By Matthew D. Keenan
That piece of lumber embodies the hopes, dreams and worldly expectations of a boy – a boy who believes that his dad is invincible and that any undertaking uniting father with son cannot possibly fail. Until it does.
By most objective standards, I’m probably not a very good parent. My failings could fill this entire newspaper and indeed have in previous columns. I’m tough when I should be forgiving and forgiving when I should be tough. The red flags for my flaws were apparent many years ago, when our sons showed their penchant for “drop to the ground” temper tantrums at obscure places like Christmas Mass.
In contrast, my mom and dad seemed to do most things right. They raised five kids and never played it safe. They constantly tossed my brothers and sisters in harm’s way. We won some, lost more and learned that life is not fair and complaining about it does not make it more equitable. Now in case you think I’ve become the next Dr. Phil, stick with me for a moment. I’m getting to my point.
And that point is the Pinewood Derby. That little five-ounce block of wood is a metaphor for much about parenting – and life. That piece of lumber embodies the hopes, dreams and worldly expectations of a boy – a boy who believes that his dad is invincible and that any undertaking uniting father with son cannot possibly fail. Until it does.
Like me, my dad had three sons, all in Scouts, all needing Pinewood cars. And like me, my dad had little time and less talent to build anything. He owned no saws, drills, hammers or even nails. If necessity is the mother of invention, my dad was Mother Hubbard. He taught me that steak knives are more useful for carving wood than fillets. That a fishing tackle box contains almost everything you need to achieve the desired weight of five ounces. That brown carpet can swallow a couple pounds of graphite without even a hint of stain. And that you can complete three weeks of work on the night before the weigh-in. His makeshift approach did nothing to dampen my expectations. We never took home any trophies or ribbons. But every year we kept trying.
A generation later I have remained largely faithful to that legacy. This month my fifth-grade son, Robert, raced his last car in his Cub Scout Pinewood Derby. Between him and his two brothers, our family has made 12 cars over eight years.
In the early years, it was one misadventure after another. And we had frustration, disappointment and tears. But every year we got better. I picked up some tips my dad never appreciated, learning that when wheels rub against the chassis, the odds of your son holding the championship trophy are long. When his finished car rolls in a semicircle on your kitchen floor, those odds roughly double. And the digital postal scale at Hy-Vee is critical to achieving the perfect weight of five ounces. And when the derby arrived on the last Friday in January, our efforts came full circle. Among 70 competitors, the final two cars included the one belonging to a fifth-grader named Keenan. Second place. Meaning his car will run one more time, in the countywide Pinewood Derby contest.
And when my son’s final car runs its final race, we will retire it in his bedroom, in the same way his brothers have. Each one has my son’s name taped to the underside, assigned at the weigh-in. Each one will have a story – each one an embodiment of hopes, dreams and expectations. Some realized, others dashed. Each one symbolizes a special time in their young lives, when we lived and learned and came to recognize the value of taking a chance on a block of wood, just like another father and his sons did 30 years ago.
Copyright 2004, The Kansas City Star
Reprinted by Permission
From Pinewood Derby Times Volume 3, Issue 15
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Maximum Velocity Pinewood Derby Car Plans and Supplies
By Matthew D. Keenan