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Hail, The Mighty Pocketknife

Time was, a farmer would feel naked without a pocketknife in his bibs. Even today, it is the handiest tool of all. There is always a bale twine to cut, a splinter in the skin to remove, a fingernail to trim, a scion to be grafted, a hoof to be cleaned, a pig testicle to be removed, a marshmallow stick to be sharpened, spark plugs to be scraped clean of carbon, an apple to peel, a hide to skin, a seed potato to cut, a lid to pry open, a beer bottle cap to pop off, string holding a sack closed to sever, a hole to be poked in fabric or rubber. It would be fun to hold a contest to see who can come up with the most uses for a pocketknife on the farm.

As boys, we used our knives mainly to play a game we called “mumblety-peg.” (I have a hard time believing this, but Merriam-Webster says the first known use of that word, mumblety-peg, was in 1647, and that it first referred to what the loser in the game had to do— pull a peg out of the ground with his or her teeth.) The essence of the game was to stand the open knife vertically on arm, head, knee, whatever, and flip it so that the blade stuck in the ground. That’s how I learned that any knife will fall, end over end, and stick into the ground every time if allowed to fall from the right height using only gravity without any extra push or flip. Experienced mumblety-peg players knew that and had rules about how the knife was to be flipped or not flipped. Often it had to be flipped from between two fingers, going consecutively from one pair of fingers to the next. Off an arm, the player might have to execute a double flip before the knife stuck in the ground for the maneuver to be legitimate. We also spent a lot of time throwing our knives at trees so that they would stick like in Tarzan movies. This was a good way to ruin a pocketknife in a hurry.

Any of you readers ever play mumblety-peg? I asked my grandson and he never heard of it.

Today, everyone, country or city, needs a pocketknife handy. Anyone who has to open packages (and that’s everyone) encased in the latest impenetrable plastic wrap, or secured with the latest indestructible tape, soon learns to carry a pocketknife. Especially at Christmas time, when so many gifts come by way UPS etc., technology has devised inhumane wrappings that will yield only to a blowtorch, but can be slit open without too much trouble with a sharp knife.

I carry my pocketknife wherever I go except on airplanes. If you try to take your treasured possession on board, those earnest souls who protect us from idiots will take it away from you and you will never see it again unless you go through the trouble of having it sent by mail to your destination. That takes so much time you just might miss your plane.

A boy can no longer take his pocketknife to school. If caught, he could get expelled, so I am told. What in the world has the world come to?

My current knife is a small, slim, one-bladed model called, fittingly enough, the Old Timer. In earlier years I carried one that had enough blades on it do just about anything required on the farm except milk a cow.

My first pocketknife had a pearl grey handle and two blades. I won it, at age 5, in a cracker eating contest. I finished stuffing down my crackers ahead of the other contestants, but had to whistle before I could be declared the winner. I did not know how to whistle yet. The man overseeing the contest said: “Well, then, spit on the floor!” Which I did. I was so proud of that knife, but three weeks later I nearly cut the tip of my finger off with it. I can still see the scar. I keep wondering if I was better off having learned how not to use a knife or if, in today’s world, my parents would not have allowed me to have a knife at that age.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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