In Praise Of Pocket Knives

Editor's Note: The following article, which captured the award for Excellence in Craft in the magazine short features category of the Southeast Outdoor Press Association (SEOPA) in 2013, was submitted to The Outdoor Wire after it published Knife Rights' listing of the 10 Worst Cities in America for Knife Owners. Among the Top 10? Cleveland, Ohio.

Case--Buck--Barlow--Remington--Gerber--Schrade. Once these and other brands of pocket knives were names with which to conjure, instantly recognizable to an appreciable percentage of the population, at least in my part of the world. Folks took pride in carrying, displaying, and using their knife of choice, and most males over the age of 12 carried one. Youngsters looked on the acquisition of their first knife as a significant rite of passage while fathers considered a two- or three-blade pocketknife as indispensable as car keys or work tools. Grizzled old codgers in country stores or beneath shade trees on small town squares swapped blades, whittled, and told tales as an integral part of their daily routine. Pocketknives were an important part of life.

How things have changed.

A few years back I visited the local Social Security office. A genial gentleman in uniform greeted me at the door with a cheery "good morning" and the comment: "You look like a man who would carry a pocket knife."

I thought that strange but took it as a compliment and enthusiastically replied: "Yep. As a matter of fact I'm carrying two. Do you want to see them?"

That wasn't what he wanted to hear. Politely but firmly, he informed me I couldn't enter the building carrying a pocket knife, and of course the same holds true for boarding an airplane or entering many public buildings, a pointed reminder of how dramatically society has changed since my 1950's boyhood.

A few weeks ago I noticed a news piece about a boy getting in trouble for carrying a pocket knife to school. It seemed pretty innocuous, at least on the surface. A teacher apparently noticed a bulge made by the knife sticking out of his pocket. Nothing more. Obviously the boy broke school rules and had to face the consequences, but the hapless lad's situation speaks volumes about the world in which we live as well.

When I was a teenager in the 1950s, virtually every boy carried a pocket knife, not only when fishing or hunting but in school as well. The few who didn't wished they had one. If a female teacher asked whether anyone had a knife to assist her with some classroom chore, chances were every boy in the class raised his hand in a fashion far more enthusiastic than responses to academic questions. We boys used pocket knives for recreation and in all sorts of practical ways: gutting and scaling a mess of fish, cleaning squirrels or rabbits, widening the opening in a split shot so it could be easily affixed to a fishing line, or performing any of dozens of chores around home. We were taught practical knife safety and how to use a whet stone. The standard measure of whether a knife blade was sufficiently "keen" involved seeing if it would easily shave the hair off one's forearm. If not, it needed additional sharpening.

And if boys of my generation took pride in carrying a pocket knife, adults considered them absolutely essential. At Loafer's Glory, as the town square where I grew up was known, knives were a focal point of activity second only to playing checkers. There was constant knife swapping, with exchanges of blades vying with swapping of lies for pride of place. Genial arguments about the comparative merits of different styles such as Barlow (not only a brand name but a two-bladed knife), Stockman (three blades), and Congress (four blades) were commonplace. The same held true when it came to allegiance to a particular manufacturer.

Those knife lovers were old men enjoying well-earned leisure after a lifetime of hard work, but the folding blades they traded and talked about were also the quintessential working man's tool. Neither my father nor paternal grandfather would have even thought of setting foot out of the house without their trusty knife handy. Both owned a goodly selection from which to choose, and thanks to disappointment from early boyhood at not getting a knife one Christmas, Daddy saw to it that his sons and later his grandsons were always appropriately outfitted in that department.

While writing this piece I paused to ponder how the knife I carry has been used over the course of the last year or so. The varying work accomplished with it, and I know the list which follows is but a select sampling, amazed me-harvesting garden vegetables such as squash, cabbage, eggplant, okra, cucumbers, and zucchini; peeling apples and peaches; suckering tomato plants; cutting off sections of twine to tie tomatoes to stakes; gathering gladiolas, zinnias, snapdragons, and dahlias from the flower garden for household decoration; opening daily mail and shipments of books; extracting briars from my fingers; cleaning trout; removing giblets from wild turkeys; whittling a piece of wood to hold a latch in place; prying open the lid on a balky toothbrush so the battery could be replaced, gouging out a shotshell in a dove field when the gun's ejector failed, and much more. Simply put, without a knife it would be difficult for me to function.

Even in his later years, to the age of a hundred and beyond, my father always kept a pocketknife handy. Dad kept his knives razor sharp, rightly reckoning that one which wasn't finely honed wasn't fit to carry. Today I proudly carry one of Dad's pocket knives, as do my brother, all of his boys, a first cousin, and even my daughter. I can't speak for the others, but the little two-blader I carry, with its bone handles and simple design, gives me a momentary mental boost every time I take it out of my pocket. It's a constant reminder of a time when folks lived close to the earth and a knife was considered a necessity. Today's urbanized world seems increasingly out of tune with a lifestyle where pocket knives deserve praise and a prominent place in daily life. They are, in short, increasingly part of a world we have lost.

How terribly sad.

Republished from The Outdoor Wire.

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