Nostalgia rules here at Back to the Past, so if no one minds, I’m going to step away from pop culture for a change and indulge in a little childhood nostalgia that’s somewhat fitting in the spirit of St Patrick’s Day. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll leave; pick one.
Remember how, when we were kids, if seemed that our teachers or parents or grandparents were always trying to instill some kind of wisdom in us? I don’t mean teaching us fractions or how George Washington crossed the Delaware River; I mean grown-up stuff that we were too young to care about, like how we shouldn’t be sitting inside on a nice day, or why we should eat our vegetables because there are starving kids in China, or how we shouldn’t waste our time away reading comic books; that kind of thing. There; I made my pop culture reference.
It just seemed like there were times when adults had nothing better to do than preach adultisms that meant nothing to us; it was as though there were a lot of meaningless and arbitrary things that grown-ups just liked to say, and these things flew over our heads like an airplane in the sky; which we missed because we were sitting inside, remember. And carried about as much relevance and importance to us. What did we care? We were kids; we already knew everything, we were going to live forever, and nothing bad was ever going to happen to us.
My dad spoke one particular adultism that stuck with me, though, when one time he said, “You don’t have to be lucky if you’re good.” As with most adultisms, I didn’t know and didn’t care what he meant by that, and to my kid’s way of thinking, I saw his comment as unwelcome and intrusive. And in response, I did what most kids would have done, and I’m sure still do: I shrugged, said nothing, and rolled my eyes as soon as he walked away.
So of course, I paid about as much attention to his quotation as I did to the morning farm report. But, when I heard that line again later in life, an older and wiser JJ took note and I realized that quite often throughout my life, I had been called lucky; lucky to get that state-of-the-art color television as a kid (which was my parents’, not mine); lucky to get that college scholarship; lucky to get the new car I had long coveted after graduating said college. And many, many other things too numerous and self-aggrandizing to list.
The thing was, I never felt lucky, neither in the literal sense of good fortune happening by chance, nor in the oft-intended sense of simply being fortunate. Maybe I was just an ungrateful little snot who never took the time to count my blessings. Perhaps lots of people are that way when they’re kids and don’t have a care in the world, or when they’re young adults and still think they’re immortal. Or maybe I was just privileged enough to have a pleasant, positive, and somewhat spoiled upbringing and never had to endure any significant hardships to put things in perspective.
Oddly enough, the first time I ever truly felt lucky was NOT because I got a hundred dollar bill for my birthday or won concerts tickets from a radio station; instead, it was over something that should have been of little consequence but nonetheless something that I had built up in my mind to become a crisis of unheard of proportions. So listen ye, to a childhood tale of heartache, woe, and salvation.
When I was ten years old, I was in the Cub Scouts. And anyone who’s ever been or has a child in the Scouts knows all about the springtime ritual of the Pinewood Derby Race, where participating Scouts are given a block of wood, some hardware, and four wheels and told to go off and build a functioning model racecar that will compete against those of their fellow Scouts. The idea, of course, was to foster craftsmanship and friendly competition in a fun and rewarding way.
I, of course, had other ideas. I cared nothing about building this car to the specs set forth by my scout leader and competing against my fellow scouts. Instead, I had epic delusions about crafting a mini-Mach 5, just like Speed Racer’s. And delusions they were, because one of my talents was not, and still isn’t, building things, even with the best tools. And I think the only tools I had on hand were an old saw and some sandpaper. Kids often turn to their fathers for help with such tasks, but my dad wasn’t particularly adept with building things either, so I took on this project alone. Undaunted by the lack of any parental assistance, or proper tools, I naively embarked on a project that I honestly believed was going to be the coolest thing I had ever made in my life. All ten years of it.
However, it didn’t take long for reality to strike, as I quickly realized that I was not capable of building such a racecar and instead had completely massacred a perfectly innocent block of pine, beyond any hope of salvaging it. The thing looked like a piece of driftwood on wheels. My excitement quickly turned to dread as I realized that there was no way I could even show this monstrosity to anyone, let alone try race it. Upon this realization, I became very, very afraid of the eventual humiliation that would ultimately ensue. And it was not only this fear that kept me from telling my dad, but also the belief that my lack of hands-on skills was inherited from him, so I concluded on my own that that there would be no point in telling him what I had done, as he would undoubtedly be useless in improving the situation.
Of course, there were ways out of this. I could have simply admitted to the botched attempt and asked for another kit and start over. I could have just withdrawn from the race and said I didn’t want to enter. I could have asked for help from a friend or friend’s dad. But to do THAT, would admit screwing up and show weakness, something no ten-year-old boy could ever willingly do. Or so I told myself; far better to be tough and paint myself into a corner than to show weakness and find an easy solution to the problem. Such is a kid’s logic; at least this one’s.
Therefore, I told no one what I had done and secretly hoped that the world would come to an end before race night in a couple of weeks. In the interim, when my dad would ask me how the racecar was coming along, I would swallow, take a deep breath, and blurt out “Just fine, Dad!” before changing the subject. And whenever he asked to see it, I told him that it was a surprise and I didn’t want to reveal it before the night of the race. But all that did was self-worsen my already dreadful and nerve-wracking situation.
