Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Sharps: Rite of passage

I think I've said almost enough about sharps this week -- almost. There's one more post in me, something I've been rolling over in my mind for quite a while now. It's time I let it go.

When our spawns became old enough to be entrusted with their first pocketknives, a couple of Christmases ago I presented each of them with a basic Victorinox Swiss Army Knife. If I had it to over again, however, I'd do it differently.

The Victorinox pattern I gave them was reminiscent of my first knives, a Camillus Cub Scout model and the Ulster Boy Scout knife that came a few years later. I told myself that I was sharing my experience with the boys, making it possible for them to learn the lessons that I learned, as I'd learned them. Then again, maybe I was a prisoner of sentiment, merely an old man trying to re-live a scene from his childhood.

Now, thinking back to my upbringing in rural Ohio, I can't recall anyone (except my fellow Scouts) carrying a knife like mine. From the doctor to the plumber, every farmer and every farmer's kid carried a simple, two- or three-blade pocketknife.

If a knife didn't have a screwdriver or a caplifter, so what? We figured that's what screwdrivers and belt buckles were for. It might've been handy sometimes to carry a pocket tool chest, but in the end we were better off exploring the fundamental utility of a single blade, as our fathers and grandfathers had done.

Come to think of it, the main cutting blade of my Scout knife was the only one I ever used, really. I'd forgotten about that.

So with our sharp knives we cut and we changed things, shaped and (strange as it sounds) actually made things. We clipped twine from bales of hay and trimmed the hooves of skittish horses. We have the scars to prove that at some point we tried our hands at whittling.

By watching our elders, we learned not only how to use our knives but how to keep them sharp and make them last. We came to rely on and sought to master man's most perfect tool -- the blade of a knife.

I remember the names stamped on the tangs of those knives. Kutmaster and Robeson, Colonial and Utica rode in the pockets of my friends and neighbors. While I had an Ulster or a Camillus, my dad carried a Case. My grandfather never went anywhere without his Queen stockman, and the dairy farmer up the road swore by a Schrade Uncle Henry trapper. Hunters toted their Bucks on forays into the woods.

These were the hard-working Heartlanders populating my boyhood, nearly all of them carrying American-made knives probably bought at the local hardware or farm-supply store.

Many of the familiar cutlery brands are no more. Ulster, named for the New York county that once was the center of American knifemaking, is long gone. Camillus imploded in 2007 and venerable Schrade collapsed in 2004, finally abandoning its Ellenville plant.

A few of the old names live on through the miracle of licensing, now stamped on trinket-grade garbage made in China and sold at Wal-Mart -- they sell like crazy but don't last. They're nothing more than disposable marketing gimmicks, not worth a damn.

Hardware stores are few and far between. The tall, gleaming knife displays I remember from my youth have all but vanished. A kid with a pocketknife at school is a threat of violence, no longer a student prepared for show-and-tell time.

It's a different world, a new day.

One thing that this new day demands, as I see it, is each of us strengthening our commitment to buying products made locally, regionally or within our nation's borders (in that order). No, it's not a zero-sum proposition, not by a long shot, but even a little bit of attention to "Made in" is better than the blissful ignorance that characterizes much of our commerce.

That's not a matter of protectionism, pride or patriotic reflex -- I'm speaking from my sense of purpose, born of awareness.

Circling back to where this post began, although I'm a big fan of Swiss-made Victorinox knives, if I had another shot at our spawns' rite of passage I would've handed the younger boy a penknife, his older brother a trapper -- elemental pocketknives to develop appreciation, resourcefulness and basic skills, American-made products to cultivate purposeful awareness.

Finding good American-made pocketknives at reasonable prices isn't as easy as it once was, but it's not at all difficult. At the top of my list would be Case, located in Bradford, Pennsylvania. W.R. Case & Sons Cutlery Company proclaims proudly that its products have been "Made in the USA since 1889" and boasts that it still takes "125 pairs of create one knife." That's a company I'd be glad to support with my business (and I have).

I'd also consider
Queen Cutlery, which makes all of its knives at its plant in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Idaho-based Buck is another option, though not all of its branded knives are American-made -- on the Buck website, a U.S. flag icon denotes the ones that are.

It's worth mentioning that Buck sells its knives directly, via its website, as well as through dealers; Case and Queen products are available only through dealers. Generally I prefer the latter -- think of it as a "distribution of wealth," the kind that appeals to capitalists.

The two Swiss knives given to our spawns cost me $15 each. A pair of American-made Case knives, the pen and the trapper, might've set me back $60 combined -- that's twice the money, sure, but the life lessons would've been priceless.

I'm learning, too. For starters, I need to set a better example here.

I'll close this post with something that I discovered only yesterday. In 2006, a new enterprise called
Canal Street Cutlery Co. began its knifemaking operations in a few thousand square feet of an old manufacturing building at 30 Canal Street in Ellenville, New York -- the very same building once occupied by Schrade.

That's just damned poetic. What's more, word is that Canal Street makes absolutely incredible knives, including a number of traditional pocketknives. And they're only slightly pricier than the top-shelf offerings from Case and Queen.

I still have a Schrade Uncle Henry 285UH trapper, also made in Ellenville albeit some years ago. Once my financial waters recede, I think it'd be fitting if I gave the old Schrade some company from Ulster County, New York -- say, a Canal Street Moon Pie Trapper.

The way I look at it, the purchase would complete a full circle and, in its own way, provide me with my very own rite of passage.

Earlier posts
Sharps, Part I: In the pocket
Commerce, close to home


W.R. Case & Sons Cutlery Company
Queen Cutlery Company
Buck Knives
Canal Street Cutlery Co.