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What’s In a Pocket Knife?

That first pocket knife weighed a ton in my hand, the weight being strictly emotional as the responsibility for something sharp and deadly sank in to my five-year-old brain. I still have that knife today, and would you believe it’s about the cutest little folding knife ever made? If it’s even two inches long, I’d be surprised.

After that, over the next few years my dad bought me ever-bigger pocket knives, each one a successively bigger symbol of my increasing responsibility and age. Dad was tough, too, because had I ever screwed up, he would have taken away whatever he had given me. Basically, they remained pocket knives, truly, stashed away in my front pants pocket, and rarely opened. Fear of screwing up and losing what I had gained was behind my being responsible.

Leap forward 35 years, and I was beginning to hand out pocket knives to my own kids. First the two daughters, and now my son.

Each got one when they were ready. The eldest was about nine, and she showed interest in it for a year, and then promptly became a teenager. Fold-out lipstick became her obsession. Even shooting became passe.

The next girl got her knife around seven, and her first gun at twelve. She’s still into them. Her middle name is “Miss Responsibility.”

The boy, ahhh, the boy…if you are an adult, then you know how boys are. They are not girls. Where girls are carefully examining things, boys are quickly demolishing them or exploding them. Would he be ready by five or six, like I had been when I got my first knife?

As a dad, I like to replicate as many of the first-time symbols with my kids that I enjoyed myself. First BB gun at six, first deer rifle at 10, first .22 at 11, first shotgun at 12. My son, I am hoping, will want to be like me. Most dads’ dream is to have their son be the mini-me, and lots of boys enjoy it. Great basis for a relationship. It worked in the Pleistocene, when hunting and woodcraft skills were passed down this way, and it works today. Watching your boy become a little man is what being a dad to a boy is all about. Great stuff.

Well, this summer in Sag Harbor I bought what was to be the boy’s first pocket knife. When I returned from the hardware store to my family, all sitting around an outdoor cafe table, each nursing a foamy ice cream drink, the rebuttals came swift and hard. Especially from Daughter Number One.

The boy is not ready, was the general refrain.

“He’s a baby,” said one daughter.

“He’s too spoiled to handle it right,” said the other.

My city-born wife had long ago yielded to the forest of rods and rifles scattered about our home, leaning in corners or stashed across door frames. Each one or pair representative of a different season or combination of hunting and fishing seasons at a given time of year. Her eyes said she was uncertain about this, even though she knows how important it is to me to reach this milestone.

With the ice cream soda in his hand and the straw in his mouth, his eyes goofily crossed and focused on the receding liquid, the boy had no idea what was happening, so we were spared the agony of offering something and then taking it away. The brief discussion flew right by him, and I kept the little box in my pocket.

Tonight on his Cub Scouts hike at the PA Game Commission headquarters trail, three months past the Long Island moment, he took with him the pocket knife he got two weeks ago. It would be surprising if any of the other cub scouts carried a pocket knife with them, and he quietly knew it. Step one in developing a sense of responsibility is discretion. Good boy!

Two weeks ago we were in the midst of a historic flood, and our home was inundated by the mighty Susquehanna. Times of crisis are times of learning, and as my wife and kids were leaving me for higher ground, I handed the little man his first-ever pocket knife, in its box, wrapped with a ribbon.

“You are the little man while I am away, and you are responsible for your family tonight while I cannot be with you, OK?,” I said to him. Even as the water was washing at the bottom of my wife’s vehicle and pouring into the house, the family gathered round to congratulate him and welcome him into the society of the Big and Responsible.

Now I have regrets. The knife is a Schrade, long the standard by which other pocket knives were judged. But this knife is now made in China, and its details show it.

All other pocket knives that I give out are made in America by Case, and at weddings, birthdays, bar mitzvas, business deal closings, etc., I hand them out. It’s my way of passing along a piece of America, both symbolic and functional, as a token of our moment together. Clients and friends have pulled them out, years later, to proudly show me that they still have it, so I know it’s a meaningful tradition.

But in Sag Harbor, they were out of Case and just had this little Schrade.  And wanting to capture and enhance our family vacation moment just right, I bought it.   This Schrade knife, model 897 UH with Spey, sheepsfoot, and Turkish clipped blades, just doesn’t feel like the real deal. That Made-In-China feel is all over it, as its fit, finish, and materials all seem cheap and weak.

Which means that the little man will have to get a second knife sooner rather than later, and it’ll be a Case, something that’s really a quality product. And this second gift will introduce him to the other aspect of owning outdoors gear: You just can’t ever have too much, and once you get started collecting it, you really end up using it. Outdoors life is the best living there is, so the first and the second knives are both seeds toward something much greater. A life of adventure and accomplishment, health and clean fun…All that and more is wrapped up in this little knife in my hand.

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