I was standing in the grocery store check-out line, vacantly looking around when I noticed an older guy behind me with a boy that looked about 8-9 years old…most likely his grandson. I’m not sure how old the man was, but he was older than me by a number of years. Seems like as I get older everyone looks younger and younger.
They were quietly chatting and joking around but I heard the old man say “let me see it, did you lose it?” in the tone of voice that suggested this was a serious request and there was to be no clowning around.
The boy immediately dug in his pocket and pulled out a small pocket knife, a small 2 blade that looked like an old style Case or Schrade Old Timer. The kind of classic bone handled pen knife everyone’s grandpa had in the good old days.
I said “nice knife, do you know how to sharpen it?”. He put his head down, acting shy and said “grandpa showed me but I’m not very good at it”. I thought, boy, could I relate to that. As a kid my dad’s knife was always razor sharp and mine always seemed dull as a day at church until dad touched it up for me on his old oil stone.
I told the boy, “you have to keep practicing at it, one day, all of a sudden, you will have the feel of it and make your baby sharp as a razor”. He smiled with a kind of “sure mister” look and put it back in his pocket.
I paid for my groceries but kept thinking about when I got my first official knife. All this reminded of my own papaw Profitt. I had played around with knives as most boys do, trying not to cut myself or get caught by my parents, with mom always saying “you’re too young to be messing with knives, you’ll cut a finger off!”. It felt like I would never have my very own knife.
Then one day when I was seven years old we were down at the barbershop we always went to… George’s Barbershop, down on the corner of the block from my Papaw and Mamaw’s house.
Now this was a classic barbershop, with spinning blue and red sign outside, two old school red leather barber chairs that leaned way back for a shave…
…a place smelling of shaving cream, Brylcreem, Butch Wax and Wildroot hair tonic, with hot towels piled on men’s faces and the steady buzz of clippers or the strop, strop, strop sound as George touched up the edge of his straight razor on the old leather strop. We were often threatened with getting our behinds touched-up with that wide hunk of leather.
It was the barbershop Papaw always went to, sometimes just to sit in the “next up” chair and BS half the day away jabbering about sports, work, old war stories and other manly stuff with all the other manly men. They were all blue collar workers from factories like Specialty Paper, Delco Moraine, NCR, Frigidaire and other big manufacturers that built Dayton Ohio.
Fresh out of the military, my dad also got his hair cut there regularly. My uncles and cousins went there, and therefore my brothers and I went there. It made me feel pretty grown up to sit around with the rough talking men, listening to stories they didn’t seem to tell when their wives were around.
It was always fun to flip through the old men’s magazines like Popular Mechanics, Outdoor Life, True Adventure and if you were lucky maybe a dog-eared Esquire or Swank. Good times for a young boy.
It was best to remain quietly in a corner as long as you could, just soaking it all in, but the men always knew you were there and loved joking around with manly standards such as “how many girlfriends do you have, pull my finger, got any hair on your pecker yet, you need some whiskey to put some hair on your chest” and so on. As a young boy in the 60’s it was a full-on man’s man hang-out.
This testosterone dripping palace of tonsorial delight became the traditional place for Papaw to perform his grandparental deeds of delight. He would hand out various kinds of hard candy, buffalo nickels, silver dollars, odd souvenirs from the bar, stuff like that.
I remember him giving me a 2 dollar bill silver certificate that I didn’t believe was real money at first. I kept it in a special place until one of my siblings used it for buying candy.
So it was in this ultimate den of manliness Papaw told me to reach down in his pocket and see what was there. Now, Papaw was always a snappy dresser when he wasn’t at work. Button-down dress shirt, spiffy tie, nice shoes and slacks with pockets as deep as the Grand Canyon that held all kinds of the magical delights previously mentioned.
I dug down, hoping for a 50 cent piece or silver dollar that I could redeem for a bushel sized sack of penny-candy at the carry-out across the street. There was some loose change so I felt for the biggest one and pulled it out. Nope, keep digging he said. Went back in to my elbow and disappointedly found a lint covered stick of gum. Nope, that’s not it either, one more time.
