offhand shots

The knife Code gave me was pretty much worn out when he put it in my 10-year-old hand. The three-blade pocketknife was down to two and a half. The maker’s mark—“Hammer Brand,” with a manly hand holding a hammer whose heavy head separated the Ms—was barely visible on what was left of the main blade. Code must have snapped it doing chores.

The remaining blades—one about an inch and three-eighths, the other a bit longer—were worn, the tips rounded from being worked on a whetstone.

Code said every boy should have a pocketknife. Now, thanks to him, I had one. I didn’t care that the metal scale was missing from one side, or that the other side was worn down to flat, bare steel. Code joked that I could trade it if I wanted, but that if I did I should hold it toward the prospective owner with the good side showing, in order to temporarily boost its value. Parting with that precious knife never occurred to me.

Picture Code, our neighbor, an old man nearly bald with a bit of cropped white stubble on the sides, in dark denim bibs and a blue button-up work shirt, entrusting a punk kid with his first knife. I guess I grew up a little the day I received Code’s knife. At least, I sure felt more grown up.

Back home on our farm, I opened each blade in turn, testing the edges, folding the blades closed, dropping it into my jeans pocket, then taking it back out, turning it over in my hands, hefting its weight. At some point, I must have thought it was unbalanced with just the one scale, so I pried off the remaining side. Then I wrapped the handle with first-aid tape, trimming the gummy white cloth carefully so the blades could pivot in and out. The white tape didn’t add much to the knife’s function or appearance—maybe gave it a little better grip—and didn’t remain white for long. It acquired a gray color like cod skin, then became nearly black with dirt, grease, and whatever sooty grunge adolescent boys have on their fingers.

At school—the two-room District 66 schoolhouse surrounded by pasture—I proudly showed it to my friends. Carrying a knife in school then was accepted, almost expected, of farm kids, and Code’s Hammer Brand gave me admittance to a fraternity of boys who were rough, ready, capable, and maybe just a little bit dangerous.

I sharpened the knife on the whetstone in Dad’s shop, shaving through a dollop of oil like I had seen Dad do with his three-bladed stockman. I never managed to sharpen the edge very well, but I thought I was taking good care of it.

At the pond below the dam, the knife got its first use. I cut fishing line that didn’t need to be cut. I whittled the end of a forked stick that didn’t need whittling to jam in the mud and serve as a rod holder. I cut in half a long earthworm I could just as easily have pinched in two. Then I wiped the blade clean on my jeans and tucked the knife in my pocket, confident I could do anything. That’s what a first pocketknife will do for a kid—open a world of imagination, possibilities, adventure, and lots of indiscriminate cutting.

I’ve owned a lot of knives over the years, more than I’ve needed. Still do. I’ve lost some, more than my share. But I’ve never lost the knife Code gave me (knock on wood). I don’t carry it anymore (because wood-knocking is no guarantee against loss). A series of newer, shinier pocketknives with intact blades and handles took its place. It sits on a bookshelf above my desk, poking out just enough so I can see it when I look up.

When I look up, I see an old man giving a boy a pocketknife. And a whole lot more.

Related: Is the Buck of a Lifetime Worth a Lifetime of Guilt?