Pinewood Derby

One of the rites of passage for many Cub Scouts was to participate in a father-son project called the Pinewood Derby.

I was a bit of a rebellious Cub Scout. One Saturday the den mothers had us pursuing a knights-in-shining-armor theme. We made shields from poster board, helmets from empty bleach bottles, and swords from yardsticks. It was great fun all around. We were to paint our swords and helmets with silver paint, replicating authentic armor, I suppose. While rooting through the supplies, I found gold paint and decided my sword would be different . . . more precious. For some reason, the den mothers were very indignant about my veering from the hoi polloi, and I'm not sure why. Perhaps it was because they had future plans for the gold paint; perhaps it was my perceived insolence. I don't know. Ironically, the lead den mother's son was a friend from school, and he later married one of my favorite nieces, so now we're indirectly related, my former den mother and I. She has never spoken of the gold paint incident, so it's either forgotten or sublimated. Come to think of it, she's pretty cool towards me. Hmmmmmm.

One of the rites of passage for many Cub Scouts was to participate in a father-son project called the Pinewood Derby. The object was to build a small race car and compete with other father-son teams in the area. Contestants had to purchase the "official" Pinewood Derby kit, a poly-bagged affair consisting of a sheet of decals, four hard plastic wheels, four nails/axels, two grooved pieces of wood (approximately 3" x ½" x ¼") to hold the wheels and axels, and a block of wood (approximately 8" x 2 ½" x 2 ½") destined to be the body of the race car. There was a strict weight limit, the idea being to have your race car as heavy as possible without exceeding the limit. This, along with an aerodynamic shape, assured speed during the actual race, a gravity-based affair resembling a multi-lane Hot Wheels® track.

Like many father/son affairs (think science fair projects), the Pinewood Derby was often more about the skill and/or competitiveness of fathers rather than their Cubs. Bottom line: Neither my father nor I were woodworkers; our whittling skills ended with emergency pencil sharpening. My Pinewood Derby race car was pathetic on so many levels. We basically rounded all of the sharp corners, so the body resembled a box with slightly curved corners. I decided that my speedster would be blue, but I made the mistake of buying Testor® model car paint. It was enamel, not latex, so it never actually dried properly. For a week before the race, every time I handled my car, new fingerprints were added to the rapidly matting finish. My application of racing stripe and number decals did little to improve the overall effect.

The night of the race, Daddy and I arrived at Westview Elementary School; the race was held in the cafeteria/auditorium. The first step was the weigh-in. It was there I saw younger dads placing cars on the scale while their sons looked on. Some of the racers had been skillfully carved down to amazingly slender drag racer proportions, the weight augmented by molten lead poured into recesses hollowed out in the underside of the body. I was embarrassed when I handed my (literally) tacky car to the weigh-in judge. Having crossed that rubicon, Daddy and I proceeded to the detailed chart showing that my name was mercilessly/mercifully in the first race.

I lost gloriously. I wasn't disappointed, because I knew I didn't stand a chance. As soon as my race was over, I left Daddy holding the car while I joined the rest of the losers enjoying the all-we-cared-to-eat cups of Mayfield® ice cream packed in a crate of dry ice. I had never experienced dry ice before, and the fathers distributing the treats warned us not to touch the stuff. Someone got the bright idea of scooping slivers of the scary/fascinating dry ice into an empty ice cream cup, adding a bit of water from the nearby fountain, and watching the cup turn into something straight out of the Addams Family television show—a cup of "Morticia's Punch," if you will. It was wonderful, and easily soothed our bruised pride at losing the race as we marched around with furiously boiling cups of magic, the heavy smoke roiling over the lips of the cups and trailing down to the linoleum floor of the cafeteria.

Looking back, I hope that my father was as relieved as I when the ordeal was over. I hope he didn't compare our miserable effort to those of the younger dads who did all the work for their sons. Lord knows, I wasn't embarrassed. I was just glad it was over. To me, we were brothers in ineptitude, my dad and I, and I was just grateful that he not only was there for me when I lost, but also shared in clunky creation that was my Pinewood Derby car.

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