The following is a reconstruction of a familiar conversation from back then.
Q: "Gotcha knife on you?"
A: "Got my britches on."
Interpretation. As surely as I am up and dressed, I have my pocket knife in my pants pocket. Knives were deemed more necessary than shoes and rightly so.
First, to be clear, pocket knives are folding tools, unlike kitchen knives, butcher knives or hunting knives. They range in size from tiny pen knives to big three-bladed stockman's knives, but even big ones were meant to be carried in pants pockets. The most important rule for their ownership and use is "Keep your knife sharp. You are more apt to get hurt by a dull knife than a sharp one." A sharp knife properly used will perform as expected, while a dull one might not. The rough grind-stone used for farm tools would just "eat up" a good knife. A "whet-rock" is required. Polished leather can be used to finish the blade to razor sharpness.
Country folks — men, boys and some women — used knives for many things from picking teeth to settling fights, but mostly they were work tools. My father was a good example. With his pocket knife, he trimmed his nails and mules' hooves. He did emergency surgery on livestock and castrated hundreds of male pigs. He cut fishing poles, lines to go on them, bait for the hooks and later he cleaned the fish for frying. At hog-killing time, he was the skilled butcher and used his pocket knife along with other blades to do the job. Be informed that he cleaned and sharpened his knife regularly; so it was clean when he peeled oranges and peaches and sugar cane for chewing.
In skilled hands, a pocket knife can be a useful carpentry tool. Given the necessary wood, a handsaw, a hammer, nails and his pocket knife, my late father-in-law Troy Slater trimming wood to fit with his knife as necessary.
Some people were artists with knives, shaping things to their wills, whether utilitarian or aesthetic. Others just liked to whittle, turning a piece of wood or length of tree limb into ... well, maybe into nothing but shavings. It was something to do with hands that rarely stopped doing except during sleep.
A good knife could be a lifesaver. Once my maternal grandfather, Rudy Williams, and his brother, Tal, went fishing on the Ohoopee River, walking about 4 miles to do so, an easy thing for him. Spying a huckleberry bush full of fruit on the way home, he turned aside for a treat and was bitten by a big rattlesnake. He sent his brother on the run to Cobbtown for Dr. Strickland. Then he used a shoestring for a tourniquet, took out his pocket knife and cut out a plug of his shin, one larger than the width of the snake's fangs. Then he walked home. He carried the scar from his self-surgery to his grave about 50 years later.
I was the patient for a bit of surgery by my maternal grandmother, Ella. She carried a very sharp pen knife in her apron pocket. She used it in the garden, orchard and other places. Once I was walking barefoot on my heels across a freshly scrubbed wood floor and a long splinter jabbed up my heel just below the skin. She had me lie across a bed, foot hanging out, split the skin with her pen knife, removed the splinter, treated the wound with turpentine, bound it with a clean cloth and sent me on my way.
Obviously, I am a knife person; got my first pen knife when I was 6 years old and lost it not long afterwards, the first of many to be lost since that time. My next was a Barlow, an inexpensive but sturdy design good for peeling cane and oranges and for whittling. I lost it and others like it and wish I could find another to buy now. Many of my knives carry strong sentimental attachments — gifts from my wife, father, brother, son, daughter and son-in-law — some real beauties. I don't "tote" these, just the ones that I can replace. Still, if you see me, I will likely have my britches on and my knife on me.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.