As that we are all here today, it goes without saying that the world did not come to an end, and that the dreaded race night eventually arrived. I woke up that morning, paralyzed with fear, knowing that I was going to have to run the double gauntlet of not only showing my parents that abortion of a car, but then endure even worse humiliation at the hands of my fellow Scouts. I swear, short of coming clean, I would have done anything to get out of that race. If I had the courage and ability to break my own legs at that point, I probably would have done it.
All day long, I lived in absolute fear of the approaching race. I prayed that I would get sick, which wasn’t out of the realm of possibility, because I was so worried that I felt like was really was going to be sick. But it didn’t happen. So as evening approached, I went into my room to change into my Scouts uniform, and I felt like I was putting the hood over my own head prior to my execution.
But before that could happen, my dad got home from work. I could just imagine him being all excited, ready for the big race, wanting to finally see my racecar. As the moment of truth approached, the thought of having to show him that wobbly piece of wooden excrement that was going to have to masquerade as a racecar was almost enough to make me faint.
And when he asked with a big smile and cheerful demeanor if my mom and I wanted to go to the races, I almost did faint. Except, he wasn’t referring to the Pinewood Derby race; he was referring to one of his own favorite pastimes: the thoroughbred horse races that took place nightly a few miles away. Mom immediately responded that she’d love to, and I stood there utterly flabbergasted at the notion that both of my parents had suddenly and seemingly forgotten all about the Pinewood Derby. Totally disbelieving, but also afraid that they would recall the race at any moment, I blurted out, “Sure!” in a manner that was probably all too exuberant for such a relatively ordinary question.
And so, instead of competing in the Pinewood Derby, the three of us went to the horse races that evening. Dad’s favorite recreational activity had become my salvation. Not that I could place a wager or anything, but I didn’t care. I was content to sit there and watch, the whole time feeling like the governor had overturned my death sentence. I had never been so relieved by something in my life, as I was not going to have to endure the humiliation that I had only hours ago thought was imminent. The whole evening went by without a mention of the race.
And, Dad was having a very lucky night at the track that evening. When I made mention of this, he pointed out that wagering on horse races isn’t like playing slot machines or the state lottery, there is some skill involved And of course, he also pointed out, as he had before, that you don’t have to be lucky . . . if you’re good.
Well, maybe Dad’s good fortune wasn’t based on luck, but mine certainly was. As the evening progressed, my relief turned to realization that this divine intervention, manifesting as coincidental and collective spotty memories on the part of my parents, was the most incredible stroke of luck I had ever encountered in my life. A commuted sentence from every kid’s worst fear, humiliation at the hands of one’s peers, that I self-created and lived in fear of for weeks but had done nothing on my own to prevent.
And that, boys and girls, is why I felt like the luckiest kid in the universe.
At my next Cub Scouts meeting, where my no-show on race night came up, I made up a lie and simply told the group I was sick, and my parents wouldn’t let me attend. Too bad, they said, and life then moved on. Everyone talked about and showed off their own racecars, so they didn’t even think to ask me about mine. Knowing I had dodged the biggest bullet I had ever faced in my young life, I officially closed out this dark chapter; when I got home from the meeting, I took that sad attempt of a mini-Mach 5 and buried it the garbage.
As time passed, though, I had come to suspect that my parents’ sudden forgetfulness that night wasn’t as random as it had initially seemed. It’s not outrageous to assume that maybe at some point before race night, they had spied a look at my disastrous racecar, and thought it best to not only spare me the major humiliation of trying to actually compete with that thing, but also the lesser humiliation of confronting me about it. Perhaps that night at the racetrack was a diversion, for them as much as myself, so I wouldn’t have to embarrass myself in front of my friends and they wouldn’t have to openly take pity on me by allowing me to skip it. By the time I felt comfortable approaching them about the whole thing, they denied any such intervention. But to this day, I like to think that they just wanted to spare me from any kind of life lesson, and instead just let me feel . . . lucky.
And the truth was, from that whole debacle, I learned a lesson on my own. I learned that it is far better to confront a problem head on; there is never anything to be gained from shying away from it, especially one that’s self-created. Maybe my parents were smart enough, to know that I was smart enough, to figure that out on my own. From that point on, my homework got done a little sooner, I better prepared myself for exams, and if I encountered a problem that I felt I couldn’t tackle on my own, I asked for help.
So after we got home from the races that night, as I drifted off to sleep after dodging that would-be disaster, through no doing of my own and without as-yet a thought of parental intervention in my head, I slept with a smile and unprecedented sense of relief. My final thought that night was the genesis of a belief that flies in the face of what Dad had previously told me, but one that nonetheless has proven itself to be true from time to time throughout my life.
That belief? I will tell you.
That sometimes, just sometimes, you don’t have to be good . . . if you’re lucky.
So may luck intervene when skill does not, may life’s tribulations make you a better person, and may the luck of the Irish be with you all this St Patrick’s Day.
A fine tale for St. Patty’s day, JJ! Remind me to keep you away from set building.
Ah, the Pinewood Derby! I actually lucked my way (nope, I wasn’t that good) into winning the race at the pack level one year. Of course I then got smoked at the next level up, but there was a thrill to the victory there.