Is There a Merit Badge for Shame? (Rememories 10)

“Bingo, Chet, and Lionel” — Mike Heidorn’s (Uncle Tupelo’s original drummer) sincerely sung and believed-to-be lyrics to “Jet Airliner” by the Steve Miller Band.

To this day, I touch the outside of every plane I fly on as I’m boarding, and think to myself: “Don’t carry me too far away, Bingo, Chet, and Lionel”.

Every time someone asks me if I was ever a Boy Scout I say “no.” And then I feel compelled to tell them I never made it on account of being shamed out of the Cub Scouts.

Here’s the story.

I was pretty excited to build a Pinewood Derby car when they handed out the kits at our “Den” meeting. It was supposed to be a father-son project but (knowing how unlikely that scenario would be based on past experiences) I put it all together by myself when I got home.

Either my mom really got on my dad’s case or my dad really did feel sorry for me when he saw my attempt at building a “race car”. Or it’s possible some combination of the above and his own competitive nature kicked in, because in a stunning reversal of attitude towards the whole idea, he committed to the undertaking with gusto.

Now, did that mean he took me down to an old workbench in the basement and carefully walked me through the steps of designing and shaping an aerodynamic miniature racing vehicle? No. If you were making a movie, I think this would be where you would cut together a montage of my father’s coarse hands helping guide my chubby little fingers as they sand the contours of a Maserati out of a soft block of wood —dabbing paint on my nose— heads tossed back laughing —sawdust falling to the floor— close-up on our eyes gliding along the sleek profile of a finished speedster.

But this is how it actually went. “BOY!!” “BRING ME THAT DAMN ‘CAR’ YOU MADE DOWN HERE!!” “NOW GO TO BED.” Adding, “I get up before you know what day it is”.

The next evening, Dad came home with a completely rebuilt masterpiece of engineering and design. Apparently, he had put a team of railroad technicians on the task. The axles were coated in graphite. They had hollowed out and filled an internal channel with mercury. And they had added a stack of tiny washers underneath the chassis so we could adjust the weight at the weigh-in, because they had determined being able to get as close as possible to the max weight would be the key to speed in a race being run with only gravity as fuel. To top it off, “my car” now sported a jaunty red, white, and blue paint job.

So far so good, right. Sure, some bonding with my dad might have been nice, but this car really did “go like the dickens” as my dad would say. “Our” car destroyed the competition. Which, to be honest, mostly looked like my car did before my dad Manhattan Project-ed the shit out of that pathetic little chunk of crappy wood.

I admit it was really fun winning. And winning so handily made it extra fun. Mercilessly, one might say. It was a good night. And dad was pretty excited to see the trophy “he” won when we got home. No, he did not attend. Need I remind you he “Gets up before the ass-crack of dawn”?

Ok. The real trouble starts a year later.

Same drill. The bonding part of the project was emphasized as the most important part. A new block of wood was issued with the clear directive that a new car must be built to legally enter the contest.

I gave my dad the materials, this time without even bothering to slap the wheels on the sucker, and I told him to put the A team on it. “What’s wrong with the one from last year?” he asked. So I explained the rules to him. He stared back at me and sucked on his teeth for a few seconds and then he said “Well, gimme the old one to take along so we can remember what we did to make it so great”.

Next evening he came home and handed me what was obviously the same car as last year, only now was a glossy dark shade of blue. He winked. I nodded. He was an adult. I was just a kid. We’re geniuses, we thought.

The only person I told about our masterful plot to sidestep the rules and dominate the field for a second year running was my best friend at the time — let’s just call him “Kent”.

Well as luck would have it, “Kent” came in second place. And as I stood holding my trophy, I watched “Kent” with tears in his eyes walk around the track, past the rows of lunch tables and directly up to the lectern where our Scout Leader was making some final announcements for the evening over the p.a.. I can still vividly see him pointing in my direction as a small group of adults began to gather around him. “Kent” was a rat, turns out.

I mean, he was right. And I was wrong. I understood that even then. But it’s what the adults did next that I still have trouble believing. The scout leader leaned into the microphone and made a terse request for me to step up to the lectern. Which is where my trophy was taken from my hands and I was officially disqualified. In front of everyone in attendance. All of my classmates.

I was inconsolable. My mother was irate. At them, thank god.

My dad was asleep when we got home. Understandable, considering he “Has had a whole got-damned day by the time you lift your pretty head off of your pillow”.

He never said much about it other than to say, “Some people take stupid shit way too seriously”.

I was never sure if he was talking about them or himself.