Grandpa and the Pocket Knife


One summer, when I was a young teen, I bought a pocket knife with my birthday money. I was proud of my knife. It was an Old Timer, with two folding blades, the normal blade and the one my dad called a “frog sticker”.  I practiced sharpening them and whetting them, and then I showed my treasure to my mother’s dad.

He wasn’t as impressed as I hoped he would be. He showed me his pocket knife, which was very sharp. He didn’t keep it in his pocket, even though this is what the name implied–I mean, you keep a pocket knife in your pocket, right?

No! Said Grandpa! You never keep a pocket knife in your pocket. What if it came open, and you cut yourself? Grandpa’s knife was extremely sharp, Granny said proudly. He even told their neighbor at the cabin “Be careful, it’s sharp,” and the old guy didn’t listen and he cut himself.  I don’t know if Granny agreed with Grandpa because she actually agreed with him, or if it was just easier to go along with the illusion.

You see, Grandpa was a worrier. If worrying was an Olympic sport, he would have earned a medal, which he would have worried over until it got thin and tarnished. He had ulcers in the 1970s, and he was hospitalized. So, it follows that he wouldn’t keep his pocket knife in his pocket.

Instead, he carried a worry stone. I don’t know anyone else who carried a worry stone, but my Grandpa did. His stone was smooth, the size of a quail’s egg, and had a rounded spoonlike indentation from all his worrying. Or maybe when he found the stone, the river or lakeside had done all the worrying for him.  Still, he rubbed it, the way some people would handle prayer beads. Extra worrying, all rolled into a stone.

The stone was a constant pocketed reminder for him not to worry. Not to worry about things like financial instability. Or if you were making your own wife and children frantic or miserable with your worrying. I don’t know if he worried about that or not. I’m just musing here.

When I asked him about the stone, he was actually eager to help find me one of my own, for my pocket.  We went to the shoreside on a sunny day at Donner Lake (a place for worrying about cannibals if there ever was one). There was a brisk breeze. I presented him with dozens of candidate pebbles, but none of them would pass muster. Some were too rough. Some were too smooth.  Some would just fall apart in my pocket after a few weeks. Some were the wrong color. Too hard. Too big. We never found my worry stone.

Maybe he was worried that if the worry stone wasn’t perfect, if he wasn’t perfect, we would stop loving him.  Maybe Donner Lake just wasn’t the right place for worry stones.  I’m sure that’s why he spent his summers there.  You don’t need to worry in your vacation cabin when you’re surrounded by the people who love you.

We would take hikes to the Union Pacific railroad sheds, high on the granite mountains above the lake. His own dad, and his grandpa, were both railroad men. It’s from the railroad where he got his nickname. How can a person with a nickname like Spike be worried about anything? But he was. He wouldn’t let us play on the railroad crossbeams. We might get slivers.  He wouldn’t let us walk inside the snowsheds. What if a train came when we were inside?

We placed a penny on the railroad track because, he said, it was good luck. We came back down the mountain.  That night, we heard the long, funereal whistle of the trains passing high above us. We never went back to see our penny. Maybe it was a sacrifice to progress. Maybe letting go of little things are just easier than holding onto what you can’t control. The perfect worry stone, for example, or the flattened railroad penny.

I carried my pocket knife in my pocket, despite Grandpa’s warning. Eventually, I lost the knife, which is exactly what young boys are supposed to do with them. He never said a word. He bore all the burdens of what-might-happen on his shoulders so we would never have to hold onto all those troubles.

I never did end up finding the perfect worry stone. Maybe it takes a special kind of person to find the right one, and I was just never going to be that guy. I bet grandpa never lost a single pocket knife he ever owned. They tend to stay in your possession longer, if you don’t carry them around, but you miss so much joy, and so much danger, just keeping the knife on the stand by your favorite chair.

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