Every January since 2008, I have been participating in the Cub Scout Pinewood Derby, a diabolical scheme in which a young boy and his dad are supposed to transform a 1.25-by-1.75-by- 7-inch block of wood into a 5-ounce vehicle capable of speeds up to 140 miles per hour.
If you are an engineer or a woodworker or have a son who is an engineer or a woodworker, this is great fun.
If you are an ordinary Joe without the right tools or access to the right tools, it can be a gut-wrenching activity fraught with peril.
The most stressful part of the entire affair is check-in. This is when you take the fruits of your (and theoretically your son’s) labor and hand it to some pimply-faced boy scout or adult leader who carefully inspects your car to ensure it can lawfully compete in the next day’s race.
I have approached the table with my heart racing and fear welling in my soul.
That guy with his pencil and his template board that’s cut to mimic the dimensions of the track, studying his notes, measuring with his little ruler, has absolute power over you in that moment. I hate that guy.
Last night, I was that guy.
I don’t really know how it happened. I’m currently a den leader and an Assistant Cubmaster, learning the ropes from our seasoned Cubmaster. Because I’ll be taking on even more responsibility next year, I had to learn the ways of the Pinewood Derby this year from Reed. That meant I sat, as his understudy, judging people’s hard work, marking off the 15-point checklist and banishing them to the work table where they could alter their cars to meet the specifications.
After inspecting about 50 cars, I got to the point where I could just tell by looking which ones wouldn’t make it. My day job is public relations. I had to use every one of my tricks of the trade to communicate bad news in a way that a 6-foot-6, 300-plus pound dad would hear me without snapping my pencil neck.
I am also a seasoned church goer with years of experience working with people on their spiritual journeys. I had to use every counseling technique in my arsenal to comfort the teary-eyed mom who had employed all possible resources to get the car built but had come up short on wheel clearance.
I recognized the emotions on their faces. I knew the pain they felt. I have been there. I have been banished to the work table to frantically add weight, straighten axles or align wheels, all with my boys staring over my shoulder, looking at the clock, offering helpful reminders such as “Dad, we’re not going to finish it in time!”
What I needed then and what I needed last night was a giant dose of perspective. This, I think, is the real benefit of Pinewood Derby. Yes, I have written before about how the derby gives you an opportunity to work on a project with your son. And that’s still a valuable gift.
But having sat in the seat of judgment for two hours, feeling the tension rise up my spine until my neck and shoulders locked up, I realized that this was a child’s event, not a matter of life and death. The worst possible outcome was disappointment, which is really just a teachable moment for boys and their parents.
So today as the cars race, I will be otherwise occupied at my church. Carla will have the boys huddled around the track with 100 or so members of our community, watching the engineer and woodworking dads reap the rewards of their hobbies. They’ll cheer for each other, and Harris’s aircraft carrier will hopefully receive some design recognition if not capture a first, second or third in speed.
After all the cheering dies down and the elementary school cafeteria is cleaned and reset for serving lunches, I hope we can take a deep breath, recognize the good from our investment of time with our sons and get that giant dose of perspective.
But then again, there are only 364 days until the next Pinewood Derby.
Have you been that anxious parent at the Pinewood Derby check-in? Do your child’s or grandchild’s activities make you a nervous wreck? How do you cope? Leave a comment below and help us all get the invaluable perspective we so desperately need with our children’s activities.