Mountain people have frugality embedded in their DNA. I suppose that’s a good thing, because most mountain people had little other than the land the lived on to rely on in their life’s journey.
“Land rich, dirt poor” is the operative phrase.
As such when Daddy passed away in 2015, a year after Mother had passed in 2014, there was little in the way of earthly possessions to be parceled out as a way of preserving their memories.
The items that were, though, were meaningful. A set of well-seasoned cast-iron skillets. Some oddities, like a Ziploc bag containing several rattlesnake rattles from snakes Daddy had dispatched over the years during his jaunts in the mountains.
And, the topic of this column, a number of pocketknives.
These were carefully doled out among family members.
Like most people growing up back in the day, Daddy carried a pocketknife from the time he started wearing pants. They were always razor-sharp, thanks to the family whet rock.
That was another family heirloom. Whet rocks (I always pronounced it whitrock), or whetstones, water stones, oil stones or simply sharpening stones, were valued tools. Years back they were prized possessions, naturally occurring stones found only in a select number of mines. Japan and Belgium were renowned for the stones, although these were mined in the U.S. as well. As with many items, they’ve been replaced with manufactured stones.
Regardless, the whitrock at our house was well-worn, because it was used religiously. Pocketknives, kitchen knives, scissors, anything with an edge was given a workout, and any edge in the house would cut you if you weren’t careful.
Pocketknives were valued commodities, and knife-trading was a popular pastime. Mostly, though, folks here would hang on to a knife. Pocketknives were used to whittle, to dig out briars from the flesh or double as a screwdriver in a pinch.
This was back before mass-produced knives flooded the market, back before mass-marketing pushed those knives on the public via infomercials.
I must admit the pitchmen in those commercials were quite skilled. I found myself watching one as I was unwinding after a late night at work. They had a special that night, 300 knives and maybe a sword or two, plus the “But wait! There’s more!”
I already had a knife. But I had to admit the commercial left me thinking maybe I could use 300 more.
The habit of carrying a knife is hard to shake, and I still carry a multi-tool everywhere I go. It doesn’t come in handy very often, but when it does there’s no substitute.
This habit was developed before the era of infomercials. It was also developed before the era of metal detectors, and that led to me being involved in some very uncomfortable conversations in courthouses and airports.
A co-worker of mine – for the sake of argument, let’s call him Dave Russell – was in a major airport about to depart for a week’s vacation when it dawned on him he was carrying a multitool.
He stuck it in a potted plant and it was still there a week later when he returned.
One of my favorite mountain knife stories involves a story I heard at an old gas station/store in the Cashiers area. This was 30 years or so ago, and the proprietor related an incident at least 30 years prior to that, when he’d been the victim of a breaking and entering and had a quantity of merchandise disappear.
The sheriff at the time – I don’t recall his name – searched the scene and found the broken-off tip of a knife that had been used to pry open a window lock. The sheriff pocketed it.
A couple of weeks later some local boys came in for conversation around the pot-bellied stove; one of them seemed to jump a little when he saw the sheriff in the corner.
The sheriff concocted a reason he needed a pocketknife and put on a great show, patting his pockets and being puzzled about where he’d left his. He asked the young man if he might borrow his blade. The young man complied.
The sheriff opened the knife and pulled out the broken tip from his pocket.
If I recall the story correctly, the crime was solved, and the criminal arrested on the spot.
That was some sharp detective work.
Buchanan is editor of The Sylva Herald.