Gearhead Diary: A gift not to be forgotten

PHOTO BY MATT BARTMANN My first pocketknife, a Buck knife, and a recent gift of an Old Timer knife.

Matt Bartmann

“Knee-high to a grasshopper.” I still use that expression. And I remember things from when I fit that description.

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Way back then, I’d often wander through the woods to our neighbor Bert’s house to see what he was working on. One day, he presented me with a gift.

A pocketknife.

To me, at that age, it was a beautiful thing. A Buck knife. Single locking blade, brass fittings at either end and a wood handle. Nothing fancy. It was well oiled and sharp. Bert showed me how to hold it when closing it to make sure my fingers weren’t in the way, as well as how to sharpen and oil it.

In the years that followed, I admit that I abused that knife. Used it as a screwdriver or for light-duty prying, for digging stuff out of the ground, for scraping paint, cutting wire and cleaning battery posts on my car.

Of course, I used it as a knife, too. To cut food, to spread peanut butter and jelly. To gut fish, back when I still went fishing. A useful tool, to be sure.

I was reminded of that knife a while back when my friend Joe posted a story on his Facebook page about his pocketknife.

He had been at his fiancee’s parents’ home for dinner, and as he was leaving, his future father-in-law Marvin asked to see his pocketknife. Did Marvin know Joe carried a pocketknife? No, he did not.

Joe reached in his pocket and pulled out a Swiss Army knife with a camouflage handle and handed it to Marvin.

“Why camo?” asked Marvin.

“It was a gift from a co-worker. It stands out at my workplace. Red would blend in and I’d never be able to find it,” Joe replied.

Further inspection of the knife included checking the cleanliness, the sharpness, and how smoothly the hinges for the blades worked. A basic inspection of how the knife was cared for. Marvin paused when noting a nick in one of the blades, which Joe admitted was from cutting wire.

After inspecting it, Marvin handed the knife back to Joe with a nod. As if to say, “You have my permission to marry my daughter.”

A few weeks ago, I was visiting a neighbor who’d been helping me get rid of some junk cars and other scrap metal. He handed me a pocketknife. “I found this in one of your cars,” he said. “I cleaned and oiled and sharpened it for you. It’s a good one. These aren’t made in the USA anymore.”

I told him he should keep it. I hadn’t even known it was in there. “No,” he said. “I want you to have it. A gentleman should always carry a pocketknife.”

I said “thank you” and put it in my pocket. Since he gave that pocketknife to me, I’ve used it for a variety of things. Cutting fuel lines for a car, trimming dog-chewed carpet frays to cover with a door threshold, even as a screwdriver—but only carefully and for tiny screws—and of course, as a knife to cut food. Handy thing to have in my pocket, and I won’t forget how I got it.

I mentioned these stories to my wife, Sally, and she told me about her father giving her a pocketknife when she was but a young girl. “A right of passage, of sorts,” she said.

I wonder if such memories are still being created for youngsters today. I hope so.

Bert has long since passed, but I still have that pocketknife, and I remember him giving it to me. Same for the one my neighbor Tom gave me. As for Joe—I talked to him last night. He still has that camo-handled knife in his pocket, almost 20 years later.

Care and respect for a pocketknife, as well as gratitude for a memorable gift. Good lessons to learn when you’re knee-high to a grasshopper.