Though less than forty years have passed, I am often astonished to see just how drastic the world has changed from the time I was a small boy. Some of these changes have been for the better, but others – just to put it bluntly – I’m not so sure about.
Yes, technology, vehicles, and even our day to day lives are a far cry from how the world was only a generation ago, but when I survey the changing landscape of America, the greatest change I see is found in the people themselves.
Coming to age in the farming communities of rural Southwest Virginia, I was privileged to cut my teeth inside a John Deere tractor seated alongside my father as he spread silage to over a hundred hungry black angus cattle.
As much as these experiences helped to mold me into the person I am today, it was the people I grew up around who instilled in me a deep appreciation for all things Appalachia.
When we weren’t farming, my father and I could most likely be found in a local gun shop owned by one of my dad’s friends, where I’d be seated on a barstool alongside a half-dozen men drinking coffee whilst I sipped on a twenty-five cent can of Coca-Cola.
Though I can’t for the life of me remember a single one of the stories that were shared around that gun shop (which might be a good thing), I remember even as a five-year-old thinking they were often a little too farfetched to be precisely true!
Whether it was Billy, Jimmy or a wooly fella I simply knew as “Big Red”, one thing that each of these men had in common was that they were “tougher than a two-dollar steak” and they’d call a doctor before they’d think of calling a repairman, and they only called a doctor when they were on the doorstep of death! If they couldn’t fix it, it probably couldn’t be fixed.
Military veterans, conservative before that was even a word people in the country knew, and Appalachian proud, these men also shared another thing in common, each of them carried a knife — Not a large killing knife, but a small 3-4 inch knife that would inevitably find its way into their hands a countless number of times through the course of each day.
Whether it was to slice a freshly picked apple growing from a wild tree in the field or to clean a carburetor or to slice through the hard plastic of a Christmas present box, these men were always prepared.
I’d often ask, “Daddy, do you have your pocketknife?” just to hear his response, “I got my pants on, don’t I?”
Though my father owned dozens of pocketknives, the one I remember him carrying the most was a simple three-blade Old Timer pocketknife which he kept razor sharp.
For my father and so many others, a pocketknife was an essential tool to their daily life. The men who carry them are hardworking, do it yourselfers, who were raised to rely on themselves in nearly every situation.
The history of the pocketknife is quite telling, with its widespread usage dating back to the 1600s, where they were known as peasant knives and were used by the poorer working class of England.
In the centuries that followed, many of these working class men would forsake their country and move to America — often retreating inland to the mountains of Appalachia. Though they may have left their homelands behind, they brought with them their peasant knives, which would continue to define generations of hardworking Appalachian men.
Who are the kind of men who still carry pocketknives? They are the type of men who earn an honest living, work hard and stand fearless in a world gone mad. To put it simply, they are the type of men the world could use a lot more of these days.
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