When I was 16 years old, I worked on a summer hay crew. Where I grew up, this was practically a rite of passage. Most kids my age had been working on crews since they were probably nine or ten, if not earlier. The youngest kids usually got stuck on a windrake and later graduated to baler or balewagon. Since this was my first summer, I was given the job of running a windrake. The purpose of this is to rake the hay that has been cut by a mower (a pretty advanced job on a haycrew) who has been cutting a few days ahead of the rest of us. The cut hay has to dry out or cure in the sun for a few days before it gets raked up into neat rows, which a baler comes by and turns into bales which are stacked up and either sold or used for feed during the winter.
Being on a hay crew is hard work. It is mostly monotonous. You sit in the sun, rattling around on a tractor, making long, snaking rows of dead grass that someone else turns into blocks. Sometimes something breaks and you have to fix it. On my first day, a fuel line got plugged up and the old guy who ran the ranch was trying to fix it. He asked me to listen to the fuel tank to see if I could hear any air he was about to shoot up through the fuel line with an air compressor. I did this, and received a dousing of about five gallons of gasoline. I was covered in the stuff. Old Frank tossed his lit Newport into a ditch and went to help me, apologizing for what had happened as he washed out my eyes with water. I reeked of gasoline for the rest of the day. My eyes stung from my flammable sweat, even though we rinsed off as much as we could with the Igloo cooler of water we carried on the utility truck.
Every day for the next 30 days in August, I learned some kind of lesson. This was my first one.
The next one wasn’t so bad, but it was by no means less important than getting a gasoline shower. Frank asked me to cut the string off a bale of hay and when I couldn’t produce a pocket knife to do this, he implemented a demerit system, probably leftover from his years in Catholic school. He said for every ten demerits, he would dock my pay one day. I got paid $25 per day to sit on a tractor and roll hay into windrows for 12 hours. The first offense has earned me three demerits. He didn’t want to see me in the fields without a pocket knife from then on out.
He often spot checked me to see if I had a knife on me or not. It was a lot of incentive to not be without one, that’s for sure. Something as simple and basic as a pocket knife is invaluable in a hay field. As a Boy Scout at the time, we were less into pocket knives and more into these big fixed blade knives. We used to drive our Scoutmaster nuts with who could bring the biggest knife to a Scouting event. I brought a shortsword to one once. And though it impressed the other Scouts, I have to say, it was completely useless. Out in those fields, I discovered the value of an actual knife you carry with you all the time. I carried a switchblade my dad had gotten in Mexico in the mid-1970s. It had a cheaply inlaid scene of a matador fighting a bull in acrylic resin for the scales. It had a shitty spring which stopped deploying the blade all the way, but the blade was never really flush with the handle either, so you always ran the risk of poking yourself with it. What a stupid knife.
Over that summer, I got used to carrying a knife. And in those days, I kept this one or any number of knives on my person at any given time. I often carried a long, thin-bladed knife that used to be my grandpa’s. I was better suited to being in a flyfisherman’s pocket than mine for everyday use as it had a scaler and an inlaid silver fish on the handle, reminding people it was for gutting fish. Whatever blade I carried, at least I was never looking for a sharp rock if it came time to cut something. Even in Scouts, I found a pocket knife was infinitely more useful than whatever Rambo bullshit I would sneak in.
Over the years, I carried other knives, from Swiss Army multitools to a Gerber thing with built in pliers. Almost none of these were really what I wanted or needed. The must useful part of a Swiss Army Hunter is the set of tweezers in the scales. Maybe the corkscrew. I carried a knockoff brass handled Navaja my dad gave me for Christmas one year. The Indian steel was nearly as soft as the brass handle. It also wore holes in the pockets of my jeans and forget about carrying it in a pair of khakis.
Working at an office at a university also made it problematic to carry a knife. Jeez, the first time I pulled out a pocket knife to cut some string I thought everyone’s eyes were going to pop out of their heads. So, I stopped carrying them. Old Frank would have given me demerits for sure. Most of my knives came to me as gifts anyway, or handmedowns. They weren’t always in the best shape or I didn’t want to risk losing them. Or they were just not right.
My girlfriend carries a knife all the time, and considering the lessons I learned out in the hayfields, I have to say, anytime she pulls that knife out to cut something or peel something when I’m not carrying one myself, I give myself a few demerits. So, with the stimulus checks, I decided it was time to get myself a knife for everyday carry use. With the office job ending, I don’t have to worry about the delicate sensibilities of people I work with, or offending the uber-liberal people who have decided pocket knives killed John Lenon, caused 9-11, and are assuming their genders.
I bought a Benchmade North Fork, and I can’t wait to try the sucker out. This will be the first pocket knife I’ve bought in years. It was a long time past due too. Sure, it doesn’t have a bottle opener or a leather awl (because that is a necessary tool to use every day), but it does have a sharp blade and it fits well in your pocket. I also bought a Zippo, because we didn’t evolve this far to not be able to create fire anymore. I used to own a few of these and I don’t even smoke. They were just useful whenever you needed to light something on fire. And a “woobie.” Because it sounded like a good thing to have around. Especially as crazy as things are these days.
One of the things I’ve learned the older I get is that many of the lessons I learned in my youth are coming back into relevance again. Important things to have are a sharp knife, a way to make fire, and a way to stay warm and dry. The basic essentials. Some people might throw their smartphone on there or something. Though useful, I think other essentials are things to have like a good leather belt or a passport wallet. A decent hat or shoes that don’t hurt your feet to walk in all day long. Simple things like that.
Anyway, I decided on the Benchmade because they are made in the USA. Just like Zippo, and recently, the only thing to come out of China that has been built to last has shut down our economy, filled up hospitals, and made everyone decide they are going to walk around looking like Old West stagecoach robbers. I think we’ve given enough to China. We’ve sold ourselves short and forgotten the lessons from older generations.
Maybe if we survive this, we can consider having earned some demerits. Hopefully we don’t set ourselves on fire in the process.