November 6, 2009

A Knife’s Tale…

Category: News — Ira @ 7:48 pm


…and find then in our hands some object, like this, real and
palpable, some gift out of the lost land and the unknown world,
as token that it was no dream – that we have really been there.
And there is no more to say…

—Thomas Wolfe

I’ve always had a serious weakness for a good knife. I don’t know what it is. There’s only so much you can do with one. A knife isn’t a gun. It can only cut and slice and skin. And stab.

I’m not sure why the fascination. It’s not like I have warrior genes or anything, what with my spotless credentials from a long line of nonresistant Anabaptist forefathers. Guess it’s a guy thing. Guys love to sit around and hawk and spit and pull out and compare their knives and regale each other with grand tall tales of the blood and conquest of the hunt.

I love a good knife. There’s nothing quite like holding a forged blade, to feel the solid grip of the handle carved from wood or bone, the heft and balance, the cold cutting edge of razor sharp steel. I gravitate to the fixed blades, hunting knives, survival knives, and especially a well crafted Bowie. Must have a dozen or more, scattered about. Including a couple of Damascus blades. Some were moderately expensive. Funny thing is, I hardly ever use my knives, especially the more expensive ones. The higher the price, the less apt I am to use it. To me, they are a thing of beauty, to be spread out and wiped down and admired. Then packed up and stored away again.

Some of my Bowie knives.

I don’t really remember my first knife. It might have been a cast off from one of my older brothers. Or something Dad bought for me at Uncle Pete’s harness shop. A cheap little multi-bladed pocket knife with faux bone, black plastic handles. And a swivel attached to one end, so as to tie it to my galluses on an old shoe string. From there, a long line of nondescript knives came and went. I remember a nice two-bladed Barlow, again with faux bone plastic handles. And later, after I could shoot, a cheap hunting knife.

I treasured them all. Wish I still had some of those old originals around, but they have all disappeared in the clutter of the past. Lost, misplaced, or simply left behind as I moved from place to place.

Today, my knife fever comes and goes. I buy in spurts, as the urge hits. I’m not a collector, just a guy who likes a good knife. I rarely attend a gun show without picking up at least one. In August, for my birthday, I splurged on a Kit Rae Sword of the Ancients. No particular reason to buy a sword. That’s so last millennia. But I wanted one. Just because. So I bought it. It hangs in splendor on a wall inside my home.

I’m addicted to the Saturday Night Knife and Gun Show, a two hour affair that runs from 8 to 10 every Saturday night. I watch, fascinated, absorbing the corny down home wisdom of Mike Politoski, a rotund good old country boy who expounds at length about his products, America and Jesus. In about that order. His slogan: “The round man with the square deal.” Most of his stuff is cheap junk, with a quality offering thrown in once in awhile. It’s all about as southern and hick country as anything out there. More so than Nascar, even.

Strangely, I rarely carry a knife anymore. But there’s always one within easy reach. At my desk in the office, in my house and under Big Blue’s driver’s seat.

As with most manly things, the knife’s reputation has taken a hit in recent decades. The nanny state shrieks hysterical disapproval. And about every week or two, it seems, we read of how some pompous constipated bureaucrats suspended some poor little six year old for two months for taking his treasure to school to show his buddies. It’s abominable, and it’s a barometer of where we are as a society. Every boy should have a knife. And be taught how to respect it and how to use it.

The old classic brands are mostly made in China now, and that’s sad too. Old standbys like Buck, Schrade, Remington, Winchester, Gerber, Smith and Wesson. And countless others. Old majestic mainstays whose very names used to evoke quality. All are available now at very low prices, but the quality ain’t what it used to be. The American models of those brands are worth quite a bit of money, much more than the new ones. A few brands like Case, Ontario, Cold Steel and others are still manufactured here. And their prices reflect that fact.

In the early 1980s, I think it was, I sent off for a knife catalog from Smoky Mountain Knife Works in Tennessee. Saw the advertisement in Outdoor Life. Some weeks later it arrived, a glossy tome, filled with pages and pages of colored pictures. All knives. All for sale. Some for a hundred dollars or more, a fortune for me at the time.

Not that I ever would have remotely considered spending anything approaching that amount. But still, one could dream. As I did, while perusing the pages. After a few days, I made my selections. A handful of cheap Sodbuster folders with white plastic handles. Lockbacks. Only a few bucks apiece. Naively, I imagined one might sell them for a bit of a profit. So I ordered six or seven.

