“Whittling is not just a hobby it is a life skill” -Unknown
In my youth, late in the evening as the workday had wound down, it was not unusual to see old men sitting in rocking chairs or on benches under the overhang of the Junior’s old mercantile. I was ten or eleven, pumping gas, checking oil, and air pressure for my cousin who owned the store. The pay was minimal, but the life lessons were worth millions.
Some of the men told stories while the group listened…I’m sure their stories were retold and embellished over time. Most participated, waiting their turn, laughter erupting periodically. Some of their discussions revolved around the news of the day. There was plenty to talk about in the late Fifties and early Sixties, little brought laughter. Some days a mason jar with a light amber liquid might have been passed around.
They were ‘workin’ men’, all weather beaten, faces crevassed with age and burned brown from too much time spent in fields. Their eyes had a permanent squint from staring toward the sun. Bib overalls or old-fashioned blue jeans were the fashion statements along with fedoras or baseball caps pushed back exposing their less tanned foreheads. The denim was faded from many washes and was patched on top of patches. Heavy work shirts and brogans completed their attire. They were comfortable in their clothes and with the company they were keeping.
There was one man, Mister Jesse, who sat leaning forward in his rocking chair, elbows resting on his knees. He was more a listener than a talker. A Barlow knife was held in his thickly callused hand. In the other was a thick piece of tree limb. As he listened, he used the knife to peel slivers of wood that made a small pile between his feet.
Mister Jesse was a short squat man, more powerful than fat, although the ravages of time had reduced his muscle mass and gravity had pulled his chest toward his middle. He wore thick glasses and squinted at the stick he was whittlin’ on. I wondered if he worked more by feeling than by sight.
There seemed to be a certain art to his knife strokes. If not art, a method to his madness. The shavings were almost uniform. Thin splinters about an inch long until the bark on the limb was gone, its surface smooth and creamy pale with a hint of green. He would pause periodically and put the knife down and stroke the limb like the arm of a woman, the arm of a special woman.
Once he caught me looking at his knife. The blade polished and curved from use and untold sharpening. When closed, the blade hid inside of a bone handle. It might have been three or four inches long.
Mister Jesse smiled, a gap in his front, lower teeth, “You like my knife, boy?”
I was timid but softly answered, “Yes sir.”
“It came from the old country. A genuine Barlow made in Sheffield. My great grandfather carried it across the ocean to Pennsylvania and down through the mountains until they settled here. He passed it down to his son who passed it to his and it was passed down to me. Would like to hold it?”
I nodded, “Yes sir.”
He handed me the knife, handle first, “Careful now, that ain’t no toy. Here take this.” He handed me the limb. The bone handle of the knife was rougher than the stick.
Taking my hand and demonstrating, “Hold it like this and draw the knife away from you. Never cut toward yourself iff’in you can help it.”
I was tentative and stroked the knife away from me, cutting a splinter the size of a sewing needle. The next was wide and too deep. It was harder than it looked.
“That’s right, boy. You’ll get the hang of it. You got a knife?”
“Well, a boy needs a knife. Junior got some Barlows. They Russell Barlow’s but they still good ones. Save up and get you one.”
I did and I’m sorry to say it was misplaced years ago. It was a working man’s knife. Single bladed with a dark wood handle. A locking clip held it in place when opened and an R with an arrow through it was stamped on the metal that held the blade. A Russell Barlow, still a good one.
The knife that triggered my pig trail wasn’t my knife but my father’s. A small twin bladed knife with a creamy yellow mother of pearl handle. It wasn’t a working man’s knife although my father was a working man. I like to think that it was his “Sunday” knife, more for show than work.
The knife sits in a box on my desk in the study. I don’t carry it because I fear I might lose it. I want to pass it down. I don’t have a son, but my daughter might appreciate it. I don’t think my grandson is old enough to appreciate its history much less be turned loose with a sharp object. In time, I guess.
Mr. Jesse passed when I was in college. The art of whittlin’ has passed with him, I think. There is too much going on to just sit and whittle. I’m guessing a lot of thinking passed with it, too. Many of the world’s ills might be solved if we took a moment to sit and think, slivers forming a pile between our feet.
I’m old like them now…well-seasoned. I have squinted into the sun too much and my chest has fallen into my middle. I feel about all I’m useful for is whittling. I need to go buy a good knife. The Barlow Company no longer exists, it was bought out in the mid-2000s, but the name continues as a style of knife. I hear Case makes a good one. Nothing fancy, just a good working man’s knife. So, Mr. Jesse, wherever you are, I reckon I’ll save my pennies and get one. I still have time to become a good whittler.
Don Miller’s author’s page can be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR04JmryGiZ4dKmFNiUXijmwZNfx1a7sd1DFHEVnI7HC8qB1jIT7BisYfqs
His newest release is the non-fiction “Pig Trails and Rabbit Holes”, more musings of a mad Southerner. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B09GNZFXFT/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i1