Ernie Simpson of Anderson County well remembers a lesson in life taught by Mr. Harper Hall in the village of Starr: “A boy who don’t carry a pocket knife ain’t worth a plugged nickel.”
Mrs. Hall, an apostle of temperance, loved to gather the neighborhood children around her and impress upon them the evils of alcohol and the virtues of following Southern tradition.
“Now, the vow not to consume alcohol didn’t stick after I enrolled at Clemson University,” Ernie told me via email, “but the pocket knife in my pocket did. It turned out to be a part of getting dressed each morning.”
I can identify. I grew up with a godly fear of alcohol and a firm reliance on my pocket knife. My aversion to alcohol vanished soon after I entered the University of Georgia, where Beer 101 was one of the introductory courses. But I kept my pocket knife for years.
Now the right to keep and bear pocket knives is being challenged in the name of national security.
Ernie remembers the first time his right to carry a knife was challenged. He showed up at the Anderson County Courthouse on a peaceful mission, not long after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. He was required to empty his pockets, and the guard told him he couldn’t take his knife into the courthouse. His car was nearby, so he deposited the knife there and was cleared to enter the building.
Recently he and a friend took some teenage boys to see the Atlanta Braves play, hoping to motivate the kids to forsake their video games in favor of the national pastime. He had bought an Old Timers Knife, manufactured by the Imperial Schrade Corporation from 1904 through 2004. It’s a classic knife, one any connoisseur of pocket knives would be proud to own.
“What’s that you got in your pocket?” asked the big Atlanta Metro cop as Ernie presented his ticket at the gate to Turner Field.
“Hope you can use it,” Ernie said as he handed his precious blade to the policeman.
I understand why knives are now verboten at ball fields, schools, courthouses and other public places since 9/11. After all, the terrorists who hijacked the planes that struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were armed with knives and box cutters. Given the violent nature of today’s society, one can understand the need for caution about allowing potential weapons into public places.
But the ban also awakens nostalgia for the days when the pocket knife was a precious part of every boy’s belongings.
When I was in junior high school at Graniteville High School, World Series time would find me, Ronnie Bryant, Bobby Huff and other pals drifting over to a corner of the dirt field where physical education classes were held. We would pull out our pocket knives and kneel under a shade tree, where we would play “mumbly peg baseball.”
The game was played with the small blade opened all the way and the big blade half opened. You placed the big blade on the ground and flipped it from the end of the handle. If the knife landed with the big blade and the end of the handle touching the ground, you had a single. If only the big blade was touching, you had a double. If both blades were touching the ground, it was a triple. If the knife landed vertically, with only the small blade in the ground, you had a home run. If the knife landed on its back, with both blades pointed upward, it was a walk. Anything else was an out.
We would flip until we had played nine full innings. If we had the time, we would make it a doubleheader. I imagined that I was the New York Yankees and my opponent was the Brooklyn Dodgers, and my victory would bring another world championship to Yankee Stadium. It worked most of the time.
In all that time, I don’t remember ever coming to blows with an opponent over the results of the game. There wasn’t the slightest fear that a sore loser might come at me with his knife. We had many a fist fight on the playground, but through 12 years in public school, I can’t think of a single instance in which somebody pulled out a weapon of any kind.
Ernie says he had the same experience.
“Not one time has any pocket knife of mine been drawn from my pocket in anger to threaten somebody or to purposely defend myself,” he said.
How times have changed. Now, if a kid points his finger at another kid and says “bang!” he’s in trouble. When I was in grammar school, every boy on the school grounds at recess time would be involved in a game of cowboys and Indians, pointing cap pistols or gun-shaped sticks at one another and yelling, “Ta-tow, I shot you.” Not a teacher raised an eyebrow.
When my plane landed in Geneva, Switzerland, back in the ’80s en route from Croatia to Roanoke, Va., I bought my youngest son a Swiss Army knife. No worries about carrying it aboard a trans-Atlantic flight. Today I own a dull-bladed Swiss Army knife look-alike. Even though it won’t cut hot butter, I wouldn’t take it aboard an aircraft. But I do find occasional use for the can opener, beer opener, corkscrew and Phillips head it contains.
It would probably be suitable for a game of mumbly peg baseball, but I can no longer kneel comfortably, and if I do I can’t stand up again. Besides, that, Graniteville High School no longer exists, and the tree in the corner of the PE field is long vanished. The Leavelle McCampbell Middle School gym now occupies the site.
Gene Owens is a retired newspaper editor and columnist.
who graduated from Graniteville High School and now lives in Anderson. Readers may email Gene Owens at WadesDixieco@aol.com<mailto:WadesDixieco@aol.com>. For more of Gene’s writings, visit www.wadesdixieco.com.