Pinewood Finals and Track and Field Day

I know you are all on the edge of your seat awaiting the results of our pinewood car race.  Well, wait no longer, my friends.  But first, to fully appreciate the following story I’d suggest you first review the epic prologue to this tale.

The time was about 3 hours ago.  The place: the Awanas pinewood racing finals.  There was electricity in the air as kids and parents alike filed into the auditorium.  At the front was a stage that jutted out in the middle, like a catwalk.  On that catwalk was a miracle of modern engineering.  A Wooden pinewood car track that started high above the earth, and then stretched out and down into the crowd of chairs to the delight of the onlookers on either side.  At the very end of the track was a sensor that triggered as each car traveled beneath, and registered with sub-second accuracy the time it took for each car to travel the length of the track.  The track had slots for three cars, and there were 34 entries.  The rules were simple.  Be the fastest car.  Well, actually the rules were pretty complex.  The 34 cars (and two ‘dummy’ cars – to make the group divisible by 3) would run in sets of three.  Each set of three would run their heat three times, rotating the cars between different slots in the track – to ensure that any anomalies in one of the slots didn’t affect the outcome of a single race.  Then the three runs for each car would be averaged together in order to determine the top 9, by average run time.  Then, the process was repeated for the top 9 in order to determine the top 3.  Then, the process was repeated for the top 3 to determine the final winner.

This process could take several years under normal circumstances, but on this particular night, the stars were aligned.  The wrong way.  The marvel of modern engineering was not cooperating, and on any given heat had decided not to register the finish of one, and sometimes two of the racers.  In other words, the sensors weren’t working, and heats had to be repeated.  And repeated.  And repeated.

Luckily my son was in the third heat of the first age group, so we didn’t have to wait very long to race the chunk of wood.  Well, “race” should probably be in quotes.  My boy was giddy with anticipation as he proudly handed his car to the starter.  He was joking around with the other kids as they strolled down to the finish line together to await the start of the heat.  As the pegs holding the cars were rolled away, it became readily apparent that the chunk of wood was going to live up to its reputation of being a pain in my backside.  It finished more than a second behind the next closest car, which doesn’t sound like much after you’ve run a mile, or a marathon, but is an eternity in this particular race.  Still, the boy held out hope.  Perhaps his car would be the Rocky Balboa of pinewood, and come streaking back with a world record time in the last two heats….

I think you can see where this is going.  We were obviously outclassed in this event.  We were like the play-in team in the NCAA tournament.  The one where you say “yeah, but even if they win this game, the number one seed is just waiting to smack them around.”  After the final two runs garnered similar results, my son grimly walked his car back to the table, set it down and quietly returned to his seat.

I know how he felt.  Disappointment is something we all have to learn about eventually, it just seems like some of us find it earlier, and more often, than others.  I can remember being in elementary school during track and field day.  There was electricity in the air on that day, too, as they herded 6 grades worth of students into a bustling gymnasium.  The principal addressed the lot of us: “By the end of the day, everybody will have a ribbon!” he announced.  This was great news!  They apparently knew that each child was particularly gifted in at least one event in which he/she would finish in the top three!  I was ecstatic.  I wondered what my event would be and whether I would get a blue (first) ribbon, a red (second) or a gold (third).

I should probably mention here that I was not an athletically gifted child.  This might come as a surprise to some who knew me in high school, where I eventually developed a bit of success in that area.  Actually, let me back up.  during this time in my life I had absolutely no athletic ability at all. In junior high school, I chose the baseball throw as one of my field events.  After all, I loved to watch baseball.  How hard could it be to throw one?  The object was to throw the ball as far as possible.  After my first throw, I had several boys looking at me quizzically.  One even felt the need to speak up: “Is that really as far as you can throw?”  Most people probably would have ignored that question, but I remember muttering out an angry “yes.” in response.

For elementary school, they rotated the kids so each child would participate in each event.  The long jump.  The high jump.  The 40 yard dash.  The balance-the-ring-on-your-head-as-you-walk-around-cones event.  I did them all, and afterwards we were all herded back into the gym for the “closing ceremonies”.  Grade by grade, event by event, they announced the top three finishers who would then proudly step forth and accept their ribbons.  Afterwards, everybody stood up to return to our classrooms.  But, where was my ribbon?  Somebody must have made a mistake, because surely the principal wouldn’t have lied about the whole ribbon thing.  I soon found out.

Upon returning to our classrooms, our teacher handed out a large striped red, white and blue ribbon to every student.  It said “Track and Field day: Participant”, but that’s not what I read.  What I saw was “Loser”.  Funny how, even at a young age you can see through the marketing BS.

Of course, I’ve learned a lot since those days, about what’s really important, about self-worth, about trying my best.  But my understanding of those things doesn’t make it any easier to watch my son silently observe the remainder of a competition from the sidelines;  a competition that he had no chance of winning.  When it was all said and done, the chunk of wood finished with an average time that placed it 33 out of 34 cars.  I tried to muster some words of encouragement, but I know what he heard.  The same thing I read on my ribbon.  He was seeing through every cliché I threw out there to try to lift his spirits.  Another thing also bothered me.  Since I helped him make the car, perhaps, in his eyes, dad became a little less perfect tonight.

Don’t get me wrong, being a dad is great.  It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.  However,   I’ve also heard that being a parent is the toughest job in the world.  I always thought that was because you had to punish your kids, or fight with them to get dressed, or tell them they couldn’t hang out with certain friends, or get up in the middle of the night to rock them back to sleep…but I think I found one of the hardest parts tonight.

To end on a positive: only the top three cars are required to “retire” for next year’s race, so perhaps the chunk of wood may eventually return to have its day in the sun.

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