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"Pocket Knives" - A Story from Busted Flush, Oklahoma.

     A new pocket knife, all shiny and bright, is fine for a kid or a visitor to Busted Flush from back East, but would be a source of scorn and ridicule if carried by a native. No, to be accepted as man of substance in Busted Flush, you have to carry your father’s pocket knife – and preferable your grandfather’s. The blades have to have lost their shine, been worn down over the years by leather stops and Arkansas whetstones, and be sharp enough to slide the hair off your forearms just by waving it nearby. (To maintain tradition, though, you always have to say it needs sharpening and that you can never get it as sharp as your father or grandfather kept it.) The wooden sides – or bone in some cases, or even antler – have to be worn smooth from years of handling, and glow with the soft patina only made possible through countless hours of contact with skin oil and good, honest, sweat. A man’s pocket knife, inherited from his elders, is part and parcel of his identity. That’s why it was so upsetting when Harley Weaver, part-time patrolman for the Busted Flush Police Department, reached into his pants pocket one day for his knife and found nothing but a big hole in the lining.

     “I’ve lost my knife,” he told his wife Millie. He expected her to understand the magnitude of the event, and secretly hoped that she might be sympathetic enough to let him cheat on his diet.

     “Just go down to Lockett’s Mercantile,” she said, “and buy yourself a new one. I’m sure Silas has some nice ones in stock.”

     “I can’t use one of those,” Harley said. “I have to have my knife. It’s important.”

     “Men are so silly,” she said, stitching up his pants pocket.

     That was about the extent of Harley’s sharing over the loss of his knife. His wife didn’t understand, and he couldn’t tell any of his male friends because he’d never live down the loss of his father’s knife. Not only would it be a source of everlasting shame to him, but his sin would also be passed on to his son. One day in the distant future, his son would pull out a pocket knife that was still a little shiny, and still had a somewhat new look to the bone handles, and he’d have to say: “This is my father’s knife. That is, it’s my father’s second knife.” Harley could already hear the shame in his son’s voice, and he knew he couldn't let that happen.

     Now, Harley’s son Lloyd is almost thirty years old and doesn’t carry a pocket knife. Lloyd has one of those multi-tools in a nylon pouch strapped onto his belt, and trades it in on any new model that comes down the pike. He swears that no matter what disaster hits Busted Flush or the surrounding area, he’ll be able to carve, wrench, saw, spark-plug adjust, and Phillips screwdriver his way out of it with his multi-function-tool-kit. But none of that mattered to Harley – all he could see was that he’d lost his knife, that he’d shorted Lloyd on his manly inheritance, and that he’d failed as a father.

     Harley spent most of the next two days hunting for his pocket knife. He re-traced every step he’d made at the Busted Flush Bovine Emissions Plant, searched high and low at the Police Station, and even drove out to his favorite speed trap hidey-hole, where he caught unwary Texans who thought they could break the Oklahoma speed laws with impunity. No knife. He searched his truck, the police car, and, even though he hadn’t driven the clunker in two years, the old Dodge Dart his wife loved. No knife – though he did come up with 73 cents in change and an old peppermint still in the wrapper.

     A trip to the Library Lost and Found, sort of a town drop-off point for homeless items, turned up nothing. Harley had to calm down the librarians who were convinced he was there to ban a book or two. Mercy Bodine, the President of The Busted Flush Thursday Afternoon Protest Society was in the stacks that day, and threatened Harley with a special Wednesday protest if he dared to ban even one book. Harley told Mercy that he hadn’t read anything but the Gazette, the TV Guide, and an occasional police report since high school, and then stalked out, leaving Mercy and the librarian to discuss – in low, hushed tones, of course – the glory of their latest victory over the local police state.

     On Thursday, on his lunch hour, Harley found himself standing in front of the knife display at Lockett’s Mercantile. Never having had to shop for knives before, he had no idea there were so many to choose from. There were over a dozen brands, made in Germany, Switzerland, China, Japan, and the USA, and three or four models for each brand. The whole display case was full of blades, points, and edges, all of them shiny, bright, sharp, and completely without personality.

     “Can I help you, Harley?” Silas Lockett asked him.

     “Oh, no,” Harley, said, startled. “I’m just killing time on my lunch hour.”

     “That’s what I thought,” Silas said. “I didn’t think you, of all people, needed a pocket knife.”

