Thursday, March 31, 2011


Zach Eckhart
   Those of us who work in the English Department at Virginia Tech get to see a lot of Tech’s Corps of Cadets. Located in Shanks Hall on the Upper Quad of campus, the English Department is more or less surrounded by Corps dorms. We see the freshman cadets in their first semester walking on the far right of every sidewalk and making only right-angle turns as they walk to their classes. We watch as the cadets, often in shorts and t-shirts in the middle of winter, do sit-ups and pull-ups and leg lifts at the physical-training yard just across the way. We see them doing their marching drills on the half-acre of grass just outside. We hear the Highty-Tighties, the Corps’ regimental band, practicing; sometimes the drums and trumpets distract us, just outside our windows, as we try to teach. We all stand and walk a bit straighter on our good days, influenced, whether we’re aware of it or not, by all those uniformed young men and women with their perfect military posture. Occasionally, we look out our windows and see them with presumably unloaded guns, in full combat outfitting, giving and receiving orders, crawling here and there, aiming at nothing, we hope, practicing for the things that military people must practice for and that we would prefer not to think about. The cadets have always made me proud and worried and a little sad.
     Tomorrow, Friday, April 1, 2011, at 3:00 p.m., Zachary R. Eckhart, who graduated from the Corps in 2007 and from Virginia Tech in 2008, will have his name officially dedicated on the Ut Prosim pylon on the Drillfield at Virginia Tech. Zach was in the navy. He was killed when his training aircraft crashed in Georgia on April 12, 2010. “Ut Prosim,” for you non-Hokies, is Latin for “That I may serve.” It is the motto of Virginia Tech.
     Zach was my student in First-Year Composition in the spring semester of 2004. Like many freshman cadets, who frequently are shouted out of bed for grueling physical training at four in the morning, Zach often showed up for our late-afternoon class exhausted. (I once had another exhausted cadet who, only once, fell asleep noisily in my class. He was so humiliated when I gently woke him that he insisted on standing in the back of the classroom for the rest of the class, in order to punish himself, I think, and so that he would not behave so disrespectfully—as he alone saw it—again. He earned all our respect that day.) Zach never fell asleep in class, always showed up, did all his work on time and according to instructions, and was unfailingly pleasant, polite, and unpretentious. He behaved, in a word, like a freshman cadet. I don’t remember much about his class work or discussion contributions beyond that; he was one of those under-the-radar students. He got a B in the class (I just looked it up)—more than respectable for an Engineering major in First-Year Comp.
     I soon lost track of the rest of my students in Zach’s composition class, but not Zach. Living and working as we both did on the Upper Quad, we would run into each other frequently, on the sidewalk (as an upperclassman, he no longer had to walk on the far right) and in nearby Schulz Dining Hall. I’d say, “Hi, Zach.” He’d say, “Hi, Mr. Weathers.” I’d ask him about his classes, he’d say something, in his quiet manner, and we’d go on our way.  For four years, I watched him grow less skinny, more into a man. I saw other cadets treat him each year with more and more respect. He was often dressed in his Highty-Tighties uniform. I’m embarrassed and disgusted that I can’t remember what instrument he played in the Corps band. I think he was in the brass section.
      I liked Zach. I enjoyed seeing him grow up. That’s all I have left to say about my feelings for him. He was 25 when he died, the ninth Virginia Tech graduate to die during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Zach didn’t die in combat. That makes no difference.
     I won’t be able to go to the Pylon Ceremony for Zach; life calls me to other things at that hour. I hope to be where I can hear the Corps cannon fire in his honor. I won't be able to hear the Corps band play Echo Taps, which is just as well. This blog post is my way of remembering Zach. It’s all I can do. It’s pretty much nothing.

