The Block of Wood Part 3

Connell said last night that “we are in control of our cars this year.” I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant by that, but when pressed he meant that this year, we seem to know what we are doing. This is the sixth year of building cars, so I’m glad we are finally getting the hang of things. 🙂 Our goal this year, like every year is to have fun. We’ll be happy to have a respectable showing and maybe even win a heat or two.

Two years ago our cars were the slowest in the field. I don’t know what I did, but our cars were horrible. I spent the better part of that “off season” learning more about the secrets to a fast pinewood derby car. We showed improvement last year, but still had room for improvement. Last year we took Connell’s car to PWD Racing in Rosemount and learned the speed secrets used by the cars that win the district and council competitions. Connell took first in his den last year and went on to the district competition. Liam and my cars were respectable, but did not place. The challenge is to try to replicate the processes at home in a less than controlled environment.

Friction is the enemy of a fast car. The first step to reducing friction is polishing the axles. The nail-type axles come out of the box with a bur from the manufacturing process that inherently provides friction. To remove the bur, I rigged up fixture to hold a moto-tool and placed the axle in the chuck. We set the moto-tool at the lowest speed and lightly filed the bur off the nail.

Step 1 File off the bur.

The next steps are to use extra fine grit sand paper to sand off any marks on the axle and to polish the axles to an incredible smoothness. We start with 400-grit sandpaper for up to 2 minutes on the axle. Again the speed of the moto-tool should be at a low setting.

Step 2 Using ultra fine sandpaper.

Next, with the tool still running, is to rub the axle with a piece of cloth to clean and to buff up the shine.

Step 3 – Buffing up the shine.

Ok, sounds easy enough right? Well repeat steps 2 and 3, with a progression of 600, 800, 1000, 1500, & 2000-grit sand paper…for each axle!!!!

Sanding the axle for 2 minutes per step is flexible, depending upon the attention span of the operator. I found that 45 seconds to a minute per step is about right to keep my boys engaged. With that said, it’s about a half-hour operation to polish all four axles.

Step 4 is to treat the newly polished axles. We typically press the nail point end of the axles about 1/3 of the way into a piece of styrofoam, I (the adult) spray the axles with the a dry silicone spray. There is a product called “Jig-a-loo” that is ideal, however it is no longer available for sale in the U. S. I settle for using a WD-40 product that dries without a residue.

Next Step – Polishing the Wheels.


The Block of Wood Part 2

After cutting and sanding, we painted the car bodies using inexpensive acrylic paint. The paint comes in many colors and drys quickly. The boys applied as many coats as needed with cheap foam brushes and have a finished product within a few hours.

Liam purchased a decal them kit to give his car a little bit extra pop.

Liam’s Car

Connell and I went for racing stripes, they didn’t turn out as well as we hoped. But we figured they are good enough for the Open Class.

Connell taking off the paint tape to reveal his racing stripe.

Connell’s Car

My Car

I decided to add the racing stripe on my car after the purple base coat, so after 5 coats of yellow paint I had nice a yellow stripe.

After we were confident that we were done painting, it was time to apply the top coat.

Up next polishing the Axles.

The Block of Wood Part 1

The Block(s) of Wood

The annual Cub Scout Pinewood Derby is a big event each January in our house. I spend countless hours each January with both boys building their cars out of a block of wood. Liam is a first year Webelo, meaning that next year will be his (and our) last year building cars.

I usually build a car to race in the “open class” for family members to build a car to compete. (I think we have to allow the Dads to build their own car and not completely build their son’s car.) This is Connell’s first year as a Boy Scout, yet he wants to build a car to compete in open class. I thought it would be fun to chronicle our steps in building our cars this year.

This week we cut the cars to the design on the block of wood, sanded them down, and prepared to paint.


Sanding the saw marks off with a palm sander.

Detail sanding with 150 and 220 grit sandpaper.

Ready for painting!


Washington, DC

Over the years I have traveled for business to the DC area a handful times, but never once taking the time to see the sights of our nation’s capital. I arrived at my hotel room around 7pm on Tuesday night and managed to get a see a few sites by the time darkness fell.

