This dad comes in last

Let us establish, now, that I am not very good at this fatherhood thing. Never have been, never will be. I am a struggling father, an amateur, a dilettante. My children know this; I’ve been proving it to them since they were born. For my son, the proof was never so obvious as during the pinewood derby.

I tend to plan the way some people fall off a cliff. I backplan, coming to my senses moments after something expensive lies smoldering at my feet long enough to say, “Maybe I should have read the instructions.” I also tend to reject proper tool usage to the point where the home improvement chain Menards has issued a restraining order.

So nobody should be surprised I screwed up my pinewood derby car.

I mean, so nobody should be surprised I screwed up my son’s pinewood derby car.

First of all, the manufacturer’s verbiage claiming the paint will dry in one hour is a big fat lie. The only thing happening in an hour is the Scoutmaster will come into the broom closet where you’re building your car (your son’s car) AS THE DERBY IS STARTING to tell you [unprintable] or he will [unprintable]. And the wheels will get stuck to the fuselage, which really doesn’t matter in the great story arc of life.

But there is a moment when it does matter. There is, in fact, a moment where those wheels, shellacked to the body of the car by a generous application of Krylon Red #5, bear the weight of a ’57 Chevy in a single glance as your son tries to place his race car on the track…and it sticks to his fingers.

However, there is another moment that’s even heavier. And that’s when the chucks release and all the cars speed down the slope toward the finish line. All the cars.

Except his.

Yeah, the manufacturer coulda said something about that.

Look, I know something about being shamefaced: I attempted dating in the ’80s. I worked at a theme park. I drove a Gremlin. I drove a purple Gremlin.

So I knew how to react. I knew precisely the harrowing precipice of dignity that my father-and-son dynamic skidded uncontrollably toward in the gravity of that glance. As my son’s public humiliation went nuclear, as an entire auditorium of parents shushed, their heads swiveling in unison toward me, as the raw force of an accumulated scowl swept toward me like a bright red tsunami, I thought to myself: “I should have used a hair dryer.”

The next year was no better. Heck, the next two years were no better. My car — my son’s car — never placed. I spent at least 50 bucks on kits, sandpaper packs, chrome pipes, high-gloss lacquer; but no matter how many hours I put into my car — into my son’s car — I didn’t place. He didn’t place.

Finally, the kid said, “Dad, can I try?” — and then I got it. I mean, it was soooo obvious. I should have seen it coming a mile away: this was one of those blunt lessons of fatherhood, a Zen smack, a lightbulb as bright as the sun, and it was shining across that dim auditorium directly onto me and I knew, I knew right then, that I needed powdered graphite lube.

The kid was having none of it. He grabbed a chunk of pine and built what appeared to be a wedge of cheese with a number seven scrawled on its side. It wasn’t sanded. The wheels were crooked. It was yellow. This car had nothing going for it.

He didn’t win. I mean, he was racing a block of cheddar against a Sponge Bob, a third-generation doorstop, and a perfectly rendered 1967 Camaro Super Sport. He came in fourth.

And he didn’t care.

Winning had nothing to do with it.

Winning has nothing to do with it.

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