As a boy I thought I was a pretty good one, as boys go, except for one thing. That was the All-American Soap Box Derby, which was run every August in Akron. You see, I didn't care much about cars, and I certainly couldn't build one. I couldn't even build a birdhouse in shop class. I would put this failing out of my mind for 364 days a year, and then the damn Soap Box Derby would be held in the middle of August in the Rubber City, and I had to admit once again that I was an impostor. I wasn't a real boy.
Real boys were supposed to build neat things with their hands. That's how you could tell boys from girls. The other identifying characteristics, plumbing or haircuts, snips and snails or sugar and spice, were incidental. Real boys took crates and skates and elbow grease, built cars and raced them. And I could never forget this because right in the middle of August, when there wasn't anything else going on except the humidity, right before the Robert Hall Back-to-School Sales, here came the Soap Box Derby, starring a host of real boys.
The All-American Soap Box Derby was mighty glamorous, too. Not only was it in the Rubber City, but it was in the Midwest, which I always thought was the one true place for boys, for Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, for Pen-rod and for all the fellows down at the old swimming hole. I just assumed that Our Gang and the Hardy Boys and all the guys in the comic strips also lived in the Midwest. Smallville, Centerville, Midville, Metropolis, Main Street, Central High, State U were all, I was sure, in the Midwest. When I discovered that the All-American Soap Box Derby trumpeted itself as "boydom's greatest sports event," it certified for me that Boydom itself was in the Midwest. I told you so.
The race was promoted by Chevrolet, maker of the biggest-selling car in the country. "See the USA in your Chevrolet" was, in fact, fibbing some about the magnitude of the Soap Box Derby, but let's not get into that quite yet. For didn't Chevrolet help bring Hollywood's brightest stars to the Rubber City, to "the greatest amateur racing event in the world," to crown the champion among "the finest boys in the world," i.e., not me? Chevrolet brought Jimmy Stewart to Akron regularly; Bud Abbott and Lou Costello; Roy Rogers, King of the Cowboys; Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy; Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney; Art Baker (You Asked For It!); General Jimmy Doolittle (fresh from 30 seconds over Tokyo; you asked for it!); Dinah Shore; Pat Boone; Art Carney; the immortal Robert Cummings; Wendell Corey and "others too numerous to mention."
The vice-president of the United States himself went to the All-American in 1959. Did I tell you that they just call it the All-American? They don't refer to it as the Derby or anything so prosaic. The All-American. As if it were the only one, as if Choo Choo Justice and Whizzer White and Dick Groat never existed. It was a good thing I didn't know that back then, when I was trying to be a boy. The All-American. On top of everything else.
The vice-president didn't race in the Oil Can Trophy Race, which was the special event the glamorous Hollywood stars who went to Akron competed in, but he did award the boys' trophy to Barney Townsend of Anderson, Ind. The winner's father—always referred to as Dad, just as the champ's mother became simply Mom—Dad Townsend, said, "We never thought a man like Nixon would pay attention to small people like us."
And the vice-president, wallowing in the Midwest common folk, took this opportunity to drag godless Communist Russia into it. "Over there," Richard Nixon intoned, "the parents wouldn't have been allowed to do this." Mom Townsend got a bouquet of long-stemmed red roses, as champions' moms still do. The crowd, which Chevrolet sometimes estimated at upward of 100,000 or, more regularly, as just "the largest ever," roared its approval. Never forget that on Dec. 8, 1941, the All-American became the first sports event in the nation to cancel itself on behalf of the war effort.
Oh, what the hell, here are some more glamorous Soap Box stars very much worth mentioning: Arthur Godfrey, Joe E. Brown, Snooky Lanson (who went to Akron at the very height of his Your Hit Parade popularity), Jack Carson, Jack Dempsey, Herb Alpert, Batman, Ronald Reagan, Jim Backus and Jimmy Dean. Every year, such majesty was brought to the Rubber City to put a new shine on the crown jewel of Boydom.
Booth Tarkington—a great Midwesterner—once wrote, "The [boys] were upon their great theme: 'When I get to be a man!' Being human, though, the boys considered their present estate too commonplace to be dwelt upon. So, when the old men gather, they say: 'When I was a boy!" It really is the land of nowadays that we never discover."
And so, finally, this August past, I journeyed from the Here and Now to the Midwest to lay my boyhood to rest. It was the 50th running of the Soap Box Derby, golden anniversary of the All-American! Many of the old champions, erstwhile finest boys in the world, would be returning.