Pinewood Derby Memory – Pining Over the Derby

By Stacey Parkin
Call me paranoid, but I sometimes suspect that the Boy Scouts of America was formed as a means to relieve parents of their grip on sanity. Don’t get me wrong, I think there are many positive attributes to the scouting program, and just as soon as I come up with some, I’ll be sure to list them.
In the meantime, I feel compelled to discuss what I believe is a subversive attack on harmonious family relationships. This attack is sly, and innocuous in appearance, yet remarkably effective. One event in particular often turns normally peaceful and sane parents into competitive raving maniacs. I speak of course, of the Pinewood Derby.
For the uninitiated, the Pinewood Derby is an event that features races with small wooden cars. The scouts and their parents are given a block of wood, a set of wheels and a hearty “Good luck!” before the scout leader beats a hasty retreat, not to be seen again until the evening of the race. His disappearance helps facilitate the plot against parents by depriving them of anyone who can answer questions. Some people have asked why we must put our sons and ourselves through this experience. The answer is simple: the Pinewood Derby aids in the development of our young men, so that one day when they go out into the world and decide, for whatever reason, to make cars out of blocks of wood, they’ll be prepared.
Once the scout has received his kit, these rudimentary wood and plastic elements are supposed to be transformed, somehow, into a sleek, swift race car. While some debate the best method for creating these cars, I have found that what works well, for me anyway, is to hide and let Mike deal with it. Last year, when we had our first experience with the Pinewood Derby, I was innocent and naive. I wasn’t aware that the best way to handle the situation is fleeing the country.I still remember the look on Mike’s face when I handed him the kit our son’s den leader had dropped off earlier. He narrowed his eyes and looked at it suspiciously. “What is this?”
“It’s for the Pinewood Derby! You did this when you were a kid, didn’t you?” Mike looked at me blankly. “You know, you build a little car, then you race it against other little cars?” He still looked bewildered. “Okay, we can look it up on the Internet, and you can call my dad. He can help you.”
I have fond memories of the Pinewood Derby. I have three brothers who were all Boy Scouts. My father was something of an expert on cars in addition to being very artistically inclined. Each year, he produced beautifully crafted Derby cars. I was never permitted to actually handle these little works of art and neither were my brothers. In retrospect, I realize that preventing my brothers from helping with these projects probably defeated the purpose.
Making a car for the Pinewood Derby has the potential for being a great opportunity for parents and their children to spend time working together on a project. This was not the case at our house, however. The car was Dad’s project. The only responsibility my brothers were allowed to assume was harassing Dad and sneaking into his shop to play with the cars when Dad wasn’t looking.
After spending a great deal of time doing research by looking on the Internet and speaking to every scouting father he knew, Michael then interviewed my father, gleaning advice to help make this rite of passage as successful as possible. He returned home from work the next day informed and ready to begin.
“I’ve got it all planned. I know how to build the fastest and best looking car ever!” While Michael explained the importance of weight placement and the best way to carve the car, I indulged in fantasies of the happy bonding time my husband and our son would enjoy. I imagined them working in the garage, smiling at each other and having deep, meaningful conversations. I know I certainly enjoyed the peace. At least, it was peaceful until they came in the house and shattered my Norman Rockwell-like visions of father and son working together to craft a handmade toy.
After my little son stomped up the stairs and slammed his bedroom door, Michael emitted a sound that registered somewhere between a frustrated sigh and an infuriated howl. Approaching carefully, I put my arms around him and asked, “That bad, huh?” Mike sighed again and sat down wearily. He folded his arms across his chest, tipped his head back and closed his eyes.
“I think we should withdraw our son from Boy Scouts.” I moved behind him and rubbed his shoulders.
“Oh, come on. It can’t be that bad.”
“Can’t it? You wouldn’t believe what he wants to do to that car! He wants to carve it himself, and he doesn’t care when I tell him where we need to place the weights so it will go faster. Don’t even get me started on his thoughts about aerodynamics.”
“He knows what aerodynamics are?”
“Of course not, but I do, and he won’t listen.” I thought for a moment about how to impart my thoughts tactfully.
“Honey? You do realize this is our son’s project, right? I mean you need to supervise and advise but ultimately, this is about him.”
“Yeah, I know. I just don’t want to show up with a stupid looking car.”
I reminded Michael that young boys were also creating the other cars, so I was certain that the cars would all be equally stupid looking. I realize now that this was the foolishness of inexperience talking. In addition to Michael’s competitive nature, there was another problem. Mike is a perfectionist. Anything he produces or oversees must not only be better than anything else, it must be flawless. Our son, on the other hand, isn’t terribly concerned about perfection. Like many boys his age, he didn’t really care what the car looked like, he just wanted the wheels attached so he could play with it.
