I found an old pocket knife the other day, fairly rusty, and with part of the handle gone. It had three blades, but one was broken. If you soaked it in oil and sanded away the rust and loosened it up …
I found an old pocket knife the other day, fairly rusty, and with part of the handle gone. It had three blades, but one was broken. If you soaked it in oil and sanded away the rust and loosened it up again, the old knife would have a few years left in it. I wondered just where it had come from, and when it had been new. What era had it seen and what stories could it tell if knives could talk? What kind of man had carried the old knife...was it perhaps a gift he had cherished in a day and time when little things meant a great deal more than they do today? Looking at the old knife, I could almost picture him in my mind.
I grew up around Ozark rivermen, farmers, trappers, hunters and fishermen who owned such knives. At a young age, I learned the importance of a good knife. Most of my schoolmates had some kind of pocketknife, many handed down from fathers or grandfathers, and each one a prized possession. I had several, a lot like that one I found recently, usually with blades worn down from constant sharpening... some with a point or handle partially broken. I got most of them from my grandfathers.
Folks said you could judge a man somewhat by his knife. Anyone wearing a large sheathed knife was thought to be something of a show-off, since there were no Indians left to fight during my boyhood. A man who had a dull blade was considered a bit lazy, and if a man had broken blades he was perhaps careless. Anyone who asked to borrow a knife wasn’t looked upon highly. A fellow who lost his knife regularly wasn’t dependable, and one who cut himself was a real greener. If you swapped knives where I grew up, you were gullible. Kids at the old country school did that on occasion, one would hold his knife in a closed fist and offer to trade for whatever pocket knife you had in your pocket. If you ever yielded to temptation, you would likely find out that anyone wanting to trade knives sight unseen had one in such poor shape he didn’t figure you could come out ahead.
Old-timers kept favored knives for years, until the blades were sharpened to near nothing. Then they gave them to youngsters they thought highly of as my grandfathers did with me. Or perhaps on occasion they gave them to kids who made a nuisance of themselves asking for one, as I often did.
I never knew any Ozark woodsman to carry a large sheathed knife, though there may have been some during the deer season. A good outdoorsman carried a small axe to do heavy work, and a large pocket knife with two blades or maybe three. One blade was always duller than the others, used for emergency prying or scraping or anything you wouldn’t want to use a fine-honed edge on. But you could bet there would be one blade he kept so sharp he could darn near shave with it.
Knives weren’t so expensive then, but there was less money to waste, so they were taken care of. As they grew old, Ozark outdoorsmen often became whittlers. You could see them in the summer sitting on a bench in front of the courthouse telling tall stories about legendary bucks and catfish too big to fit in a johnboat, all the while whittling away on a cedar plug. They’d move inside during the winter, and tell the same stories before the pot bellied stove at the general store, whittling away and chewing tobacco.
If you had some ability, you whittled something like a toy or a figure. If you weren’t that good at it, you just whittled. You didn’t have to whittle anything in particular, just whittling was enough. It showed that your knife had an edge so keen you could whittle a toothpick out of a railroad tie, and that said something about you.
Grandpa Dablemont used his knife to fashion rabbit-trap triggers or deadfall sets, to skin a mink, cut bait, or shave a rough edge off his sassafras paddle. Grandpa McNew had different uses for his knife. He cut green hickory whistles for his grandkids, and cut off plugs of tobacco for himself. He used it to trim his toenails regularly before bedtime, and then used the same knife to peel an apple on occasion. The old timers I grew up around seemed to never eat an apple off the core. They sliced off pieces, chunk by chunk, and balanced each slice on the knife blade with a leathery thumb while guiding it to their mouths.
Grandpa’s knife was an old Shrade-Walden, and he was proud of it. It had “good metal in it”, he claimed. And he referred to the men he liked and respected the same way. They “had good metal in ‘em.”
I still have a couple of old knives owned by my grandfathers. I sometimes carry one around for awhile for good luck, but I am ever fearful of losing it. Still there is something about sitting at a deer crossing, whittling on a stick with a knife that is 70 years older than I, and once fit in the weathered hand of my grandfather.