Family / Muse

Musing on a Knife

Caches of intimate and sentimental objects tell stories. Those artifacts that inhabit spaces and places like pockets, catch-alls, and cup holders proclaim both how we have lived and what we anticipate. Our “daily carry” can be mundane, utilitarian, and perhaps thoughtless. Conversely, many exist for nostalgic yearning, pleasurable habit, and perhaps vanity. 

The modern man’s daily carry might consist of a small clutch of keys, maybe on a data drive fob, maybe yet a bottle opener. Smoking men still might carry a matchbox, better still a lighter- until they go wrong. Most have some fashion of pocket wallet for cash and cards. Perhaps a man’s hidden pockets harbor a small journal, a phone, a pocket flask, or a petite firearm. 

A conversation about a man’s intimate personal effects would not be complete without consideration of the pocket knife.

Carrying a pocket knife has a layer of intimacy. The notion thrives through concealment and is only broken at the moment of it being brandished. Some gents are flashy wielders while others just keep knives deep and hidden to finger and ponder. 

Knives, anciently akin to objects that smash things and start fires, complete the bag of man’s earliest tools. Sharp objects have always served in the duality between utility and weapon. Knives have been lashed to men’s sides and found in-hand since outer garments were furs or loin cloths. In the greater civility of contemporary life, knives have been relinquished to pockets- folded and hidden. They still have the raw utility of their likely larger fixed-bladed ancestors, that is slicing stuff and the more rarified prospect of cutting and jabbing people. Whether weapon or tool, pocket knives are broad in their design and very personal. 

My first knife was a Case XX Boy Scout Knife that was my grandfather’s from the pre-World War Two era. It was given to me in the early eighties when I joined the Cub Scouts. My dad was proud to pass it along. As it was bestowed to me, I was advised, “Will- this is a really sharp knife, but sharp knives are safer- it’s the dull ones that will get you.” Within a week I was whittling a stick into a spear point in the woods beyond our home, and the blade folded into my knuckles- it got me. I never saw that knife again.

The next knife that I obtained is a make and model that we all have owned- the little keychain Swiss Army knife with a set of tweezers and a toothpick. Around the fourth grade this became part of my daily carry. There was nothing particularly special about this knife. Aside from the  blade; the nail file, bottle opener, and screw drivers rarely got used. It cut things good enough and fit in my pocket. There it stayed without any particular regard for the next three years, anytime or place I wore a pair of pants with a pocket:  Church, school, airplane, summer camps, afternoon with my pals in the woods— until the eight grade.

It was a normal autumn day at Grier Junior High School. Several classmates had gotten into reptiles- weird I know, but there were guys that were trading pet iguanas and stuff between classes and keeping them in their lockers. Not my crew, not my thing. I was sitting in the cafeteria after eating my poke sack lunch. My hands were under the table and I was cleaning my cuticles mindlessly with the little blade of my toothpick and tweezer Swiss Army Knife. The assistant principal was doing some sort of patrol through the cafeteria- looking for boys with lizards. I kept my hands down low- because it’s rude to clean your finger nails at the table, right? 

“Young man, what do you have under the table?” was the question asked with an expectation of a green reptile emerging from my lap. I politely folded my knife and placed it on the table. Faster than comprehension could register, I was on a hard chair in the administrative office overhearing a conversation with my parents about the “weapon” I brought to school. This was a decade before Columbine. I was suspended out-of-school for two weeks.

My parent’s reaction felt somewhat odd that evening. It was a quiet dinner. My father made arrangements with the head of the County Library, which was down the street from his office, for me to spend each suspended morning in study. My teachers, whom I generally loved, provided assignments in a reciprocation of that love. The two weeks were blissful. After a lunch with my folks, I took care of some of my hobbies. After school- I played with my buddies when they finished their homework. My parents seemed pretty cool. My grades where a little higher than average. All felt forgiven. I never apologized. I finished the time at that school with out getting in any trouble. 