The next evening, the second battle of the Pinewood Derby car took place. Hoping to prevent another scene, I gave Mike a pep talk before he headed out to the garage. “Remember, this is about having quality time with your son. You can either create memories of working together that he’ll think of fondly, or let him make memories of being told to sit still while his dad built this car without him. Just remember, it’s his car, not yours.” Mike saluted me comically.
“Yes ma’am! I’ll do my best!”
It wasn’t long before my son came storming into the house in tears, complaining about bossy, overbearing parents. I went in search of my husband and found him in the garage muttering to himself. I could see he was agitated about something, but I interrupted anyway. “Problem?”
“He wants to paint it orange!”
“I see. So do we send him to military school now or should we try counseling first?” He eyed me in disgust.
“Orange isn’t a cool color. It’s going to look ridiculous.”
“Michael, it’s HIS car. If he wants to paint it orange with pink polka dots, that’s his choice.” Mike looked at me in horror.
“Pink? How can you even suggest such a thing? We’d be the laughing stock of the neighborhood!” Despite the drama, on the appointed evening, we arrived with a completed car. Michael and our son had compromised by painting the car red, with orange flames on the sides. I was genuinely surprised by the professional appearance of the other cars. Some even had little drivers with determined-looking faces painted on them. One had a license plate that read, “Eat Dust.”
All of the contestants spent a great deal of time before the race applying graphite to the wheels of the cars to ensure higher speeds, and doing practice runs on the track while Michael and the other fathers griped about how the cars shouldn’t be played with before the race. I listened absently to Mike’s complaining while I contemplated whether or not to tell him that rubbing his eyes and nose with his graphite covered fingers had left him with a really cool raccoon-like quality. (I decided against it when I thought about the photo-op that would occur after the race. I’m thoughtful like that.)
The races began, and I watched as my son cheered for his car. Michael was deeply engaged in conversation with the other fathers, speculating about the importance of weight placement. This only made things worse for Michael. He returned to my side uptight and concerned. “Now what?” I asked, even though I really didn’t want to know.
“Well, now I’m wondering if we should have placed the weights further back. Or maybe further forward. I don’t know anymore.”
“Michael, either relax and enjoy the evening or I’m sending you home, got it?”
“Sure, that’s easy for you to say, you don’t have a car in the race.”
“No. No I don’t. But I’d like to remind you that you don’t either. Our son has a car in the race, and it might be nice if we focused on him, don’t you think?” Michael had the decency to look a bit chagrined.
Our son’s car performed reasonably well. It didn’t win, but it wasn’t last either. The important thing, in my opinion, was that our little boy, despite his disappointment, was able to congratulate the winners. He had a wonderful time, and in my ignorance, I thought that was the point. Michael and I congratulated our son on his car’s performance and more importantly on his good sportsmanship, then we watched as he returned to the racetrack where the other boys continued racing just for fun.Michael waited until his son was out of earshot. “Is it really wrong that I wanted my car to win?” he asked. I refrained from rolling my eyes. Okay, I waited until he couldn’t see me, and then I rolled my eyes. As I gave him a hug and tried to offer comfort, I glanced over his shoulder to see several wives also comforting their husbands. One wife was tugging her husband out into the hall to quiet his ranting and sputtering about an unfair start.
It was oddly comforting to realize that my husband wasn’t the only man struggling with the loss. I couldn’t help overhearing one father comment angrily, “The only reason that boy won is because his father did all the work for him.”
“You mean the way you did all the work on your son’s car?” his wife replied. I decided to make my escape before I burst out laughing.
Over the past year, which I considered an ample mourning period, I thought Michael had recovered from his disappointment. I had hoped that he might actually feel a little silly about how emotionally involved he had become in the Pinewood Derby. Alas, my hopes were dashed at the last Boy Scout meeting, when the scout leader passed out seemingly harmless little boxes containing kits for making small wind- driven boats. “Don’t forget” she chirped, “This month is the Raingutter Regatta!”
I looked about the room and saw determined looks on the faces of the fathers in the room. I also noted the equally resigned looks on the faces of the mothers. A year ago, I was new and naive. This year I am an experienced mother of a Boy Scout. More important, I’m the wife of a Boy Scout’s father. I know exactly what to expect and how to handle it.
That is why I’m headed to an undisclosed location just as soon as I’m packed. It’s not that I don’t plan to help, though. Before I leave, I’m going to christen the boat. In tiny letters, I shall paint the name “Titanic” on the little hull. I’m hoping it will help Michael set his expectations at a realistic level. If nothing else, it might make the other moms laugh. If there are any mothers present, that is. I’ve extended an open invitation to all the moms to join me in my getaway.
Stacey blogs at:
Lifes a Funny Thing
Used by Permission
From Pinewood Derby Times Volume 7, Issue 7
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