The white badge of boyhood

You often hear people referred to as “mechanically inclined,” but I’ve never been one of them. In fact, if any label fits me, it’s “mechanically de-clined.”

It’s not that I haven’t tried. I have. But it’s always been in vain. And even when a mechanical problem is simple and working on it is straightforward, the solution always eludes me.

Luckily, I’ve learned to accept this, as I’ve learned to accept liver spots, creaking joints and acid reflux. They’re just sad facts of life that are here … and here to stay.

That said, when it comes to coping with everyday things going wrong on an micro level, I’m ready to meet all challenges head-on. Essentially, I’m a walking toolbox. I never leave home without my “challenge-meeters” in my pockets. They are: two pens (with non-smearing, indelible ink), a Swiss Army knife, a magnifying glass, a flashlight, and a pair of channel locks. Each serves a specific purpose, and while I may not use any of them very often, nothing can substitute for them.

You ever lose something under a car seat? How do you find it without a flashlight?

You can of course squint, hoping you see it, or grope about randomly, hoping you feel it. But you sure can’t light up the space with a match – at least not without either par-broiling your fingers or taking a chance of lighting up the seat and the whole car with it.

The magnifying glass gets more use than I’d ever imagined. I don’t need glasses for getting around – I’ve got 20-30 vision, good enough to pass the DMV test. I can also read most print without glasses. But I have glasses — bifocals — for those times I need perfect clarity, and those are only times I wear them. Nonetheless, at times I’ll have to see something close, clearly and briefly, (ingredients on a package come to mind) and I don’t want the hassle of hauling out my eyeglass case, putting them on and then reversing the process. For that, the magnifying glass is perfect.

The channel locks are the smallest they make — not quite five inches long — and worth their weight in gold. They can be used for expected mechanical purposes: tightening or loosening bolts, for example. But that’s almost never how I use them. Instead, they do yeoman’s duty opening a can whose pop top broke off, yanking out staples, bending metal — you name it. Even though they’re tiny, they’re a tool, not a toy, so they’re rugged. And on a patriotic note, they’re made in the good ole US of A.

More than a mere blade

The star of the show is my Swiss Army knife. It’s a basic model, but it takes care of a whole lot of my emergency needs.

Ironically, the knife blades get the least use. Sure, I use them, but I seem to use the other accessories more … and for the oddest things. Take the toothpick. OK, I will use it as a toothpick from time to time, like when I’ve got sesame seeds jammed between my teeth. But there’s nothing interesting about that. But how about my travel mug? What about it? You ask. Just this: Inevitably, the air hole in the lid gets gummed up, and when it does, the flow of coffee comes out at a glacial rate. But a quick poke or two of toothpick in air hole, and I’m in the caffeine business again.

Then there’s the tweezers. They’re tiny but precise, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in the boonies, got a splinter and removed it with them. If I get more in touch with my feminine Seide, I’m sure I could pluck my eyebrows with them, too, but that doesn’t seem an immediate concern.

The scissors are are small and precise and are perfect for cutting out hangnails and cuticle shreds.

The knife has an awl. I don’t use that a lot, but if I need to make a hole in wood or through leather, there it is.

Finally, there’s a can opener, and a combo screwdriver/bottle opener, which I hardly use at all. But there have been times I’ve needed them, if not for their intended purpose, then for prying something out of something else, or pushing something into something else, or just something.

A slice of life

In case you haven’t gathered, I’m a knife guy. I don’t have a lot of knives or any collectable ones, but I always have a knife with me, and always have. Then again, when I was a kid, every guy carried a knife. They varied in size, quality, looks and all sorts of ways, but the reality was almost every male had one. I don’t think that’s the case anymore, and certainly with everyone terrified of everything these days, and knives being prohibited from schools, I’m sure fewer kids have them. Too bad too, since they’ll miss that delicious experience of getting their first knife.

I got my first knife when I was nine, and I remember the experience perfectly. Then again, how could I forget it?

My mother, being a city gal through and through, had no understanding of what a country boy was all about. So she forbade me from having a knife. I pleaded, begged, cajoled, threatened – all to no avail. According to her, I was too young to know how to handle and knife and I’d just hurt myself. She never told me an age when I’d be old enough to have a knife; I suspect it was around 30 to 35.

Since it was obvious my mother was not going to give in, and since I didn’t have the money to buy a knife on my own, I did the only thing I could — I asked my Uncle Irving for one. Uncle Irving was a city guy, but he loved to camp, and he did a lot of it. Also, during the Depression he’d worked in a CCC camp, and after that, he went to Syracuse Forestry School. So he knew all about how to get by in the woods.

I don’t know if my uncle knew my mother didn’t want me to have a knife, but I’m not sure it would’ve made any difference. He knew no red-blooded American boy was worth a tiddly-doo if he didn’t have a knife, and that was that. The result was he gave me a solid, good-size, uber-sharp knife.

According to my pal Jack Drury, every kid goes through three stages with his pocket knife. First, he finds something to whittle. Whittling for a little kid is not carving little birds or elephants or anything even recognizable. Instead, it’s putting a point and notches in a stick, no more, no less. The second stage is he cuts himself. And the third stage is he loses the knife.

I don’t remember the third stage with my first knife, but I sure remember the first two.

I went into the woods on Dewey Mountain and picked up a perfect whittling stick. Then I found a perfect whittling spot, sat down, and started whittling. I don’t know how long it took — certainly no more than five minutes – before I whittled a nice fat chunk off the top of my left thumb. As I said, the knife was sharp, so I never felt the cut … at first. Then I felt it. Plus of course it bled like crazy.

I grabbed a bunch of leaves, wrapped them around my thumb, and pressed down, trying to stop the bleeding. After a half-hour or so, the bleeding didn’t stop, but it let up enough for me to get back home and sneak into the bathroom. Once there, I got a fistful of gauze out of the medicine cabinet and clamped it on my thumb. The bleeding slowed to a trickle and I could wrap it so no blood came through. Then I topped it off with a bunch of adhesive tape, and I was good to go. Which in this case meant to go out of the house and ditch the bloody gauze in the garbage can so my mother wouldn’t see it.

That was my first experience in knife handling, but I was left with a permanent souvenir of it — a scar on my thumb..

Over the years, the scar has shrunk and faded, but it’s still there, reminding me of my childhood foolishness with knives. And while the experience itself was painful, recalling it now always makes me smile.