Gene Logsdon and Friends

Hail, The Mighty Pocketknife

In Gene Logsdon Blog on January 11, 2012 at 4:47 am

From GENE LOGSDON

Time was, a farmer would feel naked without a pocketknife in his bibs. Even today, it is the handiest tool of all. There is always a bale twine to cut, a splinter in the skin to remove, a fingernail to trim,  a scion to be grafted, a hoof to be cleaned, a pig testicle to be removed, a marshmallow stick to be sharpened, spark plugs to be scraped clean of carbon, an apple to peel, a hide to skin, a seed potato to cut, a lid to pry open, a beer bottle cap to pop off, string holding a sack closed to sever, a hole to be poked in fabric or rubber. It would be fun to hold a contest to see who can come up with the most uses for a pocketknife on the farm.

As boys, we used our knives mainly to play a game we called “mumblety-peg.”  (I have a hard time believing this, but Merriam-Webster says the first known use of that word, mumblety-peg, was in 1647, and that it first referred to what the loser in the game had to do— pull a peg out of the ground with his or her teeth.) The essence of the game was to stand the open knife vertically on arm, head, knee, whatever, and flip it so that the blade stuck in the ground. That’s how I learned that any knife will fall, end over end, and stick into the ground every time if allowed to fall from the right height using only gravity without any extra push or flip. Experienced mumblety-peg players knew that and had rules about how the knife was to be flipped or not flipped. Often it had to be flipped from between two fingers, going consecutively from one pair of fingers to the next. Off an arm, the player might have to execute a double flip before the knife stuck in the ground for the maneuver to be legitimate. We also spent a lot of time throwing our knives at trees so that they would stick like in Tarzan movies. This was a good way to ruin a pocketknife in a hurry.

Any of you readers ever play mumblety-peg? I asked my grandson and he never heard of it.

Today, everyone, country or city, needs a pocketknife handy. Anyone who has to open packages (and that’s everyone) encased in the latest impenetrable plastic wrap, or secured with the latest indestructible tape, soon learns to carry a pocketknife. Especially at Christmas time, when so many gifts come by way UPS etc., technology has devised inhumane wrappings that will yield only to a blowtorch, but can be slit open without too much trouble with a sharp knife.

I carry my pocketknife wherever I go except on airplanes. If you try to take your treasured possession on board, those earnest souls who protect us from idiots will take it away from you and you will never see it again unless you go through the trouble of having it sent by mail to your destination. That takes so much time you just might miss your plane.

A boy can no longer take his pocketknife to school. If caught, he could get expelled, so I am told. What in the world has the world come to?

My current knife is a small, slim, one-bladed model called, fittingly enough, the Old Timer. In earlier years I carried one that had enough blades on it do just about anything required on the farm except milk a cow.

My first pocketknife had a pearl grey handle and two blades. I won it, at age 5, in a cracker eating contest. I finished stuffing down my crackers ahead of the other contestants, but had to whistle before I could be declared the winner. I did not know how to whistle yet. The man overseeing the contest said: “Well, then, spit on the floor!”  Which I did. I was so proud of that knife, but three weeks later I nearly cut the tip of my finger off with it. I can still see the scar. I keep wondering if I was better off having learned how not to use a knife or if, in today’s world, my parents would not have allowed me to have a knife at that age.
~~

  1. curious how times change… Benjamin Franklin was assumed not to be a gentleman when he served as our ambassador in Europe because he didn’t carry a sword. and scholars had to have a penknife handy to prepare a goose quill for writing.

  2. My father-in-law introduced me to a knife game that sounds similar to ‘mumblety-peg’, with a twist. The players stand facing each other, nearly toe to toe. The players take turns throwing and sticking their pocket knife in the ground to either the right or left hand side. The catch is that the opposing player must put their foot where the other player’s knife sticks. Alternate turns until someone falls over or pulls a groin. Be sure to do some good stretching!!

