In December of 1916, hard times held the high country of the Smokies in a stranglehold. The Lusitania rested at the bottom of the Atlantic, our traditional allies in Europe were stalemated on the Western Front, and visionaries realized America’s entry into World War I was in the offing. But the small boy living on the headwaters of Juneywhank Branch in the remote fastness of the Appalachians was blissfully unaware of ominous world affairs. Nor did he fully appreciate the near-desperate financial straits of his large family.
His father, while a willing worker, found jobs providing cash money elusive and transitory. Cutting acid wood, gathering chestnuts by the bushel for sale, digging ginseng roots, and seasonal gallacking (gathering galax leaves for holiday decorations) were about the only types of endeavors where money changed hands. Almost everything else was on a barter system.
Such matters were beyond the lad’s ken, but with Christmas approaching he did have a consuming desire for a single gift. Throughout spring, summer, and fall his father had periodically let him use what mountain men considered the ultimate tool—a pocket knife. His apprenticeship with the knife involved practical matters such as cutting up seed potatoes for planting and whittling wooden pegs to hold barn doors in place, but there had also been pure pleasures such as shaping a dogwood fork into a dandy slingshot and, with a bit of help, crafting a whammy diddle.
To the boy’s great delight, his father had also commented, more than once, “First thing you know you’ll be ready for a knife.” With those words and experiences firmly implanted in his youthful mind, he expressed a single wish for a Christmas gift—a pocket knife.
He reckoned that reasonable, even though the lad knew from previous Yuletides not to expect too much. Come daylight on December 25, the boy, along with his numerous siblings, rushed to the fireplace area of their simple log home to check stockings their mother had lovingly knitted. Each one contained a single orange, mittens or headwear she had made, a couple of apples, chestnuts and hazelnuts, and some hard candy.
The starry-eyed boy immediately noticed, right at the bottom of his stocking, a telltale bulge in the shape of a pocket knife. Eagerly he dug through the fruit, nuts, and candy to reach that item, only to have excitement give way to abject dismay. It was indeed a pocket knife of sorts—a piece of hard candy shaped and colored to resemble the real thing.
Heartbroken, he rushed from the room so no one would see tears rolling down his cheeks.
That disappointed little boy was my father. Yet to his lasting credit, a testament to the toughness and resiliency of mountain character, his dismay did not result in lingering bitterness. Instead, he managed to turn that moment of abject sadness into enduring gladness.
First with his sons and subsequently with his grandsons, whenever Christmas rolled around Daddy made sure a knife of some type—first a quality pocket knife with two or three blades, then later fixed-blade hunting knives—appeared under the tree. He continued this practice for virtually all of his 101 earthly years, and one of the highlights of December family gatherings was hearing him relive that sad yet shaping moment from his youth.
“I never want my offspring to be without a good knife,” he would say. “It’s a companion that will serve you well in some way, every day, for all your years.”
Whenever one of us pulled out a pocket knife he had given us, Daddy’s eyes lit up with sheer joy. He took immense pride in the Eagle Scout rank attained by each of his grandsons and was delighted they had Boy Scout knives to complement those he gave them.
At his funeral service family members all carried a knife he had given us or that came from his own sizable collection. Afterwards we bushwhacked to his boyhood home place, now well off-trail and deep in the bosom of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There we toasted his memory with pure, sweet water from the spring that once served the family.
As I did so, one hand grasped a tangible link to the man—a knife embodying his spirit and memory. I suspect others did the same.