A Block of Wood and the Tools of Independence

Memories of the Pinewood Derby — a Scouting tradition — prompt a reflection on fatherhood: If Dad gets too involved, he's a jerk. If Dad stays too far away, he's also a jerk. What's a caring parent of a Boy Scout to do?

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

As we get ready for Father's Day tomorrow, NPR's Howard Berkes shares his reflections on fatherhood. He says it's far more complicated than greeting card slogans, and an obscure Hollywood comedy helped him figure out why.

HOWARD BERKES reporting:

The film was called Down and Derby, and it didn't last long in theaters. All I saw was the trailer. It showed overzealous dads shoving kids aside in a dad-eat-dad war to design and carve sleek and speedy racecars for the Pinewood Derby. That's been a Cub Scout ritual for 50 years. It was distant ritual for me until Down and Derby stoked the memories.

Back in the 1960s, I stared at my Pinewood Derby kit: a palm-sized block of wood, a pair of axles, and four tiny wheels. I didn't have a clue what to do. My den mother didn't seem to know either. Ask your dad, she said.

My dad was a politician and away most of the time tending to the people's business, but I'm not sure he would've been much help. We didn't have any tools, and I'd never seen him with a tool. We would have stood there staring at that wooden block and those two little axles and those four tiny wheels, wondering what to do next. So I was on my own.

I remember thinking I could simply carve the thing into shape, but whittling only turned that finely milled cube of pine into a disfigured cube of pine. It looked more chewed than carved. Someone must have shown me how to fasten the axles and wheels because the next thing I remember is derby day.

The race was held in a church hall, and it was filled with fathers and sons cradling smooth and sleek cars with paint and decals. I stood alone, hiding my hacked block of wood-on-wheels in cupped hands.

The race was simple. Place the cars on parallel tracks that are five-feet high at the start and stretch 30 feet to the ground and the finish. Trip the starting gates, and gravity does the rest. It was 40 years ago, but I still remember the cheering and confusion. How'd they make their cars look like that, I wondered? How'd they make them so fast?

I told a friend about the memories and the movie. Fathers can't win, he told me. Get too involved, push the son aside, and dad's a jerk. Don't get involved, leave the son alone, and dad's a jerk.

I still haven't seen that Pinewood Derby movie, and I still don't know how to build a Pinewood Derby racer, but I do have tools in the garage, and I know how to use them. I can fix a leaky humidifier, rebuild a computer, and replace a toilet. Maybe that hacked block of wood of naked pine, the slowest, ugliest, and bulkiest thing in the race, made me determined to figure out things for myself.

I carved independence out of that little block of wood, but I also wonder this: what would I do if my daughter came home with a Pinewood Derby kit? We'd figure it out somehow, probably not producing the sleekest, quickest, or snazziest car, but I'd be there with her, cheering at the race.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: Those thoughts from NPR's Howard Berkes.

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