The matter of disaster was on young Sam Jensen’s mind lately, and not disasters of nature, unless his younger sisters—whose missteps cast a dark shadow over the events below—qualified. Sam was still recalling his experience with the recent Calvinist Cadet Corps Pine Car Derby. For him it began as an environmental and emotional disaster of the first order.
The Calvinist Cadet Corps is one of those well-oiled paramilitary organizations designed to shape character and build boys into the sort of men who will someday serve sanctified, well-oiled para-parliamentary organizations like church synods. Some say that the existence of the Cadets—a parachurch organization related to the Christian Reformed Church—is an example of isolation from neighborhood organizations like the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, or purity from the world, like the Baptists and Bible Churches AWANA. To some, holiness means being set apart, if not by God, then by association. The boys, however, didn’t much care or know any better.
Others from within the Corps dream that it might go through a re-branding process in search of a new name, logo, and identity. A proposed new name offered by some— “Busy Boys,” a parallel to the “Busy Bees” for the church girls—said nothing about the Corp’s Calvinist heritage however, and in the end, it was decided that if “Calvinist Cadet” was good enough for John Calvin and Abraham Kuyper, we shouldn’t tinker with it. The dreams of rebranding stopped, as did the suggestion of new merit badges like “Ballroom Dancing,” “Urban Orienteering,” and “Mexican and Asian Cuisine around the Campfire.” These were viewed as a slippery slope into relevance, and quickly rebuffed.
As it is, and has been for decades, the dedicated Cadet leaders do a fine job, and the boys who benefit from these Christlike role models are blessed in many ways. The organization matures, and often reaches into the neighborhoods around the churches it serves.
The annual Pine Car Derby is something of a sacred cow for the Corps, although these days some churches include the Busy Bees in the competition. For most churches however—approximately two-thirds of the denomination—that move was yet another slippery slope that might possibly lead to women in church offices other than secretary. These same churches even considered an overture to Synod demanding the gender purity of the Pine Car Derby a matter of confessional status.
Cadet Sam Jensen had looked forward to the derby for months with great delight. It was his first year as a cadet and he was brand new to the experience. He’d never tinkered with a project like this, inclined instead to imaginative scenarios with his assortment of Star Wars figures, or reading fantasy novels in his backyard treehouse.
The first disaster of derby evening came when Sam’s sisters Sarah and Susan accidentally locked themselves in the bathroom. And that was only the beginning.
Weeks before the event, Sam came home from his Cadet meeting with a small, clear plastic bag filled with everything needed to enter the competition: the block of wood, the axles and plastic wheels, the lead weight, barely legible assembly directions, and the schedule for completing the car in time for the race.
His father Russ and mother Lois naively assumed that this was a project for Sam alone—one of those character-building, life-shaping ventures that mark milestones in a child’s development. When the instructions emphasized that this was to be the Cadet’s project, they assumed their role was clearly defined. Cadet as craftsman, parents as encouragers. Cadet as elbow-greaser, parents as cheerleaders. Cadet as engineer, parents as commentators. Russ and Lois proved to be incredibly naïve about the process, but instinctive about common-sense parenting.
Sam’s pine car took shape slowly and deliberately, almost by benign neglect. It was not a pretty sight, so Russ occasionally volunteered suggestions about shape and aerodynamics, pretending to be knowledgeable about automobile design. Despite his early enthusiasm Sam soon sensed this project carried little resemblance to the video games he was used to or the delight he took in the Star Wars scenarios. For a kid like Sam, with the occasional attention span of a strobe light, carving a car out of a block of wood seemed better suited for retirees who loved whittling.
But Sam finished the project anyway, his excitement restored as the car took shape. He painted it metallic silver with a wavy blue stripe from front to back that was to give the illusion of speed. Despite many attempts at sanding, it still most closely resembled a block of wood. Wind-resistance was safely intact. Design? More a box than a Jaguar. Speed? More a tortoise than a hare. Mechanically, it was also suspect: three of the four wheels were true, but the fourth wobbled incurably.
Russ was impressed that young Sam didn’t know any better than to be proud of his work and eager to enter the derby. As race day approached, his anticipation grew stronger yet, and it spread to the rest of the family, including his sisters, who would soon play a major role on derby day.
The big night finally came, and during supper the car sat in the middle of the kitchen table as the centerpiece of conversation. Sam became anxious and hurried the family along through the meal and supper devotions, even offering to pray after what seemed to be the longest reading of scripture ever recorded. It was important to be to the church on time, he reminded them, so he could practice on the downhill track before the contest began. He had yet to decide whether to enter both the “race” and “show” categories. To the parents, the car looked more like “hide,” than “show,” but they kept their opinions to themselves.
It was while they were hurrying to gather jackets and Lois’s purse that Sam’s younger sisters responded to their parents summons to leave by meekly saying “We can’t, we’re stuck” from the other side of the bathroom door. They offered no explanation. They were budding Busy Bees, and they could keep secrets. It was not unusual for them to plot significant conspiracies designed to aggravate their older brother, and most succeeded. Sam immediately suspected this their latest effort.
With one hand clutching the pine car Sam grabbed the bathroom doorknob with the other. His frustrated effort gave his parents the clue. For some reason known only to the universe belonging to little sisters, they’d accidentally locked themselves inside, and now the lock was jammed. Sam rolled his eyes, set down the car in the hallway, pulled with all his might with both hands on the doorknob, and for the third time that month told his sisters that he wished he were an only child.
