Politics & Policy

Pinewood Derby Pile-Up

Film At 11.

I am a patriotic American. I love my country and everything it stands for. I have even been known to take an oath to defend my nation from all enemies–both foreign and domestic. What I am about to say may seem to contradict those sentiments: It may seem shocking, disgraceful, un-American. In this time of war it may even be deemed treasonous. But I don’t care. There comes a time in every man’s life when he must speak truth to power, and for me that time is now. So, consequences be damned! Warm up a cot for me at Guantanamo Bay, because the time has come to denounce the ultimate evil that is destroying our society from within like an esophageal hiatal hernia the size of a quarter that burns a hole in your gullet every time you so much as walk past an Italian restaurant: I hate the Pinewood Derby.

For those of you who do not have an eight-year-old boy (or have never been an eight-year-old boy), a brief explanation. The Pinewood Derby is not a wooden hat, it is an annual Cub Scouts event in which each scout is given a rectangular block of wood and with his father’s guidance, transforms it into a five-ounce racing car. It is an exercise in creativity, confidence building, and father-son bonding, and therefore is a living manifestation of all that is good and wholesome in this world.

I hate the Pinewood Derby.

I was in the Cub Scouts for one year when I was a kid. We moved around a lot (I went to 33 different schools between kindergarten and 10th grade–but that’s a subject for another piece–actually, that’s a subject for a heavy dosage of electro-shock therapy) so scouting wasn’t really in the mix for me. The one year I was in Scouts, my pack went on one scouting trip–to a local nightclub to see a bad magician. I think one of the leaders ran the nightclub, so they got a deal. The magician’s big finish was pouring a glass of milk into a rolled up newspaper. I could see the “hidden” container inside the newspaper and told him so. Besides, some of the milk missed the container and was sogging up the paper. The guy was a terrible magician. I think he was billed as “The Great Milkdini.”

That was pretty much the extent of my scouting career.

My father and I did do a Pinewood Derby together, though. My dad was a painter and carpenter and he had those big, scarred working-man’s hands–the kind of hands Mario Cuomo used to wax poetically about in his speeches and get everybody all excited. (“Did you hear the way Cuomo talked about working man’s hands last night? That guy oughtta run for president! We need a president who can talk about hands like that!”) We employed the traditional Pinewood Derby division of labor: I designed the car, Dad did all the cutting and carving, I did some of the sanding and all of the painting.

Dad was a quiet man (except when he was angry, which was most of the time–see reference above to another piece and/or electro-shock therapy). He spent a lifetime methodically and patiently working with his hands, so we spent quite a lot of time together working on that Pinewood Derby car. It was blue, with a yellow racing stripe down the middle. It had rounded edges and was very shiny. My Dad taught me how to paint the car with even strokes. It was a beautiful car.

It didn’t win any prizes, but I loved that car because my Dad and I worked on it together. I held onto it for a few years, but eventually it got lost in one of our many moves (I’ve decided to spare you the other piece and just go for the electro-shock therapy).

My eight-year-old son and I have just completed building our third annual Pinewood Derby car. I have inherited absolutely none of my father’s carpentry skills. To create even the simplest Pinewood Derby designs involves much cursing (by me, not my son), a certain amount of hacking away with four different saws (an ugly site, I assure you), frantic phone calls to other dads, and a whole lot of trial and error (quite a bit more error than trial). A successful year is one that doesn’t involve bandages and Neosporin.

This frantic burst of violent anti-carpentry is the culmination of weeks of tossing and turning and whining and complaining (by me, not my son). Do we really have to do this? Can’t we just skip it this year? Could we just explain to our son that we’ve converted to some trendy religion (Scientology? Kabballah?) that forbids, um, carving?

Of course, today’s incompetent dads do have the advantage of the Internet, where you will find thousands of helpful tips on building your Pinewood Derby. Tips like this from a popular Derby site: “Dump the axles and wheels in a Zip-lock bag with some graphite and shake them for a few days prior to the race. That way the wheel and the axles are as slick as can be.”

Spending days shaking a Ziploc bag filled with graphite and little plastic wheels is very good advice indeed, particularly if you are a deranged lunatic looking for repetitious activities to engage your insane mind in order to distract you from listening to the voices in your head urging you to kill.

Somehow we get through it every year. My son designs the car, I hack away like a madman, and he does most of the sanding and all of the painting. We go to the races, I’m all knotted up inside but he has a great time. His car has yet to win a race–but he cheers on all his friends and he eats pizza and he runs around and he’s a great kid.

I hate the Pinewood Derby. But my kid loves it.

Comedian Dave Konig starred on Broadway in Grease! and won a New York Emmy as the co-host of Subway Q&A. Konig has written a novel, Good Luck, Mr. Gorsky. Konig is also an NRO contributor.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”


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