Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Pocket Knife

A few day ago I received a package in the mail and did as I have done thousands of times in my life: I reached into my pocket and took out my pocket knife, which I used to open the package. While I was slicing the package open I began to think about the knife that I reached for so reflexively.

It was a Christmas present from a now long-dead uncle. I was barely a teen, and it was intended to replace a long line of cheap feed-store Barlows and miscellaneous junkers that I had used since I was about seven. I can still remember the thrill I felt as I opened the fitted cardboard box it came in. A Camillus it was, in the much-favored "Stockman" pattern. Three different specialized blades, each of them adequately factory sharp and later destined to be brought to the requisite razor edge.  The scales of the handle were dark bone with a little losenge of German silver on one side for the owner's initials. I dropped it that first time into my left hand pants pocket and savored the feel and weight of it there as it pressed lightly into my thigh. Of course I didn't know it at the time, but it was destined to live there for the next fifty-five or so years and still counting.

In those days every boy had a pocket knife of one sort or another. It was as essential as one's pants. You used it to cut the string off a bale of hay or straw, slice up an apple from the orchard, whittle on a stick, skin a squirrel, cut a twig to toast a marshmallow on, spread peanut butter on a cracker, remove splinters, pry a stone out of a hoof, cut a new set of bootlaces, or pare your finger nails. Not a day went by that it didn't see a dozen uses or more.

From the fifth grade on it was a given that every boy in school had a knife in his pocket. There was no secret about it, nor any need for its presence to have been a secret. The idea that we would do damage to each other was as foreign to everyone as anything could have been. There were two infallible indicators of the arrival of spring: the marble games would begin at recess, and the mumbledy-peg tournaments would begin. For those unfortunates not familiar with the arcane rituals of mumbledy-peg I will only say that it is a complex game played by sticking your knife into the ground in various rigorously prescribed moves.

The other day I read a news article about a high school boy who had been suspended from school. He had helped someone to move and a steak knife had apparently slipped out of a box and lay undetected in the bed of his truck until it was noticed by a security guard in the school parking lot. A concept called "zero tolerance for weapons and violence" dictated his removal from amongst acceptable people. I read that article and knew that I don't live here any more. None of my peers would have recognized that term-- weapons-- for our Barlows and Schrades and Cases and Camilluses.

I am sad for the boys who cannot know the tingly delight of a new pocket knife, a gift from some loving person who knew that nothing could please a boy quite so much. And in 2060 will any of today's boys have the pleasure of taking out their likewise aging companion and feeling the patina of its worn scales, looking at the blade that has been thinned and shaped by hundreds of sharpenings, and remembering the places it has been with them and the adventures they have had together? I wish the answer would be "Yes, many!" but I fear that is not so.

This reverie has been brought to you by one of those "old style boys" who hasn't quite yet lived up to being one of the new, improved citizens of our brave new world.


Roxie said...

I well remember these days. I have carried some kind of knife on my keychain or in my pocket since high school.

The hunters came to school with three or four guns in their gun rack. They had been out hunting before school and would return to the hunt afterwards.

No one ever thought anything of it. Those objects were tools, not weapons.

A few years ago, the school did a search of student cars. One boy's car had a knife under the seat. It was dirty and had obviously been there for some time. He was kicked out of school for a year. "Zero tolerance", the school said.

This boy's car was parked on the city street. How did the school get by with searching a vehicle that was not on its property? I still wonder about the constitutionality of that search.

We live in a different world than the one we occupied in childhood. I liked that world better.

Stephen said...

You and I my friend were born in a different country...what a shame.

Anonymous said...

Times were better in the 50's and 60's. No doubt of that.

Roxie said...

Times were better in the '70s, even though the economy wasn't so great.

Life was safer in the pre-Columbine world.

theotherryan said...

I know that when I was in school a knife coming out of a pocket to open a box was not at all uncommon. No stabbings or anything like that. Living in a relatively sane rational place helps a lot.

I had a knife in my pocket forever but for some reason lately I have having my pockets crammed full of stuff so I wear mine in a sheath on my belt.

Solo Survivalist said...

I received my first knife - also a stockman - when I was about 7 years of age. Sadly, it subsequently vanished.

I started carrying a pocket knife on a daily basis in the seventh grade - a Swiss Army "Fisherman" Knife. I graduated high school in 1995, with nary a fuss about it being a "weapon". I carried that same knife on my wedding day in 2002.

More recently I've favored a more "tactical" style of knife, clipped daily to my pocket. Still, my SAK is one of my favorite blades, and is kept razor sharp.

I'm new to your blog, Rio, but I like it quite a bit.

Rio Arriba said...

Thanks for the comments everyone.

You're right: we now live in a different world. But that doesn't mean we have to LIKE it, or stop trying to change it.

SS, your comments are appreciated. Nice to have you here.

Phillip said...

I envy your ability to hang on to a pocketknife. My first knife (and the second one) was an Uncle Henry, but also in the stockman style.
I even took it on an airplane, once in the old days. Drop it in the little change cup, then pick it up on the other side of the metal detector.
Unfortunately, both of them got away from me over the years. Now I've got a Leatherman multi-tool in my bag and a Leatherman "squirt" on my keychain.
They're just not the same. (sigh)
I found your blog today and have been working my way back through the posts.
They're all interesting. One thing I don't envy is your short growing season. Ouch.
Take care.

mike's spot said...

I know this is an older post- but I felt the need to jump in.

I am from camillus- where that cutlery is located. It closed its doors in february of 2007. I actually had lost my favorite pocket knife that was made there- it was from the becker necker line I think. It was a sentimental thing, a gift from my brother's wedding.

It didn't have a lifetime of history, only a few years, but that loss hurt.

Rio Arriba said...

Sorry for your loss, Mike. Maybe there is a way to replace it thru a collector? Too bad you can't just go down to the corner hardware and get another. But they're gone too.

mike's spot said...

yea luckily I have a copy of the knife- but it just doesn't have the same sentiment.

I don't really carry the copy. I'm afraid of loosing it. Now I just carry a cheap CRKT. . .just doesn't have the same feel ya know?

its funny the things you get attached to and that your hands remember.

Anonymous said...

A couple of years ago, my father said he needed a new pocket knife. I couldn't imagine why, but, maybe, he put the ones he's treasured for so many decades somewhere special.

I knew that he'd want something that looked like the ones he already owns. Small, smooth, simple, sleek. Well made, and easy to use. I found one that I thought looked like one a grandfather would already have.

When I gave it to him, he said it looked like his other ones. It seemed so normal to him, I didn't have the heart to tell him that it took some doing to find him a new one that looked liked the new ones he'd remember from seventy-plus years ago.

It was a sweet moment to share with him.

I can picture him, and his different pocket knives, cutting strings on packages, peeling apples, scoring an orange, having a screwdriver blade handy, cutting a fishing line.... They are lovely things to think of.

Thank you for reminding me.

P.S. I've noticed that a man with silver or white hair will almost always have a knife in his pocket. I tend to ask them first. And they usually have the ones with just the right blades on them.