Sunday, March 14, 2010
My father lends a hand.
When I was about eight years old my father got so sick we never talked about it. My brother and I returned from school, the house was dark, my mother being a depression mother and leaving no lights on that didn’t absolutely need to be on. She sat us down and told us that our father was in the hospital and needed some rest. No, she wasn’t sure when he would be home. Yes, there was something we could do. We could be good soldiers, do well in school, don’t quarrel with each other, keep our room clean, help out around the house and listen to her. If we did all that, we’d be helping our father convalesce.
I knew the next day that whatever happened to my father was pretty serious because people who weren’t ordinarily nice to me, or even mindful of me, started paying attention. Miss Keiserling, my teacher was especially kind to me. I remember once we had a vocabulary test and we had to spell correctly and use the word flawless in a sentence. I wrote “I am flawless” and she commented on my test “HA! You sure are.” She was always good, Miss Keiserling was, at giving us a break after learning about Hernando Cortes or the bi-cameral system and almost always gave in to my requests for an additional period of recess.
Around this time my mother decided I needed to spend time with other boys my age and she put me in the Cub Scouts. Even at the age of eight I wasn’t much of a joiner and I dreaded the Cub Scouts. I didn’t like the uniform. I had no desire to earn a merit badge for spelunking and the idea of needing parents to supervise our activity seemed like something out of the cornier pages of that dentist-office magazine “Highlights.” Highlights had a monthly feature called “Goofus and Gallant” which pitted the two boys against each other. Invariably Goofus would rip his school clothes climbing a tree on the way home while Gallant would collect deposit bottles and make 17-cents or something. The whole Cub Scout organization seemed bent on making us Gallants when Goofus was the one who had all the fun. In any event, every Tuesday afternoon and Thursday night I had to put on my Cub Scout uniform and go to a meeting at somebody’s house.
One meeting I remember particularly well. It took place just about a week after my father returned from the hospital—leaving his hospital bed for the one he shared with my mother. This was a Thursday night session and I rode my Schwinn over to Johnny Auletta’s house in the dark. Most of the other boys were there with their dads. The dadless ones like me mostly stuck together trying to avoid too much connection with anyone else’s dad. Then Mr. Auletta came in with eight or ten plastic bags, handing one to each kid.
“Boys,” he said. “This here is your pine box derby racer. It doesn’t look like much now, just a square block of wood, but over the next few weeks, you’re to work at turning it into a racing car. When we’re ready to race, first we’ll determine our den champion. Then we’ll race for troop champion. If someone here tonight is good enough and builds a car that’s fast enough, he could go to the National Pine Box Racer Jamboree in Spokane, Washington to race against other boys.”
We opened our plastic bags and inspected the contents. A rectangular piece of balsa wood about eight-inches-long, with notches where the wheels would go and a large indent where an imaginary driver would sit. There were also four black plastic wheels and four two-inch nails to act as axles for the wheels.
“Now, boys,” Mr. Auletta continued, “read the rules on the instruction sheet and bring your racer with you next week and we’ll check up on your progress. And may the best car win.” On one side of the instruction sheet there was a simple diagram and list on rules; on the other, there were some photos of suggested designs. Somehow boys had transformed a simple block of wood into something that looked like it would be right at home in Le Mans or on the Indianapolis Speedway.
I rode home with my kit in my basket, not really sure how I was going to enact a similar transformation. The most complicated thing I’d ever made was a 79-cent Revell model of an X-15 supersonic jet. Making that consisted basically of snapping about a dozen plastic pieces together and applying decals. This project seemed substantially more involved than that. Plus, I was potentially competing for the championship of Cub Scouts across America.
When I got home my father was still in bed, resting, convalescing. My mother said it would be nice, would make him feel better if I went in and said hello to him. I sat on the bed beside him and showed him the pine box derby kit. He looked at it with interest. “Maybe you can make it look like Jim Clark’s racecar,” he said. He took the balsa wood model from my hands and grabbed a pencil that was lying next to his old Philco alarm radio on his night stand. Quickly he drew lines on the balsa. “Tomorrow, borrow a hacksaw from Mr. Martechinni next store and saw away on the lines I drew,” he said.
After my next Cub Scouts meeting I again went upstairs to say hello to my father and show him my pine box derby racer. He held the model in his hands. Again he grabbed a pencil and drew some quick lines. “Run over to Brewer’s after school one day and get some sandpaper and smooth your car until the pencil marks are gone. And pick up a small can of dark green paint and a brush as well.” He told me to ask my mother for three dollars. That would cover the supplies.
I did what my father said but I had never worked with tools before or really painted anything before. I was about to glue the wood blocks into their notches and affix the wheels but my car looked nothing like the photos on the instructions or like the racing cars I’d seen in magazines or on television. “It looks fine, son” was all my father had to say. “Besides,” he continued “It’s not how a car looks. There are no points for that, it’s how fast it goes.”
The next week when I came home from Johnnie Auletta’s house my father surprised me by being out of bed. He was sitting at the kitchen table in his old flannel bathrobe. He used to be fat and now he was thin. He had with him a drill, a soldering iron, some wood putty, my mother’s kitchen scale and a bit of the green paint I had left over. “I read in the instructions about the weight limit on these cars and I got to thinking,” my father said. He took the pine box derby car from me and placed it on the scale. “Just as I thought,” he said. “You’re two ounces under.”
Quietly my father drilled two holes in the front of the car then filled the holes with melted solder. In a minute when it had dried, he applied a dab of wood putty, smoothing it with his thumb. Then he painted it over so you could barely notice. My car was now just a hair under regulation weight. “It’s all about gravity, son,” my father said. “The weight upfront will pull the car forward.” He gave the wheels a spin and handed me back the racer.
I don’t remember anything about how my car did when it was time to race a week or so later. I know that some of the boys had cars that looked like they were made by Da Vinci—they were aerodynamic, sleek and air-brushed. My car looked like a sponge on wheels. In any event, I didn’t win. Not my den. Not my troop. Not my division, state or region. I didn’t get to go to Spokane.
I rode my bike home from the races, again in the dark. And tossed the car into a trash can at the end of our block. When I got home, my father was back in bed.
Posted by George Tannenbaum at 6:45 PM