Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Pinewood Derby

I saw this fantastic Pinewood Derby car on BoingBoing today. That's a wireless camera on top, feeding video to a digital video recorder. This car made me think of my dad.

Many of you know that my dad died when I was eight. Most of you don't know that the Pinewood Derby is emblematic of the loss of his influence in my life.

For the uninitiated: the Pinewood Derby is an annual cub scout event in which seven to ten-year-old scouts race little wooden cars that they've built with the help of their parents. Each scout is given a block of wood and some wheels and must build a car conforming to the following specifications:

Width: - 2-3/4" - Length - 7" - Weight - Not over 5 Ounces
Width between wheels - 1-3/4"
Bottom clearance between car and track - 3/8"
On the day of the Derby, scouts line up their cars at the starting line, and gravity takes the shiny cars down a ramp and across a level stretch of track to the finish line.

In 1983, the Pinewood Derby was a day away, and my car was a disaster. Looking back on it, I don't remember exactly what the specific problems were, except that the car was not very close to being finished and the design was rather unenlightened.

I remember perfectly, though, my brother's car - completed a decade earlier with the help of my dad. That car sat on top of the trophy cabinet in our shared bedroom. It was a masterpiece: sleek, blue, fast. They had deftly mounted weights at the front axle - inside the profile of the car, hidden by wood putty - to come right up against the 5 oz. limit. I'm sure that car won the Derby for my brother, and it would have done so with style. Its lines were elegant. The blue finish was silk.

My car, even if I had been able to execute the juvenile design, would have been so far below Jeff's as to be a different species. I understood that, and was ashamed of my effort. I actually thought that my car should compare favorably to the blue ghost my father built with his older son.

The eve of the Pinewood Derby ended in tears, and I gave up. I didn't finish my car that night. I didn't go to the race. I think I quit the scouts soon after.

In the following weeks, I finished my car. It looked like something a nine year-old would make. It's red, with black numbers and a gold arrowhead painted on the hood. Its lines are awkward, and show that the builder did not understand physics, beauty, or the rules of the Pinewood Derby. There are no weights at the front axle, and it's clear that I did not sand the wood before painting the car with flat red house paint.

A year or so ago, Sally and I came across my never-raced Pinewood Derby car. She loved it. In its boxy form and splotchy paint, she saw a little boy's laudable effort to give shape to his imagination. She didn't see the how far it fell short. She loved it even when I explained - in damning detail - how much better Jeff's car was.

In my mind, I know she's right. I can give that fourth-grader credit for his solo effort. In my heart, though, I'm still ashamed of that red piece of crap. It should have been so much better, and more importantly, it should have raced.

What is the measure of the loss of a parent?


Donoghue Nation said...

Matt, Your character and generosity and the family that you built for yourself are as sleek and fast as any Pinewood Derby car. I did not have the honor of knowing your father, but I do know that he would be proud of what you accomplished. And I think I can speak on behalf of so many of your friends when I say that we would all give you a blue ribbon for the way you have touched our lives.

donr said...

Hey Matt, forget fourth grade. Sure, you didn't get in the race then. But you're in the race for real now, in ways that Kristen and I admire and aspire to deeply. Don't look back, man. Look around, at what you have wrought. And then be proud, my friend, very proud.

Kristen said...

Matt, I'm not sure what the measure is, but I sure feel the sadness and the frustration in your story of your little car. I bet it is a great car and I bet your Dad is very proud of you. Sending you a warm embrace from the South, kbr & fam.

trace said...

well, Matt, I have been waiting two days and hoping some profound or appropriate words would spring up. they haven't. i leave you with this. i have known you as long as i have known anyone outside my own family, and i love you like you were my brother. and although i never knew your dad, i feel like have known him through you, your family and your collective influence on the nevads. thanks for sharing about the pinewood derby; it brought back memories for my familiy too. i can't pretend to know, or even imagine, the measure of your loss. but i do know the gain knowing you and your family, and i thank you for it.