February 23, 2014

The Pinewood Derby (The Nightmare of Scouting, Part II)


(Author’s Note: If you missed last week’s column, you might want to take a look, if only for some necessary background. Thank you.)

The last thing I participated in before fleeing in terror from the Cub Scouts was the annual and notorious Pinewood Derby. There were a number of major events for all the local scouts throughout the year—a fair (didn’t go), the big Scout-O-Rama Jamboree at the arena (didn’t go, no matter how much I dug that name), camping trips (lord knows I didn’t go)—but the biggest of them all was the Pinewood Derby. Thousands of scouts from all over the state would participate in their individual regions, but in the end there would be only one winner. As with everything else in Cub Scouts the competition for that six-inch tall plastic trophy was fierce and often ugly.

            A few weeks beforehand, each scout was supplied with a block of pine about six inches long and an inch square. There was a big notch cut out of the top near one end, and two smaller notches cut out of the bottom. Each kit also included two wooden axles which fit into those bottom slots, and four plastic wheels that snapped into the axles. From that, each kid “without any help from an adult” was supposed to transform the small rectangular block of wood into a sleek and stylish racing machine to be pitted against all the others. In short, it’s a soapbox derby on a much smaller scale, at heart designed to test each boy’s woodworking skills.

            My dad, being the honorable sort (and likely the only honorable sort in all of scouting) took that non-participation clause seriously. He offered a few suggestions, gave me access to his tools, handed me a stack of sandpaper, then stepped away. He only became directly involved with the car’s design (and then only because the results would’ve been catastrophic otherwise) when it came time to melt and pour the lead into a small hole on the bottom to lower the car’s center of gravity. Apart from that (and checking in every once in awhile) he was hands off.

            When it came to even the simplest tools I was as handy then as I am now (and as prone to serious injury), so I satisfied myself with a lot of sanding. By the time I decided I was finished my entry didn’t look all that different from the original block of wood. I painted it red and black and added a couple of stickers to jazz it up some, which is something I guess.

            On the night of the first meet of that year’s derby, my dad and I got in the car and drove over to Webster School. The gym had been set up for the event, and was already crowded with snotty Cub Scouts and their dads. I saw Erik and his mom, and Dave with his dad, but no one else from the troop. That was okay. This wasn’t a group effort—the derby was every man for himself. I just wanted to get it over with and go home.

            I caught a few glimpses of some of the other cars being shown around the gym, and my god. Eight-year-olds with absolutely no help from their dads whatsoever had used lathes and power sanders and nuclear-powered awls and band saws and whatever the hell else to transform their wood blocks into frighteningly detailed Formula One racers with professional paint jobs. They were wonders of modern woodworking technology. I opted not to show mine to anyone, keeping it tucked safely in my pocket. Somehow I had known when those wood blocks were handed out this was all just going to be one more grand humiliation fest at the hands of the Boy Scouts of America.

            There were no chairs, no bleachers, so we all stood around. In general the dads seemed far more excited about the goings-on than the kids did. I guess they had their reasons. A few of the fathers (obviously to check over Junior’s handiwork) were crouched off to the side against the wall, making final adjustments to the power steering and mini jet engines their sons had crafted and installed in the cars.

            In the middle of the gym was a two-lane wooden track beginning about four feet off the ground and extending down a slope to a straightaway that ended at a finish line some thirty-five feet away. Two cars drawn by lot would be placed at the starting line, where a switch would raise a barrier to assure a fair start. A trigger and a flag at the end would announce the winner.

            Shortly after seven o’clock the races began, as did the hooting. With each race lasting only six or seven seconds things moved at a brisk pace, with the losers of each heat sulking away into the night and the gloating winners stepping off to the side for their turn in the next heat. Before my number was pulled my dad called me over. “Here,” he said, pulling a small green bottle from his pocket. “This might help some.” The bottle contained powdered graphite, which he sprayed on the axles, spinning the wheels to distribute it evenly.

