“The blood stays on the blade.” – Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), “Gangs of New York”
When I was in the summer before 3rd grade, we moved from an 80 acre sheep farm in southern Iowa to what became my true home in Northern California. The Grapes of Wrath deferred, we packed up our Ford trucks, trailers and dogs and headed out West.
I was born in Clovis, CA, not to be confused with the adjoining “Fresno.” The years my parents had spent in the Golden State after they were married proved silver-lined, and they wanted to give it another chance.
I remember getting the Ryder moving truck loaded off the back door, which was elevated about six feet off the ground dropping into nothing. We pushed in the piano, the furniture, our failed Midwestern dreams. I would miss my friends. I didn’t want to ride with my dad in the truck. I was against the change.
The thing that changed my mind was a knife. My big brother, the one who understands man’s ways and understood the way of a boy beyond his years cut me a deal: if I rode with Dad in the truck, drove 2,000 miles cross-country through that haunting familial stretch of Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and into the homeland, he would give me his knife.
My family has owned a lot of knives and I only vaguely recall the style – faux-bone perhaps, folding, single blade, dull, a ring riveted into the butt…but it changed my mind. That my brother would give me his blade gave me courage to make the journey.
All knives in my family hold memory. I keep a German bone-handle in its cracked leather sheath in the visor of my dad’s truck, Old Blue. It’s had the point broken from who-knows-what-use, but I ground the bevel down and made it passable, because it’s my dad’s. The 110 folding Buck I keep in my deer coat as a backup still has red chalk on it from being used in the sheep barn, marking the vaccinated ewes, infinite bacteria on the blade from scraping out hooves. The 110 is probably the most common knife of all time, but this one’s different.
I went pig hunting with my cousin in the coastal range of NorCal last spring and I brought along a knife I had given to my brother – a King Ranch microknife, the blade 3 inches at best, but I wouldn’t skin a hog with anything more. It’s a family knife.
This week, I acquired a new knife (shout out to my friend Robb who gave it to me for a song and a dance, which I doubt he’ll want to cash in). It’s a bona fide survival knife, serrated cutting surface, black powder coat, polymer grip, a steel butt designed for breaking plexiglass and drilled handle for converting it into a spear. Made in Portland, Oregon – USA.
I intend to carry this knife into my first true Boundary Waters expedition next week, the canoe, camping in the bush, countless walleye and lake trout (may it be so) and the meditation that only comes from such things. The knife in and of itself is not special, but the symbol of it waxes immortal. Every knife has a story.
In a boy’s heart a knife is freedom. It’s tricky to get, I know, but it’s true. Whether for malice or metacognition, it means something. Whittled wood by my hand. Hide and sinew severed to give my family food. Standing alone in the closet as a relic of things primeval. Take your pick.
Regardless. In hand-to-hand or one man’s hand to another, a knife has meaning, identity, and that cannot be changed. The difference between life and death. The difference between surviving the wilderness and demise, or surviving a thought-depraved life or oblivion, a glimmering cobalt edge will never escape my notice, nor where it came from.
And it came from nowhere if it didn’t come from my brother’s hand, a child, a brother, a legacy.