August 22
by Travis H. McDaniel

It’s easy to see why I loved pocketknives when I was a boy.  They were solid, had a nice heft to them, and the bone handle felt good and smooth when I turned the knife over and over in my right front pocket.  Other pockets might hold things like an “aggie toy” that helped win marble games, a lucky creek rock to rub whenever I made a wish, my favorite arrowhead, and other invaluable stuff like that.  And another thing about a pocketknife, it’s just the right size to take to bed with you every night.  Little boys like to sleep with at least one of their valued possessions.  But of course, you already know all these things if you were born before World War II and lived in the country, or a small town like I did.

When I was growing up, a boy couldn’t get along without a pocketknife.  If you didn’t have one…well, you were in a fix.  You needed a knife to play mumblety-peg, whittle on sticks, dig splinters out of your hand or foot, clean your fingernails or peel an apple.  Oh, and you also needed one to cut out a slingshot staff from a young tree, after you found just the right one.  Other boys made fun of you if your “flip” didn’t have a perfect “Y” shape.  Most people called them slingshots, but the boys I played with also called them flips.

I was five years old when I tried to buy my first knife.  We lived in Danielsville, Georgia, and I’d just established myself in the pest control business.  This first paying job was picking bean beetles off butterbean plants in our garden.  Daddy half filled an empty Coca-Cola bottle with kerosene and told me to put every bean beetle I picked into the bottle and shake it up.  The kerosene killed the beetles deader than a hammer.  When Daddy got home from work, he’d pour out the kerosene on an old sheet of newspaper, count the bean beetles, and pay me my wages.  I got a penny apiece for every bean beetle.

I remember asking him towards the end of the season to change my pennies into silver and stack all I had earned up and down both my arms.  I can still see all those silver coins lined up side by side on each arm, from my palms all the way up my short arms to my shirtsleeves.  I don’t remember how much I made in that first business venture, but in the summer of 1941 it was a lot for a little boy.  More than enough to buy a brand new Barlow pocketknife like the one I coveted at Mr. Hoyt’s.

We boys liked to stop by Mr. Hoyt’s grocery store when we were playing and making our rounds in town.  My buddies and I would always go to the back of the store and look at the knives in the display case.  I had stared at them so many times I knew exactly which knife I wanted, a two-bladed Barlow with black bone handles.

Of course another reason we always stopped at Mr. Hoyt’s was to see if we could get a glance at Little Hoyt’s nub – the one that was left after he cut off part of his left index finger with a cheese cutter because he wasn’t paying attention.  Hoyt Jr. was older and didn’t like to show it to us little kids, so we always had to sneak a peak or he’d get mad.

We usually got a “Co-Cola” when we were through looking at knives.  Well, we didn’t actually drink Coca-Colas, that’s just what we called all soft drinks back then.  That or just a belly wash.  We always drank something that came in a bigger bottle than the Coca-Cola size.  We’d plunge our arm down into the ice and water mix in the open topped metal drink cooler and feel around until our hand found an RC (Royal Crown), Pepsi or Double Cola.  It wasn’t that we had refined taste buds back then, just a logical need to get the most for our money, or Daddy’s money I should say, since I usually charged it.

A few days after I had been paid my bean beetle wages, I told Mama I was going out to play cars under the house.  In those days most houses were up on brick pillows and didn’t have closed-in foundations.  This left an opening big enough to crawl under and play.  All boys my age had a place to hide, and this spot was mine.  It was my favorite place to play.  If you stayed in your yard like your Mama told you, there wasn’t much for her to worry about, and she left you pretty much alone.

But instead of playing like I told her, I got my money and sneaked off up the street to Mr. Hoyt’s.  His store was across the street from the Crawford W. Long monument and the World War I cannon on the courthouse square.  Daddy was the County Agent and his office was in the courthouse.  Even if he had seen me at Mr. Hoyt’s he wouldn’t have thought anything about it since, as I said, his store was a regular stop for all the boys.

I’ve forgotten exactly why the planned purchase didn’t work out, but I do remember I didn’t get the knife.  It may have been because it was Wednesday afternoon and the store was closed (they actually did that in small towns before the War), or maybe Mr. Hoyt told me I was too young for a knife and sent me packing.  I just don’t remember.  But I do remember that I knew I had done wrong, and after my mission failure I ran all the way back home.  To cover my tracks I immediately went in the kitchen and asked Mama if she had been calling me.  I told her if she had, I didn’t hear her because I had been under the house.  (With age I got a lot better than this at making up stories.)

I seem to remember she caught me in that obvious fib and gave me a whipping.  Mamas have a way of knowing when you’re not telling the truth, and mine honed her lie detection skills to a fine art by the time I graduated from boyhood.  Looking back, I think Mr. Hoyt probably told her what had happened the next time he saw her.

You had to hide anything you didn’t want known from all grownups back then, no matter who they were.  They’d all tell your Mama or Daddy if you did anything wrong.  This made it real hard to get away with much, but my older brother, Bobby, and I still gave it a good try.

It was several years later before I was finally old enough to have a pocketknife.  It was summer, and I was at Aunt Ola and Uncle Coney Alligood’s farm near Dexter, Georgia.  My cousin, Emory, and I both had our own knives by then.  We roamed the fields and woods barefooted and shirtless in overalls hunting rabbits, fence lizards, snakes, blue jays and other assorted prey with our slingshots.

Earlier, we had both found nice, forked branches and used our pocketknives to whittle two, almost perfectly shaped, flip staffs.  After rummaging through the barn, we finally found a piece of leather and some red rubber car inner tubes and finished making our slingshots.  You had to use the red tubes because they were real rubber and would stretch.  We learned the black tubes were “imitation rubber,” made after World War II started, and they wouldn’t stretch as well.

We made our first kills that summer.  After a few hundred misses, we finally got a fence lizard and two birds.  One of the birds may have been a blue jay, which Aunt Ola didn’t mind us shooting, but I think I remember one being a robin and the other a mockingbird.  Anyway, Grandma didn’t fuss at us about it.  She cooked them for our dinner, just like we were grown men who had brought in two quail.  She really knew how to treat little boys.

That summer Emory and I whittled, climbed pecan trees, stole blue jay eggs from the nest, hunted for arrowheads, and closely inspected shed cicadas skin cases left on tree trunks.  We played mumblety-peg and marbles, stole watermelons, fished in Turkey Creek, rode bicycles and coaxed doodle bugs out of their holes with a stem of hay and the magic phrase known by young and old alike, “doodle bug, doodle bug, your house is on fire.”  Then in the early evening we watched, almost mesmerized, as bull-bats (actually nighthawks) went through their aerial displays of diving through the air to catch mosquitoes and other insects.  And at least one time on each visit, Emory and I would get a couple of pint Mason jars from Aunt Ola, have her punch holes in the lids, and go outside to catch lightning bugs.  In short, we lived the idyllic life of two carefree boys.

In our wanderings over fields and woods, our slingshots were always in our back pockets, and our pocketknives in the front, along with a handful of small rocks and green chinaberries for ammunition.  Anything that moved was in danger, at least of having a rock fly by in a near miss.  Oh yeah, and we were always on the look-out for a perfect shaped tree branch.  One that might make an even more perfectly shaped slingshot than the one we already had.

“Pocketknives and Slingshots” is excerpted from from Travis’s book Encounter on the Flathead and Other Recollections.

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