Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Third best use of a dollar

Liam's snowshoes, still ready to go after all these years.
Got a dollar? Buy a 10-foot section of Schedule 40 PVC pipe.

The best toy you could ever buy.

Here's the catch, though: You need a campstove, a big ol' beat up stewpot and playground sand, which you heat to 450 degrees precisely.

The heated sand funneled into the PVC pipe softens the plastic and allows you to bend the pipe into your own giant crazy straw — and probably release dangerous toxins into your body, but that's such a small sacrifice for a giant straw.

That's how we turned PVC pipe into the framework for snowshoes waaaaay back when my son was in Webelos, which is the older bunch of Cub Scouts right before they quit Scouting entirely or get a second wind and join Boy Scouts.

(I'm not a fan of Cub Scouting, now that I look back. More than anything, it seems less a program for boys' development than an added revenue source for Boy Scouts of America. It relies too heavily on adults to entertain kids, at a time when kids should largely be left alone to learn how to entertain themselves.

But heavily guided free time for kids is still in vogue, given our collective fears of what might happen to our children if left alone. My wife and I turned out to be highly susceptible, and our son seemed to go along with it.

Better for boys to enjoy their young unscheduled childhood, and then when they start realizing the world doesn't revolve around them, Boy Scouts is available for them to learn responsibility and leadership. And they'd be ready to make things like these snowshoes.)

As it was, these snowshoes were predominantly adult made, a combination of our desperate efforts as adult leaders to ramp up the wow factor for the kids — and consideration for the kids' youth.

Terry, the other adult leader of our Webelos Den back then, and I concluded that most of the literature aimed at the development of Cub Scouts was stuck somewhere before the Cuban Missile Crisis. The jokes that couldn't have been funny even then, the birdhouses to make, the objectification of Native Americans as noble savages — the whole program seemed stale, and the boys bored.

Snowshoes! I declared. We'll have the students build snowshoes and everything will be solved! The Scouts will gain new energy, take pride in their accomplishments, and we'll be the coolest Webelos leaders ever.
Battle scars have added texture to the
stars and bars motif Liam painted.
I sent away for plans from a Boy Scout Troop in Colorado, one of whose leaders was an engineer who devised them.

Repairing boat engines at the time, Terry made his living in an industrial park surrounded by tradespeople who had most of the supplies on hand. Generous business owners gave Terry bright red boat-seat upholstery (for the snowshoe decking), the inner tubes from big truck tires (cut and folded just so as the ingenious boot strap), nuts and bolts and metal rods (cleats and struts). I bought the PVC pipe enough for 10 pairs of shoes, and parachute cord from an Army-Navy supply store (to lash the decking to the pipe frame).

Cost for each pair came to about $11. They'll hold a 100-pound kid, maybe heavier. The plans also included a larger size.

Donner Memorial State Park was advertising a ranger-guided snowshoe hike near the lakeshore up in the Sierra near Lake Tahoe, and we timed snowshoe construction for that event.

The owner of an outdoor sports shop where I was looking for parachute cord said the snowshoes would never work. The cold would soon shatter the shoes around the Scouts' feet, said the owner, an Eagle Scout. Good luck, he said.

The project took about a month, with one cold Saturday in Terry's shop spent heating the pipe with the sand and bending them into the jig Terry had built. Terry's a man's man, knows how to use the power tools. The jig is still in the Scout shed somewhere, I'm sure. It should be displayed as a work of art, two thick pieces of plywood — a base, carefully angled board seamlessly joined to it, and then a precisely jigsawed outline of the snowshoe frame glued on top.

Once we heated the pipe with sand, then quickly let the sand run out, we had to drape the limp pipe into the jig and gently hold it in place until the plastic hardened again. Even with thick oven mitts, the hot PVC hurt our fingers.

The pipe was still too long for the jig, so Terry decided at the last moment to bend the ends of the pipe up slightly just to get them out of the way. The pipe hardened that way.

The Webelos ceremoniously donned oven mitts, then stood in the vicinity of the pipe heating process and sort of pantomimed the laying of the pipe into the jig, without actually touching anything. Out of worry for their safety, we wouldn't let the Webelos do the one thing they probably most wanted to do.

Before that day was out, we let the Scouts decorate their frames by lightly sanding them (to accept the paint), then spray painting them. Our son made stars out of masking tape as masks, then painted his frames patriotic red and blue to match the red decking.

Back at our meeting room at the Catholic school, we helped the Webelos lace the parachute cord and assemble the parts. A long bolt through the upturned tail completed the shoe and held everything in place.

I brought in a finished pair to the Eagle Scout sports shop owner. "I'll be darned," the guy said. "Maybe they will work."

The ranger up at Donner said we had built them perfectly for deep snow by keeping the tail of the shoes long and bending them upward. Just our dumb luck.

Off we went into the deep snow about 20 yards from the lake, through the campground unrecognizable for the thick blanket of white. The Webelos, in various imitations of Michelin men, wobbled in single file, up and over little hills and across meadows. The adults had rented snowshoes.

Scouts fell over and over again. Of course they did! It was a new adventure, but for most of the trek they stayed afloat above the snow, held aloft in their homemade shoes, in the dazzling white and piercing quiet of a perfect winter Saturday, doing something almost every other kid their age wasn't.

Ice ringed the lakeshore. Icy cold filled our lungs. Terry and I were satisfied, having reached nirvana as Webelos Den leaders. We had created the nearly perfect project and the perfect outing for it.

We counted on a quiet ride back down the mountain, cars full of quiet happy Webelos. After an awkward few moments unstrapping the snowshoes, I heard one Webelos declare:

"I'm never doing that again!"

And another conclude:


Liam's snowshoes still hang in the garage, on a bungee cord with pairs of store-bought snowshoes we rarely use, unfortunately. Maybe someday he'll take his pair with him on his journey as a man. For now they hang in the semi-dark, symbols: Don't stop plugging, don't stop trying to make a dent in the world, but expect the outcome to dent you back once in a while.  

No comments:

Post a Comment