WWII Memorial

The World War II Memorial

The Washington Monument

The Washington Monument


The Original Executive Office Building


The White House


Walking in the Footprints – Napoleon Part 2

Napoleon’s stories are present in nearly every corner of Europe, including the corners we walked before our visit to Waterloo.

The crowd which follows me with admiration, would run with the same eagerness were I marching to the Guillotine. – Napoleon Bonaparte. 

Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of France in 1804, eschewing the pre-French Revolution coronation in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Reims for Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. David was commissioned to paint the coronation and completed the now famous painting in 1808.  The painting is on display today at the Louvre in Paris.We visited the Paris Notre Dame Cathedral in 2002. We also visited the Reims cathedral in both 2002 and 2012.

Paris 2002 Notre DameNotre Dame Cathedral – Paris 2002
photoNotre Dame Cathedral – Reims 2012
photoThe famous smiling angel on the Reims Cathedral in 2012.
Reims Cathedral in 2002Reims Cathedral in 2002
The Smiling Angel in 2002

The Smiling Angel in 2002

The Treaty of Amiens of 1802 was signed in Amiens, France that forged a temporary peace between France, Great Britain, Spain, and the Batavian Republic, one of the precursors to modern-day Germany. Napoleon’s brother Jonathan Bonaparte signed the agreement for France, as Napoleon himself left Amiens to add the title of president of the newly acquired northern Italy. Amiens is home to one of the largest Cathedrals in the world and also the tomb of Jules Verne. We visited both in June 2012 on our tour of France.

photoNotre Dame Cathedral – Amiens 2012
The Grave of Jules Verne

During Napoleon’s reign of Spain, his plan was to have his brother Joseph develop a Champs ElysĂ©es-style boulevard in Madrid. Today the Plaza de Oriente remains as the primary remnant of that era. Napoleon’s plans to remake Madrid in Paris’s image did not come to fruition as his empire began to unravel.This square just east of the Plaza de Oriente, was also designed at the time of Joseph Bonaparte. I visited Madrid on business in 2008. Unlike his brother, Joseph Bonaparte was successful in getting to America and by this account lived a quiet life in suburban New Jersey prior to returning to France.

Telefonica Spain 068

Napoleon entered Russia with an army of 450,00. When we left in 1812, he exited with only 40,000. The decisive defeat lead to Napoleon’s first exile to Elba in 1814.The Anichkov Bridge in St. Petersburg, Russia by legend includes a back-handed monument to the defeat of Napoleon. The bridge includes four sculptures of horses being tamed. The pictured horse has a profile of a human face said to be Napoleon on it’s genitalia.

St Petersburg Bridge

Napoleon ordered the Arc De Triomphe to be built in 1806 to commemerate the 1805 victory by the French army at Austerlitz. Construction on the Arc was halted after Napoleon abdicated the throne, between 1814 and 1826. The Arc was completed in 1836, fifteen years after Napoleon’s death.

Paris 2002 Arc Triomph
Arc De Triomphe in 2002

Following his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon attempted to reach a America, but was intercepted and arrested by the British. Napoleon died in 1821 while in exile on the south Atlantic island of St. Helena. His body was returned to France in 1840 and was entombed in it’s current tomb in 1861 at Les Invalides in Paris. Napoleon’s son’s, Napoleon II, tomb was also moved to be on display in the great chamber when Hitler ruled France in 1940.

Napoleons Tomb - 2002

Napoleon’s Tomb Les Invalides 2002

napoleonII 2002Napoleon II’s Tomb Les Invalides 2002

Our earliest encounter with Napoleon’s footprints is in our home state of Minnesota. Minnesota was part of the Louisiana Territory. French influence is still evident today. The Minnesota state motto is the French phrase “L’Étoile du Nord,” meaning the Star of the North. The French Voyaguers traded furs across northwest territories over the 17th century. Napoleon had hoped to establish Haiti as the center of his new world empire, with Louisiana providing the natural resources. Napoleon’s needed to raise money to pay France’s war debts. Thomas Jefferson sent his emmissary to France in 1803 to hopefully purchase a portion of the Mississippi basin. When Napoleon offered to sell the entire territory for $15M, Jefferson immediately said yes without consulting congress. 

