I am in Tennessee looking at knives in a store the size of a major league ballpark. Three stories. A little bit of camo and hunting gear. One counter for firearms including sling shots. But this place is mostly about knives, and I am having ball.
I learned to work a pocketknife from my dad. I was probably 7 or 8 when I got my first folding knife. Tapered brown handle. Long silver bolt with the Barlow name engraved on it. That knife set in motion, for me, the life-long habit of carrying a pocketknife.
Someone might ask, “You got a pocketknife on you?”
My reply is a borrowed retort. “I’ve got my pants on, don’t I?”
This store is crazy with the amount of knifes a fella could buy. Folding blades. Locking blades. Pig stickers with 10” blades. Tactical knifes. Throwing knifes. Carving knifes. Skinning knifes. Samurai knifes. Knives made in Germany and Switzerland. Knives with hilts and sheaves. Knives with bone handles. Titanium handles. Handles with gold inlays and rhinestones.
I feel like I’m in a store full of Lamborghinis looking for a VW.
I can see Dad sitting out in the back yard. Just taking it easy under the shade of the pecan trees. He’s sitting forward in a metal yard chair, elbows on his knees. There’s an apple in one hand and he’s working his magic with his pocketknife in the other. He’s holding a yellow-handled Case knife, the long blade open and making perfect circles around the apple. A long twirl of apple peel dangling toward the ground.
I don’t think I ever saw him eat an apple without peeling it, and he ate a lot of apples. Dad wore a set of false teeth since before I was born, so, he preferred to peel it and slice off little bites which he would raise to his mouth on the edge of the knife blade.
I’m standing there watching him. “You want a bite,” he says. And he lifts a slice to my mouth on that long blade.
Mama would protest. “John, you be careful with that knife. When’s the last time you cleaned that nasty thing, anyway?”
You see, a pocketknife is the most used object a man will ever own. You use it doing so many things you can’t really remember what you cut with it last. That’s why, before you peel an apple or cut open an orange, you wipe the blade on your pant leg. A couple of swipes and you’re good to go.
So, what’s a knife good for? Glad you asked.
Cutting plug tobacco. Dad’s choice, Brown Mule, came in a small cardboard box about one fifth the size of a shoe box. Dark mustard yellow, almost orange, with the emblem of a red mule on the outside. I always wondered why they didn’t call it Red Mule tobacco.
Each plug was about 2 inches square, wrapped in a wax paper, which Dad would peel open. He’d cut a corner off with his knife and fold the paper back over the plug. Plug and knife went back in his pocket. I’ve seen him do it a million times.
Cutting twine. I think this is why he gave me my first knife. I was old enough to ride in the back of the truck as he drove across the pasture. Cows pressing right up to the truck because they wanted fresh hay. My job was to roll a bale to the tailgate, set level by the chains hooked on each side. Cut the twine and kick the loose hay off for the cows.
Cleaning fish. This is really where a boy had to learn to handle a knife without sticking himself. Cutting a string is one thing, but it takes a little more finesse to work your way under the pectoral fin and remove a fish head. Slit the belly and pull out the air sack. When you get done, you dowse your knife under the garden hose for a few seconds, wipe the blade on your pant leg, and you’re good for the next apple.
The uses of a good pocketknife are endless. I’ve cut hundreds of ribbons off Christmas packages. Sliced the tape around a delivery box. Skinned a wire on a battery cable and put it back together. Poked a hole in a jug. Dug a splinter out of my hand. Scraped a gasket off a water pump. Loosened a screw with the back of the blade. Cut a drinking straw in half for my granddaughter. And whittled a stick to pass the time.
I can’t imagine getting along very well without one.
I’m in this store looking for a plain old pocketknife. I don’t need rhinestones. I don’t need fancy colors. I don’t need names I can’t pronounce.
Around the corner I find a glass case full of vintage knives. Knives labeled every decade from 1930 to 1974. These are the knives I remember seeing in the hands of men I’ve known my whole life. Some of these knives are tagged at over $850.
I’m thinking that one over there on the left looks a lot like one Dad left in his old tacklebox. I need to do some digging around when I get home.
Finally, I see a sign for Old Timers and Uncle Henry. These are my kind of knives. Schrade stainless steel blades. Simple features. Made to fit a man’s hand, do the job, and slip right back into his pocket without a lot of show and glitz.
Everything is behind a glass case here. I spot a small, single blade Uncle Henry. Brass bolts on either end. Wood-grain handle. Brass pins. I’ve grown to like the locking blade styles. I’ve cut myself a time or two when the blade folded in unexpectedly.
I’m leaning over the counter with my nose almost pressed against the glass. A lady asks me if I’d like to look at anything. “You’ll get a much better feel for it if you hold it in your hands,” she says.
Oh, she’s good.
And, she’s right. But I don’t really need another knife. I’ve got an Old Timer in my pocket right now that is as good as the day I bought it about ten years ago.
I am weak. “Yes ma’am. Let me hold that LB5 right there.” I point through the glass so she knows I want the wood handle and not the bone one.
It feels light, but solid. It pulls open so smooth it’s like the silent pause in a great piece of music. It clicks as it locks. And I have found a new friend.
When I got home from the trip to Tennessee, I dug through a few boxes and drawers to pull out all of my dad’s old knives that I’ve kept. I cleaned and oiled them up. I thought about all the times I’ve seen one of these in his hands. I’ve got maybe six of them. He owned way more than that.
Maybe I’ll build a small display for my mantle. Maybe I’ll give one to a grandson one day.
A young boy needs a good pocketknife.