In the universe of parenting young children, January is a dead zone of dreadful nothingness. Christmas gifts break or worse — become obsolete — cabin fever sets in, kids start fighting and dads suddenly find business trips to Scottsdale or San Diego. Clinicians long ago came up a clinical diagnosis called Seasonal Affective Disorder — SAD — which is translated to “get me out of here.” I read where experts have noted that other mammals figured out the best way to cope with this — go find a cave and sleep for three months.
I’ve tried this. It doesn’t work. I would find a spot in the basement, drift off in a deep sleep only to be discovered: “Dad! Where’s my Gameboy?”
But in the middle of this God-awful stretch there was always one event we circled on our calendar: The Pinewood Derby. The time line was very predictable: I would discard the parched Christmas tree, spreading a billion prickly needles around the living room, then take a seat on the couch, exhale and say something like “Oh my gosh. The NFL season has started.”
Just then one of my boys would come over, looking excited and holding a block of wood in a bag and say, “Dad — we got the Pinewood cars. This year we are going to win!” He’d then disappear in the basement for a month while I fiddled.
And so last month I was clearing out a storage bay at work when I found our car collection. There they were: 12 cars, 48 wheels, each one prone to sharp turns, which is not what winning cars do, and every model representing boundless expectations of a champion. The years were 1996-2004 at Pack 3096 at Nativity Parish in Leawood.
As I was admiring the collection, a co-worker walked by and saw the small cars and probably wondered what else I was hiding at work. My Little Pony collection? Precious Moments? Star Wars action figures? I nodded to her as if to say, “It’s complicated,” and she walked on.
So I decided to bring them back home, coinciding with the return of the boys for Christmas. In no time, our sons had encircled them, and the stories began. And they continued.
The engineering aspects were mine. The artwork was Lori’s. Judge for yourself who made the more important contribution. And over an adult beverage, the stories began, beginning with our first Derby.
The year was 1996; Connor was in second grade and a newly minted Cub Scout. Bill Clinton was president, and yes, it was a very different time. This was two years after Katie Couric on the “Today” show famously asked, “What is the Internet?” Back when parents did crazy things by today’s standards like read their children bedtime stories, construct puzzles and have other real interactions that are now left to Apple and Microsoft. A time before preposterous security questions like, “What was the name of your first pet?”
My life was complicated by the fact that I was the Cubmaster, which is something that happens when you show up late for the organizational Scout meeting in August. But at least I had the good sense to delegate the Pinewood Derby organization to another dad, so I could avoid distractions and focus on our cars, which — spoiler alert — did not fare well.
Our Derby night some 20 years ago was a massive event. Held at the Nativity cafeteria, every Tom, Dick and Harry attended, plus grandparents, neighbors, groupies, hangers-on who had no car because their parents had wisely decided to spend the week in La Jolla. One person conspicuously absent: the Leawood fire marshal.
You know those parental moments where everything comes together and clicks? This wasn’t one of those times. The anticipation lasts months. The race takes three seconds. You lose, it’s over. Sorry, kid. You’re a loser. So is your dad. Grab your mom by the hand and go home where the Kleenex inventory is plentiful. Then go find your dad’s pillow and toss it on the couch. He’s going to be there awhile.
But on this pre-Christmas night, our sons remembered none of this. Instead they were laughing about everyone else’s misfortune — the kid whose car wheels spun off the track at the “go” moment; the kid whose car was still dripping glue from last minute modifications; the kid whose car was high centered with weights plastered on the bottom.
We laughed at Lori’s handiwork: the non-PC car — Air Bud; the Scout-themed Swiss Army Knife; E-Racer. All handcrafted literally hours before the weigh-in. And absolutely world class.
We laughed about the kids who knew their cars had no chance so they spent the night exploring the parts of the school normally off limits —girl’s bathrooms and unlocked classrooms while everyone else was watching the Keenan cars lose.
Today those cars are the real trophies. Just don’t try to race them.
Matthew Keenan writes the first and third Wednesday of the month. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.