Monday, March 19, 2007

Pinewood Derby Blues: Why I Stopped Riding the Elevator

Both elevators in my office building display posters for the upcoming Pinewood Derby contest. That's right, a Pinewood Derby contest for grown-ups. I am being perfectly honest when I tell you that seeing this poster gives me a jolt of anxiety. Imagine opening up your high school yearbook and seeing a picture of yourself picking your nose while staring at the head cheerleader's chest. Your likely physical reaction — tingling hands, churning stomach, mild loss of equilibrium — is what I feel whenever I step in the elevator. I'll explain.

My brother Mark was a golden child. Even though I was two years younger than he was, I still felt inferior. Any adult would have used all the logical reasons to tell me that I shouldn't compare myself to him, but that wouldn't have registered with me. I needed proof. My name might as well have been Notmark. Or maybe Unmark. (See, now that would have been a fun experiment to do with the twins. Name them Max and Notmax or Luke and Unluke. Or name them both Du'qwan, only put the apostrophe in a different place. Duqw'an. Triplets? D'uqwan.)

Anyway, when we were scouts, our troop held a typical pinewood derby contest. You're given the materials — a block of wood, axles, and wheels — and it's your job to carve out a car. In most cases, this consisted of a young boy scout handing over the the kit to his father, who then competed with other fathers to create the fastest, most resplendent car. Unfortunately, my father was dropping bombs in Vietnam, and my mother was busy with the 4.5 kids (Billy was on the way), so I was on my own to convert the block of wood into a car. I used my imitation Swiss Army Knife to whittle off the corners per Mark's vague instructions. Then I used a hammer and screwdriver to chisel out the cockpit for my driver, who happened to be a little green army man with his legs cut off. As you can no doubt imagine, it was an objectively ugly car, yet my pride grew in proportion to its ugliness. The more I worked on it, the more delighted I became. Maybe I had an Ed Wood-like blind spot to my creation, but I loved looking at that fat green car, especially after I tacked on the wheels and spray-painted the better part of it. My brother, who is not 100% evil, found out that my car was a little too light, so he helped me drill a hole in the bottom of the car and pour in molten lead. (A conflicting memory depicts my father in this role, but I could swear he was out of the country. Please just let me continue.)

I don't know how pinewood derby contests work nowadays — I try to avoid the subject — but back then all the boy scouts and cub scouts gathered in the church gymnasium and put their cars on display next to the trophies for "Phase 1: A Contest of Appearance." I thought my chances were good because none of the other cars had a driver. I don't want to get too bogged down in describing my bitter disappointment. Let's just say that I didn't win an award, and I walked around in a daze, trying hard to reconcile the results. Maybe I should have painted it purple like the winning car... Maybe I should have used the flamethrower army man instead of the guy with the grenade... Maybe the judges didn't see my car...

My self-confidence was low, even for Mormon standards. I buoyed my self-worth by playing out a Super Bowl game in my mind's eye. After returning from a serious knee injury, I bravely led my team to a thrilling come-from-behind victory while Mark stood on the sidelines in a leg cast. As I was answering reporters' questions about what it felt like to be the first astronaut to be the Super Bowl MVP, I realized that "Phase 2: A Contest of Speed" was about to begin. A man was using a microphone to announce the competing cars, giving the race a Big Event feel. It seemed like 70,000 people were watching. When the starter put my fat green car in its lane, my butterflies were so intense I thought I was going to soil myself. The starter lifted the gate, my car poured out, and — victory! It wasn't even close.

The racing continued. Whenever my car was involved, the results were always the same, regardless of its lane assignment or competition. I won. People were talking about my car. "That thing is ugly as sin, but it sure can fly." MY car. Little Bobby, the shortest kid in his class. Oh, who did you say won that last race? I'm sorry, I couldn't hear you? Me? Really? I won my fifth race in a row? You don't say! Hey, Mark, your car seems pretty fast, too. You win every time, unless my car is racing, and then you finish second. So we both have fast cars. Isn't this fun?

The race officials tallied the scores to find the three fastest cars. There would be a final race — a mere formality — and then I would humbly accept my trophy and hold it aloft for everyone to see. I had the most points, my brother was next, and there was some other wannabe who was likely honored just to be in the same race as me. Ah. I want to keep writing about this glory, because as soon as I move into the next scene, you'll see how the wheel of fortune spun all too quickly. Here it goes: Before the final race, the starter dropped my car. A wheel came off. In case you're skimming and didn't catch that, I'll say it again in its very own paragraph.

The starter dropped my car. A wheel came off.

Several officials gathered to help fix the car. After a few moments, they agreed that the wheel had been reattached to their satisfaction, so . . . let the final racing begin! In the first of two races, my car rattled down the track like it had a blown tire; my army man wobbled so badly I thought he was going to fly out. Third place. I'm sure my face was so white that even the freckles disappeared. The starter fiddled with the wheel a little more for the finale, and my car did better this time, hanging with the other two cars but still finishing behind them. Mark won.

For years, I had to look across the bedroom at my brother's huge first-place trophy. For third place, I got a cheap little plastic trophy that was identical to the one I got a year later for winning a water-balloon throwing contest at a friend's birthday party. Don't think we didn't argue about who really won the race. And don't think I won any of the arguments. Big brothers never lose.

Now that I've written about this, I feel better. Almost healed.