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Do you carry a pocketknife?

Growing up, having a pocketknife was a rite of passage. At some point, an adult in your life would decide you should have one. Every man I knew carried one. They varied in size, shape and color. There were handles made of wood, bone, metal or plastic. There were knives with one, two or three blades. Swiss Army or Boy Scout knives had accessories: a file, scissors, screwdriver, even a fork and spoon. My first knife was a battered old Barlow. The color was worn off the handle so that the metal showed through. It had a leather punch in place of one blade, and a can opener. It was dull and hard to open. And, large enough that it was hard to lose in the laundry. That made a good knife for a seven year old.

Having a knife meant finding things to do with it. Whittle a stick. Carve your initials into something. My Dad taught me how to play knife baseball. My grandfather would cut slices of apple, flicking the pieces off the blade into his mouth. The knife was letter opener, hole punch, nail file, tweezer. It was the tool needed to change a watch battery, strip wire or cut a vine. It could be a spatula or a putty knife. A knife was useful on a fishing trip or a hike in the woods. It was something you had on you because you might need it.

There is symbolism in those small knives. Musician Chris Stapleton wrote that the gift of a pocketknife is a show of respect. A sharp knife can be a sign of preparedness, utility or virtue. It is a small statement of independence. Late in his life, my grandfather engaged in a small act of defiance in the nursing home where he lived. Sharp knives were against house rules, but my Papaw would find a way to sneak one into his room. The effects of a stroke meant he was unlikely to slice an apple or clean his nails with a blade, but it was his knife, and he thought he should be able to carry it.

My dad always carried a pocketknife. The first one I remember was a Russell Barlow. It was old, a hand-me-down from his father. The wood grips had worn off the handle and had been replaced with lead. It was heavy and could wear a hole in a pocket. Dad kept it sharp and carried it for years. Eventually he replaced it with smaller (and lighter) knives: Case, Buck, or Schrade. He tended to break blades in his knives, or lose them somewhere, so a replacement knife was a pretty reliable gift idea. Sometimes the missing one would turn up. So, there were several in his desk drawer, or his dresser, or even in the glove box of his car. After all, sometimes you need a sharp knife.

My parents sold their home recently and moved into assisted living. This brought on a round of downsizing and sorting: going through the big desk that would not fit in the new apartment and the garage workshop full of tools he would no longer need. The kitchen in the new place was much smaller, too. No need to take all the cookware, cutlery and cannisters. Sorting, moving or discarding was the work of many hands. There were piles to give to family, donate to charity, move to the new place, or discard. Not everything found its way into the right pile. One item in particular did not make the move: the sharpening steel. (Is it a kitchen tool if you use it to sharpen your other knives, too?)

The boxes of cookware and kitchen utensils had been donated to charity. The sharpening steel had been in one of them. And so, I made a note to buy a replacement. He would need it to keep his pocketknife sharp. I picked one out and brought it with me on my next trip to Louisville. It went into the tool drawer in their new kitchen, alongside the tack hammer, the screwdriver and a few other tools he thought he might need in the apartment. It turned out to be the last thing I ever bought for my dad.

That my dad wanted a new sharpening steel says something about his outlook on life. He was forever tinkering with something. He would repair something forever rather than replace it. A pocketknife is a humble tool. A stand in for other gadgets. Keeping a knife also requires planning. To be useful, it must be kept sharp. Dad would routinely clean, sharpen and oil it. Honing it so that it would slice through a sheet of paper or slip easily through ripe fruit. A knife becomes dull with use. He needed steel because he wanted to make sure he kept his knife sharp. Sometimes you need a good knife.

There is also hopefulness symbolized in that pocketknife. Even near the end, there were still things Dad wanted to do. One more chore. One more adventure. More life to come. And whatever came next, he was ready. I’m reminded of that each day when I slip my penknife in my pocket.