Pondering Weighty Matters

His warning shattered the predawn tranquility. I couldn’t see him, but his cry blasted through the fading fog like the air horn on an 18-wheeler, traveling too fast to stop in time for a red light.

“Wait!” he said. “Don’t pull that handle!”

Too late. I had already squeezed the trigger at the end of the black hose leading to hundreds of gallons of what Phillips Petroleum calls their “Performance Gasoline”. Now, a translucent stream of fuel was rushing into my tank with a cavernous echo.

“He’s right,” said another voice to the left, approaching me out of the mist. “You’re not going to get your money’s worth at that pump. It’s going to cost you nearly 15.3 cents more to fill up there.”

Joe, the source of the first voice, stepped from behind the gas pump that obscured him. “At least he’s not getting premium, Robert,” who nodded at his colleague’s observation. “Premium is even worse.”

Aside from the general feeling that I was standing in the middle of a Bob and Ray comedy sketch, I was curious. Who were these two greying gentlemen? Both seemed quite certain I was experiencing a form of highway robbery –– as assuredly as if I had been clobbered over the head, and waylaid on the gas island, somewhere between the trash can and the receptacle that holds the murky water used for scrubbing windshields.

“We work for the county’s Weights and Measures Division,” said Joe. He began drawing a sam-ple out of the pump.

I should have guessed. However, it’s very seldom that I encounter anyone in county govern-ment that seems to enjoy their jobs as much as Joe and Robert. It’s even more rare that I find anyone concerned that I was potentially overspending 15.3 cents.

“That’s our job,” said Joe. “We go from gas station to gas station measuring the performance of each pump on the premises. We make sure the pumps are calibrated correctly, to ensure the public is paying for exactly the amount of fuel they are pumping.”

“These are machines,” said Robert. “It’s not unusual that through use they require adjusting. Sometimes the variance might be intentional, but more likely, the measurement is just off through lack of maintenance.”

I watched as Joe now sampled the middle grade pump. He pulled the hose to the back of a trailer, hanging from the hitch on the white county service truck. He started the flow, and the pump began to sing a low hum as the liquid reached its outlet.

“About five gallons is enough to get a good reading,” said Joe.

I watched as the fuel snaked its way through the glass tubing on the centermost tank of his roll-ing laboratory. His rig consisted of three giant stainless steel cauldrons glistening in the glint of the morning sunrise –– one for each grade of fuel. They looked an awful lot like the tank on Helen Hunts’ storm chaser truck in the movie Twister, if you’d add a funnel hat that Dorothy’s Tin Man wore.

Joe turned some dials and leveled the trailer, then consulted a chart of numbers to account for the variation of gasoline density in different temperatures.

“Just what I thought,” said Joe. “Go get the manager, Robert.”

“He’s with a customer right now.”

“Remind him that we have the authority to shut down the whole station,” said Joe, and then said to me with a wry smile, “That’s the part I like.”

By the time I walked back to my vehicle, Joe and Robert were packing up their equipment, and almost ready to roll.

“Off to another gas station?” I asked.

“Nope,” said Robert, “we are going to the high school.”

I learned that Weights and Measures in each county are responsible for the integrity of all kinds of measuring devices, including grain mills, scrap yards, fuel trucks –– any gadget where con-sumers purchase a product sold by weight, measure, or count.

But the high school? “We are inspecting the scales the wrestlers use to weigh in.”

“After that,” said Robert, “we are going to the deli counter at Kroger’s.”

“You’re kidding me,” I said. “What if those scales don’t pass inspection?”

“That’s no baloney,” said Joe.

– John O. Marlowe is an award-winning columnist for Sagamore News Media.