by Rich McIlhenny
Most fathers on the 100 block of West Mount Airy Avenue in the early 1970s spent their weekends mowing their lawns, tinkering under the hoods of their cars or doing remodeling projects on their houses.
But our father, Francis, took us to parks, rock concerts, folk festivals museums, or body surfing in Margate at the drop of a hat. No time or concern was left for the part of life where a father teaches his son how to fix a leaky faucet or change the oil of the car. Dad had an old box, filled with primitive tools that dated back to somewhere between the War of 1812 and the Spanish-American War. He came from a long line of the mechanically challenged. His father was a roofing supply salesman, and while they both had college degrees, they were the last people you would call if something stopped working or your vehicle broke down.
Once every year or so, my father would go out to our yard and use a big sickle to cut our lawn. He would hack away at the waist-high grass like a guide leading a group of hunters through the Amazon. If anything broke around the house, he would try banging it with his hammer. If that didn’t work, he’d apply gray tape to it, long before the whole duct tape craze came about.
In 1971, at the age of 8, I joined the Cub Scouts. One day it was announced that the annual Pine Wood Derby race would soon be held in the basement of Holy Cross Grade School. I was instructed to take my Pine Wood Derby kit home to my father, who was to help me design and craft a race car out of it in his wood shop.
Days turned into weeks as I kept asking my father to assist me in this important project. He kept putting me off for various reasons until finally the night before the big Derby, when he took me down to our cellar, realizing that he had no choice but to face this task at hand. We opened the kit that was provided for us. It consisted of a rectangular block of wood, two sets of wheels, some bonding cement and some numbered stickers.
My father dug into his rusted tool box and pulled out a primitive looking wood shaver that was most likely last used by his grandfather during the Taft administration. He tried to whittle the block of wood with the blade of this medieval tool, which probably had not been sharpened since it was purchased over 100 years before.
After a good 10 minutes of straining and grunting, my dad wiped the sweat from his forehead and handed me the rectangular block of wood – with one shaved corner – that now looked nothing like a race car at all. He then said “This #$^&@’s for the birds. Let’s paint the damn thing!”
So we got a tube of fluorescent green paint that my sister had been using at the Allens Lane Day Camp and slapped a few coats on it. After it dried, we glued the black plastic wheels onto the base and applied the numbered stickers (nine, as I recall) on each side.
The next night we walked down to Holy Cross. There were dozens of families making their way along Mt. Airy Avenue towards the school from each direction. Each had with them a young boy carefully carrying a box with his race car secured inside. As hundreds of people filled the school basement, there was a buzz as the judges got into their seats and the starter hooked up the microphone to an amplifier.
I looked around in horror at what other kids had made of the same kit that my father and I used. Their cars were sleek and aerodynamic. They were polyurethaned, shellacked and French-polished. They had actual seats with little race car drivers sitting in them. Everyone ooooed and aaahhhed as they pulled them out of their boxes, while I held tightly onto mine, my heart racing and my palms drenched with sweat. The first few races were thrilling for everyone but me as cars zoomed down the steep incline and made their way to the end of the track. Arguing followed a couple of photo finishes, and the fastest times were recorded on a blackboard for all to see.
I glanced at the table filled with trophies and prizes for Fastest Car and Best Design and the runners-up, knowing that I didn’t stand a chance. I then thought that maybe since we weren’t successful in shaving the wood off of it, my car would have more weight to propel it around the track and towards the finish line. I pictured the cheers that would follow and my picture in the newspaper the next day, holding a trophy and maybe even a check for a large amount of money.
The crowd cheered and clapped as Seamus Sharpe proudly walked up to the beginning of the track and carefully placed what looked like a miniature cherry red Ferrari onto the top of the track. It glistened in the lights as the crowd hushed in reverence at the beautiful creation that Seamus and his father had likely spent months together perfecting in their wood shop.
I cringed as I opened my box and removed the neon green rectangle with part of a corner missing and the big numbers on the side. As I lifted it onto the track, I could hear my parents and sister Lisa screaming encouraging words and cheers, but for only a few seconds. The roar of laughter and jeering that swelled through the room quickly engulfed everything in its path as I heard my own school mates, neighbors, parents, siblings and their friends screaming as they buckled over in pain, it was so funny. They screamed “What the hell is that thing!” and bellowed, “Wow, he and his dad must have spent a lot of time on that one!”
I tried to ignore them and feigned a smile as Seamus, my next door neighbor, and I stood on the starting blocks. The starter said, “On your marks!” as we grasped our cars and “Get set” as we looked down the sleek track, and “GO!!” as we released our grips.
In a whoosh, Seamus’ Ferrari flew down the track at breakneck speed; the crowd turned collectively to see it zoom by, as its passing caused their hair to roll backward like a field of wheat on a windy day.
They then turned quickly to see how far behind my car was, and another roar erupted as they noticed my green block of wood. It had come to a physics-defying halt, three feet down the steep slope of the track.
I was never more mortified in my life. I opened and closed my eyes, hoping I would appear somewhere else or at least find out that I was in a bad dream as I heard the announcer say, “And the winner, by a mile, Seamus Sharpe!” I walked over to my family with tears streaming down my face, not knowing how much this would affect my life and the respect from my peers I had carefully and unknowingly cultivated up to that point.
Even though I won the booby prize (a nice set of dishes with fake gold edging that I would get 30 years later as a wedding gift from my mom), I was changed at that moment for the rest of my existence. I had never known true humiliation and embarrassment. I had been used to praise, success and positive reinforcements in every part of my existence.
As we walked home that night, my father put his arms around me and said, “Son, you didn’t listen to me. I told you, you mustn’t squeeze the wheels,” starting what would be many decades of advice, most of it unsolicited.