Monday, March 21, 2011

MEASURE FOR MEASURE: What it all amounts to

Dogs are a unit of temperature.
     Consider, if you will, the scruple and the dog. They have something in common, the scruple and the dog: both are units of measurement.
    The word “scruple” is derived from the Latin “scrupulus,” meaning a small, sharp stone. At some point, I suppose, the Romans decided that all those small sharp stones on Italy’s beaches were useful for something other than causing classical calluses, so they apparently began using them to balance their scales, as well. Hence, in the measuring system used by apothecaries, a “scruple” became a unit of weight. It is equal to 20 grains, a grain being the weight (truly) of the average grain taken from the middle of an ear of wheat. Three scruples equal a dram, eight drams equal an ounce, and twelve ounces (apothecary) equal a pound. It is all very beautiful.
     The dog, on the other hand, is a unit of temperature. In the Australian outback, the aborigines keep dogs not only to help them hunt, but also to snuggle up with on chilly nights. A cool night is a one-dog night. A cold night is a two-dog night. A three-dog night is as cold as it gets. (Hence, of course, the cooler than cool name of the great rock band.) The idea of measuring temperature in terms of dogs is also very beautiful. I wish our local tv weather forecasters would adopt it. In more fickle climes and times, they might wish to extrapoloate to other units: October in Blacksburg, for example, is full of two-cat mornings, one-dog nights, and six-gerbil afternoons.
    I first became preoccupied with the subject of measurement way back in high school. (WARNING: DIGRESSION AHEAD.) Mr. William Cates was my English teacher in the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grades. He was a small, stern, brilliant, uncharming man given to calling us coldly by our last names: “And what do you think Piggy’s broken glasses symbolize, Mr. Weathers?” he would ask, terrifyingly, in the middle of a class discussion. And I, of the two-pound spectacles, for whom broken glasses meant slow death while propped helplessly against a tree in a post-nuclear survivalist landscape, would spin out some blather about the loss of perspective in a world without visible philosophical landmarks. With an unsmiling nod that could have meant anything from “You are a brilliant student who will turn the world upside down with your revolutionary ideas” to “Only twenty years to retirement, thank God,” Mr. Cates would then go on to terrify some other adolescent while I sat there astonished by what had come out of my mouth. Mr. Cates was the finest teacher I have ever had.
Protagoras wrote, "Man is the measure of all things."
     Anyway, Mr. Cates had one curious idiosyncrasy: at the end of every semester, on our final exam, he would always ask the exact same question. It went like this: “ ‘Man is the measure of all things.’ Apply this quote to the books we have read this term.” Twice a year for three years I was faced with this command, and twice a year for three years I was faced with the knowledge that I had no idea what it meant. In the middle of my junior year, I actually tracked the quote down, discovering that it was the first line of a work called Truth by a Greek philosopher named Protagoras. Truth didn’t help. I have discovered since that it rarely does.
    After 48 years, I still don’t know what “Man is the measure of all things” means, but if I had to take one of Mr. Cates’ finals today (a hypothesis that still haunts my dreams), my answer would basically consider two possibilities: either a) the quote is a typographical error for “Man is the measurer of all things,” or b) it means that all things should be measured by their effect on people. Which, finally, gets us back to the subject.
    Over-achieving chimpanzees (not to mention crows, termites, and other smart critters) have pretty much exploded the notions of man as the only tool-using creature and man as the only language-using creature. More power to the chimps and termites. Man remains, however, the animal kingdom’s greatest measurer. He has taken time, for example, and sliced and diced it right down to the nanosecond, then reconstituted it into eternity itself, figuring the dates for the birth and death of a whole universe. He has likewise reduced space to the micron on the one hand, then stretched it to the light year on the other. He has invented negative numbers to measure negative things and imaginary numbers to measure (I suppose) imaginary things. (Oh frabjous day when the square root of minus 144 was conceived!) Man even devotes whole buildings to the worship of platinum bars that weigh just so much or are just so long. 
A platinum-iridium bar in Sevres, France, defines what a kilogram is.
    For me, the final measure of man as measurer is googolplex. First came the number googol, which is the number 1 followed by 100 zeroes. It was invented by the American mathematician Edward Kasner, for what purpose I can’t discover. It was named, aptly enough, by Kasner’s nine-year-old nephew. Imagine a distance of googol feet. It would just about span the universe. Then somebody decided that googol wasn’t enough, and he invented googolplex, which is the number one followed by, get this, googol zeroes. I’m told that if you totaled up all the particles in the universe, it wouldn’t come to googolplex. What can the point of such a number be, except to defy the gods? The inventor of googolplex is probably being punished in some Hades right now, doomed to an eternity of counting dust motes.
    When you get right down to it, though, man’s best measures aren’t very good. Googolplexes aside, it seems to me that man, too eager to step off the distance between points, often ends up missing the point itself altogether. In the world of measurement, there are too many scruples, too few dogs. I therefore suggest a new approach, less scientific perhaps, but in human terms more useful, to the whole question of measurement. The essential principle: let man be the measure of all things. That is, let all things be measured by their human-response components—by the dogs we use.
Juliet Binoche, an 8 d/d woman.
     Instead of measuring airplane flights in distance or hours, for example, measure them in, say, the magazines we read aloft: “L.A. to New York is a six-magazine flight.” Instead of measuring adolescents in years or feet, measure them in slammed doors and sighs: “I have a fifty-sigh-a-day, six-slam daughter.” Measure golf, not in strokes, but in expletives. Measure movies, not in stars or R’s, but in spr’s: the number of times you shift in your seat per reel. Measure the opposite sex, not on some mindless one-to-ten scale, but by something concrete, like daydreams: Angelina Jolie is a 3 d/d (daydreams per day) woman; Juliet Binoche in her youth was an 8 d/d woman (and she’s still a 5 d/d woman today). Measure love in perspiration. Measure success in grins.
     And so on. I’d like to patent this concept. Anybody know a good twenty-scruple lawyer?

