Fatherhood and the Pinewood Derby

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 pinewood derby.


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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 line.

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 Gremlin.

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 blog.

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