            A few minutes later I was talking to Erik (who’s car didn’t look much better than mine) when I was called. I set my car at the starting gate and headed for the finish line to wait. The kid I was up against was a scrawny redhead who looked more terrified than anything else. We said nothing to one another. His slim, rocket-shaped car had been painted a metallic blue. I didn’t have a chance.

            The switch was thrown and the two toy cars rolled down the incline. It was close, but much to my astonishment when they reached the finish line the small checkered flag tipped to announce my black junk heap had beaten this aerodynamic car of the future by a nose.

            I wasn’t expecting that. It simply wasn’t supposed to happen. I was only supposed to have that one quick race, lose miserably, let everyone laugh at me for a few minutes, then go home and watch TV. Christ, winning meant I had to stay there longer. The redheaded kid’s dad—the father of this pathetic loser who’d lost to my even more pathetic excuse of a Pinewood Derby racer in the very first goddamned heat—was furious. He grabbed his son by the thin arm and dragged him away. I thought he was going to smack the kid right there. I felt bad for him. If my losing could’ve prevented one more kid from being forcibly dropped onto a glowing stovetop burner, well.

            Ah, but never mind. I won. My dad wrapped his big arm around my shoulders, then added a touch more graphite to the axles in preparation for the next race. It couldn’t hurt, and lord knows the car didn’t have anything else going for it. More shocking than winning that first heat, I won my next two heats as well. This sort of thing wasn’t supposed to happen. Just one more heat after that, and I’d bring a trophy home. I’d never won a trophy in my life.

            “Hey Knipfel,” I looked up to see Erik approaching, clutching his car in his right hand. “Hey, I’m in the finals—you s’pose I could use some of that shit your dad’s got on my wheels? I’m up again in a minute.”

            “Oh. Sure.”

            We went over to my dad, who produced the bottle from his pocket. There was nothing about it that was against the rules, especially considering some of these dads had likely forged new axles from Teflon-coated stainless steel and microscopic ball bearings. Erik took the bottle and emptied it on the bottom of his car. “Here,” he said, handing the empty bottle back. Then he disappeared.

            “Oh hell,” my dad said, examining the bottle. “we don’t have any left for yours.”

            “Ahh, that’s fine,” I said. “I’m sure there’s enough left on there to do the trick.” Hate to admit it as I do, having reached a point I’d never reached before, I wanted to win this son of a bitch with my clunky little loser car here. I’d show all those fancy-asses with their Skilsaws and what-have-yous what you can accomplish with sheer incompetence.

            Well, as these things are bound by law to happen in mainstream movies and young adult novels, when my number was called for that final race, I saw I’d be going up against that little bastard sociopath Erik. When I reached the starting gate where he was already waiting, he only smirked. He’d put all thoughts of friendship and friendly competition behind him. This was a blood sport now. This was Ben-Hur, and he was out to destroy me. We set our cars beside each other at the starting line and headed for the other end of the track. Even though I kinda wanted to win, yes, to show those others, it wasn’t an overwhelming desire, nor anything I honestly expected. I’d made my point. Still, though, I did want to win this particular race if only because Erik was such a little fat-faced son of a bitch. If I lost, I knew I’d have to swallow it for the next eight months.

            The switch was thrown, the cars were released, and things seemed close. Then my tires started to squeak. My black monstrosity slowed nearly to a stop as his car zipped ahead to the finish line. He whooped, not saying a word to me as he snatched up his racer and headed for the winner’s table to await the trophy presentation ceremony.

            Just as well. If I had won, it meant I’d have to go through the same damn thing again in Madison the following week. Who the hell wanted to do that? I shrugged, picked my car up, slipped it back into my pocket, and looked for my dad.

            On the way home my dad and I were laughing about it. We’d be laughing about it for the next forty years. “Well,” he said. “I guess that’s what you get for being a good citizen and letting him use your graphite.”


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