I returned again and again to a certain page in the catalog. The picture showed a beautiful fixed blade hunter. Stag bone handles. Leather sheath. Uncle Henry by Schrade. A perfect knife, I figured, for hunting. Skinning out a deer or fox. The only drawback was the price. Around thirty dollars. I weighed the thing in my mind, set aside the catalog. Went back again the next day and the next. And finally made my decision.

I had never in my life paid that kind of money for a knife before. That was real money back then, especially for a country boy chronically short of funds. But I decided to buy it. Quickly, before changing my mind, I wrote out my order, enclosed a check, and mailed it off.

It seems so quaint today. To order stuff from a catalog and actually send a check in the mail. Knowing the item wouldn’t arrive for weeks. But that’s the way it was back then, before the internet age. Life moved at a more leisurely pace.

In about a month or so, the mailman delivered a small box, addressed to me. I tore it open. Examined the cheap Sodbuster folders. Nice enough. Made in China. (I never made a dime off them.) Then I opened the second little box. And there it was. Every bit as beautiful as pictured in the catalog. A fixed blade hunter/skinner. Full tang steel. Stag bone handles. A well stitched brown leather sheath. I hefted the knife in my hands and admired it. It was a thing of beauty and it took my breath away.

It was a treasure to me, too beautiful to use. And so I didn’t. Rarely, if ever, carried it in the field. Never used it to skin a single animal. Not once. It stayed securely stored in my desk in my bedroom. Once in awhile I extracted it and held it and wiped it down, kept it clean and gleaming. I showed it proudly to my friends, who emitted appropriate grunts of approval.

Some tumultuous years later, I packed my bags and left Bloomfield. With a bit of cash, a few personal items and some clothes. My Uncle Henry knife was among the few things I treasured enough to take with me on that journey into the unknown.

A few years later, after working through some major issues, I moved to Daviess County, IN, and began attending Vincennes University. Weekends, I worked at the Gasthof Restaurant, waiting on tables. One of the busboys there was a young fifteen year old Amish kid named Marcus Marner. Marcus and I got to be friends. He was talkative, eager to learn. He was also an outdoorsman, a hunter, a guy who actually used his knives.

We talked of many things, and one night I took my prize knife to work and showed it to him. His eyes gleamed as he held it in his hands.

I can’t for the life of me imagine why I said it, such a rash and reckless thing. But I did. “You wanna buy it?”

“Oh, yes,” he said. “How much?”

I didn’t need the money. I mean, I wasn’t starving or anything. Maybe it was just the thrill of the deal. “Thirty bucks,” I said. He agreed instantly. I gave him the knife. And the next weekend he brought me the money. A crumpled twenty and a two fives.

The money was soon gone, frittered away on trifles and staples like gas and food. After graduating from Vincennes in 1991, I left Daviess County. Haven’t lived there since. I rarely go back. Marcus soon faded from my mind. But I never forgot that knife.

It’s not like I really regretted selling it. It was just a knife I had bought a few years before. But still, I always remembered its heft and feel, the quality and beauty of it. My main regret was that I had allowed something so tangible from my Amish youth days to slip away like that.

But I had. And that was that. I didn’t see Marcus again for almost twenty years. Then in May of last year, he showed up at my niece’s wedding in Missouri. Friend of the parents. I wouldn’t have recognized him. Married, with a family. He knew who I was and introduced himself. I saw glimmers of the young Marcus of years ago in the burly, bearded Amish man standing before me.

Ira and Marcus Marner. May, 2008.

After chatting a bit, I asked the inevitable question. “Do you still have that knife I sold to you back at the Gasthof all those years ago?”

“Oh, yeah,” he grinned. “And boy, have I ever used it. I’ve hunted with that knife on me in a lot of different states. Skinned out a lot of deer.”

“I’d sure like to see it again sometime,” I said ruefully. “I never should have sold it to you. I’ve always regretted that I did.”

And that was that. Then last month I attended my niece Mary Ann’s wedding in Worthington, IN. The community where Marcus and his family lived. Upon arriving, I was startled to learn that the wedding service would be held in Marcus’ shop.