Now, I had felt the pocket knife in there the first time, but quickly discarded the notion that it might be the object I was seeking. I was stumped as that was the only thing I hadn’t pulled out. Could it be? I slowly pulled the knife out of his pocket, waiting to hear the “not that, you’ll cut your finger off” I had heard so many times before.
I got it all the way out and slowly opened my hand, expecting anytime to hear the words I didn’t want to hear. They never came! I looked at my hand. In the center of my palm was a small, single blade knife. It had scrolled carving on the silver handles. It was the most beautiful thing I had seen in my short life.
“A man needs a pocket knife” my papaw said. I looked quickly over at my dad, half expecting for him to tell me to give it back, or hand it to him until I was older. But he just nodded the silent “go ahead” nod with a grin. The next words out of his mouth were “Don’t tell your mother. If you cut your finger off I will tan your ass with George’s strop.” All the men applauded and congratulated me as I stood there stone silent in disbelief.
There I was among men, in the ultimate place of men with my very own knife. I couldn’t believe it. I was officially a man. I opened the blade and carefully closed it, having been carefully sharpened and oiled by Papaw.
George showed me how to strop the blade on the leather to get it extra sharp…a skill that took me decades to understand and master. All the men in the shop pulled out their knives and showed me their version of proper knife use and safety, many conflicting with each other.
Looking back, the knife was a small one, most likely made in Japan and commonly called a gentleman’s or gent’s knife, and used for light tasks such as trimming fingernails, opening mail, cutting string or peeling fruit. It might as well have been Excalibur to a seven year old me.
I cherished that knife, hiding it when I went to school to keep it a secret from mom. I’m sure she knew all about it. Sliding it back in my pocket each afternoon, pulling it out and slicing apples, cleaning my fingernails like dad and whittling every stick I happened upon down to a toothpick.
I can’t remember what eventually happened to it, but from then on I have always had a knife in my pocket. I joined the Cub Scouts a year later and upgraded to a full sized Boy Scout knife with multiple blades and gadgets.
Over the years dad gave me various knives and showed me how to get it super sharp on a stone as I practiced over and over. He always said “a dull knife will cut you faster than a sharp one”. I had the scars to prove him right.
One of my favorites was a Case XX Stockman that I could eventually get sharp enough to shave arm hair.
I have had many knives over the years and feel very naked without one in my pocket. As I mentioned, every man in that barber shop had a knife in their pocket. Most men these days seem to have stopped carrying pocket knives, even the small pen knives that every man used to have in their pocket. I like the pen knives…when I go to something more “dressy”, like a wedding or funeral, I change my bulky knife out for a slim pen knife, you know, in case I need to open a present, perform an emergency tracheotomy or clean my nails.
My papaw, dad and uncles always had a knife to open packages, cut a string or whatever task was at hand…including holding one over a lighter and using it as a scalpel and probing device if you stepped on a nail or got a splinter. Ask any of my brothers or sisters, I think we were all operated on at some point.
Now, I’m not going to belittle your manhood for not carrying a pocket knife (OK, maybe a little, after all, I became a man at seven), but I just cannot fathom not having such a useful device on me at all times. It amazes me how few carry a knife these days. I have lost a few at airports and concerts, but not in a while.
I have had knives made by Shrade, Barlow, Buck, Gerber, Kershaw, Victorinox, Leatherman, Spyderco, various Kabar and Camillus military knives and countless specialty knives for climbing, kayaking, sailing and woodworking. But the best knife is the one in your pocket when you need it.
For years now I have used a Victorinox Swiss Army knife as my daily go-to utility knife. A friend gave it to me as a birthday present and I would be lost without it.
With screw drivers, bottle openers, cork screw, scissors, magnifying glass, toothpick and other gadgets I use it every single day. But with a stainless steel blade, it will not take a really sharp edge like a quality Case XX, Schrade or other high carbon blade so I often have one of those in my pocket as well, and possibly a Leatherman on my belt for those handy pliers. You need to be prepared, after all.
But I would give every single one of them up for that little silver knife I dug out of my papaw’s pocket back in 1966, when he was about the same age as I am now.