If you are wanting only to read words from a skydive, look elsewhere, as this particular blog entry has as much to do with a skydive as this site has to do with bear traps…. but if you’re interested in knives, sheep, memories of a four-year old, or bloody fingers…read on….
Many blades have come and gone over the years of my life; receiving a knife was once a rite of passage for old boys becoming young men.
Forty years have passed since this particular knife last passed my palm yet I recall the day clearly as though it were only last week.
The pain seemed like nothing at the time though the scar has left a tattoo on my palm, and we all know scars are the tattoos that carry better stories. They generally come with an experience or emotion not felt moments before the arrival of the new mark.
I was five years old when my grandfather handed me a whistle cut from a willow branch. He’d cut dozens of similar whistles for me in the past but this one was special. I was going to be allowed to finish cutting this whistle and I knew exactly what needed doing.
And told my grandfather as much. Thus he left me with his knife.
Stauntering off into the trees, I sat on a cut log and began finishing my musical masterpiece, excited to play for everyone around the campfire. I’d embellish their tall fish stories with a number, a musical delight to surely beat any fish story my uncles, aunts, or grandfather might have to tell.
This night was one of magic, of special import to everyone gathered around the campfire. Cousins and grandparents, aunts, uncles, distant relatives whose names I never knew but whose food I gladly snarfed had come for miles around to celebrate my mother’s birthday.
As I worked on the whistle, making it more of a slide flute (my grandfather had taught me this trick the year before, it was all in keeping the bark wet/lubricated so the inside shaft could move freely up and down. This was what gave the whistle a variable pitch.
And I almost had this inside shaft removed from the bark.
Once it was out I merely needed to spit in side the bark tube and the shaft would slide as though on fine ball bearings encased in 30 weight motor oil.
The sharp blade point was positioned and poised for poking a hole in the bottom of the whistle/bell. The wood was harder than expected so of course more force needed to be interjected and it was. I put as much push as I can recall into that knife handle. The blade had other ideas. The blade folded partwas between the wood and my ‘free hand,’ the one I was using to steady the wood against my belly as I cut. How my middle missed the blade, I’ll never know.
The blood ran freely as I pushed the final bit of shaft from the bark, so free and thick that I thought it was water or sap sliding out with the last of the shaft. It was a thought that I’m sure many a whistle maker has entertained from time to time. The words I was probably thinking wasn’t quite as charitable as my mother would like, but the pain didn’t really set in until she saw the blood. Most young boys think these thoughts while most men launching expletives like Titan missles into space. You know the ones I mean; they’re the same words their daddies use then they’re really, really unhappy aabout something. Even a four-year old knows these are bad words.
My mother chastised my grandfather for allowing me to have unsupervised use of his blade, a blade always kept razor-sharp for butchering sheep, cutting baling wire, paring hooves. In other words, a necessary tool in a time where “internet” hadn’t been dreamed, and the word would refer more to an indoor pigeon coop than technology.
The craftsmanship of this instrument still shows through today; the blade is significantly shorter and less wide than it once was, the byproduct of maybe a million stroppings and half again as many whetstones. If this knife could speak, the stories would be fascinating, even to the unrelated.
I don’t recall seeing the knife again, but I was told that one morning I packed up my grandfathers knife, a small hammer, a tiny wrench used for small bolts, and assorted bits and pieces found in the chicken coop, and then ‘ran away.” I was going to be a cobbler, a fixer of shoes. Why this vocation, I’ll never know. Shoes vex me. They go on feet and Blahnik vs Nike means nothing to a small mind. Women like em’, and like having lots of them. I’ve never met a woman that didn’t own lots of shoes. This observation completes the entire volume of my mental shoe encyclopedia.
So I ambled down to the local garage where my greatgrandfather once worked. I never knew him, but the people there knew me. I opened up a shoe repair stand and was immediately hired by a visitor to the garage.
Handing me his boots, my job was to clean the sheep manure from the cleats in his soles. I don’t recall this employment, but I’m sure I was talented. I’ve always had a knack for spreading manure. In fact, me and my friend Cody Stoddard had a blast tossing dried cowpies into the manure spreader. Sometimes they weren’t so dry.
Cody and I were pretty good at “wool-stomping,” too. As the sheep were shorn, the unclean wool was put in a burlap bag. It was our job to jump, dance, step, and stomp the wool into the most compact form possible so that the wool-filled bags could be shipped.
Sounds easy, right? Not.
The wool was dirty, making it hard to compact. Sheep wool is very oily/greasy, too. The oil does not come out of shoes used for stomping, which my sore behind didn’t let me easily forget. (Note to self; do not wear new shoes when stomping wool, even if Grandpa is standing by.)
In addition to the grease and dirt, the back end of the sheep had some of nature’s most natural and smelly substance left on it. Yeah… shearing wool in hot sun is stinky business. And the sheep look funny, too.
After stomping the wool, Grandpa or another grown-up would finish-stomp the bag and sew it up for shipping off.
When my grandfather called me into the bedroom that had been his cell for nearly two years, it was apparent that he wasn’t going to be getting up again. My mother and grandmother always referred to it as “when your grandfather went to bed.” He handed me this knife, and told me he felt I was ready for it. I was the second eldest grandchild. My elder brother was given my grandfather’s Bible.
I think I got the better deal.
After grandfather passed away, a small package made its way to me. Enclosed was a small hammer, a small wrench, and a few assorted tools with wooden handles. A patina of sweet-smelling rust and old sheep’s wool rushed memories from the deep recesses of my youth-mind which immediately transported me to another place and time.
I still wear the scar of that most early experience in my life; the memories are as equally imprinted as the imperfection in my palm. I’ll never have a grandson to whom I can pass this knife, the skill of a willow whistle made in the idle hours of a warm Sunday afternoon, teach the skill of wool-stomping, nor share the experiences of tossing cowpies like Frisbees into a manure spreader. My daughter will keep these stories, and perhaps they’ll inspire a reader, somewhere in time.
The manure spreader still sits there in the field where it was left 30 years ago; although rust, rot, and decay have taken their toll, the ratchet of old gears, the dry cardboard crunch of the manure as it was crushed and thrown across the pasture is still just as fresh and memorable as the scar that runs across my palm. It’s a tattoo I cherish as much as the designs I’ve willfully added to my body.