Nov 29,   2009

Here it is boys and girls: everything you ever needed to remember on the topic of jackknives and other cutting-edge stories of our childhood….

Every boy and man I knew carried a jackknife when I was young. My grandfather would whittle each of us grandkids a flute from a special type of alder. I don't recall that we ever made any type of music with them, but we were impressed with his handiwork.

Girls didn't carry jackknives back then but that didn't stop me from wanting one. When I finally got one of my own, a green-handled affair, I kept it in a drawer at home. I remember my brother and I deciding to make my mother a hand-carved plaque for Mother's Day. I think we almost got the 'M' carved before I slit my hand open with my knife. Gary and I got the bleeding stopped before my parents got home.

I remember boys at the ready with their knives. Coming to the rescue when we went skating up at the lake. There were always tangled laces and your hands were so cold and numb that you couldn't get the skates off to go home. Some guy would come with his jackknife, and viola, our feet would be freed  from the skates and  pushed into the frozen boots for the trek home.

Mostly, I remember the old guys in our little fishing village of Nova Scotia who would sit around on a barrel and whittle while telling yarns in my uncle's store. Some just whittled, others made those little wooden pegs that you put in lobster claws (so they wouldn't grab you), and some carved all sorts of wonderful things. I have a chain with a Pisces sign that an old guy carved out of a wooden pole--a dowel pole about the diameter of a closet pole--the chains links are interconnected and it was carved all in one piece without having any breaks or connections. Love it.

Nah, I never made anything with my jackknife, except a scar on my hand. My mother got a wallet from us that year. 

-Faye Lewis Raynard, GA Class of 1959


Remember Jack Squires. I don't remember the establishment, but we were all sitting around a table discussing any topic that came up. Someone asked if we knew so-and-so; and then it went on; his son worked at the Co-op, his sister married so-and-so, and so on; then Jack said; "Yes, and his grandfather had a pocket knife with a white handle on it." Of course, we all knew who he was talking about then.

Dennis Pritchett, GA Class of 1963


In my day, the name or term" jack knife" was used when referring to a "folding pocket knife."  These knives consisted of one, two, three or four blades.  The most coveted was the SWISS ARMY KNIFE.  However, some of the boys had what my Dad referred to as a hunting knife or sheath knife and carried them in their boot or encased in a sheath and hung from their belts.  My Dad used his when rabbit hunting (he took us to set snares and then to check the snares and to help him skin the rabbits). This knife had a heavy handle, and a rather long blade and a safety guard between the handle and the blade--it did not fold. 

Re the skinning of the rabbits . . . our dog Duke was such a silly beggar that he would not miss the rabbit skinning and sat at Dad's feet watching his every move and as soon as Dad pulled the skin up over the rabbit's legs and body, Duke's body would shake and you could hear the bones in his legs hitting the floor in the same fashion as they did when he hid under the bed in a thunder storm.

All of the "jack knives" were the "devils" to open and when in the hands of a young girl required great dexterity/strength to open. If our parents permitted us to even touch or briefly hold one, we felt most privileged.  Of course, our Mom and Dad always preceded even looking at a knife of any sort with a great lecture and admonitions galore re the dangers of the thing and the vast responsibility we were assuming when we were entrusted with the use of one.

Any knife we touched had to be used for a purpose and in no way were we permitted to do as the boys did - see how far they could throw the knife and how far it would stick into the ground or to fling, as a dart, at some object.

There was the inevitable "mini" folding  "jack knife" carried in a man's pocket that was used for all in sundry:  Somehow, these knives always seemed to have an ivory looking (a well used ivory looking knife more often than not had a piece broken from the outside casing) or stainless steel outer casing (this one usually had the owner's initials carved in it) .  Some usages were:

  *    cutting string/rope
  *    cleaning tobacco from a pipe
  *    opening boxes
  *    prying the rubber backed top off of a mason jar
        once the ring had been removed . . sometimes the
        heat from the preserving process caused the rubber
        to stick to the jar
  *    cleaning mud, etc., from under fingernails
  *    "rooting" a splinter from a finger
  *    scraping the gook and gunk from a car battery
  *    sometimes used as a screw driver or to pry some
        object loose
  *    peeling an apple for a child . . my grandfather liked
        to this for us
  *    used for one thing or another when bottling beer

Patricia Dempsey Hiscock,  HMA Class of  1956


No story, no nostalgia to it.

Just a tool for opening bottles from the basement beer fridge and popping the backs off digital watches to change batteries.

