Editor’s Note: As Lagniappe co-publisher Rob Holbert continues to recover from injuries he sustained in a boating accident, we will be featuring some of his classic columns. This reader favorite first ran on April 23, 2014.
The world is almost certainly a safer place now. My son has received his first knife.
During the Easter weekend family trip to Sewanee, Tenn. my brother-in-law David — an avid hunter and outdoorsman — slipped my 11-year-old son Ulysses a folding Buck knife with a 3-inch blade. I haven’t seen any present make my child happier.
My wife was, understandably, concerned about giving a person who has managed to dislocate his shoulder, break a collar bone and get a long scrape all the way down one side of his face all in the span of three weeks a very sharp knife. But I assured her I had pocketknives at his age and still have all my digits. (Such assurance is almost certain to be brought back up if he manages to cut himself or someone else, or carve the banister with his new blade.)
I’d forgotten what a big deal a pocketknife was when I was a boy until I saw Ulysses opening and closing his over and over like it was a nervous tic. I let that go on for a little while before explaining part of having a knife is understanding knife safety, which includes not opening his blade repeatedly and waving it around or stabbing his grandmother in the leg. Two uncles reinforced what I was telling him since most of the information I give him seems to be regarded as having come from someone with severe mental deficiencies.
I also explained the blade was for cutting things or “whittling,” if he got the whittling gene from my great-great-great-aunt. But there is something about packing your first pocketknife that gives a boy an air of confidence should trouble break out. It’s a bit like that scene in “A Christmas Story” when Ralphie imagines taking down an entire gang with his new BB gun.
On our ride back to Mobile Sunday Ulysses informed me at one rest stop that he’d left the knife in the car in case any metal detectors might reveal that he was packing. He’d asked me why I don’t carry a knife all the time and I told him there were places I go where they don’t allow knives and have detectors. Apparently, he wasn’t taking any chances, but I quickly explained that Alabama’s rest stops aren’t generally known for their extreme security measures.
At the next rest stop, he told me we were definitely safer if some kind of trouble were to break out in the men’s room because he’d brought along his knife. I told him I doubted there’d be much deadly restroom trouble on a nice sunny Easter Sunday and that a full-grown man might not be terribly intimidated by an 11-year-old waving a knife. But he still seemed pretty sure if there was potential restroom violence that I should step aside and he’d handle it.
Fortunately, other than a shortage of paper towels and some questionable sanitary conditions, the men’s room did not feature the kind of issues that would make it the stage for my son’s first knife fight.
His reaction to his first knife is a pretty normal one. Once you have a pocketknife you’re sort of itching for a reason to use it. Hopefully, more practical uses will materialize that don’t involve burying the blade in some rest stop hobo’s belly fat.
Ulysses getting his first knife brought to mind my own love of pocketknives as a child his age. It seems like I almost always had one. My father and both grandfathers were guys who had pocketknives, so I know I had some one- or two-bladers early on. But the one I remember most was a three-blade knife. I loved that one and spent lots of time sharpening the blades to the point they would easily cut the hardest oak branch — and my fingers. Such over-the-top sharpness seemed necessary.
What never quite made much sense was the need for three blades. There was the big blade that was probably two-and-a-half inches long. Then there was a medium-sized blade and an itty-bitty one. There really weren’t many tasks the large blade couldn’t handle, but I do remember trying to be judicious about using certain blades for certain jobs. It was as if it would somehow hurt the little blade’s feelings if it didn’t get to cut a piece of fishing line. Maybe it would have. I just know the middle blade was usually odd man out.
(Don’t even get me started on the Swiss Army knife. Way too much going on there. I mean a toothpick? Come on!)
I also spent a good bit of time practicing throwing my knife — big blade of course — so it would stick into trees, cardboard boxes, the walls of our garage or the ground. It just seemed so likely there would be a situation at some point that would require deadly accuracy with my blade — perhaps cutting a rope, killing a snake from 25 feet away or maybe dealing with one of the random serial killers I was sure hung out in the woods near our home.
I can’t say I ever became particularly great as a knife thrower. I’m sure it had to do with the knife not being weighted properly or something like that. If some killer had appeared there’s a strong chance I would have completely missed or hit him with the back end of the knife leaving myself highly susceptible to murder. Probably with the knife I just threw him. Glad it never came to that.
I relied on my trusty pocketknife through high school, but left it behind when I went to college. One of my selection criteria for college was that it would be a place where whittling was not a major.
It’s easy to want to tell my son constantly to, “be careful you don’t cut yourself,” but it kind of seems like it’s time to “cut the strings” a bit, so to speak. I want him to enjoy his knife — as long as he doesn’t spend his days carving up troublemaking drifters in rest stop bathrooms all across the state.
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