Napoleon’s legacy is complicated. The French still feel national pride in Napoleon’s legacy of conquest and his implementation of individual rights, the French Civil or Napoleonic code. The principal tenet of the Civil Code was that every French person was equal before the law.  To the rest of Europe, Napoleon’s legacy is one of the senseless bloodshed of millions and further complicated by the suppression of slaves in Haiti and ruthless police tactics and censorship to protect his regime.

One can only wonder if Napoleon had visited and explored the Louisiana territory how history may have changed. You can’t tell me that had Napoleon took Josephine on holiday to a lake in Minnesota and  watched the sun, that the Little Emperor may have viewed life a bit differently. 🙂

Chocolate, Waffles and Waterloo – Napoleon Part 1


So ended the 2014 World Cup run for the United States US Men’s Soccer team. The build up to the big game involved getting back in touch with our Belgian friends Olivia and Pascal. We exchanged a few friendly barbs in anticipation of the big game, as I wondered why Prince Harry was playing for Belgium and he shared a meme of Captain America being defeated by a Red Devil. (The Red Devils is the unofficial nick-name of the Belgian national team.) Besides chocolate, waffles and fries, Belgium is perhaps most famous for being the home of Waterloo. It was at Waterloo where even Tim Howard couldn’t save “The Little Emperor” Napoleon Bonaparte’s army in 1815. We were fortunate to visit the Waterloo battlefield site with Olivia in 2012.

Death is nothing, but to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily. – Napoleon Bonaporte

Modern day Waterloo is a suburb of Brussels with a population of just under 30,000. The Waterloo battlefield and working farms on the edge of the city offered a nice change of pace in comparison to the hustle and bustle of Brussels.  The Waterloo Battlefield site is a tourist destination, offering tours of the battlefield, an interpretive center, wax museum, and views from the top of the Lion’s mound.

The battlefield is a scene of constant chaos. The winner will be the one who controls that chaos, both his own and the enemies. – Napoleon

226 steps lead to the top of Butte du Lion or the Lion’s Mound. The monument was ordered to be built by the King of the Netherlands at what was thought to be the exact spot where his son, the Prince of Orange, was wounded. The mound was constructed from the dirt where the actual battle took place.  The view from on high offered an awesome perspective of where the sides approached one another.


photo Clare & Olivia at the top of the Lion’s Mound

photo photo

Tourists packed into the rear of this modified truck to take in a guided tour experience. Pre-recorded audio in French, and sometimes English, attempted to provide a retelling of how Napoleon was out-manned and out-maneuvered by the 7th Coalition.Today the battlefield remains as working farm fields, as it was in 1815. As the tour progress, it was apparent crossing the field roads that the vehicle had little suspension, giving the passengers an unexpected roller coaster ride for their money.

photo photo
photo photo

At the top of Lion’s Mound and elsewhere on the grounds battlefield maps assist visitors envision how the lines advanced on that fateful day.

photo photo

A Statue of Napoleon and a monument to the men who died at the Battlefield Site.

photo photo

The upper level of the interpretive center was a 360-degree panorama of a painting similar to French painter’s Clément-Auguste Andrieux’s Battle of Waterloo. Simulated audio, complete with bugles, gunfire, explosions, and the pounding of horse hoofs surrounded the room for effect.

photo photo

The battlefield site also houses a wax museum, showcasing the military attire of the day and also a death mask taken of Napoleon after his death in exile at St. Helena.

photo photo

The Waterloo Battlefield only tells the story of Napoleon’s final military defeat. Napoleon’s stories are present in nearly every corner of Europe, including the corners we walked before our visit to Waterloo.

From Russia, With Luge

Courtesy AP

“I want to go to Sochi!” was the proclaimed our seven-year old in the midst of the Olympic hype that grips this country, even when the games happen on the other side of the world (or in this year’s example, our teams are not very good.) Children of the Cold War may still call Russia “the Soviet Union” or believe it is still us versus them in world affairs. The children of today look at Russia with a much different lens than the Cold War generations. Russia might as well be any other European country, the adversarial threat of nuclear armageddon  between the US and the Soviet Union has been replaced by a new world order that the Cold War generations find uneasy.

