My father gave me my first knife when I was nine years old. With two older brothers, I had waited my turn, envious of them anytime they took out their pocket knives to use the tiny scissors, sharpen a stick, or remove a splinter with tweezers that worked way better than the pink ones our mom kept in the bathroom.
My brothers never used the toothpicks for teeth, but they instead had a game where they’d plunge them into ant mounds in the driveway and see who could get more of the little buggers on the plastic sticks. Without a pocket knife, I could only watch, tagging around behind them, trying to become a big boy as quickly as I could.
When I turned nine, it was finally my turn. We sat on my bed together, my dad and I, and he lectured me on how to be safe with it. I don’t remember exactly what he said, I probably wasn’t listening; I only remember feeling like I had become a real boy.
My friend Ryan wasn’t so lucky. His father had given him a keychain pocket knife when he was eight years old, even having it engraved with his initials. Thirty years later, when going through boarding, TSA confiscated it. “C’mon, please,” he pleaded. “I was given that in second grade.”
“I don’t care sir,” came the response, “that is a weapon.”
In his words, the day that knife was given to him, he “became a man. A man with tiny scissors.” Regardless of the good and the bloody, the passing down of responsibility is a moment that is forever remembered and cherished.
My son had been asking for a knife since he was not much older than seven. “My friend Carson has one,” he told me as an argument. I just smiled at him, remembering that long wait. “When you’re nine,” I told him. “That’s how we do it.”
I did the same thing my dad had done when my son turned nine. I didn’t wrap it, I just took it out of my pocket, sat down beside him on his bed and handed it over to him. We then talked about how to use it safely. I could tell he wasn’t really listening, so I told him to look at me. He struggled his eyes away from his treasure and said, “Yeah, dad?”
“Always cut away from yourself,” I said slowly, letting the words carry weight. And then I asked, “You ready to go practice?”
We went outside and made some sticks into spears.
It was a good experience, and so was Abby’s. The Swiss Army Knife her father passed on to her came with the power of distinct memories. For thirty-five years he carried that knife through mountain adventures where he crafted shelters from fallen evergreen boughs, carving figurines in idle times, and removed the thorns and splinters on his youthful explorations. When it was time to give it to his daughter, the scuffs and dirt colored the fire-engine red into the dull hue of sandstone - marks and wear that still carry those experiences.
The year that Em was born, her dad finished building an airplane. He was always a handy guy, a hug from him had the residual perfume of grease and iron rust. Some of her earliest memories are flying with her dad in his two-seater plane, made from aluminum tubes and a VW Beetle engine. She sat beside him on a booster seat made from pink foam so that she could see out the window.
For two years in a row he won national titles of Best In Show for experimental aircraft. One of his prizes was a Leatherman multitool, engraved with “Best Sonerai Oshkosh 1994.” Before he sold that plane, he taught Em aerobatics in it, doing vertical loops and rolls as a pre-teen.
When she was twelve years old her dad gave her that Leatherman and it continues to be ready on her belt loop holster.
But not every story turns out so well. When my brother gave his son his first pocket knife at the age of nine, we were all at the family cabin. He swears that he gave his son the safety talk previously, but we all saw him hand it off with just a pat on the head. My nephew immediately ran off to play with his cousins and his new prize.
An hour later my kids were calling me down to the dock; they needed help quickly. JP had, apparently, tried to close his blade on the business end. Blood was dripping and he stood there, dumbfounded, looking at me with his hand out as evidence. I pulled out my handkerchief and had him put pressure on it as we walked calmly to the house.
My sister saw her son bleeding and freaked out, yelling at her husband and pacing about the yard - very upset. She wore a circle into the lawn while trying to find the answer of what to do.
An hour later he was at the emergency room and received seven stitches in his pointer finger.
The knife was taken away. It was another year till he got another chance with it, lesson learned.
But regardless of the good and the bloody, the passing down of responsibility is a moment that is forever remembered and cherished. Though it can be scary, it’s a wonderful experience to watch someone grow into the kind of person capable and ready to act - to fix and to filet, to build and to whittle into something.
And also to sharpen a lot of sticks into spears.