Sunday, March 25, 2012

On Pocketknives

I've had this post in mind for years, literally. I'm not sure why I haven't gotten around to it before, but I finally did.

I didn't grow up carrying a pocketknife. In fact, it wasn't until 2008 that I decided to carry one. I was convinced by my friend Ralph, who, like his father, always carries one, so I went out and bought a dinky little Buck Solo model which I carried until I received a Buck 55 that Christmas. Since then, I have had that Buck in my pocket literally every day.

I like the Buck 55, which is the small version of the famous Buck 110. It's not the biggest, it's not the sharpest, it's not the fanciest, it's not the most expensive, but it suits my needs. I like the overall size and the size of the blade, the classic styling, the fact that it's a lockback, the practical blade shape, and the fact that, unlike a lot of Buck's products, it is still made in the USA. While I have grown attached to the one that I carry and hope that I never lose it, if it does ever become misplaced some day, the pain will be eased by the fact that another one can be purchased for around $30.

A few years ago I was up in DC visiting a friend and some of her friends seemed to be astounded by the fact that I carried a pocketknife. Now, these two girls are legitimate Yankees, so I guess it's somewhat understandable, but while I would never suggest that carrying a pocketknife is a habit only performed by Southerners, I do have a feeling that it is more common here in the South. Maybe that has something to do with our more agrarian roots, but who can really say? For me, carrying a pocketknife is now second nature, and I often panic when I think that I forgot my knife (turns out that it's usually in my pocket after all). I have used my Buck to remove tags, open boxes, open mail, open that damn plastic clamshell packaging, peel fruit, whittle sticks, and even breast-out ducks. Obviously a 2-3/8" blade wouldn't be great for self-defense, but there have been a few times when I've been a bit more peace of mind knowing that I at least had some sort of blade on me.

A few years ago I read a book called Supper of the Lamb (which the true A Trip Down South fan will recognize from my fourth post ever) by Robert Farrar Capon. It's probably on my Top Ten Favorite Books list (note: I do not have a literal list), but it's an amazing book that I think is best described as a combination cook book and theology book. Capon has some serious digressions throughout, including one about pocket knives. I've reproduced it below; it's a long passage, but I'd say it's worth the read, as is the entire book.

I grant you that I have overstated the case: Not all men have pocketknives. I was carried away by the force of my upbringing. I was raised, you see, in a tradition in which it was considered improper for a man to be without a knife on his person. (Seriously, I hound my sons to carry one, just as my father hounded me, and his father him, and so on, world without end.) My grandfather had a number of dicta, all of which were aimed at delineating how a gentleman should comport himself. One of them was: No gentleman should ever be without a pocketknife. You would have to have known him to appreciate the full paradoxicality of the statement. He had the most elegant manners of any man I ever met, but he was ready for anything--fish or cut bait, figuratively or literally--you take the full measure of the man: A gentleman should be able to prepare a light supper without removing his jacket. Obviously, you would have loved him.

Both my father and grandfather preferred what they (expectedly) called gentleman's knives: thin, graceful ones with pearl or gold handles. For myself, I have for years carried a large Swiss Army knife (the kind that has not only blades, but saws, scissors, screwdrivers, tweezers, a file, an auger, a can opener, and--again, expectedly--a corkscrew). In my father's eyes, such a knife, while admittedly fascinating and obviously useful, was gauche. It tried to be too many things at once (my father was a stickler for using only real tools, and for using them right)--and it was too bulky for a gentleman's pocket. I suppose it marks me as the degenerate son of a great house, but as long as I carry a knife at all, and keep it sharp, I hardly think my forebears will disown me.

I feel the day coming, though, when the pressure of my upbringing will force me to lay aside my portable Swiss workshop. They taught me too well. Deep in my subconscious lies the proposition: An old man without a thin, gold pocketknife is not a real old man. He is a man who missed his calling: no ancient priest of creation, but a superannuated acolyte who never earned the badge of his profession. My ownership of a gold knife, therefore, is only a matter of time. I could not think myself ripe without it.

What is true of my family, however, may not be true of yours. Many men are so taken up with the world of machines that they think it idle to carry a pocketknife. After all, you say, chocolate bars are scored to break easily, cigars are now manufactured with holes in their heads, and the post office efficiently breaks all package strings before they reach the addressee. Who needs a knife?

