The big event of the year at our cub scout pack--verily, in most cub scout packs around the country--is the annual Pinewood Derby. Each scout gets to carve his own little car from a 6-inch by two-inch (or thereabouts) block of wood. There are quite a few rules, and some families go nuts trying to make their car just that much faster than the others. Races are often determined by just a few thousandths of a second.
When I was a boy, I was in cub scouts for a total of about three months, and I hated every minute of it except
- the time a litter of kittens was born at the house of our surly, reluctant den mother, and
- the time we took a behind-the-scenes tour of our local McDonald's and all got green milkshakes.
I seem to remember gluing the wheels to the body, but that might not be what happened. Regardless, race time came and I had what was a block of wood with wheels that didn't turn very well. The edges were a little rounded at least. I don't remember even painting it. My car was put on the track with the three others in my heat, the race began, and... my car never reached the finish line. I think it made it all the way down the hill but not much farther.
The night ended early for me, with a lot of tears.
Fast forward thirty years when my oldest son, seven years old, is handed his first Pinewood Derby kit. He was excited. I was terrified. In 8th grade I managed to saw and pound together a few boards into a passable enough tool box to get a B in wood shop. I knew many of the dads in my son's cub scout pack were in construction or spent their leisure time making ornate custom cabinetry and pimping out their Camrys and BMWs. So they knew cars, and they knew woodworking.
I knew Perl and SQL.
This was not going to go well, I could tell. After a brief debate with my wife wherein I argued that Ethan could do every bit as well with power tools as I could, she prevailed and I hacked away. My stroke of genius was to leave it rough (having no skill, it really was my only option) so that it looked like Ethan had built it. He painted it himself, so the illusion was complete.
His car did not finish last in every heat. It actually got one 3rd place (out of four) and three 4th place finishes. But it finished, which was the great thing. During the awards ceremony, though, I learned that our pack did something amazing: they gave awards for design (quality of workmanship) and originality as well as for winning the races.
The next year, our path was clear. To win the design/workmanship trophy, skill was required. So that was right out. To win the races with speed, patience was required. Forget that. But originality--that was right up my alley.
Ethan's aircraft carrier car (we did the pack's first overnight aboard the USS Hornet the previous spring) won first place in originality, and our first Pinewood Derby trophy came home.
The next year the pressure was on for real, though, when Ethan's little brother joined the pack. No doubt he would be crushed if he didn't also get a trophy. So we set to work.
Sam agreed to create a campsite scene on a flat car. It seemed very scout-oriented, and he was able to do much of the painting and gluing himself. For Ethan, who had just gotten his first iPod and totally loved Star Wars episode 1, we settled on a "pod racer." This was a simple car design with what looked like an iPod in the driver's seat, with some old ear buds glued on.
The Dudley boys swept the originality trophies that year, taking first and second place.
Last year we won nothing. We had two losers--Ethan went for speed, and Sam did a landscape of our house (or something like it).
(Yes, those are cinnamon graham letter cookies spelling out "pinewood cars.")
This year, Ethan had moved on to Boy Scouts, and Sam decided to go for originality again. After some protracted brainstorming, we settled on a guitar car. The basic design came out just fine, but it was an insanely slow car. But what could I do? I was traveling a lot and barely had time to make the cuts. Sam sanded and painted it himself. And won 2nd place in the originality category again. Here he is holding his trophy on Thursday night, while I was in Atlanta and unable to attend the race.
So now both Dudley boys have two originality trophies from our pinewood derby. Since our pack gets about 50 cars entered each year, I think that's a pretty good track record (get it? track record? ha, ha!). Unfortunately, Sam still has two more years of the Pinewood Derby. Maybe next year I'll retire and he can do the whole thing himself. I'll just give him some glue and a pocket knife an hour or two before the race.