Racing against time

I’ve never been much of a joiner. Even when I did “belong” to a team, I was usually the quiet kid in the corner of the team picture. Being somewhat of an introvert, I’ve always kept a close circle of friends, and acquaintances. That’s not to say I’m anti-social. Well, OK, maybe it does say I’m anti-social, but the point is that whenever I have come across an organization of people looking for me to join them, my natural inclination has been to pull back.

Maybe Groucho Marx said it best when he said he’d never belong to any club that would accept people like him as a member. If someone wants me to join their organization I am immediately suspicious of their motives. That’s why I never joined a fraternity in college. Well, that and an IQ score in the triple digits. It began at a young age when I viewed the strange uniforms and rituals of the Boy Scouts and decided they were a quasi-fascist organization, and decided against joining. Yes, I was a precocious 2nd grader, why do you ask?

Hey, they wear brown shirts people, how much more proof do you need?

So I wasn’t too surprised as 20 Prospect Jr. grew older and began to exhibit the same tendencies. The fruit doesn’t fall too far from the tree. Getting him to take part in swimming lessons as a 4 year old was a tribulation that I hope I never have to repeat. Even now, after playing with his teammates on his youth hockey team for the last four months he’s still the kid hanging out in the corner of the locker room observing. That’s why I was surprised when he asked to join the Boy Scouts in 1st grade. It seemed out of character for a kid whose teachers routinely say never raises his hand in class.

Now my aversion to Boy Scouts was a long time ago, so when he asked to join I thought, OK, what the heck, maybe it will be good for him. Unfortunately I discovered during the informational meeting that 1st grade scouts (called “Tiger Scouts” instead of Cub, or Boy Scouts) had to have a parent present at every meeting. By the time the meeting was over I had narrowly avoided being drafted into being the Den Master, and I left feeling like a sailor that had just been Shanghaied. So began my year in the Hitler Youth Tiger Scouts.

We went to the Scout store, and bought 20 Prospect Jr. an official T-shirt, and Manual on how to be a scout. Then we studied Chapter One in advance of the first Troop meeting when the boys would be sworn in as Tiger Scouts. Sadly, nothing in the book could prepare us for the experience. To say that the Scout meetings were unorganized would be a disservice to anarchists everywhere. The meetings were total chaos; boys running around screaming, Dad’s standing around looking at each other in mute silence. After an hour of this we left for home, slightly more hearing impaired than we had arrived.
It never got any better. Even his “den” meetings of 8-10 kids were a mess. Allegedly the boys were learning life lessons, and earning badges through such activities as learning how to tie knots, and make bird feeders out of pine cones and peanut butter. In reality it was little more than Romper Room. True to form, 20 Prospect Jr. hung out in the corner with his small handful of friends, and participated only after much prodding on my part. All through the fall and into the winter this continued. We sold our allotment of Popcorn to Aunts, Uncles and Grandparents, and earned little beads for his belt, and muddled through the depths of a Minnesota winter. But when February arrived, hope sprung eternal. The annual Pinewood Derby was approaching, and we would get to build and race a car against the other kids in the troop.

Despite my distrust of the Fascist Cub Scout Pack at St. Joe’s I always envied their annual Pinewood Derby. It was like a miniature Soap Box derby. Each boy would bring his little Handmade Car to school for show and tell in advance of the big race, to be held in the Genesee Country Mall. Painted up with flames, and lightning, and sporting shiny decals on their sides, these little Pinewood race cars were something I really wished I could be a part of. So having 20 Prospect Jr. take part in a Pinewood Derby would be a second chance to experience it, albeit vicariously.

We picked up our kit with official instructions, and began to plan out our race car. I googled around on the intertubes to learn the tricks and secrets of Pinewood Derby Race Car construction. Working at night in our basement, 20 Prospect Jr. and I were like Smokey Yunick and A.J. Watson toiling in their garages on gasoline alley, building an Indy 500 winning roadster. I taught the boy how to use the tools, and guided him through the process. We went shopping at the hardware store to pick up the powdered graphite we needed to milk that extra ounce of speed out of our machine. We balanced the car to put the weight as far back as possible so that we would be assured of a fast start, and performed rolling shakedown tests in our upstairs hallway to fine tune our alignment. When the Saturday of the big race rolled around we were ready.

20 Prospect Jr. packed his fire engine red “20 Prospect Special” carefully into a shoebox, and carried it with him as we set out for the race. Arriving at the school cafeteria the tension in the air was palpable. Boys from 6-13 were there with their dads ready to compete for the prize trophies, and the chance to move onto the District Championships. We checked the brackets that were posted on the wall to see which heats were scheduled to run in, and then we decided to scope out the competition.

As I’ve said before, Our Lady of the Subdural Hemotoma is not one of the glitzier private schools in town. It’s your basic 1950’s era, run of the mill Catholic school, smelling of pencil shavings, chalk dust, and industrial cleansers from decades of elementary instruction. The students are drawn from a broad demographic swath of the North Metro. There are working class, bus driving dads, as well as a handful of Porsche driving ones from North Oaks. But in 1st grade we were just beginning to learn the caste system that was in place between the haves and have nots. The Pinewood Derby would be our first lesson.

Unpacking the 20 Prospect Special for weigh ins, and inspection, we were immediately aware of the huge discrepancy in the engineering and finish of the competition. There was everything from the square block with wheels of the kid whose dad forgot about the race until the night before, to futuristic land speed cruisers that were carved on laser guided saws, and programmable CNC machines. Our little red special was clunky, and amateurish by comparison. What chance did we stand against these sleek space age vehicles?

The competition getting set for the start

The heats went off on schedule, and we fought and clawed our way through the field, making it into the consolation finals by the skin of our teeth. In the final race we finished 2nd runner up, and 20 Prospect Jr. was awarded a trophy with a little roadster on the top where the bowling guy would normally stand. He couldn’t have been happier, and I couldn’t have been more relieved.

As expected, the spoils of victory went to the deep pocketed teams with their professional air brushed paint jobs, and computer designed cars. I came away a little wiser in the workings of the highly competitive world of youth scouting. It wasn’t about the kids, but about the parents after all. Looking around that room of strangers those dads may as well have been the brown shirted Gestapo I remembered from my youth. Beaten, but unbowed, I left the cafeteria swearing revenge.

Thankfully, I never did get the chance. When summer came around 20 Prospect Jr. informed me he didn’t want to be in scouts anymore. When I asked him why, he just said, “Dad, it’s kinda boring. The only fun part was building the car with you, and we don’t need them to do projects together.” I’m not sure if I’ve ever been prouder.

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