The original version of this essay appeared in Memphis magazine in February 1984.

Friday, March 4, 2011


Bodies of women who leaped to their death to escape the Triangle Factory fire.
      One hundred years ago, on March 25, 1911,  at 4:40 p.m., a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. Thirty minutes later, 146 people were dead. Most of them were immigrant girls, some as young as 15. Most burned to death or died in the smoke. Others jumped nine stories to their death on the sidewalk below, smashing themselves to pulp in front of horrified spectators. Many died because there was only one wobbly fire escape, which collapsed. A door that would have let many others escape couldn't be opened, locked earlier by the owners to prevent the workers from stealing cloth.
     A year earlier, when the factory's workers had tried to organize a union to improve their working conditions, the owners had brought in police and prostitutes to beat them up. At the time of the fire, most of the girls in New York's garment industry were working 13 hours a day, six days a week, for about 13 cents an hour. In dim, unventilated sweatshops, they worked in dank shadows and rarely saw the light of day. The Triangle Factory was actually brighter than most; it had windows. Girls, aflame, jumped to their death from those windows.
     The fire spurred New York State to pass legislation guaranteeing fire safety in places like the Triangle Factory and improving workplace conditions for all workers in the state. Other states followed New York’s model. It took 146 horrific deaths to make that happen.

      This is presumptuous of me, but, as the 100th anniversary of this fire approaches, I hereby issue a call to action—a very simple action:

      I call on all workers in the United States to step outside on Friday, March 25, 2011, at 4:00 p.m. Rise from your desks, walk away from your machines, step out from behind your counters, open the doors of your malls, and walk out into the fresh air. There let the sun shine warm on your face, or let the spring rain refresh you, or let the March winds brace you. If it snows, rejoice in the snow.

     And while you’re there, outdoors, beyond the walls of your work, remember  the 146 very young women and men who died in the Triangle Factory fire exactly 100 years ago. And remember all the millions of workers before you who fought for your right to walk outside, through unlocked doors, to breathe fresh air on a day of work. Remember the union organizers. Remember the progressive politicians (yes, of both parties). Remember all those who helped pass the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which gave you the right to organize unions and bargain collectively to improve your working conditions and wages. Remember that whether you’ve chosen to exercise the right to unionize or not, you benefit mightily from the fact that that right exists. And remember, too, those who fought for the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which protects you from poisoning and injury on the job. 

     Spend five minutes outside at 4:00 p.m. on March 25, or 20 minutes, or the whole hour before you head for home.
     And while you’re out of doors on that day, breathing fresh air in the daylight, look around you. Look at each other. Shake a few hands. Pat a few shoulders. Share a few hugs. Congratulate yourselves. You, the people who run the machines and sell the goods and provide the services, are the power that keeps the world running—not the politicians, not the stockholders, not the employers and business owners, though they all have their role to play. It’s you who are the mind and muscle that make it all work.
      There are some today who choose not to remember, or have never learned, what the world was like 100 years ago, before there were laws protecting the rights of workers to organize, guaranteeing their right to bargain collectively,  assuring their safety. Please, on Friday, March 25, at 4:00 p.m., open the doors, walk outside, and spend a few minutes remembering. 
The Triangle Factory workroom after the fire.


“The right to bargain collectively is at the bottom of social justice for the worker, as well as the sensible conduct of business affairs. The denial or observance of this right means the difference between despotism and democracy.”—President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (May 8, 1937)

Here are more articles about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911:

From Nation Public Radio’s archives: