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Saturday, December 13, 2008

What’s so special about a knife?

Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, December 13, 2008.)

When you’re given a knife,
you’re being told you can be trusted.

I doubt there’s a guy who doesn’t like knives. If there is, he probably wouldn’t admit it. That would be admitting he didn’t have the right upbringing.

Something about a knife gets a man’s attention. A knife is the universal tool, and much more.

Soon after some creative caveman invented the first stone knife, knives were everywhere. Since then every man has shared that interest.

Of the dozens of knife manufacturers in this neck of America’s woods a hundred years ago, few are left. And none have carved a deeper groove than W. R. Case of Bradford, Pennsylvania -- sharper than ever after almost 120 years.

A quick look at the catalog or website of the W.R. Case & Sons Company reveals a knife for every purpose, every man, every taste -- and that knife making and collecting are going strong. The proof is that Case continues to develop new models.

Why so many? The answer: A man never has enough knives. I met one man last summer who is still adding to his modest collection of more than 1000, but he uses only two.

Butchers, bankers, bartenders and boy scouts all have their specialized knives. Other models are crafted especially for doctors, cattlemen, trappers, soldiers and executives. It’s just a thought, but maybe every profession ought to have a unique knife. Whether it needs one or not is hardly the issue. If your profession doesn’t have its own knife, there’s nothing stopping you from inventing one.

What is the attraction of knives? Part of it is that we use them to cleanly separate things -- the hide from a deer, its innards from its abdomen, its meat from its bones. You may not butcher a deer every day, but hardly a day goes by when a man doesn’t need to cut something.

Part of the appeal of a knife is its simplicity. A knife calls out to the minimalist in a man. Never has there been a low-tech tool with higher fascination. It’s so simple it can be made from just one material -- handle and blade the archetype of unity -- yet it’s obvious which end to grab and which is the business end.

And part of our interest in knives is their beauty. Knives are like women. Men don’t get tired of looking at knives, or talking about how sharp they are. And it can’t be denied -- the beauty is often beneath the surface.

Then there’s the allure of creativity. The shapes of classic knife blades were developed for utility, but modern designs show lots of imagination. A blade can be made from flint, obsidian, ceramic, or a wide variety of steels -- even a car spring or a saw blade.

Besides the steel itself, the handle material can be virtually anything -- from the antler of last year’s buck, to the ivory of a wooly mammoth, to wood from Grandpa’s apple tree. Add any color you want, and dress it up any way you like with intricate carvings, slogans, or a notch for every deer it has field-dressed.

Knives are personal, so they need names. Some of the W. R. Case designs are named after animals: muskrat, moose, shark, and on it goes. Some are named for their shape: canoe, butterbean, toothpick, gunstock, peanut. Some knives are named for their function: hunter, lockback, fillet.

And some are named for the people who carried them. Few people have occasion to use a knife the way Jim Bowie did, fighting for his life, but no one passes a Bowie without taking a second look. When you invent your knife, you can name it anything you like.

A knife takes you back to your boyhood. Maybe you still have your old boy scout knife. Maybe the shield has fallen out. Maybe the tip of the blade was broken when you took to prying with it. Or maybe your special knife is a W. R. Case hunter Dad placed under the Christmas tree while thinking about how your eyes were going to light up.

What’s the best knife? That’s it -- the one that’s a gift -- because when you’re given a knife, you’re being told you can be trusted.

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