I am not going to fill this post with ponderings of the post-9/11 world order, no today’s Russia on full display in Sochi is much different than the Russia I visited in 1995. When my group of fellow trainees stationed in Helsinki, Finland visited St. Petersburg in the Summer of 1995,  the country was firmly mired in the malaise following the fall of the Soviet Union. Boris Yeltsin was president, it’s colonial empire had been disbanded, the nation’s infrastructure was badly neglected and to add insult to injury to this proud country,  the US $100 Bill was the preferred tender for any sort of transaction above buying a liter of vodka. Our group traveled as tourists in a pleasant modern motor coach for the five or six hour bus ride to St. Petersburg from Helsinki. Additionally there was a sense of danger for a group of foreigners traveling to this large and seemingly down on its luck city that was not present in any of our other stops in the region. Therefore our visit lacked the full cultural experience that many of  our other adventures in 1995 possessed. We wanted to be good ambassadors, but we wanted to travel smart. I had my trusty 35mm point and shoot camera along for the ride and was able to capture a few grainy images that told a bit of the story of our visit.

St Petersburg Canal The flowing canals ushering the Neva River through St. Petersburg is remind many of Paris.
St Petersburg Bridge One of the bridges over the Neva includes a monument to Russia’s victory over Napolean’s France. The sculptors of this bridge are said to have carved Napoleon’s image into a unflattering part of the horse’s anatomy.
St Petersburg St Peter Paul The St. Petersburg port to the Baltic sea sits on the Gulf of Finland. The St. Peter & Paul Cathedral is featured in the distance on this photo.
St Petersburg Waterfront A Russian navy ship can be seen in this photo of the opposite side of the water front.
The Church of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is a classic 16th and 17th century Russian church with the ornate onion domes and exquisite details on the outside of the building. The church was built on the site of where Alexander II was fatally wounded by early forces opposed to the imperial family.The locals call it “Church on the Spilled Blood.” St Petersburg Church of the Resurrection
St. Isaac’s Cathedral is a most impressive and massive cathedral. Far up by the dome you can see tourists whom look like ants enjoying the view of the city. St Petersburg Cathedral of St Isaac
The Cathedral of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God is yet another of the massive orthodox cathedrals in St. Petersburg. The large columns enclosing a plaza give the cathedral a Romanesque feel. St Petersburg Mother of God
St Petersburg Pushkin Front St. Petersburg was the imperial city where the Russian czars (or is it tsars?) lived. Like every European monarchy, the Romanovs had a Summer place to enjoy all 10 days of sun enjoyed by those of us in the far northern hemisphere. Pushkin was the Summer home to the czars and was just outside of St. Petersburg.
St Petersburg Pushkin Garden If the gardens of Pushkin could talk, they would no doubt include stories of Catherine the Great and her many ‘friends’ who frequently enjoyed their mutual company.
St Petersburg Hermitage The Hermitage is considered one of the great museums of the world, in the same conversation as the Louvre and the Prado. Like the Louvre, the Hermitage was converted from a palace following the deposing of a imperial regime. The collections of French impressionist art in the Hermitage were amazing. I fondly remember sitting in the Monet room (yes there was a full room of only Monet’s) and being overwhelmed with amazement and emotion from the most amazing artwork I had ever witnessed with my own eyes.
The World War II monument in St. Petersburg remembers the 10 million military members killed during the war. St Petersburg WWII Memorial Front
The Soviet Union lost the most life of any country during World War II, losing another 26 million civilian lives throughout the war. St Petersburg WWII Memorial Side
St Petersburg Lenin A few relics from the Soviet Union remained in 1995, including this statue of Lenin located in a government plaza. No account of St. Petersburg’s history could be complete with out mentioning that St. Petersburg was renamed Petrograd, then Leningrad, before reclaiming the original name of St. Petersburg in 1991.
St Petersburg Rubles In 1995 the Russian Ruble was trading at between 4,000 and 6,000 to 1 against the US dollar. Meaning that this 10,000 note was worth a cool $2USD. Russians gladly accepted US dollars in storefronts as they had lost confidence in their own currency.

