by Terry Barr
Sometimes it takes the longer view to understand all that you’ve seen. Some-times that longer view can span decades and thousands of miles.
Sometimes I’d stand on the nearest hill overlooking the neighborhood where my mother lived out her final years. Too many trees would obscure my view of her house, but on the southern horizon, I’d see the dotted homes on other hillsides, near the neighborhood where I grew up. Those houses would be nestled amidst golden autumn trees, and standing above them, an old water tower, painted a thin blue now—so thin you could almost lose it against the sky. An electric cross used to be faced on the front of that water tower, and if, at night, its glow was clear and natural, all was well. But if it was red-lit, something bad had happened—a reckless car, perhaps, driving over roads and turns it barely or never saw coming, leaving in our rear view things we could never understand, much less reconcile.
It would take that longer view for me to understand what I could, to see what recklessness or intended illegal short-cuts did to someone I once knew.
A few months ago, while we reminisced over our boyhood, my brother suggested that I write about my Cub Scout experience.
“That thing that happened at the Pinewood Derby. That was crazy. I wonder how many people know about it, or remember it,” he said. “Greg deserves to have this story told.”
I didn’t disagree, though I’m not sure what Greg deserves, because children shouldn’t be held accountable for their role models, the ones who shaped them, en-abled them.
Nothing so sudden or shocking happened in this story, or at least not in the way you might suspect given all the scandals and dishonor that has fallen on that scouting tribe. I can assure you as far as trigger warnings go, that except in this sentence, neither the word nor the idea of sex will occur at all.
I know that everything that stands out in my past didn’t happen in fall months, but somehow the most crucial events always seemed to fall in October or November, those months I loved best. So gaze at the hillside with me and imagine that it’s November and that I’m looking back the October of the Pinewood Derby, when I was eight.
Greg’s family lived near that thin blue water tower, on the highest street in our town. Greg and I were Cub Scouts together in Den One of Pack 301, a den of roughly twelve boys. Though our den meetings were always held at my house, my mother being den mother, our pack meetings and all of ur banquets took place mainly in the basement of First Methodist church, the church my mother’s side of my family belonged to, and the church that sponsored our Cub Scout Pack.
Greg was a year older than me, and for the longest time, he was the only other kid I knew who was born in July, like me, which in my mind made us like kin. I don’t know how our parents met or why. Greg’s father was our dry cleaner, and he also was a fireman. Our parents would occasionally meet in bridge clubs. Greg’s older brother was an Eagle Scout. Sometimes Greg and I would play together at each other’s house. We weren’t close friends ever, but when we played at his house, which sat on the side of that steep hill, I often felt like his house would fall down the cliff for sure, and I was always glad to go back home.
I’m telling you all the facts I know, and the things about us that I remember.
But I suppose we were close enough to notice certain moments, to remember now these facts which seem like truths.
I also can’t tell you how the scout troop was formed, whose idea it was and who gave the go-ahead, or how the boys in our den got recruited. My best friend Randy was a cub, but so were a couple of boys I didn’t know at all—Marty and David. I guess Greg was a natural, given that our mothers were socially aligned. But Greg’s family didn’t attend our church; they went to South Highland Baptist. In fact, only Randy’s and my family attended First Methodist. I know the Methodists and the Baptists have a deep-seated rivalry in the American South. I’m not sure why, for supposedly they’re all on the same team. But then, this story isn’t about religion, except for the background, the setting, and the reality that you can all dwell in a holy place without any of that holiness affecting you at all.
That our schools, our churches, our neighborhoods, and everywhere we went back then, in 1964, were still segregated is just another part of this story’s back-drop. I could tell the story without those details, but I think you should know them anyway, given that this is the long view I’m telling.
You should also know, if you don’t already, that to be a Scout you must pledge things like honor and duty and to be “square” and to “obey the laws of the pack.” We had a manual, a codebook, something like a constitution. As if any laws or codes or moral tenets have ever mattered when people want what they want.
I suppose the true mission of the Cub Scouts was to prepare young boys to be self-sufficient; to be good and worthy citizens; to bring honor unto themselves and their families. Like our schools and our churches were supposed to do for us, though in times of segregation and resistance to equality for all, how do these institutions live with themselves, what actually do they mold us into, and given what I know about Greg, his dad, and how cheating has somehow become a norm in our society, why would I have been so surprised back then at what these “good citizens” chose to do?
Not that being in the Cub Scouts wasn’t fun. In our den, I remember finding and collecting arrowheads; I remember the uniforms and badges, the kerchief and the clasp that kept it tied. I’m sure we made crafts sometimes, and I know that the various dens competed in a mock Olympics every spring—broomsticks for javelins; two stapled pie tins for the discus. And then there were the monthly skits, the one I remember best being our re-enactment of The Addams Family, in which I played “Pugsly,” Randy played “Morticia,” Marty played “Gomez,’ and David played “Wednesday.” And little fat boy that I was, I played “Pugsly.”