     “Oh, no,” Harley said, trying to smile. “Not me. Just killing time.” He escaped out the front door before Silas could see the panic in his eyes.

     Harley moved through Friday as though in a fog. He did his work without complaint or error, but didn’t join in any of the pre-weekend conversations about the weather, the local high school team, or rumored changes to the menu changes at the Slurp & Burp café. Those conversations always obligated one or two of the participants to pull out their pocket knives and start trimming a thumbnail, or digging out a splinter. It’d be noticed if he missed his turn. When his buddies asked why he was hanging back, Harley patted his stomach, said something about “bad pig’s feet,” and headed toward the bathroom. Quitting time on Friday came as a relief.

     “Don’t forget the kids are coming over tonight,” Millie told him when he got home. Harley sighed. He loved Lloyd, and his wife Earlene (a former Miss Busted Flush), and thought the world of his grandson, Albie, but he didn’t think he’d be good company. He almost told Millie to call the kids and beg off, but saw that she’d spent most of the day cooking and baking, and didn’t have the heart to disappoint her. He’d just have to make the best of it.

     All through dinner, Albie kept bouncing up and down in his chair and grinning at his Grandpa. Harley grinned back, and joked with the boy, saying he must be part-kangaroo to bounce so much. Albie just grinned and bounced. After dessert, when everyone was so full that another bite would bust them open, Lloyd leaned back in his chair.

     “Hey, Pop,” he said. “I’ve got a ragged edge on my thumbnail. Can I borrow your pocket knife?”

     Harley’s heart almost stopped. “Not now,” he prayed silently. “Not after banana crème pie.” Out loud he said: “What do you need my knife for? Don’t you have that multi-tool thingee with you?” He was surprised at how normal his voice sounded.

     “Naw. I changed pants before we came over here, and left it on the dresser by accident. Give me your knife.”

     Harley was reaching for the right words to say when he felt a tug on his shirt sleeve. Little Albie, eyes shining bright, was standing right beside him.

     “Here, Grandpa,” he said. “This is for you.” He put a small rectangular package in front of Harley, carefully wrapped by six year old hands in bright red paper and sealed with tape and white paste. “Open it, Grandpa! Open it.”

     Inside the package was a brand new, shiny, made-in-the-USA, pocket knife with three blades and genuine bone handles. It was accompanied by a crayon written note that said: “To Grandpa, From Albie. I love you.”

     “Millie told us what happened,” Earlene said, “and Albie wanted to do this.”

     “I bought it all by myself,” Albie said, “and Mommy and Daddy helped.”

     Harley looked at the knife, all bright and factory-fresh, and could almost hear the hoots and catcalls from his buddies. Joke after joke, all at his expense, stretching on year after years into infinity. It was more than a man could take.

     “Do you like it, Grandpa? Do you like it?”

     Harley Weaver looked at his young grandson’s soft face, and saw his huge blue eyes filled with hope that his Grandpa, one of the heroes of his world, would approve of what he had done, and suddenly the hoots, catcalls, and jokes seemed unimportant.

“Albie,” Harley said, “I think this is the most beautiful pocket knife I’ve ever seen. I’ll be proud to carry it.” Albie hugged him, Floyd and Earlene smiled, and Millie cut him an extra piece of banana crème pie. It was a wonderful night.

     At work the next Monday, Harley joined in the discussion on Saturday night’s football game and Sunday morning’s sermon, echoing the general consensus that both events could be considered “wins.” Then, as the topic turned toward the weather, Harley steeled himself, reached in his pocket and pulled out the pocket knife Albie had given him, opened it, and started paring down a thumbnail. The conversation faltered, and then stopped altogether as the men stared.

     “What is that?” one of them asked.

     “That’s my new pocket knife,” Harley asked.

     “Your new pocket knife?

     “Yep. My grandson gave it to me,” Harley said. “Picked it out himself. Said he loved me. I’m mighty proud of him, and mighty proud of the knife he gave me.”

     There was a long silence, then one of the men cleared his throat and said: “Well, I don’t blame you, Harley. Your grandson’s got a good eye. That’s a right fine knife. Right fine.”

     They discussed the likelihood of rain until break time was over, and then headed back to work. Harley had a spring in his step, and every now and then would pat his right front pocket, reassuring himself that his fine new pocket knife … given him by a grandson who loved him … was safe and secure.

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Tags: Traditions, gifts, grandchildren


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