Sam fetched Russ’s toolbox, and after anguished effort tugging and pulling Russ got the pins from the hinges and the doorknob off. The lock mechanism dropped to the floor. By this time, the girls had gone from giggles and laughter to whimpers and downcast looks as they stepped from behind the shower curtain. Sam reminded the entire family in a rather loud voice that they were now late. Very, very, late. In silence and with great gnashing of teeth, Sam shepherded his family to the minivan, which was about to set a land speed record for the southwest suburbs of Chicago.
It wasn’t until the Jensen’s car was under the church portico, where Russ told everyone to rush in—he’d park and follow—that Sam identified disaster number two. The silver pine car with the wavy blue stripe was still on the floor in the hallway by the bathroom door, where he’d placed it before attacking the bathroom doorknob. Russ and Lois never thought to ask him if he had it, and his anxiety had robbed him of his presence of mind.
Of course, as Sam saw it, the missing car was his sisters’ fault, and at this point they weren’t about to argue. They would have assumed responsibility for climate change and the latest collapse of the Chicago Cubs if it would help. Mumbled apologies were offered and accepted with an appropriate huff.
Lois and Sam and the girls rushed in to scope out the place and fill out whatever forms were necessary, and Russ gunned the minivan for home as if he were in a NASCAR event. The sisters were told in no uncertain terms to please behave themselves, preferably by finding a corner, standing in it, and not touching anything—especially each other. And please stay out of the bathroom.
Back at the house, Russ picked up the pine car, then raced back to church, violating several tenets of the Cadet Pledge he had learned as a kid. Upon his return, two things immediately impressed him. The first was the towering, majestic cloud of dust that filled the well-appointed Family Life Center, like ash from an Icelandic volcano moving across the Atlantic. He thought of the cloud that accompanied the Israelites, and wondered how the counselors had arranged for this special effect. Then the next impression hit: Sam looked at him with a face that said this was where the character building started.
The cloud of dust turned out to be graphite powder that knowledgeable dads had sprayed all over the wheels of their son’s cars. Graphite reduces friction—at least the friction of the pine cars’ wheels. Otherwise, there was plenty of friction in the air. The place was electric with it. “Don’t touch the car!” one father yelled to his son, afraid he would smear the fresh, perfectly painted finish. This pine car had just come back from the local body shop, and thumbprints would ruin a Ferrari-like finish.
“Look, it’s too early to take you back. Just be patient!” Another father was encouraging 94 year-old Aunt Bertha to hang in there until she could vote for her grandnephew’s car in the finals of the show competition, which came long after the downhill race. Only then could she go back to the nursing home. Aunt Bertha hadn’t been able to attend worship services since she entered the home ten years ago, but she and several of her friends—with walkers and wheelchairs—were at the Pine Car Derby to bring out the vote. This was Chicago, after all.
“I’d check that one if I were you.” A father, nodded toward a rival’s car, gently planting a seed of doubt in the mind of the judges, lest they be taken for a ride by an illegal car rigged with improper weights for the downhill race.
And there was Sam. When the time came for his turn in the downhill race on the beautifully made and properly sloped track, his car made it three-fourths of the way down before that wobbly fourth wheel fell off, providing comic relief to almost everyone.
With no chance at the “race” category, all that was left was “show.” With one wheel missing, the three-wheeled car looked like a CarMax reject. The Jensens stood in line with everyone else, including the relatives from the nursing home, and voted for the best-looking cars in the show. All votes were entered on a big paper tally sheet, and the results were posted on a prominent wall for everyone to see. The Jensens waited for the judges’ official announcements at the awards ceremony and joined in the applause, but they knew enough not to listen for Sam’s name.
Otto Vanden Berg, Sam’s cadet counselor, was the first person to approach Sam after the heart-wrenching public humiliation. Otto was a skilled carpenter, a great hulking man with a big heart, a love of Jesus, and a deep devotion to all the boys in his cadre. He dipped down into a crouch so that he was eye level with Sam and told him how proud he was of his effort. “All we can ever do is try, Sam, and you did your best. If you’re feeling bad about tonight, just remember that great job you did on the map-reading merit badge.” And then he winked at the rest of the Jensens, and even the sisters felt better.
On the long ride home, Sam was very quiet, and his sisters took the cue, remaining respectfully subdued. Yet Sam didn’t seem particularly distressed.
It wasn’t until later that night, when Russ and Lois went to say goodnight to Sam, that the experience proved itself to be the character-building one they’d expected all along. They opened his bedroom door to hear him quietly whimpering. They asked what was wrong, and wondered if someone had made fun of him while they weren’t looking.
Sam lifted his head from the pillow, wiped his eyes, and mumbled that it wasn’t anything like that at all. It turned out to be something worse.
In the public voting prominently displayed on the wall of the Family Life Center Sam had received five votes. Four from the members of his family, and his own. That was what troubled him so deeply. Not only that he did it. But that everyone else probably guessed he voted for himself.
“That’s all the votes I got,” he sobbed. “Thanks for voting for me, but you never vote for yourself! Nobody does that. And you probably shouldn’t have voted for me either”
A Cadet after all is reverent, obedient, compassionate, consecrated, trustworthy, pure, grateful, loyal, industrious, and cheerful. “Living for Jesus,” as Sam sang and recited every time the Cadets met, is a life that is true.
Pine cars, like Little League trophies, find their way from shelves and fireplace mantels to boxes in the garage, and sometimes reside in the heart. If, as some have said, character is who we are in the dark, the shadows of Sam’s bedroom revealed the genuineness of one boy’s heart, and the workings of the Lord in a different kind of race.
By the time the Jensens prayed with Sam that night and the tears had vanished, disaster shrunk into a small but convincing moment of grace. Embarrassments have a way of putting things in proper perspective, even for the young whose voting record is on public display. When it comes to winning and losing and being trustworthy and true, we grow character in unintended ways, habits that shape perspective on life’s disasters, large and small.