Greg, the tallest of us all, was “Lurch.”
No one at the den meeting in the church basement where we staged that skit thought anything of the cross-dressing. Over these years I’ve thought mainly that my mother’s creative spirit shone brightly here and that she was always trying to inject fun into all of us, the adults included—to make us laugh, to keep us light-hearted, to help all of us feel like we were in something together. You know: bond-building.
My mother also led us once in an excursion to the coal mines up the hill from our house and past that water tower. Randy’s dad, who was in the Army Re-serve, lent us all K-rations for lunch. I had never eaten cheese out of a can, and so despite the fact that we couldn’t go past the mine entrance, I remember the day as high adventure, an exploration into the land so near me.
Another, seemingly less fraught form of exploration was the Pinewood Derby, an annual event that saw father and son teams build racing cars out of kits specially-designed for the Cub Scouts. I don’t know about every father-son team, but Dad built our car all by himself and strictly according to the manual’s specifications. He worked usually after supper on week nights when he would have rather been reclining in his La-Z-Boy, snoring in front of Gunsmoke. If I helped at all, it was to watch over his shoulder and hand him whatever tool he required. Another learning experience, I suppose, though I didn’t need this one to solidify my belief that I had no aptitude for building anything. And after, I had even less desire, though maybe what that “after” showed me pushed my desire in other directions.
The derby itself was held on a Thursday night in that fall of 1964. We all gathered in the church basement, where a sloped track had been set up—dual tracks so that a head to head competition could be waged. The entire pack assembled, and so at least 30 boys, their fathers, and other family members gathered to cheer on the eventual victor, and the two runners-up.
You might believe that an organization such as the Scouts would frown on such competition, since at least 27 boys were going home as some sort of loser. Though I had little input in our car’s making, nevertheless, I wanted to win. Dad painted our car blue with a white number 8, the number we had been assigned, em-blazoned on each side. It resembled exactly the picture that we were all given as design models: sleek, perfectly symmetrical, built to win.
Which it did in every test run we staged before the actual event. And the car mine defeated most often in those practice runs—five or six times—was Greg’s.
I have no proof, but I believe that Greg spent as much time building his car as I did. I say this due to what happened as the start of the competition grew near. His car was taller than mine and more squarely-built. His dad painted it a yellowish-green color, and had some innovations on the chassis that I didn’t under-stand. My car had no frills, but I didn’t care, given that it trounced Greg’s by a good six inches every time we raced.
Something else my car didn’t have: lead embedded in its underbelly.
If you’re thinking that was probably an illegal additive, you’re right.
There were rules about each car’s dimensions, and the leaders weighed them carefully. Everyone’s car passed the weight test easily; everyone’s but Greg’s which was overweight by a good pound.
A pound of good lead.
At this point, Greg and his dad had maybe 15 minutes to try to do some-thing. Greg was distraught. I know, because he spoke to me as if we were the only two contestants there:
“What am I going to do? They want to disqualify me! But I don’t under-stand. My dad…”
He surely didn’t understand; no one did at first, and this is why I know he didn’t help build that car.
I never studied physics, but if you asked me, I’d have said that the reason heavier cars were disqualified is that gravity would pull them down the slope faster than lighter cars like mine. Makes sense and maybe I’m right about that.
In that moment, though, I felt bad for Greg, but what could I say or do?
“Maybe you need more oil for the wheels,” I suggested.
“We already tried that,” he whined.
The picture I remember most from that night is the one where I’m watching Greg’s dad sitting on one of the basement banquet chairs, off by himself, looking worried, and also using his pocket knife to dig into the underbelly of Greg’s car, flicking bits of lead out of it all over the tiled floor beneath him.
Dad and I walked over once:
“Anything I can do, Herb?” Dad said.
“No, I just have to get it down in weight.”
I couldn’t see how he could get enough lead out to make a difference. But then, maybe two minutes before the event started, he handed the car over, the leaders weighed it, and voila, the car made the weight requirement at last.
Greg looked sincerely overjoyed, relieved, and I didn’t know at this moment, but this was the last time I remember seeing his face look natural and innocent. Sincere.
There’s a scene I witnessed two years later, when I watched Greg and his sixth grade class march in from the school playground after they had defeated the other sixth grade class in the annual football game. I had a friend in the other class, Steve, and he was fuming:
“Coach Howell kept calling penalties on us,” Steve said, “as if he wanted the other class to win.”
