A pinewood derby lesson

FORT HUACHUCA, Ariz. -- It all started innocently enough. My eight-year-old son Liam was invited to a Cub Scout meeting by one of his friends. I was TDY the night of the meeting (off on another adventure to lovely Goodfellow Air Force Base). When I returned my son was excited and told me he had great news...we'd be competing in the Pinewood Derby in two weeks! He showed me our "car", which essentially consisted of a block of wood, four nails, and four wheels. Immediately, I began to panic...

I panicked because I am the opposite of a craftsman or handy-man. My "tool-box" consists of several large hammers and an assortment of screws, nails, etc. that I have collected over the years.

I really should not even be allowed in stores like Home Depot or Lowes because I have a greater chance of causing an injury than actually completing a self-help project. However, as I looked at my son and saw the gleam of excitement in his eye I knew I was cornered, we would need to build a Pinewood Derby car.

Fast forward a few days and I'm with my neighbor attempting to use his band-saw...and of course, as we are cutting, the saw somehow breaks (luckily I didn't lose a finger), and my neighbor tells me we'll have to switch to a hand saw. As my mind races on how to recover from this disastrous start, I see a Jeep parked nearby. I suggest to Liam we need to forget about building a sleek, Pinewood Derby racing machine and instead go with a rugged Jeep...he agrees, and I brief a huge sigh of relief. We cut a few blocks off the wood, slap some dark blue paint on (he wants to put a Yankees emblem on it), put a spare tire on the back, and life is good!

Life is good, that is, until I can't find a Yankees emblem anywhere in the booming metropolis of Sierra Vista, Ariz. It's too late to order anything and painting it on is too risky (my artistic skills mirror my craftsman skills) so I bring home a sheet of military stickers. All the Services are represented and Liam, who has already decided he will be a Marine, decorates the Jeep with U.S. MARINES emblems...I shake my head and begin praying we will at least win one race.

Two days later and I'm now more nervous than at my own change of command two years ago as the Marine Jeep slots into the race track next to a futuristic looking Pinewood Derby masterpiece. Liam's Jeep is in a run-off in Round 1 but he's gotten stuck in the noticeably slower lane for the run-off. Much to my amazement, the mighty Marine Jeep wins by a car length. Liam can't stop smiling...my blood pressure starts to return to normal. Things then get quickly out of control...the Marine Jeep takes over, beating every car in it's age group and then beating all the other age group winners to include the adult cars (one of which probably took 100 manhours to build). Liam gets a Pinewood Derby champion ribbon and Cub Scout fathers are asking me how we built it to go so fast...I simply smile, knowing I've pretty much just witnessed a miracle!

As I look back on that night, I realize I owe the Cub Scouts a huge debt of gratitude. You see, while seeing that ribbon on Liam was a proud father-son moment, the experience also taught me that we as Airmen cannot afford to lose that "try anything" innocence we all had as children.

In hindsight, Liam ultimately didn't care nearly as much about the ribbon as he did competing with the other kids in his own way, with a car that he built and put his personal touch on.

We as leaders, and I believe all Airmen act in a leadership capacity in one way or another, need to capture that Pinewood Derby spirit in our organizations. In today's expeditionary Air Force, filled with additional in-lieu-of taskings, it is critical we remain open to evolving mission requirements, and set forth a culture where our Airmen don't shirk away from things such as Combat Skills Training, but instead go to those Army posts and come away as top graduates who made their Air Force mark on Army-led training. Similarly, if we ensure our Airmen deploy with a youthful excitement on top of a foundation of Air Force expertise, we'll continue to see unique success in Iraq, where, for example, Airmen have significantly improved the Weapons Intelligence Team mission.

My family and I are now getting ready to head to Washington D.C. in July, and while the thought of transitioning from Fort Huachuca to the Pentagon is a bit scary, I know we'll succeed in that setting if we keep a positive attitude and look for ways to make our own mark.

If the son of an Air Force father who has no wood-working skills whatsoever can win a Pinewood Derby competition in an Army town with a Marine jeep, I'm thoroughly convinced anything is possible with the right attitude and a child-like excitement for the task at hand. From my family to yours, we wish you all the very best!