe, Mr. Graaf?”
By now, Mr. Graaf knew better than to try to respond, so Mr. Wasserman responded for him.
“The meter, you would think. Right? No! European lumber is sized in units of 120 centimeters. 120! Does that number ring any bells for you, Mr. Graaf? Of course it does, I know you’re a smart fellow. It’s a multiple of twelve, which is how many inches are in foot. The carpenters over there must find it very handy to be able to divide into thirds and sixths, wouldn’t you say? Otherwise they would simply use the meter.
“And what dimension do they use for the thickness of their wood? The centimeter, of course! But no! They have a new dimension which they call the ‘thumb,’ equal to 2.4 centimeters! A thumb is an unusually imperial-esque name for a metric unit, is it not?”
Still, Mr. Graaf was silent. Mr. Wasserman sat down, but he was not quite done. He looked out the window for a few seconds…then looked at us. “There are a lot of deeper issues we could raise here, gentlemen. But as I see it, it comes down to this: Our feet and inches remain unchanged; but people in meter-land are having to adapt the meter to better suit the needs of the common man. Mr. Graaf claims that the meter will simplify things for our tradesmen, but he is unaware of how foreign tradesmen are having to cope with that system. That’s all I have to say for now. I’m going outside.”
Several of the fellows loudly commented in agreement, and suddenly the discussion was over. There was nothing more to discuss; our minds were made up. Everyone got up to leave as though moving with the herd. Hats disappeared off the rack. People crowded and milled through the door and held it open for the people behind them, and then they were outside in the sunshine and wondering what use a ruler was anyways on such a beautiful day.
Maybe it was stubborn and stupid of me, but I couldn’t put the meeting hall scene out of my mind. “It sure wasn’t very professional of Mr. Wasserman to trample all over Mr. Graaf like that, without giving him a chance to finish speaking,” I said aloud.
I looked back over my shoulder, and there was Edwin Dowdley standing behind me, putting his hat on. “Exitus acta probat,” he said, as if in reply. He strode off down the windy sidewalk.
“Exitus Acta Probat”
—Latin, “the end proves the means.”