Pinewood Derby


Ahhhh, the Pinewood Derby.

The venerable annual rite of Cub Scouting.

The event Cub Scouts (and their fathers) all over the country look forward to.

And I missed it this year.

But I’m not crying about it. Not even close.

In fact, my wife and I exchanged furtive smiles when our son informed us that the race was being held on Saturday. Shepherd had called one of his friends, who couldn’t play because it was Derby Day and he was getting his little pinewood car ready for the race.

Shepherd wasn’t participating because he decided to quit scouting in November.

Okay, to be honest, my wife and I conspired a little bit to make that happen.

Shepherd hadn’t been to many meetings because we insisted that soccer practice was more important. We told him that he could go back to Scouts when soccer season was over, but we were secretly hoping that he would quit. We could have just exercised our parental rights and pulled him out years ago, but we wanted it to be his decision.

And when Shepherd’s schedule opened up, and he had the opportunity to go back, he decided he didn’t want to.

Which means I no longer have the Pinewood Derby hanging over my head.

And I can’t tell you how relieved I am.

I admit, many people find the Pinewood Derby to be a lot of fun, and Cub Scouting understandably makes a big deal out of the race.

A huge deal.

But I suspect it’s also the reason why some promising Scouts quit.

I should know.

I was one of them.

One of the most humiliating experiences of my childhood came flooding back the day Shepherd showed up with that stupid block of wood in his hands. It was four years ago, and I remember calling my mom because I didn’t know what else to do.

There was silence on the other end of the phone when I told her Shepherd would be racing a car in the Pinewood Derby. Then she said, “Why did you ever let him join the Cub Scouts? What were you thinking?”

“I don’t know,” I whined. “I guess I just blocked it all out.”

We shared a chuckle at a shared memory, but both of us knew how serious the situation was.

When I was ten years old, my pinewood car had barely started down the track before the wheels popped off and the car collapsed like the old jalopies you see in cartoons. It was devastating.

I had put my car together just like my den mother told me to. I used my pocket knife to carve that single block of stupid wood into something that sort of resembled a car, slapped the wheels on, and off I went to the Derby.

But there was on thing I had failed to take into account.

The Dad factor.

It was obvious to me when I arrived that most of the kids in my pack had help. Their cars were cut and sanded down to perfection. They were sleek racing machines, while mine looked more like it was ready for a demolition derby. And it performed like it had already been in one.

So, when it came time for my son’s turn at the Pinewood Derby, I was determined that he not feel the humiliating sting of failure.

The real men out there would say I resorted to cheating. But what is a man who is totally clueless around tools to do?

Go to the crafts store, that’s what.

I bought a precut car. Which means all we had to do was paint it, put on the wheels, add some weight to make it go faster down the track, and, VOILA!

Simple.

For most people.

***

I couldn’t believe how sweaty my hands were the first time my son was called up to race. I was literally shaking and kept saying to myself, “Please make it down the track, please make it down the track, please, oh, please make it down the track.” I even started to get down on my knees and clasp my hands together in prayer, but then thought better of it when I looked around the packed room.

As it was, my stomach was in my mouth when Shepherd’s car started down the track. But do you know what? The car made it all the way down! And, as an added bonus, it actually won the first heat!

I couldn’t believe it. I was so astonished that I called my mom on the spot.

I should have waited, though, because it wasn’t long before disaster struck. The car made it through another heat, but as it was racing in a third, the wheels popped off half way down the track.

I felt like I was ten years old, again.

I had failed to spare my son my shame.

He seemed to take it in stride, though.

And, when we competed in subsequent races, there were no more mechanical problems. We never won anything, but the wheels never popped off, again.

***

Even though I have somewhat redeemed myself, I’ve never really enjoyed the race. I even told a neighbor of mine last year to skip it if she was unsure of how to properly construct her son’s car.

“It can be mortifying,” I said when she called me for advice.

I started to offer to help, but then thought better of it and steered her to another neighbor who is totally into it. It was all I could do to deal with my own son’s car.

Which is why, this year, for the first time in many, I actually celebrated Pinewood Derby Day.

Because I wasn’t there.

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