Single mothers working at clerical jobs don’t have a lot of status in a place like La Jolla (OK, anywhere) but for a few years, there were two weeks a year where I owned this place. I had the official scale for the annual Cub Scout Pinewood Derby, the only scale that counted.
For those of you who never had a Cub Scout, the Pinewood Derby in March is the biggest event of the year. There’s a lot of fancy stuff you can get online now, but when I was running the Cub Scout program, there were only standard issue Pinewood Derby car kits containing a five-ounce block of pine in a car-ish shape, and some plastic wheels and axles. It was your job to turn it into a mean aerodynamic racing machine. Keeping the finished product as close to the five-ounce weight limit as you could get it was alleged to make the car go faster. Hence, the importance of the scale.
The cars were raced on a gravity track, several at a time, until the fastest car was determined, which graduated to the regional competition. La Jolla is nothing if not a competitive community. It’s actually meant as a supervised project simply because tools are often involved but the adult supervision line could get pretty blurred. In fact, someone commented to me at one point that the Pinewood Derby is actually a competition for adults who must be accompanied by a 7- to 10-year-old child.
Now, of course, you can easily find internet tips on how to make your car go faster, but back then, there was only Inga-net for parents who needed help. Fortunately, my now-husband, Olof, helped me create
Auntie Inga’s Aerodynamic Hints.Even I am fairly dazzled that any document attached to my name contained understandable instructions about drag, surface drag, departure vortices and (I’m totally dazzled with this one), smooth laminar flow.
Reducing drag/resistance (thereby making your car go faster) could be accomplished by cutting your little block into a more aerodynamic shape, sanding it with increasingly fine sandpaper, painting it with enamel paint, and getting the wobble out of the wheels.
It was probably not surprising that some of the work would be outsourced. I would regularly get calls at work from secretaries who’d been tasked with prep work on their bosses’ child’s Pinewood Derby vehicle and would inquire, “So just how many times do I have to sand this thing?” More than a few had sanded the little plastic wheels into oblivion and were inquiring about replacements. Before I left for work, I put out carefully labeled envelopes of parts, or even whole new car kits.
Always feeling bad for the kids who were eliminated early on, a fellow mom, Linda, and I decided that we would make this the kinder, gentler Cub Scouts, probably exactly the sentiment that founder Baden Powell created scouting to combat. Linda and I decided to award every kid a ribbon of some kind on the grounds that even the kids who had never seen their car before the night of the race should go away with something. To this end, we spent an entire evening making 77 ribbons for the “aesthetic judging.” (Sorry, Baden.)
As we rapidly discovered, there is only so much you can say about a five-ounce block of pine. We sat there with a thesaurus and some brochures from cars I’d looked at recently. The problem was, brochures that described cars I could afford at the time more often had descriptors like “peppy considering its 1.2 liter engine” and “voted least bad in its class by
Car and Driver.” An appropriate ribbon category would have been Kid Most Covered in Graphite.
But back to the scale. For two weeks a year before the Pinewood Derby, a steady flow of dads and kids streamed through my house to use the official scale. During the day, I would return calls to some of these dads during my lunch hour. A snippy secretary would cooly inform me that Mr. Jones was in conference all afternoon and would not be able to take my call. But as soon as I mentioned the word Pinewood Derby, she’d cut me off with a frantic, “DON’T HANG UP! HE’S ACROSS THE STREET HAVING LUNCH. HE ASKED ME TO COME GET HIM RIGHT AWAY IF YOU CALLED!” I’ve never had so much power in my life. (Or since.) From low-class single mom to Pinewood Princess. I had the scale. I had parts.
The day after the Derby, of course, my Cinderella life was abruptly over. But FYI: If you need them, I’ve still got some boxes of extra axels around someplace. u—
Look for La Jolla resident Inga’s lighthearted looks at life inLa Jolla Light