The Power of Pine

For the last five years, I’ve spent one Saturday in January at a unique sporting event that induces anxiety, quickens the pulse and triggers a few tears.

Of course I’m talking about the annual Cub Scout Pinewood Derby.

Harris and Barron working on their Pinewood Derby cars
Harris and Barron hard at work turning their blocks of wood into works of art... fast art.

This anachronistic competition is a throw-back to the days when kids made their own toys out of what they found lying around. In an era when everything is plastic and comes with detailed picture instructions, the Pinewood Derby challenges kids to use their imagination and show dexterity with sharp implements.

It’s a simple concept: You get a block of wood. That’s it. Oh, and four small nails and four plastic wheels. It’s an intimidatingly blank canvas.

Pinewood Derby makes me anxious because I am not a woodworker. I do not possess woodworking tools. I do not possess woodworking skills. We have relied on the help of our friends, Jeff and Christine, who have been gracious with their time, expertise and equipment. They help us get the body of the cars into their basic shapes, so the boys can go to town on them with files, sandpaper and paint to achieve their artistic vision.

Barron's 1966 Batmobile and best bud Noah's Mach 5 of Speedracer fame.
Barron's 1966 Batmobile and best bud Noah's Mach 5 of Speedracer fame.

Each year, my oldest son, Barron, has come up with designs that flow right out of his interests. The first year it was a Jeff Gordon replica car straight from his NASCAR obsession. A week after a visit to Sea World in Orlando, he came up with a Shamu car, complete with dorsal fin. After “riding the Ducks” at Stone Mountain he conceived of the amphibious “Duck” vehicle. Beginning guitar lessons last year produced an instrument on wheels. This year he reproduced the 1966 Batmobile, which ran pretty well and received lots of attention from the dads, if not their sons, who remembered watching the old Batman series as kids.

This year was Harris’ first foray into the world of Pinewood Derby. Like all second-born children, he benefitted from his brother’s experience. I still have nightmares about Barron’s first year. I felt like a terrible parent as I watched Barron stand, dejected, at the foot of the race track while Jeff Gordon didn’t have enough weight to roll down to the finish line. I hadn’t done the research from among the myriad websites to help him be at least moderately successful.

Harris posing for a photo for his second place design.
Despite the forced smile, Harris really was thrilled to earn second place for "showmanship" among the Tiger cubs for his hot rod school bus.

This time around, we were ready. Harris’s hot rod school bus did well, earning a second place in showmanship among all the Tiger cubs and first place in speed for our den. His flaming bus may not be sanctioned by the Gwinnett County School Board, but it will get you to school on time.

All told we probably spent 20-30 hours on this year’s cars, including helping Carlton with his car. Carlton’s idea of working on his car was putting five coats of paint on the pine block, each a different color.

Overall it was a great morning at the races. Our nerves gave way to laughs as we spent time with friends. The boys displayed good sportsmanship, pulling for their buddies and not throwing tantrums when their cars weren’t the fastest.

After five years I’ve finally figured out the magic of the Pinewood Derby – time. It’s all about the time Barron, Harris, Carlton and I spent together hacking at, sanding, painting and sealing a block of wood.

Like the race itself, life passes all too quickly. What matters most isn’t finishing first. It’s building what it takes to get you to the finish line.

A Minor Surgery

First thing Monday morning, Harris had his adenoids removed and tubes put in his ears. It was the very definition of a “minor surgery.”

All went according to plan, and Harris returned to school on Wednesday. In fact, he perked up several hours after he returned home. If you have to have a surgery, this is the one to have.

Harris before surgery
Harris is all smiles before his procedure.

As a parent, though, I couldn’t quite compute “minor.” I knew and tried not to worry about the risks of sedating a child. It is a slight risk, but there is still a possibility of complications.

This tiny chance that something could go wrong wreaked havoc with my emotions all weekend, culminating in a palpable sense of dread Monday morning. Harris, who’s 6, seemed at peace with it all, not really looking forward to it but certainly not dreading it. He had already been through this once several years ago. He had tubes put in his ears when his hearing problem first surfaced during a routine screening at his pre-school.

I spent my Monday morning as I spend most mornings: rising at 4:30, praying, reading, writing, and working out. I dispatched Carla and Harris to the outpatient surgical center at 7:15, armed with a list of chores to take my mind off things. The surgery was scheduled for 9 a.m., and I looked at my watch constantly throughout the morning as I emptied the dish washer, loaded the washing machine and fixed breakfast for Harris’ brothers.