Ten years later, I was sitting in the parlor of a small Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia. A young groom in an ante room must kill time before meeting his bride at the alter. The bridesmaids were then separated from my guys. We sat in our holding tank, the way you do- a little hungover, a little antsy, joking, and a little sentimental. My dad pulled me to the side to have one of the wonderful conversations where you share that you love each other. He pulled that little red knife out from his tuxedo pocket and asked, “do you remember this?” 

I grinned from ear to ear- “Is that? How did you?”

My dad went on to share the details of the meeting he had with that vice principle. His expression of how the “weapon incident” was mishandled was colorful. There was, as he put it,  an ass chewin’. He went to get my knife back. This lag in my knowing the story of him backing me up was lesson in temperance and patience to be passed to a then mature enough son.  He wanted me to have elder-respect as a child, I appreciate that.

A short time after my toothpick and tweezer weapon left my possession, Dad gave me a cast aluminum folding knife with two blades that read: AB CARTER GASTONIA, NC on one side and MILL DEVICE COMPANY on the other. This A.B. Carter fellow was my dad’s great-grandfather. While my family had well divided out of the maternal side from this business, third cousins still run that textile machine company today. This knife is a give away. A freebie to every textile worker, technician, or salesperson that comes through that plant. It’s the kind of intangible that comes in boxes of 144 at a time, wrapped only in wax paper. It is lightweight, thin, and sits just right in the bottom of my pocket.  I starting “carrying” again, as soon as I escaped that junior high pit of hormones and rules and went to high school. The Swiss Army was a memory. Since then the little aluminum folder has been my daily carry now for twenty-eight years, even after I got the tweezer-jabber back.

Today I have a bunch of knives: bigger ones, sharper ones, wicked ones, and expensive ones. There are many days I have no need for a knife because in my profession everything at my fingertips is “sharp”… but the great-great-grandfather knife sticks with me. It is just there in my daily-carry-catchall. That knife, a wallet, earplugs, and a Uniball Vision pen. 

7 thoughts on “Musing on a Knife

  1. Great writing! I eagerly await your next post. Today’s knife musing finally got me around to commenting. You’re the favorite of the three folks I subscribe to. I concur with your cousin things and same but different comments on the kinship I feel in your writings. I can’t recall how I came across your blog. I subscribed by email as I don’t do social media, except LinkedIn. Cheers from a Kentucky, bourbon loving gentleman, whose wife has no use for drinking either. Keep it coming.
    Best,
    Ron McMahan

    • Thank you. It means a lot to get this feedback and to know that folks enjoy and/or relate. Honestly, I’m a bit self conscious as a writer. I struggled with dyslexia affecting my reading and writing as a kid. I hold my breath every time I post something, because I know that my unedited writing is rife with obvious typos that I just can’t see.
      Thank being said- it feels good to tell a story or share what’s on my mind. I’m a big ole story teller, I talk a lot. It’s hard to go into long diatribes as a dentist. I have learned that you sort of have people captive and it’s not fair to them to talk when they can only mumble back— so I write in hopes that folks will chose to read. Thanks for the pat on the back and the feedback. And cheers up there in Kentucky the next time you raise a glass.

  2. I’m a incessant carrier of a Case Old Red Bone Canoe. During the day, ( I’m a crop consultant ) I add a Case Yellow Tribal Lock ( Spring/ Summer while checking fields ) or a Case Amber bone Bird Knife during hunting season. Have drawers full of “ carry knives. “

    Now every time I buy a “ carry knife “ I buy one for me, and one for my son to keep in the box. Just our thing.

    • Every day I carry an old Case Little 2 Blade Stockman knife my Dad gave me when I was 7 or 8 years old. Wouldn’t trade it for anything.

  3. Ha. My now thirteen year old has just surpassed my 11 1/2 shoe size, and graduated to 12 so 4-5 pairs of Russell boots, a pair of Gokey birdshooters, and a cherished pair of the old Browning Kangaroo featherlights will have to wait on grandchildren.

    Several Filson, Lewis Creek, Columbia ( old tree stand camo ) quads , McAlister’s still in use by us.

    • Something is in the water I’m 6’1″ and wear an 11…. I have been surpassed by my 15 and 17 year old boys, I can only imagine it is only a matter of time before the 13 and 8 year olds get there too. Must be the chicken!

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