It’s a shame that more of us don’t carry knives. Not a concealed weapon or a Crocodile Dundee-like blade worn on the hip, but one slipped into a pants pocket, small-bladed, subtle, and practical.
I come from a long line of pocket knife-carrying men, and most didn’t have much cash alongside competing for the space. I still carry one just about everywhere — most often, a two-bladed bone-handled Case brand I inherited from my dad — and if that proves that time has passed me by, that I belong in a different age, that I am officially in the old man’s club, then so be it.
Not long ago, a friend sent a blog post to me from The Natural South. It was called, “The Kind of Men Who Carry a Pocket Knife,” and I was taken by the writer — who wants to go unnamed — for he seemed to be describing my dad and my grandfathers, and probably, had I met them, my great-grandfathers, too.
He writes: “The men who carry pocket knives are hardworking, do-it-yourselfer types, who were raised to rely on themselves and be prepared in nearly every situation.”
Although I inconsistently qualify as such, many of the men I knew as I grew up — and a number I still know — are of that variety, usually ready to lend a hand in a repair, always willing to pass along advice, interested in working with their hands, and hopeful they can get something broken to work again.
But, when I mentioned to a writer friend that I was doing this story, she told me that she often carried a pocket knife, too, and that reinforced in me the idea that knives aren’t just for those in work boots and carpenter’s aprons. She’s 5-foot-nothing and spends most of her day at a keyboard, but she learned a long time ago how helpful a pocket knife can be. She’s a mother and grandmother — which already makes her tougher than I am — and I would imagine her grandfather, or grandmother, carried as well.
To me, pocket knives are the antithesis of the electronic technology we now hold so dear. A small knife may not be able to give us driving instructions or text a friend or make an online purchase, but I’ve never cut a piece of twine or cleaned the dirt from beneath a fingernail or scraped a bit of corrosion off a battery terminal with a phone, either. I’ve tightened screws, dug splinters, slit envelopes, sliced peaches, and sharpened pencils with pocket knives, and as is the case over and over again, quickly forgotten just how often they’ve proven useful.
I recall a day not long before I retired when I used my pocket knife to cut the taped seal on a mailer that had been delivered to my classroom. Despite their work, a few students noticed me wielding my blade and were surprised that I was carrying a knife (which, of course, they are not allowed to do). Yet, others saw it consistent with my age, I guess; “My grandpa always carries a knife with him,” one unconcerned girl announced.
My first knife was a plastic-handled Barlow that couldn’t have cost my grandfather more than $3 at Morgan’s Variety; they were sold from a cardboard display at the checkout counter. Its soon-to-be-familiar teardrop shape felt as big as Jim Bowie’s “Iron Mistress” in my hand, and although I can’t say now exactly how old I was, I can say I still have it and know who will get it, when he’s old enough.
“He’ll cut himself,” my mom told my grandpa when he handed the knife to me, and he said that it was probable, but I’d learn to respect a knife, and that I should have one in my pocket if I needed it. I believe I’ve carried one just about every day since — whether I am in dress clothes or blue jeans — and, sure enough, I have bled a little from the experience.
Had I lost the Barlow due to carelessness, it wouldn’t have mattered that much, I suppose. Farm fields, workshops and back roads worldwide are dotted with the rusted carcasses of misplaced and forgotten pocket knives. There has probably never been a pocket knife owner who hasn’t lost at least one, including me. That favored Case slipped out of my pocket years ago as I rode a tour bus from Springfield to New Salem, Illinois, but happily, after a frantic search and a little detective work, it was found and returned to me by honest people, through the mail, no less.
Over the years, I’ve accumulated a number of other knives, including a broken-tipped Uncle Henry that I rounded off with a grinding wheel. I have a good-sized and utilitarian Swiss Army knife hanging from my camera bag, too, and I have a Tree Brand Boker; it has a blunted crescent-shaped tip that makes it easy to open and is convenient to pry and scrape with. One of my treasured possessions is a pen knife that a science teacher gave to me nearly a half-century ago; imagine what would be said about that now…
I keep a decent edge on my knives, but my grandfather’s knife — an Old-Timer — had one blade so worn by repeated sharpening that it was half its original width. He whittled a bit, and I have to admit that as a boy, I too found pleasure in shaving away at a sassafras twig just to catch a whiff of its pleasing scent.
Each night, when my day is done, I take my watch off and empty my pockets onto my desktop. Typically, the haul consists of a bit of change, a fossil or stone I couldn’t pass up, a little lint, and my pocket knife.
I wish I could say that I have fulfilled what that blogger says about a man — or woman — who carries a pocket knife: “If you find yourself in a tight spot and need some help, just ask the guy with the pocket knife. Although they are few and far between these days, chances are he can and will be able to lend a hand.”