It was maddening.

I worried about Harris. A middle child with a quick wit, charming smile and propensity for attention seeking, I couldn’t stop the encroaching thoughts of “What if?”

I am not a worrier. Carla can probably recite my lecture on the dangers of “What if?” thinking. “Let’s try not to worry until we have something to worry about,” I frequently say.

If traditional gender roles can be trusted at all, she is supposed to be the one who worries. It’s OK for her to fret about the one-in-a-million chance that something will go wrong with a minor surgery. I’m supposed to stay calm.

So I did what I think a lot of men do – what my dad probably did when he was worried about his boys: I transferred. I took those feelings of fear and being out of control and focused them on cleaning, straightening, laundering. I had spent the weekend leading up to the surgery working with the boys on their Pinewood Derby cars, getting so worked up over each minor set back. It finally occurred to me on Monday morning that I had been worried about Harris.

Trying to keep your emotions in check is draining. The relief I felt when I got Carla’s text, and when Harris, still groggy, came in and laid down on the couch restored my equilibrium.

Missing tooth
During the adenoidectomy, an emergency toothectomy had to be performed.

But, I’m sorry to say, there was a complication. After the anesthesia kicked in, the doctor discovered that one of his top front teeth was extremely loose. So when Harris woke up, he had a new, lisp-inducing gap in the front of his mouth. He just laughed at himself, and entertained his brothers who kept calling out “s” words from him to say.

Now that this tiny interruption in our lives is behind us, I can say that the minor surgery accomplished more than helping Harris breathe and removing the pressure on his ear drums. It prepared me, even if only a little, to face with my kids days that have larger consequences. It was practice for the major stuff.

Minor surgeries. Sometimes our hearts don’t know the difference.

Everything I Need to Know I’m Learning on the Farm

Carlton on Poppy's tractor
Before there was playground equipment, kids played on farm equipment. Looks like farm equipment may be more fun.

Everybody needs a farm.

Not to make a living. That’s one of the hardest things anyone can do with his or her life. No, I think people need a farm, even if they don’t own it, to go and learn how to live. The lessons there are simple, profound and unavoidable.

Last Saturday we visited Sandersville to celebrate my mother-in-law’s birthday. While we were there, we rode out to their farm, about 12 miles outside of town. It’s a great place for suburban boys to get dirty, have fun and do things they normally have to pay for back in the city.

For Barron, it’s a place to practice his marksmanship. Having taken to shooting in his scouting activities, Barron begged like Ralphie for a Red Ryder BB gun this Christmas. When all hope was lost, my parents stepped in and bought him the gift, the last one he received the Tuesday after Christmas.

We set up some plastic bottles and a paper plate as targets. Barron quickly drew up a series of not-so-concentric circles with a Sharpie to make a bull’s eye. It took him and his Poppy several minutes to find the best spot, but it wasn’t long before he was “plinking” BBs off the bottles and popping holes in the uneven rings of his target.

He’s a pretty good shot. He has a fairly steady aim. He’s patient. The only problem arose moments before we left. After an hour or more of shooting, he finally had a BB go astray. It went through the paper plate target, hit the plywood behind it and ricocheted back, hitting Carla in the waist. Although it barely left a mark, we all took note. Never shoot with a firm surface immediately behind your target. What you end up hitting will most likely be you.

While Barron worked on becoming the next “Top Shot,” I drove the other two boys around the farm on Poppy’s camouflaged golf cart. Under Carla’s anxious and omnipresent eye, we slowly traversed the bouncy terrain. I had one hand on the steering wheel and one on Carlton, tucking him close to my side.

Goat stuck in fence
The grass is always greener.

It had been a while since I had driven the property, and when we came to a crossroad on one of the trails cutting through the pine trees, we had a decision to make. I chose the one that I thought led back toward the house. Taking the well-worn path proved to be a good decision. At least in this case, the road less traveled led to a ditch.

After safely depositing Carlton on Poppy’s tractor so he could pretend to clear the back 40, Harris got his driving lesson. We found a good wide path with plenty of clearance on each side and let him test his skills. For the next half hour, we veered from one edge of the path to the other as he consistently overcorrected.  By the time we finished he was doing pretty good, learning that just a slight turn on the wheel here and there will get you where you want to go a whole lot quicker than jerking from side to side.

