October 7, 2021

Soap-Box-Derby Car

“I bet you two think you’re hot-shits, don’t you?”, the man said with an angry tone. “I suppose we do.”, was my smart-aleck response. I put on my best smirk.

It was a Saturday in September, ’77.  I was a curious and nimble fifth-grader.  I had met a new friend in school the previous year.  Let’s just call him Steve. In that previous year, I had begun to flex my personality muscles amongst my peers.  I acted up, I got in fights, got sent home from school with notes from the principal.  This led to a regular beating with the belt from my father after supper.  Sometimes it meant going to school with stripes on the backs of my legs.  I didn’t wear shorts all too often that year.

Steve was in my homeroom class that year.  He lived in the same town, but the way our school system worked, not every student had school in the same building every year.  He was something of a class clown.  He was always doing something to make me laugh, and I wanted to make him laugh too, so I acted out in similar ways.  Copying is the best form of flattery, right?  One moment I recall is when our homeroom teacher asked us to make hand puppets from small brown paper bags, the kind that moms packed their kids school lunches in. As we were drawing our designs on our puppets with colored pencils and crayons, I noticed Steve on the other side of the room laughing his ass off. I casually strolled over to his desk to see what he was laughing at. He showed me his puppet, and he had drawn some male body parts on it, and they were quite realistic.  This inspired me to do the same with mine.

I did my best to copy his artistic skills, and suddenly my paper bag puppet was as equally well-endowed as his. We compared what we made, and by this point we were both laughing hysterically.  It was at this point our homeroom teacher had wandered over to us to see what we had accomplished, and I am sure to find out why we were nearly in tears from laughing so hard. He peered over my shoulder at my work and at Steve’s, and in one swift movement he scooped up our paper bag puppets and crumpled them up and tossed them in the trash.  He gave us both a disgusted look as he sat down at this desk and gave us both zeros in his gradebook.  Our faces were red, as they should have been, but we were still unable to control our laughter throughout the remainder of the school day. That was the day Steve, and I became best friends.

That following September, he invited me to spend the day at his house on the other side of town.  Our town was not very populated, but it was spread out. It was too far to walk for me, so my mom drove me there and dropped me off. She would pick me up later that day when I was ready to come home.

After I arrived, and after spending a few moments meeting his mom and dad, and his brothers and sisters, it was off to hang out in his room. His room was covered with Kiss posters, and he had a guitar and amplifier and a nice stereo with a turntable.  He asked me if I liked Kiss, and I wasn’t sure, I had seen them once on the Paul Lynde Christmas special, but I knew little about them. He said he was a fan, and was even in the Kiss army, the official Kiss fan club.  He played some of the records for me, and I really liked the music.  I especially liked the photos of them in concert, they looked cool, and they looked like they put on a hell of a show.  Being the young impressionable young pre-teen that I was, I wasn’t the best judge of what was good and what wasn’t.  I took to them right away.  I remember asking my mom for Kiss albums to listen to soon after.

He plugged in his guitar and began to play along to the records.  He wasn’t that great musically as I recall, but he had the moves.  I thought this kid is cool.  I had no hope of playing any instruments, but I could sing, so he kind of inspired me to sing more, moving forward.  The passion for music and dreams of stadiums filled with screaming girls was born.

After getting bored with hanging out in his room, he decided to take me out into the woods to show me his tree house and see what kind of trouble we could get into.  Soon after entering the woods behind his house, I was greeted by a rather impressive tree house.  It had a nice platform trimmed with a decent wooden railing. Near the center, close to the tree trunk there was a trap door with a rope dangling through it to the ground.  It had knots tied in the rope at intervals to make it easier to climb.  He proceeded to shimmy up the rope with ease until he found himself perched on the platform above.  He motioned for me to climb up with him, but I knew I couldn’t do it. Not with my disabilities. I was content to admire him from the forest floor, and I complimented his carpentry skills. He really did do a fantastic job.

From there he continued to lead me through the woods for a while.  We came upon a log cabin. It was just there in the middle of the woods. It looked like someone’s hunting lodge. The door wasn’t even locked, so we wandered inside. There wasn’t a lot going on in there.  There was a wooden bed platform meant to be used with a sleeping bag. A small wood stove and a small gas range with just two burners and a small oven.  There were shelves with some canned goods stacked on them, along with a few pots and plates and bowls.  There was a small kitchen table in the center of the one-room cabin.  Not much else to see.  Finally, I suggested we leave before the owner returns. That would be awkward.