Which he might have, given the makeup of students in Greg’s class—students whose parents virtually controlled the PTA. I understood this even then, as my class, which also won the 5th grade game, was also composed of kids—like Randy, and our head cheerleader Mary Jane—whose mothers were upper-echelon PTA officers.
In any case, while Steve fumed, Greg sincerely smirked, as if they had won the national championship, as his team walked down the hall back to class. Greg and Steve were good friends back then, a friendship that would survive at least an-other three years. I wondered then, what kind of guy smirks so long at a good friend’s loss?
Well, maybe a guy whose father cheats at the Cub Scouts’ Pinewood Derby, for surely Greg’s dad believed as I did—that the extra weight would ensure victory for their team.
You could also say that my sympathy for Greg and his dad evaporated once the competition began. Fate paired us in heat one, and Greg’s car beat mine by three inches. Greg made it to the semi-finals, losing to eventual and perennial winner Mike Perriman. Again, I don’t understand physics—why once the car got lighter it became faster, but it did.
Had Greg’s car lost to mine in that first heat, would I remember any of these events? Would I have maintained my empathy for him: his whining face and his dad’s frantic flicking? Would my empathy, these images, have become a barrier to truth and understanding— what this night showed me and what it meant?
I’ll leave it to you to consider what lesson any of us, but especially Greg, learned that night. Was it all about winning any way you can in the land of the free Cub Scouts, deep in the Heart of Dixie, circa 1964-5? Was it all about not disappointing a little boy, even though like the rest of us, he recited by heart the Cub Scout pledge at our every gathering:
“On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to be square to God and my
country, and to obey the laws of the pack.”
I might have added that God and country part, but then and now, I still have no idea what it means to be square. Life certainly isn’t square, or round, though when taking the longest view, I suppose it’s entirely subjective the shapes you see, and the ones you wish you could see, or stop seeing.
For so many years, this story, in my head, was about two friends and their cars. For the longest time, I thought that everyone liked Greg and his dad; it turns out that no one much did. Recently, a mutual friend told me that Greg’s dad—fireman, cleaner—was someone that no one much trusted.
“He’d cheat you as soon as look at you,” my friend said.
I didn’t know this back in our Cub Scout days, or even years later when I was sent on errands to the cleaners, dropping off coats and pants to this seemingly friendly, smiling man. A man I had once felt so sorry for, even after his son’s car neat mine.
Greg and his family moved away from Bessemer when Greg was still in high school. Some time after they moved, Greg and a date were in a horrible car wreck as they raced down the side of Shades Crest Mountain, landing in a desolate part of the valley below. I heard they had been drinking. The girl, sitting in the passenger’s seat, died. Greg was hurt, but ultimately okay. He was never charged with any crime, was never held accountable at all.
I learned all of this second-hand, and people I know still talk about that wreck, and remember what happened.
What I remember most clearly, though, is that by the time we reached high school, Greg stood 6 feet 4 inches and weighed close to 250; he became a bully, and no one I knew liked him. Several of us were blackballed by him when we applied for the key high school social club.
Greg played football, too, on the offensive line. He was never a star, though this didn’t stop him from questioning the manhood of those of us who chose other routes, like the Drama Club.
I see this scene—a summer night before I entered eighth grade. Greg and Steve walked up to my house where my friend Robert and I were camping in a tent in our front yard. Greg, and to a much lesser extent Steve, tried to convince Robert and me to try out for football:
“Only babies refuse to play,”Greg said. “You don’t want to be a baby, do you? You want to go into battle with your team, don’t you?”
I can’t believe I resisted, refused, but I did, because I knew what Greg and those like him would do to a boy like me if they were licensed to hit us over and over.
“I just don’t want to play, “ was all I said, over and over.
Eventually Greg and Steve left Robert and me in our tent, but as they walked away, Greg kept turning back, and with that taunting sneer on his face kept calling every ten feet or so:
Even though only one of us had whined and cried during that Pinewood Derby.
The last I heard of Greg, he had moved to Texas, “marrying rich.” Maybe I do believe in the “Butterfly Effect,” a phenomenon that requires a much longer view than most of us want to see. But I have to wonder: had Greg’s car been dis-qualified that night, or better, had his dad never conspired to cheat in the first place, with or without Greg’s knowledge, would he have turned out differently? When Greg’s dad so desperately worked to get the lead out of that car, what was he admitting and what conclusions did any of us draw when that spoiled car almost won the Pinewood Derby?
If I had never seen any of these moments of fear and panic and near victory, how would the Cub Scouts—our skits, my father’s rule-abiding, and that forever pledge—live on squarely in my memory? What view would stick when I see all the hills and that one valley? What color should that cross on the water tower have shined on the night when Greg and his dad cheated, or on all the other nights after, when the memory refused to die?