The Horror of the Pinewood Derby

“Hey Rick,” my co-worker asked me as we I was stirring my coffee this morning in the break room. “Were you in the Cub Scouts as a kid?”

“Yeah,” I replied, throwing away my stirrer and popping in a slice of toast. “I spent some time as a Cub Scout, years ago.”

“Did you ever do the Pinewood Derby?”

I shuddered. Memories flew back into my brain that I’d tried to shut out for years. I took a swig of the acid-based coffee in my hand and composed myself. This was no time for a display of cowardice. I could handle it.

“Oh yeah. I remember it well,” I replied. “And thank you so very much for bringing up a horrible chapter of my childhood.”

I tried to feign a sense of disdain for the subject in front of my co-worker, but I couldn’t escape the reality that the subject did evoke a moment of terror in my heart, just as it had over 25 years ago.

“Oh I’m sorry,” he said, pouring himself a cup of coffee, only to find that I had drained the last few drops from the pot. I didn’t mean to do it, but that’s just how his luck was running. Serves him right for bringing up that wretched subject anyway.

“I didn’t mean to bring up a sore subject,” he continued, not seeming to care that I probably didn’t want to talk about it, “But I have a friend that somehow got his hands on a Pinewood Derby racetrack, and I was thinking it would be fun to have a Pinewood Derby race, you know, like we did when we were kids.”

“Really,” I replied. “Well don’t get that track anywhere near me, or I’ll be likely to burn it,” I said.

The Pinewood Derby, in case you are not familiar with the term, is this insipid contest that Boy Scouts hold where each boy is given a block of wood and is expected to build a car out of it. I assume the wood was pine, but whether it was elm, birch, maple or cherry, I didn’t care then, and I still don’t care today. Unless of course it was lining the floors in my home. And even then I might not care that much.

So our den leader handed us a bag with a block of wood, and we all set out to build our dream cars. I forget if we were given wheels for the cars or not, but apparently we had to design our cars so that it would go down this stupid track faster than anyone else’s. And apparently there were a bunch of tricks that one could employ to ensure that one’s car ran faster, but I had no idea what those tricks were, and surely nobody was ever going to tell me, so that I could then, in turn, build the fastest, meanest Pinewood Derby car ever. Oh no. I wasn’t that fortunate at all.

The thing that makes me wonder about these races anyway is, do they really think these 7, 8, and 9-year old kids are going to build these cars themselves? Do they really think their parents are going to let them use the saws, planes, sanders, and other big, manly power tools necessary to accomplish such a feat as building a small car out of a chunk of a 2×4? Of course not. So who do these kids turn to in order to accomplish this feat?

Dad.

Now I love my dad. I did then, and I do now. My dad could do a lot of things. He built our garage, three fences, and various other boxes, storage units, and shelving units for our home. He could make repairs fairly well, and get things running again as well as the next dad. He was handy. And that was good. And we loved him no matter what he could or couldn’t do.

But this tortuous event not only proved to me how inept I was at designing the fastest, meanest Pinewood car in all of Cub Scout Troop 507, but it also proved how inept my dad was at doing it as well. He never had to do any sort of Pinewood Derby racing when he was a kid. They didn’t have such means of torture back then. Lucky jerk.

Of course, lucky as he was, my father also had a son that wanted to win if he could, even though he knew that the other kids would probably have a much better chance than he did, no matter how hard he tried.

So Dad and I set out to make my Pinewood Derby car. It was all my Dad’s design. And for what it was, it was sleek and sexy. He painted it black with a glossy paint and put numbers on the sides. By all normal standards, it was a damn nice little car.

But getting it to move was another story. It just didn’t have much “go” to it. We greased the wheels as best we could, but it just didn’t seem to move.

I think we just figured that maybe this is how these cars are supposed to run, so we just let it be. That’s the Aiello way– let it be.

I knew we were doomed right from the start on the night of the Pinewood Derby when we walked into the school gymnasium. Other kids were showing off their cars. They were hot. They were flashy. They were sexy. And they were fast.

When the kids saw my car, they laughed. It was primitive in comparison to the souped-up contraptions they had. Their cars looked like they had bought them at a department store. My car looked like something fashioned out of mud after a rainy day.

In my defense, I did the only thing I could think of to deal with the embarrassment. I cried. And when I would cry, the kids would only tease me more. And when the kids would tease me, I would lose my temper. And when I lost my temper, my dad would get angry with me. You see where this is going, don’t you?

So they set up the cars to race. My pithy little hunk of junk against the fast and the furious. The cap gun blew, and they were off.

It would be too easy, too cliche’, and too uplifting to say that I won the race. It would also be a lie. Because I didn’t win the race… I lost. I lost badly. My little car just moseyed down the ramp while the others actually raced. I don’t think my car even got to the finish line. It probably stopped mid-way down, they just pulled it off the track. I was humiliated.

So I did the one thing I could do to defend myself against my feelings of humiliation. I blamed my father.

In a fit of rage, I cried, yelled and screamed at him. In front of everyone.

And my father– himself humiliated– took me by the arm and led me out of the gymnasium where the event was being held. And he let me have it, but good.

At the time, I despised him for doing it, but in hindsight, I probably deserved it. What kind of example was I setting by throwing a fit in front of parents, friends and family? A horrible one. I was being a brat, and I deserved to be treated like a brat.

To this day, the Pinewood Derby debacle (also known as the “Blue & Gold Banquet” Fight, which is the name of the event where the Pinewood Derby took place) is a sore subject between my father and me. It represented a very low point in our relationship, and neither one of us is proud of how we handled it.

But it is a moment in time. One that try not to think about, except for when some smart-alecky co-worker decides to bring it up and dredge all these painful memories from out of my past.

I forgive him that, though. He doesn’t know the pain I went through. All at the expense of a little chunk of wood.

But through that pain came a few life-long lessons. And an interesting story to tell.

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