Have You Been Hugged by a 90 Year Old and Other Deep Thoughts for the New Year

Have you ever been hugged by a 90-year old relative or someone close to you? If you have, you know that words can not adequately describe the moment. It is a moment filled with joy and sadness, but mostly joy. The thoughts that this could indeed be the last moment the two of you will ever share quickly transition towards a serene thankfulness for the moment you do have.

2013 was a year of mixed blessings, as we were afforded the opportunity to travel abroad for a second time in two years and it ended with me once again seeking new career opportunities. I enjoyed working for my last employer and am disappointed in not being there to help the team overcome some significant hurdles in their business. I have chronicled some of our 2013 visit to Spain on this blog in the past year and ‘resolve’ to include more in the near future. Yet, as I recently reflect upon our visit my mind is brought back to the events back home in Minnesota and in Rome, Italy that coincided with preparing to return home.

On June 19, 2013 my mobile phone buzzed twice. I was expecting a text from the airline notifying that our flight would be on-time. It was from my buddy back home, notifying me that actor James Gandolfini had died while in Rome of a heart attack. While not a surprise that my buddy would text me when celebrity dies, (it is our thing, I will leave it at that 🙂 ) it was a bit more shocking when I received a text hours later stating that noted Minnesota author Vince Flynn had died of cancer at the age of 47. While I was only a casual Vince Flynn fan, I enjoyed his local media appearances and took pride that ‘one of us’ was a world-renown author. My only first hand encounter with Mr. Flynn was giving him the ‘where do I know you?’ stare at a bookstore in the MSP airport. He kindly blew me off, but yet his passing really hit home, age 47 is far too young to go.

As we were finishing preparing to leave Spain, my mind began to wonder. I began to process our visit, the new and old friends met, and the incredible sites seen. I honestly wondered for the first time if we would see them again. In the fifteen minutes that eclipsed after picking up that text and finishing the packing of my bags, the inevitability and invincibility of youth left in my mind seemed to be gone. In a moment, the tears in our friends’ eyes as we left their homes in France in 2012 and Spain in 2013 made perfect sense to me. This could be the last time.

While there are no guarantees that we will travel to Europe again, there really were not any guarantees that we would be there again after my visit in 1995 or either of our visits in 2002 and 2012. We were blessed to have these opportunities and even more fortunate that we embraced everything in our visits, leaving no regrets of what we should have done or seen. My hopes for 2014 go beyond travel and into life. Embrace it with thankfulness for that moment, realizing that another moment quite like the one you are in is not inevitable. Embrace it, like a 90-year old would embrace it.

Grave Encounters

Americans are fascinated by how steeped in history European countries are in comparison to the United States. The buildings are not decades, but hundreds of years old. The signature design of most cities includes a medieval old city at the center. The city grew around its medieval center, keeping the rich history and remembrance of the past. The old buildings are kept intact no matter how dark and dank the building may be, as it is part of the history and part of the present all at once. Intertwined with the rich attachment to the past is the presence of the dearly departed. Cemeteries, pantheons, sarcophagus’s, and tombs are everywhere. In historic buildings, in churches, in neighborhood cemeteries, the departed are never far away, part of the past and present all at once. In our travels, we sought out the final resting places of a few of history’s notable people, but also came across others by surprise!

The Lizard King

The grave of Jim Morrison’s is perhaps the most famous grave site of an American found outside the United States. We visited the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris in 2002 and sought out the grave of the legendary front man for the classic rock group The Doors. In the grand scheme of history and culture, fellow luminaries interred at Père Lachaise Oscar Wilde and Frederic Chopin offered more cultural significance, but for some reason Jim Morrison’s grave is the magnet that draws in people from all walks of life. It is the only grave in with Père Lachaise constant security and visitors pay their respects with flowers, cigarettes, pieces of clothing and in other non-traditional ways.

There was an undeniable vibe around the grave site. While we visited, there were ten to 20 people gathered around, all of us under watchful eye of a nearby security guard. I wasn’t sure how long one should pay homage to the Lizard King, but after snapping a few shots and taking in the scene, it was time to move on. Père Lachaise was a bit too confusing for us to find the graves of Chopin or Oscar Wilde, but I could cross visiting Jim Morrison’s grave off my bucket list.