We continued our adventure in the woods and came upon a sizeable sand pit.  We were at the edge of the woods on a cliff overlooking the pit. Down in the pit there was a man driving a caterpillar filling a dump truck with sand.  We sat and watched for a few minutes.  Steve sat with his legs dangling over the edge and I got the brilliant idea of giving him a good shove.  He didn’t have far to fall, it was just a tall sand embankment, he would have been fine, just a little embarrassed. Yes, I know it was an asshole thing to do, but it was funny.  He somehow managed to cling to a tree root and pull himself up.  “You’re a dink!” was all he said about it.  The man in the caterpillar still hadn’t noticed us, at least I don’t think he did.

Eventually the dump truck was full, and the man, a tall well-fed man in a flannel shirt and work jeans and boots. He exited the front-end loader and walked to the dump truck and drove away.  At this point Steve said, “Okay, let’s go!”, and down the sand bank he went.  I felt I had no other choice but to follow him, wondering what he was up to.  He went straight to the loader and climbed up into the cabin.  I followed along behind him.  While we were up there, we tried to find the key, but there were no keys.  We pulled all the levers, pushed all the buttons but nothing seemed to do anything.  We finally got bored and made the climb back to our little perch on the cliff and waited.

Not long after, the dump truck pulled in alongside the front-end loader and stopped. The man got out and walked back to the loader. The moment he inserted the key in the ignition and started it, a number of things happened. The lights came on, the fan came on and blew the ball cap off his head.  Then the loader began to lift off the ground and he had to move the lever to stop it from moving.

Nevertheless, Steve and I were rolling.  I laughed so hard I almost made myself sick.  As soon as we could, we took off running back to his house.  Up until that point in my short little life that was the funniest thing I’d ever seen.  That was a moment I will never forget.  It gets better though gentle reader, stay tuned.

Later that day, after his mom made us a nice lunch. We were messing around in his garage.  I noticed he had one of those soap-box-derby cars in there collecting dust.  I asked him if it still worked. He assured me it did and asked if I wanted to take a ride in it.  I nodded the affirmative.  We proceeded to push the car down the driveway and up the street to the top of the hill that he lived on.  I recall we had a couple of football helmets on just in case.  We got inside the car, and it had a wooden panel that closed down on top of us as we sat inside it like two bob-sledders front-to-back. We could only see out a narrow horizontal slit in the front of the car, and steering was done with a rope connected to a crude steering-rack up front.  We started rolling down the hill and began to pick up some speed.

Suddenly we came to a sudden stop with a massive work boot seen through the slit in the front of the car, impeding our progress.  “What the…?”, I thought as the wooden lid suddenly lifted to reveal an angry mountain of a man staring down at us. His cheeks were pretty red.  We could hardly contain ourselves because it was the man from the sand pit, who’s caterpillar we messed with.

“I bet you two think you’re hot-shits, don’t you?”, the man said with an angry tone.

“I suppose we do.”, was my smart-aleck response.  I put on my best smirk.

“Where are your parents? Where do you live?  Give me your phone numbers!” He was pissed.

“We ain’t telling you shit, mister! We don’t have to tell you anything at all!” Steve hollered.

“Yeah!”, I chimed in still having that stupid smirk on my face.

The man straightened up with his hands on his hips and thought for a moment, giving us his best stare down.  “Alright, but you kids better stay out of my sand pit from now on, or you’ll find my size twelve up your little asses, you got that?”

“Yes sir.”, we replied in unison and rather sheepishly.

Finally, satisfied he had given us a good enough scare, he turned and walked back to his truck.  The two of us looked at each other grinning from ear to ear, trying to not to laugh until he was gone.  Afterwards we both had a good laugh and mocked the man’s behavior until we got bored again.

Eventually I called my mom to come pick me up.  We had a good time, didn’t get in too much trouble so I’d say we both had a good day. We remained friends for many years, but we were never as close as we were that day.  We had mutual friends from school, so we found ourselves hanging out often, but it was never just us again like it was that day.  I think we managed to write our whole story in that one Saturday in ’77.  I never forgot it.  I will close by saying I think Steve was a good writer, and a good jokester, and I think he inspired me to be better, to do more than just sit and stare at the chalkboard in school.  He set the bar for me in many ways.  He doesn’t know it, but I owe him a lot.  We should all have a friend like that at least once in our lives.