    I enjoy having a cheap pocket knife handy when in the garden, one that I’m not too concerned about getting dirty, rusty, and so on…

    • While in elementary school we played this same game, which we called stretch. We also added working the feet back together by throwing the knife into the ground inside your opponents foot. The goal was to see how close you could get their feet together before they decided your aim might not be good enough and yielded.

      I carry a pocket knife, currently a slim silver Victorinox Pioneer Settler, every day and would feel quite unprepared if it wasn’t in my pocket. I am sure that a list of uses would quite literally fill a small book.

  3. Carrying a knife while working in the garden is a must, and if you live out in the country it is some thing you need every day. As a woman a small pocket knife will fit in my jeans pocket no problem.

  4. My teenage son lost his favorite knife when helping our neighbor bale hay a few summers ago. Just last week I put that same son on an airplane for a college internship in Washington, DC. He was disappointed that his trusty knife could not make the trip with him. Later that week I sent him a box with extra socks, clothes hangers, family photos….and his knife.

    My father always carried a pocket knife with him. He used it in his job as a mechanic, when caring for our 5 acres of raspberries, and when repairing the lawn mowers of the neighborhood. He even requested it when he lived in a nursing home the last few months of his life, until the nurses took it away the day he severed his oxygen tube with it.

  5. I’ve carried a pocket knife or Leatherman tool with me nearly every day of my adult life. I work in technology, and my Leatherman is all I need to do 90% of my computer related work. I’ve gone so far as dismantling and repairing laptops with only that tool.

    It of course has nice knife blades on it so all of the uses you mention around the yard and garden apply to it equally, with the added benefit of having pliers and screwdrivers on hand.

    I carry one so religiously, I’ve added a “dress leatherman” to my collection. It’s smaller and lighter than the usual one, but adds a corkscrew to the mix of tools, making it a great companion at parties!

  6. The first tool we purchased (and also, incidentally, the only one we could afford) during our first year farming: a pocket knife. And, not kidding, I used that little puppy to butcher our first hog on my kitchen counter. It was deliriously empowering and mind-blowingly simple. And yes, I did feel like I was a savage 8 year old scavenging food for the Winter in my “fort”. :)

  7. Thanks, Gene. I’m mighty lucky to have inherited by dad’s Boy Scout pocket knife, circa 1929. I’ve several others, of course, though, it’s dad’s I cherish the most.

    Bill in Lilburn, GA

  8. I had a Buck knife that I carried in my purse for over thirty years — my town knife — as well as the one I used on the ranch. You wouldn’t think an RN working in a hospital would have much use for a pocketknife, but there were times it came in handy. I lost my knife when I forgot to move it to my suitcase for an airplane trip; although I did take the time to package and address it, it never got back to me. Hope whoever has it now gets as much good out of it as I did!

  9. Never played mumblety-peg in any sort of organized or official capacity, but I’ve often played the game of trying to stick the knife in the ground with a light throw, on my own and with others. Of course, you figure out the exact throw you need and then it becomes a challenge to up the ante–how many turns can I get before it hits the ground?

    I recently scrounged up an old knife I had stopped keeping on me as I’ve been working at the farm down the road. They raise beef and lamb, so lots of baling twine to be cut down there. It’s amazing I haven’t kept a knife on me regularly during my veggie farming days. But now that I’m working on two different farms focused on animals, I plan to get myself a nice pocket knife sometime soon. Maybe I’ll look at those Old Timers.

  10. I gave both of my girls Swiss Army knives for their 10th birthdays and was gratified to watch them both whip them out at Christmas to open boxes 24 & 21 years later. One’s hubby is always asking to borrow one of ours.