Jim Morrison’s Grave – 2002
Père Lachaise – 2002
Père Lachaise – 2002

The Emperor 

The Invalides of Paris today serves as the French military museum. It houses monuments and museums, but is renown for being the final resting place for Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon is entombed in a red quartzite sarcophagus in a primary atrium. The enomority of Napoleon’s legacy was on full display as it was a shoulder to shoulder, capacity crowd in the atrium on our visit in 2002. Several of Napoleon’s family who commanded under him are also entombed in the Invalides, including his son, Napoleon II.

Napoleon is one of the icons of world history. On the International stage, his legacy is mixed. Napoleon is credited for breaking the back of the Roman Empire, breaking the cycle of feudalism in Europe and to Americans he sold us Louisiana! He also rejected democracy in France by establishing himself as Emperor, quelled a slave rebellion in Haiti, led France into costly wars, and finally left his country bankrupt and barren of her colonies.

With his defeat in Belgium at Waterloo, Napoleon was deposed for the last time until his death in 1821. The Waterloo monument wax museum displays a wax mold taken of Napoleon following his death.

(Fore shadow for future post. 🙂 )

Napoleons Tomb - 2002

Napoleons Tomb – 2002


Waterloo – 2012

Napoleon II Tomb – 2002

Jules Verne

In 2012 as we mapped out our journey from Normany to Champagne in France, my wife suggested we take the route through the city of Amiens to see the renown Cathedral, but to also find the grave of the famous science fiction writer Jules Verne. The guidebooks listed the remarkable stonework and design of the tomb as the second highlight of Ameins. I was game for the adventure as Verne’s 10,000 Leagues Under the Sea is one of my favorite classic novels.

As I’ve chronicled in past posts, our ability to get from point a to point b is largely limited to our GPS and the information we feed into it. The guidebook listed the incorrect address for the cemetery, but somehow, someway we found the cemetery. The cemetery was located on the fringes between a residential area and the business part of the city, much like one would be located in the United States. We did not see a legend or map of the cemetery available, so we just started walking, and walking, and walking.

There was no sign of Jules Verne’s grave anywhere. Then as we took a turn to make our way out of the cemetery, there it was. This most unique tomb, fit for the godfather of science fiction. The sculpture adorning his tomb illustrates an image of Verne himself pushing aside the slab to emerge from the grave!


Jules Verne’s Grave – Amiens, France – 2012


Jules Verne’s Grave – Amiens, France – 2012

Normandy Cemetery

Visiting the American Cemetery in Normandy is a moving experience. I considered it my patriotic duty to visit the cemetery and found myself on a whole other journey following the discovery of a grave marker for Albin B Hagen.


American Cemetery – Normandy, France – 2012


Grave of Unknown Soldier – Normandy, France – 2012


Grave of Pvt. Albin B. Hagen, Normandy, France – 2012

Christopher Columbus

The massive cathedrals of Europe are often the final resting place for esteemed clergy, bishops, cardinals and even saints. It was in the cathedral in Seville, Spain where we stumbled across the tomb of another historic icon. Seville’s cathedral is the world’s largest Gothic cathedral and the third largest in the world! (Just what is the difference between a Gothic cathedral and any other cathedral, we’ll get to that in a later post.)

As we made our way through the cathedral, there was an usually large crowd gathered around a very impressive monument. I listened in to an English speaking tour guide speaking to a crowd of American students to see what was going on. I have to admit I had not done any homework on the Cathedral and what were going to see. I was amazed as I overheard the guide’s description that this monument was actually the tomb of Christopher Columbus!

Well, at least the tomb contains part of Christopher Columbus. Many claim that Columbus is buried in the Dominican Republic. However, the curators of the Cathedral point to Columbus’s remains being moved from Santo Domingo in 1795 to Havana when the Spanish lost control of the Dominican Republic, with the remains coming back to Spain in 1895. The tomb may only contain part of Christopher Columbus, but I am still amazed.

The Cathedral in Sevilla

Tomb of Christopher Columbus, Seville, Spain – 2013

The Cathedral in Sevilla

Tomb of Christopher Columbus, Seville, Spain – 2013

Tomb of Cardinal Juan de Cervantes, Seville Cathedral – 2013