Building Blocks

I was perusing through a craft store a while ago and I noticed a model kit for sale along with many accoutrements and accessories to personalize the kit.  The model is a simple 7-inch block of pine, four nails and four wheels.  It is the Pinewood Derby model used in scouting for the past 59 years, only now, it is commercially available to anyone who wishes to buy one.  Not only that, but gone are the constraints about style and construction of the racer. Image Detail
When I was a cub scout, I participated in the Pine Wood Derby along with the rest of my pack.  My dad was one of our pack leaders and he helped with planning the event, setting up the race track and judging the heats.  He also helped me with building my racer.  My dad was not a “handy man” kind of dad.  He had just enough tools in his toolbox to get him into trouble.  My mom did a lot of the repairs around the house, but no one did carpentry.  We had a hacksaw and a regular old handsaw, but no power saws.
The lack of cutting tools meant that it looked like getting my seven by two by two block of wood into some semblance of a race car would take some serious whittling.  Fortunately, my dad knew someone with a wood shop and was able to cut the block down to a more manageable state.  I pulled out my trusty boy scout knife and set to whittling and then sanding the car into the final shape.  Dad gave me pointers on how to form the angles, how to use the knife to form shapes and how to sand the model to a smooth, even surface (not perfect–it was slightly uneven, but not bad).  A few coats of paint and some decals and I had a model car that rolled.  It was a good weekend of father-son bonding.  I was quite proud of the finished car, imperfections and all.  I thought all the cars would be similarly adorned, imperfect and functional.  I was wrong.
When the pack meeting was called, I nervously brought my car to the meeting and saw the track set up like a giant wooden hot wheels raceway.  All the other scouts were milling around with their cars and it was then that I noticed that not all pinewood derby cars are created equal.  Some of these cars looked like they had been machined at an assembly line in Detroit.  They had the spit and polish of a professional construction ethic, not the weekend whittling of a 11-year-old with a 2-inch pocket knife.  Some were similar to mine, with the slightly uneven sanding job, but several looked like additional pieces had been added to the model.  A few looked like molded plastic models instead of rough wood.  I assumed that the model could only be made with the pieces in the kit.  Evidently, this is not the case.
Dad saw my concern an told me that it wasn’t the look of the car that mattered, but how well it races.  And while he did help me by getting the block cut down to size, I was the one who put in the sweat and sore fingers from whittling and sanding it.  He did not help me with that.  He felt it was my project, and that I would get more out of it doing it myself.  He was right.
So, my car, while not the worst looking (one person merely put the wheels on the seven by two by two unfinished block), paled in comparison to the ornate, fancy adorned cars that the fathers of these scouts built for them.  In a bit of irony, some of the more fancy cars were disqualified because they did not meet weight limits, or some other criterion.
The scout masters had scheduled the heats, recusing themselves from judging their own kid’s or den’s races, so my dad could not judge mine.  He did cheer me on though.  I placed  my car at the starting block as my opponent readied his car.  I do not remember who my opponent was, only that he had one of the fancier cars.  I was a bit nervous as one judge moved to the end of the track and another readied the release lever.
When the line judge indicated he was ready, the starter put his hand on the level as my opponent and I anxiously watched the starting line.  The tension built within us as he pulled the lever releasing the bock holding the cars in place.  The two cars sat there.  Nothing moved.  I reached up and nudged mine, which dropped down the track running along to the end.  The start judge looked at me reprovingly and said “that doesn’t count.”
My car was brought back up and both cars were replaced on the block.  This time, when the judge released the lever, both cars tore down the wooden track at the same time.  It was a close heat, with my car just slightly ahead of the competition.  As the reached the end of the hill heading into the home stretch, my car increased its lead and easily defeated the other car racing across the finish line.  Dad was cheering along with me.
Fortunately, my racer continued to perform well.  While I did not finish in first place at the end of the day, I made it to the finals.  Along with the plain block of wood on wheels.  I am glad to see that the pinewood derby is still a part of scouting, not just because of the lessons it teaches and the traditions it builds, but because it is a good opportunity for boys to spend some time with their dads.  It is one of the better memories I have of my dad.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Building Blocks

  1. Halee

    I liked doing the car derbies, my dad helped me come up with some funny cars like Barney’s bullet complete with ad’s from Floyd’s Barber Shop and Walker’s Drug Store. Obviously I didn’t do it with Boy Scouts though, I did it through Awana’s.

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