Dave Naish, GA Class of 1960



As the knives got bigger and the blades and shapes varied, they were used to:

  • carve small object from driftwood or a "green branch" from a tree . . mainly the alder tree

  • gently remove birch bark from the birch tree to use as fire starters (that was in the day before we went    "green" and made fire starters from milk containers, or rolled newspaper tied with string and soaked in paraffin, or from corrugated cardboard rolled with a string and also soaked in paraffin

  • carving whistles from an alder branch . . . these were to be used in the event we got separated while hiking or to make music . . . mainly, they just drove our parents to the "brink"

  • defacing tree trunks by carving names, declarations of love, etc.  . . .  in our youth, we thought that was a  right of passage even though we knew we should not be applying our precious "jack knife" to such destruction (both to the knife and the tree)

  • whittling from trees or a bar of soap . . . Sunlight soap was good because it was soft and malleable, Lux soap tended to be brittle and would chip thus ruining the carving . . these two soap brands were mainly used in our home

  • often used to gut and scale a fish . . . especially small ones like trout, fresh capelin, etc., that we cooked over an open fire when camping or hiking

  • carving a temporary oar lock or makeshift paddle

  • partaking in the endless tasks in the shed, hen house, fish stage, fish shack, mending fish nets, garage . .

whatever the need, the "jack knife' was the tool for the job

Patricia Dempsey Hiscock, GA Class of 1956


They wouldn't let me play with knives.  I wonder why.

Jane Dempsey Donnelly, GA Class of 1960

 My Dad and my older brother would whittle our little flutes or whistles for me and I thought it was the most wonderful thing.  I was only about 4 or 5 years old when I watched my Dad whittle the first one for me.  I wanted to do it myself but, of course, he wouldn't let me.  It's strange that I should get an email from you on this subject now because I opened a small container (an old Ronson electric shaver box) in Mom's belongings and inside it I found 5 or 6 knives, 3 were different sized souvenir Mountie kinves probably from the 50's, a very old bone handled knife with everything but the kitchen sink and one with a plaid handle with a single blade only.  It was rather nostalgic as I remembered seeing/using them when I was a kid.

Marina Dawe Fleming, GA Class of  1962


I guess Pat Dempsey has pretty much covered the subject . As a matter of fact, she probably could have done well as an instructor at the U.S. Army Ranger School in Fort Benning, Georgia!

I don’t remember having a really good jack knife – although I did have a switchblade for a while. Of course I kept that one well hidden and didn’t use it very much because I was afraid either it would be taken away or I would be considered a juvenile delinquent!  (Those were the days when they had gang movies like “The Wild Ones” with Marlon Brando and “Rebel Without a Cause” with James Dean and Sal Mineo.  Any kid with a switchblade would have been considered bad news back then.)

 My father though did have a great pocket knife… for a while. I see it in my mind’s eye as one of those complicated ones with a zillion blades. He had a garage on the east end of the building numbered “7” on the attached map and his pocket knife was a primary tool. We lived close by, in the building numbered “5” on the map below which was actually Building 30, also called the Shell Oil building.

In between the two was Lush’s  restaurant. The restaurant had a large landing on the east end with about 4-5 steps, which made it a great place to sit and  have a Coke or chocolate bar or some other treat.  One day my father and I sat there and he used his knife for some reason, maybe to open a Coke bottle or something like that. That same day he lost his knife. We searched high and low but couldn’t find it. I did find it about a year later. After he used his knife, he had stuck it in the side of the step. We had looked of course on the steps, on the landing and on the ground but not on the side of the steps. When I found it a year later it, had pretty much rusted out. I did see him later with another one but as I remember, it was much less grandiose.

I remember using a pocket knife mainly to make whistles from a branch. They were fairly easy to make once you got the trick and worked generally well. In case any granddads want to give it a try, the first step was to find a good branch. Alder and maple could be used but It seems to me that pussy willow was the best. The other steps were as follows:

Cut out from the branch a straight 7 inch or so section as smooth as possible. The narrow end will be the whistle's mouthpiece.

Then cut the small end on an angle as shown below

The next step is to cut a small  notch about one inch from the “mouth” end.

Then peel a 1/16 inch wide ring of bark from the center section of branch.

Loosen and remove the bark around narrower (“mouth”) half of the branch by tapping thoroughly but gently with a knife handle. Then twist the bark off.

The next step is to increase the length of the  cut-out, starting with the original notch. This is to make “resonant cavity “ when the bark is put back on.

 Then, a thin sliver is cut from the notch to the mouth-piece.

The bark is then fitted back on. 

The more gifted whistle makers went a step further and added whittling or paint.  I was lucky just to be able to make a whistle without splitting the bark when I took it off. I think it took me quite a few tries before I got right !

Robert Pelley, GA Class of 1962

Thanks for the stories. Who would think that such a simple object would stir so many childhood memories. On this or any other Gander-related or growing up years topic, be sure to write this way: Next topic will be ‘Scouts and Girl Guides’. We’d love to hear stories about your friends, leaders and what scouting meant to you.