Five Stars Squared

I just finished reading a delightful book which I thought would bring me back to grief. I read all the reviews and picked up the story line ahead of  time to realize the main character loses his wife to cancer. I hate stories about men who lose wives to anything disease. That is how I lost my first wife and am now losing my second. The idea of awakening grief within my body made me cringe. Yet, after beginning to read I fell in love with this story. Yes there was grief, love, suspense, and excitement, all of the elements of fiction that make a story interesting. The most unlikely character is the dog. The central character’s dog Enzo tells the story from beginning to end. The ending is sad but beautiful. You will not go wrong reading The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein.

Five stars squared.


Jack kept dreaming about racing in the Soap-Box Derby. His vision of that racer in the Popular Mechanics magazine stayed in his mind. This summer the dream got stronger.

“I’ll make the best car yet,” he said to his friend Rich. “My first car was a two by four with two axles and a board for a seat.”

“I remember that one, we had tons of fun pushing each other around the alley.”

“The next one had a backrest and a square hood.”

“Yeah, that year I built a car too. That is when the real fun began,” said Rich.

“Yeah, racing in the alley with our sisters pushing us.”

“They didn’t push very fast,” answered Jack. “The races got faster after we recruited Joe, and Bob as pushers. My new car will be the best one yet.”

Jack used his father’s handsaw, hacksaw, files, pliers, hammer, and brace. He wished he could use the tools at the wood shop in Tuley Park, but it was too far from home.

“Dad, can you help me make the axles?”

“What do you want?”

“My wagon axles always bend, and the wheels fall off.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

Two weeks later Dad came home with a pair of killer axles. A machinist friend in the shop helped to make them. He used square stock, and cut a spindle with a thread on each end for the wheels. He cross-drilled a hole for a cotter pin to keep the nuts from spinning off.

“I would have been happy with the axles alone, but Dad fit the axle into a heavy oak board. That will make it easier to mount them to the frame. My second big problem is wheel failure. The rubber tread falls off, or the hub breaks. Sometimes, a wheel falls off, and the bearings spill into the dirt.  With these new axles, I can use my best wagon wheels with the roller bearings.”

Jack and his buddies set up a racetrack in the alley.

“We can start at my garage and race around the bend to the sidewalk. Rich and I will drive first, then take a turn at pushing back.” The first team to complete the route wins.”

They were off. The two cars lunged forward and got through the turn at the same time.

“Push faster,” shouted Jack to his pusher Bob. They got to the sidewalk first. Jack jumped out.

“Get in,” he shouted to Bob. They traded places, and Jack pushed as hard as he could.

“I should slow down at the turn,” he said, “but they are right on my tail.” He pushed harder. Bob steered to the outside to go faster. Jack saw the wheels drifting into a slide, throwing up dirt.

“Oh no!” he shouted as the rear tire came off the wheel. Jack stopped to fix it before the wheel was damaged. Joe and Rich passed by and won the race.

The turn in the middle was hard on the wheels. The cars slid through the turn, and kicked up loose cinders forming a groove in the turn. The wheels always broke at that turn.

“When a wheel breaks the race is over for me. Sometimes, I can fix it by rolling the tire back onto the rim. When a spoke or a hub breaks, I need a new wheel.”

Jack began building a new car to put his new axles on. “I will use the wheels off the Radio Flyer.

He dug up the plan from Popular Mechanics, and began looking for materials in the alley.

“WOW, this is my lucky day. This piece of corrugated aluminum is just what I need for the body.” He found it behind the grocery store.

“I’ll cut this sheet into two pieces. One for the hood and one for the trunk.”

It took hours to go through such a large piece with the hacksaw. His arms ached and sweat rolled off his forehead. The longest piece became the hood; the remainder formed the tailpiece behind the seat.  Corrugated metal is easy to bend along the grooves, but very hard to bend the other way. It limited any fancy curving Jack could do when he formed the body. In his mind he pictured an Indy-Sprint car.

“The plan calls for pulleys and rope to make the steering. I’ll have to use the money I have saved to buy them.” Jack walked a mile to the hardware store on Cottage Grove Avenue to buy pulleys and a new clothesline. He worked hard to install the pulleys in the right places under the hood. He kept looking at the plan in the magazine. Eventually, he figured it out, and the car had a steering wheel that worked.  The days of holding ropes, or steering with the feet were over.

“I’ll never need the brake, but the plan shows one.” He made a drag brake.

Jack’s dream car became a reality. He painted the body canary yellow.

“Racecars have numbers. I’ll give my car a number too, but what?” It took days to come up with a number that meant something to him. When he finally decided on it, he bought a can of Chinese red paint. It was the brightest color he could find.

“What are you doing Jack?”

“What does it look like? I’m painting a number on the car.” He brushed red paint carefully between pencil lines on the hood.

“Why did you pick number Ninety-three?”

“It stands for 93rd Street where we live, dummy.” More people asked him about the number than how the steering worked.

Number-93 was faithful for the remainder of the season.  The wheels never fell off the axles and the hubs stayed in place.  She did well in the alley races, and became the envy of the neighborhood.

“I’m going to the library Mom,” he said. He took a short cut through the schoolyard at Perry School when he stopped dead.

“I don’t believe my eyes,” he said to himself. “The perfect hill for number ninety-three. They took the slide off the wooden ramp. I can pull the car up to the top and race it down, just like they do at the real Soap Box Derby.”

Perry School is only three blocks away from home. They took the giant steel slide off the wooden ramp. The ramp was twenty feet high It sloped at thirty degrees, and was wide enough for Number-93 to roll down. It was the perfect hill to try her out.

Jack began visioning his big adventure.

“I’ll Rich to help me tow 93 to the schoolyard. We’ll do it after school when there are not as many kids around.”

A couple of days later 93 was up to the ramp.

“We’ll move her up backwards so we don’t have to turn around at the top.”

Jack pulled and Rich pushed. Moving the heavy 93 to the top was hard.

“Are you ready?” asked Rich.

“Yep.”  Rich held the car back as Jack climbed in and settled into the seat with his feet pressing against the footrest. He pushed until his back was firm against the backrest. Jack tried the steering. He held pressure on the the brake to keep from moving forward. Everything was okay.

“Let go on the count of three,” said Jack.

They counted together, “one, —two, — three.”

Rich let go, and Jack released the brake. Ninety-three began to move slowly. Within a few feet the speed was thrilling. Jack’s heart began pounding out of his chest. He tucked his head down out of the wind, and held onto the wheel tightly while bracing his feet against the firewall. The brake was between his legs, but he was too afraid to take a hand off the wheel to make it work.

“I’m really rolling now he shouted.” The noise of the wheels clacking against the wooden planks drowned out his voice. The wind rushed over the dashboard into his eyes. I have to keep her straight, he thought. Ninety-three picked up more speed. The ride down was a thrilling rush. Jack’s eyes watered, his head shook from the vibration of the bumpy boards. In an instant, number ninety-three was at the bottom. She hit the transition with a big bump and leveled off. Everything was a blur when Jack hit top speed. Jack enjoyed a smooth ride half way across the yard. Eventually he coasted to a stop.

Rich came running up next to him, “How was it?”

“Wow, my legs are shaking. That was fun. Now it is your turn”

“Not me, that looked scary.”