  11. French traditional pocket knife is the Laguiole, usually with a blade and a corkscrew.
    Its most distinctive feature is the horn handle, and the honeybee trademark.
    In its place of origin, the mountainous Massif Central at the center of France, the corkscrew is often replaced or supplemented with a punch (not sure how it’s called in English exactly). I had this exact model, which I lost on travels:

    The punch is used by cow and sheep owners (this is the country of the Aubrac cow) to pierce through the hard leather and bloated paunch of the animals and relieve fermenting gases out before they burst to death, when they gorged themselves with too much high nitrogen grasses like clover or young grass tops in Spring.
    Now I have only my Calmels Laguiole left, with just one carbon steel blade, but sharper than my lost stainless steel blade.
    It’s pronounced La Yole, but don’t worry, many French people from the North say incorrectly Lagg Yole. ^-^

    Kids are usually given the cheaper and safer #8 model of the Opinel brand, with its rotating safety ring to prevent the blade from folding back on your fingers accidentally.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opinel_knife

  12. “A boy can no longer take his pocketknife to school. If caught, he could get expelled, so I am told. What in the world has the world come to?”

    This made me grin!

    I seem to have grown up before the worst of this zero-tolerance stuff. Once, I got called into the principal’s office and asked about a pocket knife that was found, since for some reason, someone thought it might be mine. This was in the early 1990’s, and I was likely in the second, maybe third grade. Well no, the knife wasn’t mine. But in my naivety, I saw opportunity! I promptly made up a story about how it really was, indeed, mine, and how it wound up where it was found.

    While I don’t remember any kind of stink being raised over it, apparently there was one.
    My grandfather was flabbergasted on hearing of the fuss, saying that when he was my age, no boy would be caught dead at school without his pocket knife. It just wasn’t done. Some of them even had rifles with them so they should shoot at squirrels and rabbits on the way home!

    I think that after some time passed, the principal even gave the knife to me since nobody else was fool enough to claim it.

    Not much later than that incident, I was given my very first official Swiss Army knife at the age of 9. Naturally, I picked out the one with the most gadgets and doodads stuffed into it. And as boys with knives are wont to do, that very same evening, I grabbed an apple and cut into it. And my palm. I like to think of it as a timeless rite of passage.

  13. Many boys (and some girls) carried knives in school when I was a kid. Often there was no pencil sharpener in our rooms, and it was not uncommon to ask to sharpen you pencil into the wastepaper can. Once I had forgotten an English assignment to give a “Demonstration Speech”, so I gave mine on how to strop a knife blade on your pants belt – complete with the big finish where I shaved hair off of a strip on my arm to prove the job!

    I Have carried a knife every day of my life since I was five or six. I am now nearly 50. When I was 12, my Grandfather gave me a knife he had carried while working in the coal mines since the 1940’s, and when I was about 14 my Dad gave me one that was similar to the Old Timer you refer to. They are in my pocket now. The five blades these knives have, between them, have seen daily service all of my life for most all of the uses mentioned and more. I have even used the handles to grind vet pills for my animals and as an impromptu tack hammer. As I have gotten older, my fingers are less sensitive to fine work, and my blades even serve as “feelers” for tiny imperfections in woodwork for instance.

    I recently gave my nine year old son an Old Timer, but I seem to find it the washer machine more often than in his hand. I still hope that despite whatever cultural weirdness the world is going through, the use of this most basic of hand tools is not lost.

  14. For me the Leatherman or something similar replaced the pocket knife a couple of years together. so my farming tools are (in order)
    1. leatherman tool
    2. bailer twine
    3. duct tape
    4. pallets

    Nothing else is really needed! :-)

    • Great list of essentials. Number 5 around here is probably what we call “Fi’ gallon Buckets”.

  15. I’ve carried a pocket knife most every day of my life for the past 50 years – I’m now 55. I’ve had all sorts: my grandmother started me off on a “scout knife” that belonged to her father; graduated from that to other assorted tools – Buck pocket knives and Leatherman type tools. My tool of choice when hiking is a Leatherman – Micra. It’s a tiny little tool that has everything other than a saw. But the older I get, the simpler and smaller I want my tools. My current daily knife is a Gerber product with a single 2″ locking blade and a plastic handle. It weights nothing. I put a bright piece of climbing accessory cord through it long enough to hang it on my wrist so it won’t drop. I use this knife several times a day. I have two so if I can’t find one, I have another.

