Elementary school in the 1970′s still had the vestigial patina of post-war civic high-mindendess, so along with the book fairs, assemblies (when it was still ok to sing Christmas carols) and field trips to the local police station (we were fingerprinted!), the Cub Scouts came calling. I was never much of a joiner, but somehow became one anyway; probably because it meant for two days a week, I didn’t have to go directly home and could eat junk food at our local Den, the basement of our scout master’s house. But aside from this and the groovy blue and yellow para-military dress, the premier draw of being a Cub Scout was really The Pinewood Derby.
The Pinewood Derby promised awkward gap-toothed boys that if you took a Boy Scouts of America-sanctioned block of wood and crafted from it a car of precisely engineered and aesthetic proportions, you might go on to win heats and races and trophies for the glory of all mankind (the rules governing all this are disturbingly unregulated).
I received my kit with great excitement; it was comprised of a block of wood (pine, presumably) two nails (the axles) and four plastic wheels. With help from my mother and brother, I set out to make a sleek and fast racer. The block was carved down to a shoe-shaped airfoil, painted silver with a nifty lighting bolt logo on the front. We injected lead weights in the undercarriage to bring it up to the allowed maximum weight for optimal speed (although as it turns out where you place the weight is critical). Tuned to the limits of aerodynamics, design and performance that a 5-ounce hunk of pine could muster, the car was ready to face its challenge.
Large Cub Scout events took place in the school gym in the evenings or weekends. I remember the walk from my house to the school vividly; a ten minute trip, I always enjoyed rambling down the sidewalk, looking at the houses and the cars screaming by on this somewhat busy street. This time, however, I, along with my brother and a friend, made for the school with steadfast purpose. Pinewood car under my arm, Cub Scout uniform crisply pressed, we charged the main entrance like a gang looking for a fight. I heaved open the massive Gothic doors and bound towards the gym. The air was thick with excitement; seeing many of my schoolmates in Cub Scout attire, the gym was transformed from a scattering of ropes and medicine balls into a vast sea of blue and yellow. At the center were the Pinewood Derby Tracks.
Three wooden race tracks, two lanes each. Perhaps 30 feet long, the ends were raised about five feet from the ground where a simple wooden hinge gate regulated the release of the cars. I had never actually attended the Pinewood Derby before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I don’t think it was this. The tracks were made up of three or four sections. The joints weren’t particularly well made, so they took on a profile more like a NASDAQ chart rather than a linear curve.
Although I felt a twinge of caution about the clearly slipshod condition of the tracks, I was still optimistic that the event would be fun. My car was sleek, it was sexy, it was fast. I had the chance to try not only for a speed record, but also the design competition. Surely my car, with its Art Deco inspired retro-future styling, was a shoe-in?
There didn’t appear to be much order to the proceedings. Cars were racing down the tracks continuously, with seemingly little fanfare. Being a “W”, my car was to run near the end of the first round, so I had a chance to watch all the other races. In short time I noticed a pattern; the cars that ran on the second lane of track three lost. All of them. Every time. Did anyone else see this? I don’t know. I might have mentioned it to my brother, or kept quiet, I can’t be sure. More likely the latter, as I wasn’t one to question authority. After all, this was an official event, with official Scout leaders and official trophies. It didn’t seem right to ask whether something was wrong with the track. And yet there was, and I could see it clearly; the track was warped. Thirty feet of plywood nailed together as haphazardly as this, it was inevitable. A warp in a track like this was doom for these little pine cars. With hard plastic wheels and nails for spokes, there was very little leeway in which a car’s quality could overcome the deficiencies of the tracks.
It was race time for me, and when the official told me to place my car in lane 2 of track 3, I spoke up. I protested that lane 2 was slow, and all the cars lost in it, and I would rather use lane 1. My complaint was overlooked, and I was told to use lane 2 or none at all. I couldn’t believe it! I had exposed a technical problem with the race, asked to be given my track of choice, and summarily shot down.
And so, lane 2 it was. I placed my car behind the starting gate, the acid of anger in my stomach coursing up to my throat. I knew my car would lose, and was powerless to stop it. The other Cub Scout placed his car next to mine, in the unwarped, unblemished track 1. He was innocent in all this, of course, but that didn’t stop me from hating him. And as the gate rose, and our cars started their plodding pull towards the end of the track, I knew that not only would I lose, but I would forever rid myself of the belief that life was just.
After it was over, I pushed out of the school with my brother, the car under my arm permanently retired. I worked my way home on auto-pilot, all thoughts consumed with the intense feelings of betrayal and unfairness that can overwhelm a ten year old. And as the school sunk lower into the receding distance, I let go of my anger and began to cry uncontrollably.