Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Demon Racer

A few posts ago, I wrote about the neighborhood where I spent my childhood. The recent Soap Box Derby last week-end in Akron reminded me of this horrible boy, Lamar, and his horrible sister ,Jackie. I shall not use their last name because, in the unlikely event that they reproduced, I would not like to defame any spawn still in existence.

Lamar was a bully. He swore, using words that are now common in restaurants, malls, sports venues, cable TV, etc., any place where people gather, especially young ones. He picked fights over nothing. Both Lamar and Jackie were sturdy children. Jackie would stand in the middle of the sidewalk, hands on hips, and dare you to get by her. Jackie had been attacked by a dog at some point in her young life (probably provoked by her brother) and bore the scar on her face. That fact and Godknowswhat kind of home those kids came from probably wee behind her meanness. However, I was a skinny little person and she probably could have knocked me down by breathing heavily on me and I was not about to psychoanalyze her personality even if I'd known what that meant. All I knew was that the pair of them terrified me and every other kid in the neighborhood

In 1934, the first Soap Box Derbies were held in various cities. In those days kids made their "cars" out of whatever they could find around the garage, basement or the local vacant lot/rubbish dump. Baby buggy wheels, coaster wagon wheels, mounted on boards with a wooden carton for a body were the usual elements of the kid derby car. Lamar put together something and went to the local race.

It was sponsored, along with other organizations, by Rich's Department Store, which was offering the grand prize: a genuine gas-powered mini-racer. The other prize for the winner was an all expense trip to Dayton, Ohio, for the first national Soap Box Derby. You have probably already guessed who won that mini-racer and the all expense trip to Dayton, Ohio. Now, 1934 was just about the height of the Depression. Kids in that time were lucky to get a used bicycle, much less a genuine gas powered anything. The only good thing about going to Ohio was that he would be on a train! And stay in a hotel! Lamar! And his name and picture were in both the Atlanta Constitution and the Atlanta Journal. Fame! Fortune! Lamar!

Well, at least he'd be out of the neighborhood for a few days, which meant freedom, a hiatus from fear. However, before that happened, we had to watch Lamar tool around the streets in his bright red and green gas powered min-racer from Rich's. Well, everyone was dying to get a ride , but knew there was no way anyone was going to ask Lamar for anything. And he knew it too, the little bastard. We stood on the sidewalk and watched him zoom (at around 3 mph) past with a smug look on his evil face.

I don't know how Lamar fared in Dayton, only that he did not become the first national champion of the first national Soap Box Derby. I don't remember how long he continued to drive his mini-racer; maybe it broke down, or his father took it apart and used the motor for something else.

The National Soap Box Derby moved to Akron, Ohio the next year where it continues to draw both boy and girl racers from all over the U. S. of A. The racing cars are now sleek fiber glass with standard wheels. The fiction of their being built by the kids is now over. It used to be held in August, and I would take the kids for school shopping at the two big department stores, which are, alas. no more. We would have lunch on Polsky's balcony and watch all the derby families at the other tables. There were special derby paper napkins and place mats. If we came a little early in the week we could watch the racer kids being driven down Main St. in convertibles and being greeted in front of the Mayflower Hotel by brass bands and pretty girls.
The Mayflower is now housing for people with disabilities and old folks in chronic poverty. Polsky's is part of the University of Akron and O'Neill's is occupied by a giant law firm. I think the kids are now welcomed at the new downtown baseball field , the pride of Akron, across from the old Mayflower. I'm sure that it is every bit as exciting as in the old days for those kids, but I am glad that we had our own fun back in the day.

But I wonder how many Lamars there are in that crowd of fresh faced kids?

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