  16. I never go anywhere without a pocket knife. Usually a Swiss Army Super Tinker. I find something to use it on nearly every day.

  17. While reading the comments I had to stop and sharpen my “work” knife. I also have a dress knife that only comes out on sundays and special occasions. I also know that model old timer well. My grandpa carried one for many years. I don’t know how long that model has been in production, but he carried one long enough for both blades to be sharpened straight. His looked like two ice picks, the blades had no curve at all. My uncle once bought him a new one the same model, but he claimed the steel was inferior and kept his trusty antique. He’ll be 97 next week and has carried it at least for the last 40 years. Perhaps I’m old enough to take up an old timer as well.

  18. I recently went back east to vist my father so I had left all of my knives in Colorado. After a day or so I had to ask my dad to lend me one of his so I did not feel “naked”. If I was to count the number of times I use a knife each day I would be astounded. I also only lose the good quality knives, the crappy ones just keep hanging around . I once busted a pocket knife and still needed a knife to finish the day. I welded a small piece of scrap steel to the broken blade and then wound some baling twine around it for a handle. I made a sheath out of a old boot leg and used that “fixed blade” knife every day for about 3 years till I lost it .

  19. I still have my first Boy Scout knife from 1967-I now carry a handier Swiss Army knife with all kinds of extra doodads on it. We used to play mumbley-peg when I was a kid although I don’t have any foot scars to prove it! I did slice my thumb open on the Boy Scout knife can opener when I first got it…

    • I did carry a pocket knife to high school, not that i was fool enough to let anyone see it. I work in a bookstore and occasionally some poor soul buys a set of reading glasses. The plastic tags are affixed so perniciously my pocket knife is the only thing in the store that will remove them. Anyone purchasing glasses to use instantly when i’m not there is out of luck. I have had customers jump back in horror, when i got it out. “Why do you have that!?!?” “It’s just my universal package opener, would you like me to remove your tag?” I say with a patient smile.

  20. I too carry a pocket knife and each time I use it I reflect on my history with the knife. It was always the gift to purchase for my Dad. Somehow it would slide out of his pocket while he crawled beneath a vehicle to make a repair or find its way into a field of alfalfa while hunting groundhogs. As a wee girl, spending time with her beloved Gramps, I often took possession of a whistle or wooden toy carved with his knife. Gramps made most of our amusements with a knife and it was always razor sharp. Gramps said that a dangerous knife was a dull knife and he always tested his knife by shaving the hairs off his arm. Thank you Gene for a wonderful article-I now sit with wonderful memories and am taking the opportunity of counting my blessings.

  21. I got my first little pocket knife when I was eight years old for Christmas. By about 7 am, there was blood spurting everywhere, as I had sliced open my wrist trying to open a Christmas present. My mom confiscated the knife indefinitely, and I learned the hard way you should never cut toward yourself. It was a Christmas to remember.

  22. I’ve always felt a little bit “naked” without a pocketknife (or two) on my person. Both my boys carry them when they’re not in school.

    This “weaponization” or “dangerization” of the humble pocketknife seems to be a byproduct of our society’s quest for safety.
    I remember being more than a little bothered by the lectures and training our kids had to endure in Cub Scouts: safe handling, the “circle of safety”, and carving on a soap bar (!!?) instead of a piece of wood. My own safety advice on knives to the boys has always been, don’t cut yourself, it’ll hurt.

  23. I’m a little late responding here … But get serious, Gene … When’s the last time you were on a plane!!?? (My Dad always replaced my “lost” knives with a Case)

  24. I live near a small town and had to go to the post office recently to send a package. At the last minute I remembered that I needed to put something else in the package so I pulled out my pocket knife { sod buster jr} to cut it open. I said “whoops I guess I’m not allowed to have a weapon in a federal facility any more”. To which the post mistress replied ” Honey this is Oglethorpe County I’d think something was wrong if you didn’t carry a knife”.

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