A couple of days ago I posted a blog about preparing for Camp Quest Arizona. I got a few likes and a couple of comments. One of the comments that I received on FaceBook was about the Pinewood Derby. Pinewood Derby played a significant role in my entire life and I’m very happy to share it with the kids at Camp Quest.
I was introduced to Pinewood Derby quite a few years ago—actually over 50 years ago. I was in a Boy Scout pack hosted by a Catholic Parish in Idaho. My father was serving in Trabzon Turkey on a remote assignment with the United States Air Force and my mother and two sisters were living in a converted basement a couple of blocks from the Catholic school I attended. We had come to Pocatello half way through my 3rd grade year. A remote assignment is one of the occupational situations that occur when you’re serving the country and my father’s number was called. For those not familiar with the military jargon, a remote assignment is one where the military member must go overseas without his family. At the time, the normal duration for a “remote” was 15 months. My mother and father were from Pocatello so it made sense for us to relocate there while my father was away. We’d be close to family.
One of the normal activities associated with Boy Scouts is Pinewood Derby. Each boy is given a kit consisting, at that time, of a block of pinewood, two axle supports, 4 nails, and 4 wheels. The kid, with the help of his father, was to make a “race” car to compete with the other members of the pack. My father was unavailable and my mother was not capable of helping me make my car. However, she found someone to help me. I didn’t know him and I don’t know where she found him. I can’t remember his name. He was a Bishop of the LDS Church and volunteered to help me build the car for the Pinewood event. I must confess that I don’t remember looking into this man’s eyes. I was 8 years old at the time. To this day, I appreciate what he did for me. It’s a shame that I don’t remember his name. I met with him and he was very patient with me. He asked me what I had in mind for my race car. I had no idea! I knew what my uncle’s sprint car looked like and chose to make it look like that. I remember that he wasn’t sure that was the right way to go but couldn’t talk me out of the design that I had in mind. I took out a pocket knife and scored the shape into the block. Over the next few weeks I went to his house and cut and sanded on the car. It looked like what I had in mind but we were running out of time. My benefactor helped me out by taking the car into his work place and painting it for me. When I saw it, I was amazed. He had finished it for me and it was beautiful. It was perfectly finished and shiny. He gave it to me and I was on top of the world. My mother thought that I shouldn’t have it until the day of the race and placed it on top of the refrigerator where I couldn’t get at it. Unfortunately, it fell and the wheels were cracked. My benefactor took the car back and filled the wheels with wood putty so that the car could still be used in the race. I never forgave my mother for destroying my beautiful car. The race was anti-climactic. It was held in the basement of the Catholic Church. I handed over my patched up car to the race officials and watched—distant and disconnected from what was happening. I remember the lever on the side of the track being turned. I remember the cars going down the track and I remember that my car finished last. That was it. It was over. My beautiful race car had lost and I was done. I won no awards but I took my car home and 54 years later, I still have it.
My next experience with Pinewood Derby involved my own son. He was in Boys Scouts for three years and I have his three cars. The first year I helped him quite a bit and the car shows it. In subsequent years, I did less of the actual work. This is as it should be. However, I never forgot my experience and worked with the pack leadership to make sure my own son’s experience would not be the same as mine. The first year, I offered to help but was turned down. “No help needed. We got this,” I was told. To be fair, the pack at Edwards AFB did run the event in such a way that each boy got a chance to run more than one race. The philosophy was that each boy got to run on each lane at least once. However, their electronic scoring system failed and they relied on volunteers looking at the finish line to determine the winners. This didn’t work out well! The second year, I once again offered to help but was told “We got this.” Again, the electronic system failed and scoring was left to the calibrated eyeballs of volunteers. The third year my friend, Don Golding, and I were determined to make the event the best that it could be. We built a new track and Don Golding developed and built the electronics scoring box. I wrote a software program and a procedure to insure that each boy got a chance to run on every lane and at least once against every other boy in his group.
My son’s last year in Boy Scouts and his last year of Pinewood Derby was quite rewarding for him and his pack. The new track and software made for a conflict free event which is unusual for these types of events. Everyone who participated came away with the feeling that they had just experienced a fun and fair event. Each boy ran their cars at least 6 times and they handled their own cars. They were involved.
I’m now over 1000 words and only through with the first chapter of the story. Watch this space for the rest of the story. Next time I’ll post pictures of my son’s three cars and our father/son experiences.