Pinewood Derby - A Life Metaphor?
While going through several old writing folders, I uncovered a few articles I had written for Foolish Times, which was/is a monthly print and online publication dedicated to humor and satire articles. The publication is based out of Monterey, CA.
When I was a boy, I was also a scout. I don’t have an overabundance of scout memories, but I do remember Pinewood Derbies. For those of you who don’t have a clue what I’m referring to, a Pinewood Derby is a car race.
Several weeks prior to the race, each scout is handed a bag with the following contents:
1 rectangle block of pinewood
4 plastic wheels
4 nails (wheel axels)
½ sheet of instructions
Each scout would take his trusty pocketknife (in those days, we called them pocket knives because we were actually allowed to carry knives in our pockets), and start whittling away at the block of pinewood.
There are 21,874 rules and regulations you have to comply with if you want to enter a car in a NASCAR race (I’m still waiting for NASCAR officials to verify that number). By contrast, Pinewood Derbies only have two rules you have to meet in order to race.
Rule #1: The racecar has to meet a specific weight limit.
Rule #2: This is a scout project, not a father-of-a-scout project.
By the time each scout removed all of the non-racecar pinewood from the racecar pinewood, there was always a few bloodstains in the wood where the pocketknife accidentally shaved off some non-racecar scout skin.
After the whittling came the sanding. The trick was to remove any obvious chips, nicks, and blemishes that could act as air pockets, which could act as speed inhibitors, which could act as excuses for coming in last place, which could act as motivation for all of the other scouts to ridicule you.
Like most other scouts, before putting blade to wood (and scout skin), I put pencil to paper. I designed the shape, style, color, and paint scheme of my pinewood racecar.
And like most scouts, the actual shape, style, color, and paint scheme of my pinewood racecar turned out slightly different than how it looked on paper. Okay, significantly different. But that was okay. There was always a sense of scout pride to do something from start to finish. And while my racecar would not end up in the Scout Pinewood Derby Hall of Fame Museum, I was still confident that it would take less time to travel the length of the racetrack than any other scout’s racecar. Each year, I would designate a place on my bedroom shelf to display the winning trophy.
The night of the big event would arrive and the first thing most scouts noticed was the scouts/scout fathers who violated Rule #2. It was easy to tell. No blood stains. Some scouts never got to whittle away a single splinter of non-racecar pinewood. Their dad’s would design the shape, style, color, and paint scheme. And if the scout’s dad was an engineer, he’d take the racecar to work with him and test it in a wind tunnel chamber. Over the years, my pinewood racecars competed (and lost) against some very aerodynamic racecars with spectacular paint schemes.
At the end of the night there was always one winner and a whole bunch of non-winners No one likes to lose. Even scouts. Scouts are Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, and Cheerful. Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent. But nowhere in the scout oath does it say anything about being a good sport.
Then one year something incredible happened. I won. It was not my best design. It was not my best whittling job. It was not my best sanding job. It was not even my best paint job. It was obvious to everyone participating that the winning scout’s dad played no active or even consultant’s role in the development and construction of the winning racecar. It was definitely a scout-only effort. I don’t know who was more surprised when I took home the trophy; me or my bedroom shelf.
The great thing about being a scout was the practical life lessons I learned without even knowing I was learning them. For example, Pinewood Derbies are as much about life as they are about racing.
1. I am a block of pinewood. I am responsible for whittling away the “non-me” part of the pinewood, and leaving only the “me” part.
2. Occasionally each of us wins a race, but most of the time we don’t. Sometimes we start strong. Sometimes we finish weak. Sometimes we don’t even make it out of the starting gate. Some people win even though they don’t even try. Some people finish last, even though they try very hard. Not winning can either motivate or debilitate. Our choice.
3. A trophy will tarnish over time, unless it is won unfairly. Then it starts out tarnished, and remains that way forever.
4. The only real losers are those who choose to stay in their bag; unwhittled, unsanded, and unpainted.