We Learned It by Heart

We Learned It by Heart

We learned it by heart. “A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.” In this refuge from the cold, cold world, Cub Scouts were allowed to be good kids and outstanding citizens …kind of like George Washington… if he had been a scout. And unlike school, where sometimes the toughs or tyrant teachers ruled the roost, here in the Den and Pack it was comfortable to be decent.

And with that in mind we took up the annual challenge that vexes 9 year-old boys every year in America to this day. Just how do you build the fastest pinewood racing car in the pack? Do you trim it down so it is aerodynamic or leave a lot of bulk that will give it a good push down the starting slope? Of course we all sanded and sanded – the whole time from New Years Day to the Blue and Gold dinner we sanded and sanded. But any modifications were made within the rule sheet which was included in every single box for every single derby car-to-be. You just could not get around the rules for there they were.

And with great diligence, my father (Fathers were allowed to “guide” but not do any actual work.) and I drilled out part of the core and poured in molten lead so that the weight would be distributed right over the wheels and it would use that weight to gather the momentum to sail down the track. But of course there was a maximum weight and we dutifully stayed within that weight so we could conform to the all important rules.

And after the sanding and sanding and applying paint layer upon layer and modifying to further adjust the weight to accommodate the layers of paint, the car was ready and sat quietly in the basement for week – ready and ahead of time. God himself could not sink this ship. I was ready.

Walking into the “gymatorium” in the Penn School for a Pack 34 meeting had a different feeling at night. There was a power and majesty about the place that you never felt while you were in school. The pseudo-majesty defied the state of repair where every fifth theater seat was broken and the stage curtains held a faint smell of mold. There were lots of parents there to watch the scouts. Some girls from class had brothers who were scouts and, happily, they might be there too. But we were the center of it all. And I carefully carried my car into the registration line as if it were an overfull glass of milk. And I set it on the table and proudly gave my name.

“Here is your number.” said an egg-headed scout leader I recognized as the father of a younger egg-headed version of his dad. Then he asked, “Do you want to use some graphite?” “What’s graphite?” I asked with eyes wide open. “Well, it’s a lubricant …………” and the rest of the sentence faded out I and felt myself falling away.

A lubricant! Everyone knew you were not allowed to lubricate the cars! It was printed right there on the rule sheet that came in every box with every car. Now you would think that a professional engineer and graduate of Davidson College could read at least as well as me! I didn’t know what to say. Rules were rules. My mind was spinning from confusion. At that moment my scoutmaster happened by and I tugged at his khaki uniform shirt. “Mr. Newton, Mr. Newton…” I was almost in tears as others behind me signed in, got their number, and stood in another line to get a perfunctory squirt of 3-in-1 oil. He asked what went wrong. “Apparently, Mr. Egghead greased the wheels on little Eggie’s car when he – er, his son was building it. Now, since the Eggies had broken the rules, they want us all to break them.”

And my thought was that this was to be accomplished how? They are going to provide some puny squirt to everyone’s car. Even to a kid it was obvious that this compensatory lube job was not quite in the same category as the full schmear that had been applied earlier at the Eggie home – illegally. And now they are going to make every car illegal! That can’t be right.

I took no lub. I lost my first race. I have no idea of how well little Eggie or his six-foot tall wannabe-Cub scout father did. In my mind the race had ended at the registration table – well, actually MORE than the race ended at the registration table.

I had always supposed that when the chips were down and the wolf was at the door and the sun didn’t shine that the scout leaders would have been on my side. Knowing now that they might conspire and cheat against me was painful. And after all these years, it stings to this day.