Racing the Cheetah
Two nights before the race, he and Justin worked outside, carving the car with a skillsaw.
Then Justin told Johnny, "Sand it down real good so that it will go fast."
Johnny sanded it for two hours.
Next they painted it the color of our upstairs. Because that is orange, Johnny decided to make it a Cheetah car, and he carefully painted on irregular spots. They let it dry over night, and the next night put on the wheels and weighed it down with washers.
"Mine is going to be the fastest one there," Johnny said, running around the house with the car in the air.
"Don't get your hopes up too high," Justin said. "The important thing is: We worked on it together, right?"
"Right," Johnny said. "Is there a prize for first place?"
Kids don't understand the concept of not getting their hopes up. I think it's because their hopes are never down.
So the next night we went to the pinewood derby and they were testing a the track with a second grade boy's car. It got halfway down the track...and stopped.
The kid was watching, in a daze. Then he turned to me.
"My car's broken," he said. "It's the wheels."
"Maybe something's wrong with the track," I said.
"No, it's the car," he said. "It's broken."
"Oh, so some cars just don't make it?" I said. It never occured to me, because the track is sloped steeply downhill, and then the cars just have to go a short ways on the flat track.
"Mine didn't," he said.
"I'm sure it will make it during the actual race," I said.
And as he stared at his failing car, I saw that kids do get their hopes down.
The races started with the first graders, who huddled at the finish line, jumping up and down and wrestling each other and bragging. My car's the silver surfer! My car's a tiger! My car's a cheetah! My car's gonna win!
Justin, a volunteer, stood up at the top of the race car hill. His job was to carry the cars that raced from the finish line back over to the starting line.
A couple races went by and the boys were shouting out the winners of each race. When it came time for Johnny's race, he and the other kids in the race sat down just outside the flags encircling the track. I watched him and the others bouncing up and down with excitement. Then they were off.
I could see from the start that the cheetah and the track were not working together. It was as if a cheetah literally had wheels for feet--it just didn't fit. Just make it across the finish line, I thought. But as soon as it got down the hill, it slowed and stopped.
Johnny's face fell as a grownup--dressed as a racecar driver--softly pushed the car across the finish line.
On the other hand, the car's time was off the charts--there was some mistake. So as they put the car in a different lane, I thought, "Oh no, they're going to retest it."
I watched Johnny watch, with an unblinking mix of hope and worry.
The same thing happened.
Now they put it in a different lane. How many times were they going to test this car? Until it finished the race?
That same second grader whose car stalled in the test round was sitting next to J.J. and me.
He turned to his friend. "I feel so sorry for that guy!"
"Who?" the friend said.
"That one," the second grader said, pointing to the cheetah. "It hasn't finished one race."
As the car wobbled and stopped short again, I watched Johnny blink a few times to keep from crying. Meanwhile, his chin sank lower into the palms of his hands. Then...they put the car on the track again. I mean, I think we can all agree this car isn't going to win any speed records, let alone cross the finish line, I thought. How many times are they going to put my son through this. 10 more? 15. And to think, his father is standing right there.
I motioned Justin over with an urgent look on my face that probably led people around me to believe that one of my children was having a seizure. To Justin, it just meant, My wife has something crazy to say to me.
"How many times are you going to put him through this?" I asked.
"Four," he said. "They all race four times."
"Oh," I said. "I thought you were going to race his car until it crossed the finish line."
"I knew you would think that," he said.
"He is devastated," I whispered fiercely.
I never thought I would be a lot of things that I have turned out to be. But number one on the list is a crazy pinewood derby mother. And yet, there we were.
After the fourth nonfinish, Justin approached Johnny and put his hand on his shoulder. "Sorry, buddy," he said.
Johnny walked over to the wall, and wiped his eyes, with his back turned to everybody.
He could have faced the whole crowd. Nobody even noticed that his car didn't finish or that he was fighting back tears. After all, our nonfinishes in life are really only visible to us. To others, they're just a blip on the radar screen--if that.
Johnny sat beside J.J. and me and I put my arm around him. Then his friend sat down beside him and started poking him in the stomach. And Johnny grabbed his friend's hand and used it to make the friend hit himself. And then they wrestled. And that was that. The rest of the night, he ran around with his friends--literally in circles.
Toward the end of the night, J.J. was starting to fall asleep while walking. Justin was still volunteering so I gathered Johnny and Richie and said it was time to go.
In the meantime, I talked to Justin and he said Johnny should go home with him.
Johnny came back from saying goodbye to his friends and was sobbing.
"They're going to give prizes," he said. "I'm going to miss it."
"Daddy said you could stay with him," I said.
Back home, Richie and J.J. fell asleep on the couch while I watched Las Vegas and waited up for Justin and Johnny. They came in and Johnny had a small award. "Most original design" it said. He also had a NASCAR towel, which he won in a drawing.
"I won two prizes!" he said.
And that, kids, is why you should never get your hopes down.