My grandfather’s basement workshop was pristine and overly outfitted, like he’d won it in a raffle at Sears and Roebuck. As a boy, I would venture down there with him on occasion to fix a wobbly chair, or grab a hammer needed to re-enforce a birdhouse, but nothing more.
An Iowa farm boy turned professor of Russian History, he was patient and stoically masculine but had a jolly hair-trigger laugh. Matched with his prescription Ray-bans and brill-creamed hair, he was as dapper as any 60′s ad man. A light-drinking faithful Don Draper type who was a dependable bridge partner; my grandmother was a lucky woman.
I was 10 years old and in Cub Scouts for the first time. The Pinewood Derby was the big event of the year. It was our gender’s equivalent of Girl Scout cookie season. Each boy was given the same kit with a miniature wooden car body, 4 wheels, and two axles. We could paint it however we liked, add passengers, cover it in stickers, anything that made it uniquely ours. The trick to the cars was their weight. They came light, and we could add a certain number of ounces however we liked. The cars would be put on a scale before the race, like a prize fight.
My grandfather graciously accepted the challenge to help me turn my wooden slug into a race car. He’d decided we would drill small holes in the body of the car and fill them with small lead sinkers, the kind used by fishermen. This would allow us to disperse the weight evenly throughout the racer. I want to say we dusted off his drill, but I think it was the first time he’d ever used it. He helped as I carefully drilled 12 perfectly spaced holes. That’s how many lead sinkers it would take to put the car at near maximum weight. I dropped one tiny little bullet into each of the holes. We filled the extra space with wood glue and let it dry over night.
The next morning we sanded it and gave it a few coats of metallic blue paint. After dinner we attached the axle and wheels, making it the perfect competition weight. I paraded my car around to all my friends while giving my grandfather many false credits including “auto mechanic,” and “master carpenter.”
I had the car wrapped in a bandana when my mother and I arrived at the derby. I remember feeling like I was carrying something far more valuable than a hunk of painted wood.
It was a single elimination tournament. Races were held on 5 different tracks of 4 cars each. Losers went home and winners stayed to take on 3 new opponents. I was randomly selected to be in the first race. I knew the other cars didn’t have a chance. Two of them weren’t even painted. I smugly placed my car on the starting line with the others.
The doors opened and our racers slowly started rolling down the track. As they built up speed my car veered to the left and contacted another car, disqualifying me. The whole thing was over in 15 seconds.
It was the first time I can remember feeling like something impossibly unfair was happening to me. I disassociated and began sobbing and screaming for a “do over.” “My grandpa helped me build that car!” I couldn’t understand how something that seemed to be built so perfectly, in the perfect conditions with the perfect person, could fail. My mother tried to contain me, but I’d lost it. I was embarrassing myself and I knew it, but I couldn’t stop.
I don’t think my mother ever told my grandfather what happened. At least I hope she didn’t. What I realize now is that all the boys that day had a story about how their car was built with someone special to them. That was the whole point; to get us to seek the help of a family member and experience the joy that comes with cooperating to build something you’re both proud of.
We were all too young to understand that winning the race didn’t validate our loved ones.
My father told me the next day, “Jace, you know that track you lost on? They stopped using it because they found the lane you were in was bent.” I’ve always chosen to believe him.