'Gentlemen, start your wood blocks'

March 16, 1996|By Andrew Ratner

MY DAY OF reckoning is here: Today's ''Pinewood Derby'' of Cub Scout Pack 973.

Of the various challenges served up by parenting, this one unnerves me greatly.

The annual derby is a series of short races along an inclined track between miniature wooden cars, built by scouts and their parents. It is meant to be fun. And no one shames the losers least of all my 8-year-old boy, who was just as happy to zoom his ''blue bomber'' across the checkerboard linoleum of a school cafeteria after his entry lost last year.

Yet I know this project betrays my lack of skills in this area. When my own father tried to teach me about such stuff as a kid, my eyes glazed over. Only on those occasions when it is time to call a repairman do I regret not paying greater attention. As opposed to ''Saturday's Hero'' Rob Kasper, who writes a happy handyman's column elsewhere in this paper, calls from my wife about the latest maintenance need in our home merely ruin my day.

But a Cub Scout father can't hide from the Pinewood Derby. It has been snowed out twice so far this winter, but it is too much to ask for my prayers to be answered thrice. I take some solace that my son, again, probably won't take it hard if his car loses and also that there must be others just like me.

The derby is played out in thousands of communities, involving some 2 million boys. The races began 43 years ago in a Cub Scout pack in California. It was publicized in the scouting magazine Boys Life the following year and the event took off. Alongside oaths of honor, the ''Blue-Gold Dinner'' and merit badges, it is a fixture of scouting lore.

Typically, each scout is given a kit consisting of a pine block, four wheels and metal axles, with these simple rules: The blocks can be carved and decorated in any manner, so long as the final product does not exceed five ounces.

My skill limitations aside, the premise behind the activity eludes me. An 8-year-old boy is supposed to use a coping saw to create a car? I don't think so. The derby is meant to be a father-son bonding thing, but it seems to separate the men from the boys, so to speak. Some of last year's sculpted entries looked like prototypes from a General Motors lab, with enough coats of enamel to rival a Lamborghini. They resembled the handiwork of boys all right who were 30 to 40 years old.

The Scouts downplay the competitiveness angle, and rightly so. Yet the fact that participants are encouraged to insert weights in their chassis and dust the wheels with powdered graphite lubricant could lead reasonable people to the opposite conclusion.

Pinewood Derby outlaws

I know I'm not the only person so conflicted. In fact, a toy maker in the Ozarks is somewhat the outlaw in scouting circles. The owner and plant manager of the small Missouri company, which primarily creates scenery for model trains, had difficulty crafting pinewood cars with their own sons years ago. So under the name ''Pine Car,'' they created a series of precut bodies, decals and other items to outfit the racers.

Their unauthorized line, sold in many hobby shops, violates the First Commandment of the Pinewood Derby: Thou shalt not have a precut car. Some packs are more sticklers about this stricture than others. Like a lot of sin behind closed doors, however, it's hard to discern after all is sawed and done who carved whose car.

Actually, the Texas-based parent organization, the Boy Scouts of America, still wrestles with this issue. Said Burts Kennedy, assistant national Cub Scouts director, ''With a lot of single moms out there raising their sons, they may need help with cutting the cars.''

Being a man, of course, how could I argue?

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/16/96

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