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Let us establish now I am not very good at this fatherhood
thing. I am a struggling father, an amateur, a dilettante. My
children know this-I've been proving it to them since they were
born. For my son, the proof was never so obvious as during the
I tend to plan the way some people fall off a cliff, coming to
my senses moments after something expensive lies smoldering at my
feet, long enough to say, "Maybe I should have read the
instructions." I also tend to reject proper tool usage to the point
where Menard's has issued a restraining order.
So nobody should be surprised I screwed up my-I mean my
son's-pinewood derby car.
First of all, the manufacturer's verbiage claiming its paint
will dry in one hour is a big fat lie. The only thing happening in
an hour is the scout master will come into the broom closet where
you're building your car (your son's car) AS THE DERBY IS STARTING
to tell you (unprintable) or he will (unprintable). And the wheels
will get stuck to the fuselage.
Which really doesn't matter in the great story arc of life. But
there is a moment when it does matter. There is, in fact, a moment
where those wheels, shellacked to the body of the car by a generous
application of Krylon Red #5, bear the weight of a '57 Chevy in a
single glance as your son tries to place his car on the track ...
and it sticks to his fingers.
However, there is another moment even heavier: When the chucks
release and all the cars speed down the slope toward the finish
All the cars. Except his.
Yeah, the manufacturer coulda said something about that.
Look, I know something about being shamefaced: I attempted
dating in the '80s. I worked at a theme park. I drove a purple
So I knew how to react. I knew precisely the harrowing precipice
of dignity my father-and-son dynamic skidded toward in the gravity
of that glance. As my son's public humiliation went nuclear, as an
entire auditorium of parents shushed, their heads swiveling in
unison toward me, as the raw force of an accumulated scowl swept
toward me like a bright red tsunami, I thought to myself: "I should
have used a hair dryer."
The next year was no better. Heck, the next two years were no
better. My car-my son's car-never placed. I spent at least $50 on
kits, sandpaper packs, chrome pipes, high-gloss lacquer, but no
matter how many hours I put into my car-my son's car-I didn't
place. He didn't place.
Finally the kid said, "Dad, can I try?" and then I got it. I
mean, it was soooo obvious. I should have seen it coming a mile
away: this was one of those blunt lessons of fatherhood, a Zen
smack, a light bulb as bright as the sun, and it was shining across
that dim auditorium directly onto me.
The kid grabbed a chunk of pine and built what appeared to be a
wedge of cheese with a number 7 scrawled on its side. It wasn't
sanded. The wheels were crooked. It was yellow. This car had
nothing going for it.
He didn't win. I mean, he was racing a block of cheddar against
a SpongeBob, a third generation doorstop, and a perfectly rendered
1967 Camaro Super Sport. He came in fourth.
And he didn't care.
Winning had nothing to do with it.
Christopher Garlington is a Chicago dad and the author of
the deathbychildren.com blog.
Christopher lives in Chicago with his wife and kids and can also be found at deathbychildren.com.
See more of Christopher's stories here.
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