Monday, January 28, 2013

The Pinewood Derby

Isaiah 48:7 (NIV)

They are created now, and not long ago;
   you have not heard of them before today.
So you cannot say,
   ‘Yes, I knew of them.’
It was our first Pinewood Derby. It hopefully will not be our last. But after our car’s performance, I could forgive Jack for not wanting to try again. On the other hand, there’s nowhere to go but up.

First, the raw details. The track has six lanes, and each Scout’s car gets one run down each of the lanes. For Jack’s age group that meant there were 12 total races. Max and I sat along the track near the finish line, Jack stood behind the trophies with a full view of the track and, most importantly, the timer that showed the speed of each car as it crossed the finish line.

Our first Pinewood Derby car. Hopefully not our last.
There were 87 cars in the Pack 627 Derby. Jack’s car finished 79th overall and dead last among Bear Scouts. As he so eloquently put it, with a scowl upon his face, “I got sixth place six times in a row!” Our car’s average time was 3.9574 seconds — the only consolation being the eight kids who couldn’t break the four-second barrier. Jack’s average speed was 163.7 mph. This is pretty impressive until you look at the top times — 199 mph for the Bear winner and 202.3 mph for the overall champion.

Jack also did not win the coolest car award, as voted on by fellow Scouts, or the design award, as decided by race organizers. He mostly kept his composure despite the frustration, though I could not ignore the disparity between the beaming, trophy-holding Bear Scouts posing with Jack’s Den leader while he started to pout just off camera.

I knew before we got there it would not go well. I’d never built a Pinewood Derby car, but I knew sawing off two corners to make it pointy (“Like an arrow”) and covering it with red spray paint was not the path to domination. I also knew it was not the best idea to start the project the day before the race, but I was not looking forward to the eventual blowup we had Saturday afternoon. Perhaps that’s a classic example of self-fulfilling prophecy, but I prefer to consider it the practical response to knowing one’s child as well as he knows himself.

If you're not the lead dog, the view never changes.
I will proudly say our car looked the most like the authentic handiwork of an actual eight-year-old. Jack had no idea what kinds of things you can do to turn a block of wood into a sleek, elite racing machine that’s just as cool to look at sitting still as it is racing down an aluminum ramp. Certainly we could have spent some time online looking at pictures and videos of other Scouts’ cars, but I did not want to inflate his expectations.

One of the other kids in his Den followed that path. I overheard him at our last Den meeting talking excitedly about his car and his plans to win all the races everywhere, but I knew his wouldn’t be the fastest at our race, let alone worthy of a grander stage. And I was right — it looked nice and was a half-second faster than Jack’s. But it was only good for sixth place amongst the 12 Bears. I’m not trying to run the kid down, but his mom has to deal with a different kind of disappointment than I do.

As for Jack? His initial reaction was anger. He wanted to destroy his car, perhaps taking a chainsaw to it. Where he’d get a chainsaw, I have no idea, but he was still committed to that outcome. I saved the car and hid it from him, if only for my own sentimentality. But while we were still in the cafeteria, he asked to be signed up for the upcoming Blue and Gold Banquet because he wanted to have a positive Scouting experience. During our short ride home, he was mentioning plans for next year’s car (much skinnier), which to me was a remarkable turnaround from the sullen display of just a few minutes earlier.

Next year we will plan ahead. We’ll do a little research and probably involve a friend who is handier with tools than me. In addition to building the car earlier, we’ll also have to manage Jack’s expectations better. If he works really hard and still loses every heat, he may become inconsolable. I suppose these are the kind of lessons a Pinewood Derby teaches you beyond how to build a car — to manage your time, to study, to win and lose with grace and so on.

Ultimately, I’m proud of my kid. Things didn’t go his way, but he managed his frustrations. He had no problem revealing them to me, but that’s what I’m here for — to allow him to be honest and open without fear of rejection. I need to be a safe place for him, even if it’s a burden to bear the full brunt of his third-grade rage. I also get to see him at his absolute best, so it’s not as if I spend my entire life as a whipping boy. It’s all part of being a dad.

Plus, we’re Cubs fans. “Wait ‘til next year” is a pretty familiar concept. Losing teaches important lessons, and we’ve started to learn them already. It wasn’t bunches of fun, but it was a good day.

A prayer for January 28:

Lord, thank you for the chance to spend time with my sons, guiding them through their childhoods. Thank also you for the lessons my father taught me, and especially for your instruction in so many different ways. Help me set a good example for my boys, remembering the example you set for us. Sometimes it can be so difficult to deal with disappointment, but never let me forget how your love never lets me down and that you promise ultimate victory. Your grace sustains me, and for that I am blessed. Amen.

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