As we drove the golf cart back to our van, I noticed one of the smaller goats had his head stuck through the fence, unable to pull back through because of his horns. The boys loaded into the minivan to ride home with Carla and her mother while Poppy and I went to rescue the goat with poor decision making skills.

I asked him if this happens often.

Goat with his brothers
The goat on the left was the culprit. You'll notice the youngest kid in the back. Yep, he was bottle fed.

“Aww, I get one or two out nearly every day,” he said. “Sometimes they can get themselves out, but most of the time, you’ve got to help them.”

We pulled up to the fence, got out and Poppy grabbed the goat’s little horns, gently tilting its head so that the horns could go back through the wire. It only took a few seconds, and the little fella was no worse for wear, jumping about and butting heads with his brothers in no time.

There’s always work to be done on the farm. Raising goats and pine trees has its own reward, but maybe, the best crop that farm is producing is three boys. I just hope they are paying attention.

Answering the ‘Call of the Wildman’

An amazing thing happened Jan. 2. Rather than watch college football, which is my usual New Year’s custom, the boys and I spent the afternoon watching the most compelling television I have ever witnessed.

Ernie Brown Jr. AKA the Turtleman
Ernie Brown Jr., AKA the Turtleman

While in Florida last week on Christmas vacation at my parent’s house, my dad introduced me to Animal Planet’s “The Call of the Wildman.” In 30-minute increments, this reality show follows Ernie Brown Jr., AKA the Turtleman, as he travels around Kentucky removing unwanted animals from people’s homes, barns, ponds and storage sheds. Words cannot express how captivating this is.

You see, when most Southerners encounter a nuisance animal, they usually solve their problem with a bullet, according to Neal James, Turtleman’s sidekick and secretary. But Turtleman, who reportedly grew up in the backwoods of Kentucky, has a genuine love of animals. He seeks to relocate the animals without harming them. As Neal puts it: “He doesn’t want to hurt them, so a lot of times that means going mano-y-mano.”

Add in some dramatic music, tight editing, skillful camera work, droll humor and Turtleman’s infectious enthusiasm and you’ve got a recipe for reality television at its finest. Debuting in November, the Call of the Wildman is gripping television because of the lack of pretension, the raw excitement of grabbing dangerous animals and the apparent lack of monetary reward. Turtleman’s payment is usually something like $35 and a homemade apple pie.

Turtleman and his critters
Turtleman and his critters

So far the boys and I have seen him pull snapping turtles from a cow manure-filled pond, rescue opposums from a bourbon distillery, catch a fox in a hen house, wrestle a turkey terrorizing a farmer’s corn maze, pull several raccoons from their roosts in people’s homes, rig a trap to ensnare an infestation of rats, remove skunks from a tool shed and retrieve dozens of snakes from a theater.

Perhaps the most amazing feat was grabbing a bat out of mid-air. Having dueled bats in my own house a time or two, I had the most respect for this display of skill.

Why is this so compelling?

Ernie Brown Jr. is a likeable hero. You pull for him. He seems genuine in his interactions with the people on the show. He’s a self-promoter, yes, but more for your entertainment than his benefit. His signature “Yeyeyeyeyyeyeye” rebel call and catch phrase “Live action!” pull you into the thrill of the hunt.

Watch this YouTube video of the Turtleman from Kentucky Afield in 2008, and you, too, will be hooked. It might even compel you to join his fan club on Facebook.

But it’s not just Ernie. Neal is the perfect straight man. His droll quips, banjo playing and concerned pleas for caution add the necessary context for each assignment. Because Neal has long distance telephone service, he is the Turtleman’s self-proclaimed secretary, setting up appointments and booking appearances.

And when the jobs are too big for the two of them, they bring in two more members of the Turtle Team: Squirrel and Jake. With Ernie’s faithful dog, Lolly, you have yourself quite a cast of characters.

When I came back to work after New Year’s, I tried to explain to my co-workers how fascinating this is to watch. One friend from Kentucky was embarrassed by all the “toothless hillbillies” and what she viewed as a negative stereotype of people from Kentucky.

But I think rather than mock them, the audience admires the Turtleman. Yes, his exploits appear insane, and he is missing quite a few teeth because of a run-in with a chainsaw. He is sincere. He is tender hearted. He has an appreciation for nature and a knowledge that can be acquired only from experience.

So if the boys have found a new hero, I can think of a lot worse role models on television than Ernie Brown Jr.

When I got Carlton up from his nap on Monday, the first thing he said was “Can I watch the Turtleman?”

Yes, you can, as long as you make room on the sofa for me.