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Bil Lepp: Hands off my Pinewood Derby car, Dad

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Every year, Cub Scouts have a Pinewood Derby. Each Cub gets an officially sanctioned block of pine about 7 inches long, an inch tall and 2 inches wide. The block comes with four plastic wheels and nails for axles. The theory is that each boy will take his block of wood, a pocketknife, a saw, sandpaper and some paint to create a race car to compete against cars made by other boys. Adults are supposed to help, and to be prepared to administer first aid, but the adults are not supposed to actually build the cars.

Yeah. Right.

Each January I received my kit. My eyes glazed over. Ideas raced through my brain. I could make an Indy car. Or a wedge. Or 1950s hot rod. Oh, the plans I made! I contemplated how I was going to saw it, where I was going to place the wheels, and how I was going to paint it. I'd sketch my car with little lines coming off the back to depict great speed as it blazed by the other boys' cars. Each year I received that hunk of pine and, like Michelangelo, I could see the speedy David locked in the wood.

Then I would go home and give the hunk to my dad. His eyes glazed over. Ideas for cars raced through his brain. Oh, the plans he made! He sketched his car with little lines coming off the back to depict great speed as it blazed by the other dads' cars ...

I had two older brothers, so my dad had already "helped" build six derby cars. He'd never had a winner. I was his last chance. I'd watch as he measured, jigsawed, power-sanded, graphited, smoothed, carved and crafted "my" car. Sometimes he let me sand the car - but only on the back or the bottom.

My mom would call down, "John! He's supposed to be building it!"

My dad would call up, "He is! He's sanding it right now!"

I also got to help ensure the car was the proper weight. Each car was supposed to weigh 5 ounces. Dad would drill holes in the bottom of the car and fill the holes with molten lead. We got the molten lead by melting fishing weights with a propane torch. Dad let me hold the torch.

Dad worked hard on those cars. And, year after year, our cars failed to take home the gold.

My final race came when I was 10. This was Dad's last chance, too. I watched Dad putting the finishing touches on "our" car. It was about 10:30, the night before the race. The phone rang.

Dad said, "What? Oh, hello, Christian." Christian was a kid in our Cub Scout den. "Well, why didn't you call last week?"

Dad hung up. "Christian needs a car."

Dad went to pick up Christian and his hunk of pine. Christian sat beside me while Dad did what he could. He'd spent weeks making my car, he had mere hours to build Christian's. My dad rounded the edges with his knife, touched the wood with the sander, and let Christian apply a coat of paint. Dad slapped the wheels on without adjusting or balancing them.

Well, you guessed it. Dad had his winner. Christian's hastily carved, barely sanded, poorly painted car won the whole competition.

My car didn't even place.

You may think the moral of this story is, "If you leave things to the last minute, you'll probably win the whole race," but that is not the moral. In fact, it's not even moral time because that isn't the end of the story.

I grew up. I had a son. He joined the Cub Scouts. In January, hunks of pine were handed out. My son stared at that piece of wood, dreaming of how his car would look, how he would cut it. ...

And I remembered how much, when I was a kid, I'd wanted to make my own Pinewood Derby car.

I said to my son, "Let me help you with that." And I cut and I sawed and I sanded and I chiseled and I painted and I balanced and graphited - and you know what? We won second place.

I got home from the race and called my dad. "See? You should have let me build my own cars. You might'a won!"

So, kids, wrestle that block of wood from your dad's hand and do it yourself. But don't be selfish. He really wants to help. Maybe let him sand the bottom, or the back.

Bil Lepp is a resident of South Charleston and a full-time author, storyteller and recording artist who has published 12 audio collections of stories, three books of short stories, a novel and a nonfiction parenting book. He has picked up a number of awards along the way, including four Parents' Choice Awards. He finds time for writing when he's not building Pinewood Derby cars. He can be reached at leppstorytelling@gmail.com.


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