Tom Durkin multimedia writer-editor-photographer

What I Did on My Son’s Summer Vacation

Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing. – Albert Schweitzer When I was a young boy, I keenly missed doing things with my father. He was always just too busy, too unavailable. As young as I was, I vowed I would never be like my father when I grew up. As a grown-up, I found myself a single father to my son Kelly. As a working freelance writer, the only thing scarcer for me than money was time – time to play with Kelly. But remembering my childhood promise, I made the time. In the summer of 1984, when Kelly was 10, we decided to enter the Auburn Funk Soapbox Derby, held in Auburn, California, just northeast of Sacramento, where we lived. It’s a historic gold-rush town, with steep and scenic streets, and the derby attracted dozens of entries and thousands of spectators. The unique requirement of this race is that your soapbox racer be as “funky” or outlandish as possible. Almost anything goes. That stumped me, but Kelly decided he wanted a go-cart with an enormous Groucho Marx nose and glasses on the front. Operating on a tight budget, we began the search for materials, and in the next few days Kelly and I scavenged for anything that might work, including a piece of plywood that we found along the highway, old newspapers for papier-mâché, chicken wire, garbage bags and much more. With enthusiasm, my son molded the nose from chicken wire. I covered the wire shape with dozens of wet strips of newspaper, creating a papier-mâché skin. When the racer was almost done, Kelly added a special touch that only a boy would think of: drag chutes to stop the racer, made of garbage bags. I looked at our racer with the huge nose and glasses. Kelly pulled the lever that wiggled the eyebrows, and I thought, You can’t get much more outlandish than this! The day of the race Kelly and I could hardly contain our excitement as we watched the activity of Sacramento Street where the derby was in preparation. But when we wheeled him to the starting line, Kelly took one look down the steep and winding hill, lined with thousands of spectators, and paled. I thought he might chicken out, so I promised to run alongside him, and he decided to give it a try. He was stiff when I helped him into the car, and when the starting gun sounded he was slow to go. Still nervous, Kelly rode the brakes too much, but he faithfully wiggled the eyebrows, delighting the onlookers. When he neared the finish line, he deployed his drag chutes, and the crowd roared with cheers and applause. But riding the brakes had taken its toll. His momentum spent, he stopped just a few yards short of the finish line. It cost us points, but I pushed him the rest of the way, feeling sick inside. All the work we put into this contraption, and now Kelly is going to be so disappointed, I thought. I was wrong. Hopping out of the car, he yelled, “Can I do it again?” Kelly won second prize in his age category, which led to interviews by a local TV station and Westways magazine. Elated by his success, a “funky” Kelly wore his Groucho glasses throughout the interviews. Going home, Kelly turned to me and said, “This is the best day of my life!” And that, of course, made it one of the best days of my life as well. When Kelly grew up, he entered the United States Military Academy at West Point. It was while he was stationed in Korea that I came upon the mouse-eaten remains of that derby soapbox nose and glasses, as I was cleaning out the garage. I e-mailed Kelly and mentioned my find. In his reply, he reminisced about that day at the derby. “You know, building that crazy nose cart was something that factored into my decision to major in engineering at West Point.” I laughed to myself. “Even though that derby was fourteen years ago, I remember it like it was yesterday,” he wrote. “I appreciate it more now that I realize how lucky I was to have a good father who took the time to do such a project. It wasn’t just a half-hour game of catch or a two-hour movie. We did a major project together – and it was a scary event. It helped me confront my fears early in life.” My face sobered as I thought about him jumping out of airplanes in the middle of the night and other scary adventures that happen in the military. It was the last two lines of Kelly’s message that brought tears to my eyes: “A kid who does things like that with his dad will want to do them with his own children. To be that kind of a dad is an important goal of mine.” I knew then that every minute I had set aside for Kelly had been worth it. I had kept my vow, achieved my goal and passed on a loving legacy to my son. Tom Durkin Published in Chicken Soup for the Single's Soul (© 1999; ISBN 13: 9781558747067)
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Tom Durkin
multimedia writer-editor-photographer
Tom Durkin multimedia writer-editor-photographer

What I Did on My Son’s Summer

Vacation

Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing. – Albert Schweitzer When I was a young boy, I keenly missed doing things with my father. He was always just too busy, too unavailable. As young as I was, I vowed I would never be like my father when I grew up. As a grown-up, I found myself a single father to my son Kelly. As a working freelance writer, the only thing scarcer for me than money was time – time to play with Kelly. But remembering my childhood promise, I made the time. In the summer of 1984, when Kelly was 10, we decided to enter the Auburn Funk Soapbox Derby, held in Auburn, California, just northeast of Sacramento, where we lived. It’s a historic gold-rush town, with steep and scenic streets, and the derby attracted dozens of entries and thousands of spectators. The unique requirement of this race is that your soapbox racer be as “funky” or outlandish as possible. Almost anything goes. That stumped me, but Kelly decided he wanted a go-cart with an enormous Groucho Marx nose and glasses on the front. Operating on a tight budget, we began the search for materials, and in the next few days Kelly and I scavenged for anything that might work, including a piece of plywood that we found along the highway, old newspapers for papier-mâché, chicken wire, garbage bags and much more. With enthusiasm, my son molded the nose from chicken wire. I covered the wire shape with dozens of wet strips of newspaper, creating a papier-mâché skin. When the racer was almost done, Kelly added a special touch that only a boy would think of: drag chutes to stop the racer, made of garbage bags. I looked at our racer with the huge nose and glasses. Kelly pulled the lever that wiggled the eyebrows, and I thought, You can’t get much more outlandish than this! The day of the race Kelly and I could hardly contain our excitement as we watched the activity of Sacramento Street where the derby was in preparation. But when we wheeled him to the starting line, Kelly took one look down the steep and winding hill, lined with thousands of spectators, and paled. I thought he might chicken out, so I promised to run alongside him, and he decided to give it a try. He was stiff when I helped him into the car, and when the starting gun sounded he was slow to go. Still nervous,
Tom Durkin
multimedia writer-editor-photographer