You Are an Old Man, Not an 8 Year-Old Boy
My son is a cub scout. I think he joined because I used to be one and I told him that I had fun. I did not tell him that in addition to learning how to read a map and compass and tie knots, I also learned how to smoke, drink and make out with the summer camp’s ugly swimming instructor in scouts as well. Fact is, the ugliest girl in a camp full of hundreds of boys is also the hottest chick for miles. So I was telling the boy the truth when I said I had a good time.
He joined last fall right before the onset of a long cold winter. So far he hasn’t done anything except go to meetings every Monday night. The meetings are very similar to Alcoholics Anonymous or some other support group. They are held in a cold and sterile public building that was built as a part of the depression-era Public Works program. Also like a support group, you are forced to take part in uncomfortable activities with relative strangers…and there is free coffee. For the first several weeks I was tempted to tell everyone about the time that I puked on the back of that one girl’s head.
So the boy joined with the assumption that he would learn how to camp and build fires and shit and all he’s gotten to do so far is nail four chunks of wood together and pretend like he built a “bench.” Well, that and avoid the subtle advances of the adult helpers (okay not really, but it is only a matter of time). He feels like I have baited and switched him.
When the Pinewood Derby came along I thought it might be a chance for him to realize that there is stuff there that we can do together and activities that are actually fun. If you’re unfamiliar with the Pinewood Derby – it’s where you get a block of pine, four nails and four plastic tires, make them into a car and race them down an incline. For some reason it is also an opportunity for assholes to live vicariously through their children.
We got our block of wood and I started to explain to him why he didn’t want to be one of those jerk-offs who make a big fancy car and spend a bunch of money on skins and crazy designs. I suggested for his first derby, he should do something simple and effective. We decided on a basic wedge. If you have no experience with such things, a wedge is basically a doorstop with wheels. It is silly and boring, but it is aerodynamic and, most importantly, the kid could make it himself.
Immediately after making these important chunk-of-wood decisions this guy comes up to me and excitedly says, “Wanna borrow my Dremel?”
“What? Why?” I respond.
“You need it to file off the casting burr from where the nail shaft meets the head on the axles. Then you need to hollow out a few pockets in the bottom so you can melt down tungsten weights and pour them in. Then, do you know what I do? I get some wood putty and lay down a small layer all across the bottom. Once it’s painted, you cain’t even tell you was there. Oh and hey, you gotta be careful because the scale down at the post office is about a quarter of an ounce light…which is good for savin’ you money when you mail stuff, but it won’t build you a winning car. Know what I do? I take it to the UPS store ’cause those guys got a scale that’s spot on.”
“Wow…you’ve really got this thing figured out,” I responded, trying to keep my embarrassment for him from coming out in my voice.
What happens next is an important part of the conversation. Up until this point I considered this guy a little strange, but I imagined that this was how his love for his son naturally manifested itself. He loved his son, so they took part in scouting events together. He wanted his son to have a good experience and to be a winner, so he worked a little bit harder on his son’s behalf. Consequently, the kid actually did very little when it came to building the car and probably learned even less (other than the fact that his dad had a terrible childhood). Whatever…people parent differently and I certainly don’t care about how this guy raises his kid (until the kid grows up to be a psycho and carjacks me 15 years from now). Things went from overzealous dad to pathetic when he shared the following:
“Yeah, we been doing this since junior was a tiger cub. Once you got the weight right you need to stick the axles into a drill and sand them down with course sandpaper, then fine sandpaper, then course steel wool, then fine steel wool. You gotta use a magnet to get the wool out of it. Then you gotta get an old cotton t-shirt, dip the axle into some good car wax and buff it with a strip of the old t-shirt. Then you gotta put on the graphite lubricant…you know that stuff that locksmiths use on deadbolts?”
“Um…no…I don’t know anything about locksmi…” I stutter.
“Then you get a pair of needlenose and a flathead screwdriver and you push the axle in with the needlenose while pushing down with the screwdriver…all except the right passenger side…you gotta angle that one up because the car goes faster when only three wheels touch the ground.”
“How do you know this?”
“I test ’em on the track we got at home…Oh yeah, after you put the graphite on you need to run it three times. I don’t know why, but it goes faster every time for the first seven times and then it starts to slow down after that. If you run it three times, that’ll get you through the three heats and the pack championship finals. You gotta be careful sanding the wheels, ’cause if you round them out they’ll disqualify your ass. I use different wheels for ‘run what you brung’ ’cause they only care about weight on that one…they don’t care about wheels…”
“Run what you brung?”
“Yeah, I started that a few years ago. It’s for sisters or grandparents or dads that want to build cars and race too. I’ve won it every year since it started.”
That did it. This man in his late 30s/early 40s was not only building his son’s car for him, but he was building and racing his own car. He was also fiercely proud that he was a perennial “winner.” Had he been motivated differently, this man had spent enough time studying the mechanics of aerodynamics and friction reduction that he could have probably become a real engineer. Maybe then his daddy would have put down the bottle long enough to pay attention to him.
My kid and I smiled and thanked the man and backed away slowly…because you never know if today was the day that he was going to finally snap and start stabbing random people with chunks of pine that he had whittled down into lethal weapons.
My kid never really got into the process and his car ended up being a green doorstop with wheels. He didn’t win or place and he didn’t finish last either. The crazy guy’s kid won by a large margin. I don’t know if he won the “run what you brung” again this year because we left before the pathetic display of lost youth began. I am sure we’ll hear about it tonight when we go back to the cold and sterile government building and nail random shit together in the name of father/son relations. I am also sure that the guy and his son will admire their winning chunks of wood for many years to come. My kid and I will probably be forced to play with our shitty car and admire our dignity.