Your points are well taken. Let me direct your attention, however, to some factors you may have overlooked. First, while chocolate bars can be eaten without a knife, many of life's more satisfactory alfresco delicacies are intractable--even inaccessible--unless you have one. Candy never relieves the monotony of long family car trips half as well as an impromptu dispensation of sausages and cheese. Pepperoni, touristenwurst, landjaeger, cervelat, salami--name what you like--any of them, thrown whole into the back seat along with Daddy's pocketknife, will provide more wholesome diversion than chocolate ever could. If you children are contentious, of course, it will tend to bring out the worst in them. But then, with contentious children, so will anything else. At least it keeps them fighting with each other, and not with their parents.

Your two other points may be dealt with more briefly. For the first: Not all cigars have holes in their heads; until they do, no wise man should go through life (unless he has the elegantly sharp teeth and a miraculous bite) chomping the ends off expensive cigars. For the second: My only answer is that you have never received a package from me. What I tie up stays tied forever, unless you have a knife. You will sooner find a piece of postal clerk caught under my string than you will find the string missing form my package.

For the rest, however, let me simply ask you: How, without a pocketknife, do you pick a piece of privet blossom for a present to your second youngest daughter? How peel an orange to prove the goodness of creation? How amaze your friends with you ability to splice rope on a deserted beach? How open the clams you dig on an idle afternoon? (Even with a pocketknife, it isn't easy; but it is something a gentleman should practice till he masters.) And lastly, how is the race of men to survive boring lectures, conferences, and committee meetings without a knife with which to whittle away the time? We give fold watches when men retire. To keep them sane, we should give them gold pocketknives when they start out.

So much for the digression.
If you don't carry a pocketknife, I hope I've presented a compelling enough case to consider picking one up. They come in all shapes, sizes, and price ranges, so just find what works best for you. Also, be sure to leave it at home if you're heading to the airport...

As an addendum to my post, I've asked some others to share their owns knives and the stories behind them. Links to all of the posts are presented below.

Ryan from A Gentleman's Journal
Ralph Settle
Jay from Red Clay Soul
Henry Sanders
Joe Gannon
Greg from Manifold Destiny

Matt Summers


thelovelist said...

Trip. Buddy. You are a truly, truly fantastic writer.

trip said...

Thank you, ma'am.

JRS said...

Wow Trip, this really came together well. Great work...

Anonymous said...

I'll cut ya!

Anonymous said...

Glad to see you're back.

This is one of your best posts.

Enrique de la Concha said...

I had a serious debate weather I should purchase a pocket knife and which one, for about a year now. This made me pull the trigger Trip, I just ordered a buck 55. Fantastic post, and also The supper of the lamb sounds fantastic, I'll look into it.

Gerard Papa said...

Trip, do you carry your Buck when you fly? I want to carry mines all the time, but living in NYC and flying a lot I feel like I'm gonna forget to leave it home and either get confiscated or, worse, I get thrown into Gitmo.

trip said...

I take a good number of day trip flights for work (there and back again in a day), and unfortunately have to leave my knife at home on those occasions. I intentionally place it in a different room the night before I leave so I don't accidentally grab it in the morning.

Amatourist said...

Trip - great series, these pocketknife stories. Seems that those who carry them do so for reasons much beyond simple functionality. It was in that spirit that I wrote the below on this very subject. Wanted to share it and I hope you'll enjoy...

Mom said...

Trip, not sure if you know this or not, but your Papa never went anywhere without his pocketknife. Not sure who ended up getting it, maybe one of your uncles. I grew up watching him use it for a number of things - peeling apples and trimming his fingernails are two that I remember. Interesting that you posted this the day after his birthday...he would be so proud of you!

CoastingThroughTheSouth said...


Back in March when you posted this, i was between knives. As a younger man I had always carried one, but usually of some technical form that was designed to be mass produced in a factory. Kershaw and Gerber knives, among others, were cheap and easily acquired. Each was thinner and lighter than the previous. I suppose that if I had continued on this path the only place I would have left to go in a couple of years would've been to have Johnny Ive design the knife.

Nevertheless, a few months back I took a chunk off the tip of the knife I was using at the time. Before I was able to purchase a replacement, a friend asked her dad to open a package. Her father is a very powerful, immensely wise man for whom I hold the utmost respect. In a swift series of actions, he pulled out a small, gold and wood (or possibly stag horn)pocket knife, sliced open the packaged, and eased his daughters unrest by calling the lady that was frustrating her a nitwit. I knew instantly that my next knife would not have a molded plastic handle, like all previous; I knew that it was time to own something practical, yet understated and elegant.

A Month or so later, I saw this post of yours, and I desperately wanted to reply that I had found the perfect knife, but I had not. recently though, I did find a knife that was everything I was looking for. I hope it lives up to your post, and fits the role of what is expected to be in the pocket of someone like me. It's the Queen Cutlery Ranger 7200:

Let me know what you think.

Very Respectfully,
Ryan Lee Waldron