On the day of the wedding after the noon meal, as everyone sat around visiting, Marcus sought me out. “Come on up to the house,” he said. “I’ll show you that knife.” I followed him up the hill and sat on a bench on his windswept porch as he disappeared inside. A moment later he emerged. Handed me the old knife. And I held it again for the first time in twenty years.

The sheath was blackened with age and beaten by use. He had not been kidding. He had definitely used the knife. I grasped the stag bone handle protruding from the sheath and pulled it out.

The knife. Schrade Uncle Henry #144

Other than the blade having been honed down a bit from use, it was exactly as it was the day I sold it. Full tang handle. Heavy. Glistening. Sharp.

I sat there and gently ran my fingers back and forth across the edge of the blade, testing for any nicks or imperfections. And for a brief instant I was a skinny ragged Amish youth again, a lifetime ago in another place. So much, so much had come down since then. So many miles, so many years. So many hard roads, so much left behind. I’d pulled off some pretty substantial accomplishments. And endured my share of colossal failures. I had lived enough, it seemed at that moment, to fill a dozen lives.

I held it in my hands, this relic from the past, and looked up at Marcus, a lump in my throat. “Aww, it’s beautiful,” I breathed.

And Marcus stood there beaming, watching me. Then he spoke. “That knife is yours,” he said. “It always was. It will always be. It belongs to you. Take it back with you to its rightful home.”

It was a grand, sweeping generous thing to say. A hugely magnanimous thing. Deeply moved, I gaped at him. The thought had never crossed my mind. That he’d give it back. I had sold it to him, fair and square. It belonged to him.

“You don’t have to do that,” I croaked. “It’s your knife. It’s part of your life too. Part of your youth, your past. You’ve owned it for much longer than I did.”

He waved off my protests. And I shut up. One thing I’ve learned over the years, if someone is doing something unexpected, something generous for you, shut up and accept it. So I did. I thanked him humbly and profusely.

The knife now rests with all my others. Clean. Unused. Admired. Sometimes of an evening I unwrap it and return in my mind to the time I sent off for it in the mail, ordered from a catalog. Reflect on who I was, what I was, where I was, almost thirty years ago.

It is a tangible part of my distant past. One of very few such things that remain from the days of my youth in Bloomfield, Iowa. Callously sold without thought for a mess of pottage, lost to me for two decades. And then returned unexpectedly, against all odds, by a classy guy who instinctively recognized what it meant to me.

I treasure it for what it is, and what it represents. I always will.

And it’s home for good.



  1. Wow, you and Marcus go way back. This was another gripping account by Ira that was savored to the last syllable.

    Comment by Reuben Wagler — November 6, 2009 @ 7:27 pm

  2. The older I get the more I reflect on who I have been and who I am yet to become. It is moving/startling to remember from where one has come. A jog to the right or left and opportunities are missed or gained. Good reflections Ira.

    Comment by Leon — November 6, 2009 @ 7:43 pm

  3. I like this.
    I’m glad you got that knife back.
    There’s a lot of stuff from my childhood I’d love to have back.

    Comment by Marylou — November 6, 2009 @ 7:46 pm

  4. Ditto to the last three comments.

    What a great article!

    Comment by Ed Yoder — November 6, 2009 @ 8:32 pm

  5. The things of our youth increase in sentimental value as the gray hair or lack of hair increase. A great story about a knife and things greater than a knife.

    Comment by John Yoder — November 6, 2009 @ 9:15 pm

  6. A story about a knife brought tears to my eyes. I need psychiatric counseling (or maybe I’m just a redneck).

    Comment by John Schmid — November 7, 2009 @ 12:01 am

  7. Great ramble–You always had a strange obsession for blades. I also recall evil looking throwing stars & a variety of switchblade knives. I disagree with you not selling any… I bought several worthless knives from you when you needed money. I was always thrilled with the “bargain,” as each sale included a wild Daniel Boone type history of said knife. The “famous” knife (if not immediately lost) seldom survived even minor use. I’m glad your knife quality has greatly improved.

    Comment by Nate Wagler — November 7, 2009 @ 3:28 am

  8. How is it that knife-pathy comes at the same time for us. As I set out to return on the plane (an unexpected turn because they would not let our car through at the border this time), I had forgotten the always-on-my-side Leatherman. Of course, I’d dropped it in my luggage. And then packed light enough to just take a carry-on.

    TSA: “Do you know you have a knife in there?”

    “Ugh, my Leatherman!; forgot all about it.”

    Bucktoothed protector of the airways: “I will have to search your bag. You must watch. But you may not touch anything.”

    Last I saw it, it was on a metal table — along with another small open buck knife that had been given by the company (slightly defective in the handle), free to missionaries, when we concluded our studies years ago. But that Leatherman was becoming an heirloom. I bought it to use in the village, and always did use it there, every time, as well as countless other times on car and home. Now the airways were safe from the likes of me (me!), and I cannot pass it on to my son. No replacement can replace it.

    TSA: (as I leave, late enough to nearly miss my flight, just before I literally ran to board): “We can mail it back to you for $10.”

    “I’ll miss my plane – forget it.”

    Secure. And inhumane.

    I know it’s a little thing, in the great issues of the world.

    Comment by LeRoy — November 7, 2009 @ 1:12 pm

  9. I am with #6. I didn’t comment when I read it last evening because of the tears.

    Comment by Katie Troyer — November 7, 2009 @ 3:55 pm

  10. Great story! I didn’t know knives could make such an interesting story! Only a gifted writer….

    Tonight I turned on the TV and the Antique Road Show was on and guess what was on…you got it…a Confederate Bowie Knife & Scabbard. Of course, I had to watch since I had just read your blog earlier.

    It was only worth 7,000 dollars!!,…wow….mainly because the scabbard was leather and inscribed and in tip-top shape. The knife itself was worth about 1500.

    From now on I’m sure I will look at knives differently. Thanks!

    Tomorrow I will get to visit Lucas Oil Stadium and cheer on the beloved Colts..! I have never done that and never will again due to the expense. Go Colts!

    Comment by Doris Vetter — November 7, 2009 @ 8:53 pm

  11. Enjoyed your knife story, think I have that same weekness for cookbooks. Somehow I can’t pass by a good cookbook, especially at yard sales.

    About Marcus Marner and his wife Jolene, I cannot say enough good about those people. They came to our daughter’s wedding and helped like they had known us forever. And the way they rose up to the occasion of both my niece and nephew’s weddings 2 months apart, it would leave most good-hearted Christians in the dust. God Bless this wonderful, generous couple. I am proud to know them.

    Comment by Rachel — November 7, 2009 @ 9:17 pm

  12. I actually choked up over a knife story…

    Comment by Susan — November 9, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

  13. the comments, of course, are interesting as ever… so I’d hate to miss the chance to point out that Manning and the Colts Won, Oh Yes They Did!!

    moving along- I like to cook, so when this started out being about knives I thought about my favorite chopping knife… then laughed out loud when I realized that this was NOT about kitchen knives!

    Comment by ann — November 10, 2009 @ 6:42 pm

  14. I love stories like this…made me teary! Love it when someone shows sensitivity in the moment.

    Comment by R. Miller — November 14, 2009 @ 7:20 am

  15. Mr. Marner is one of my best friends, an awesome individual. He also assissted me in purchasing a hunting knife in 2008. The best hunting knife I ever bought!

    Comment by Andrew Yutzy — November 15, 2009 @ 8:15 pm

  16. Wow! I felt no sentiment at all concerning your love story. As a matter of fact, I felt let down when I saw the picture of your beloved knife. I pictured it as having a beautifully colored Russian motif handle (pre-Communist) with delicate flowers and leaves carved ever so gingerly into it to leave a poetic impression upon the hand after it was used to cut a spring bouquet.

    Then I saw the picture.

    Ah well, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” And testosterone in every other part. Grrr!

    Comment by Francine — January 23, 2013 @ 12:45 am

  17. I have one of these knives-bought it in 1984 in a hardware store in York, S. C. When I held it, it was the very first time that I truly understood what ” ergonomic ” actually meant ! I’ve had it for 32 years now. I have always taken the very best of care with it. I was 32 when I got it, and soon I will be 64-wow. The jobs that we have done together, the game, fish, birds, etc. that we cleaned together.
    I long ago lost the box and info that came with it-I didn’t know any better. Many of you will understand this : That story was about so very much more than just a knife ! Thank you so very much !!
    John K. Benfield, III

    Comment by John K. Benfield, III — June 16, 2016 @ 11:05 pm

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