By Mike Tomano
© 2018 Fossil Entertainment Group
Each morning, before he left for work, my father would fill his thermos with coffee, grab his keys, wallet and pocketknife. These were never-leave-home-without items. The pocketknife was a constant companion. He put it to good use; from cleaning fingernails to cutting fishing line. I could see it was essential for all sorts of stuff. Important stuff. Man stuff.
Pa’s knife was a beauty. A dual-blade jackknife, its rugged bone handle emblazoned with a Case brand badge. His father was a knife maker in Italy, and continued his business stateside, making custom cutlery for butcher shops. My grandfather, Fidel Tomaino, honed a blade to a razor-edge. He showed me the correct angle and pressure to apply when sharpening; techniques I use today on knives and broadheads. The "test", Grandpa said, was "when-a you can-a shave-a da hair off-a you arm."
During the summers of my youth, the melodious signal of the approaching Good Humor truck would send the kids on the block into a frenzy. My Old Man would tell me to go “grab ten bucks” from his wallet so he could buy my friends and me ice cream. I’d run into the kitchen and open the drawer beneath the wall-mounted dial phone. Anxious as I was to get back outside for a treat, I’d pause for a moment and check out his pocketknife, maybe even open the blades before heading back out.
I was nine years old when I first used The Case. The perch were biting, and my father was too busy landing jumbos to cut my tangled line. He reached into his pocket and handed it over. I took it with confidence and, stepping through a rite of passage, put it to work.
Soon afterward, The Troutdog and I were at The Ace Hardware store on Archer & Austin. While he looked at garden hose, I studied the case of knives. Frankie Higgins worked there and saw me checkin’ out the display. Frankie lived down the block from us. He had a psychotic Doberman Pinscher named Queenie, and was a good son to his parents, Leona and Tom. When he wasn’t at Ace, he’d be working in his family’s yard or in the garage fixin’ cars.
I figured I’d go for it. “Hey, Frankie, can I see this knife?”
Frankie replied, “Ask your Dad.”
Fair enough. “Hey, Pa! Can I get a knife?”
“No. We need to get home and wash the truck.”
Damn. Shot down.
My father would frequently surprise me with stuff he'd picked up on the way home. A hot rod model kit, a World’s Finest Chocolate bar, a new fishing lure or baseball cap. One evening, after dinner, as Mom was doing the dishes and Dad was working The Sun-Times crossword, he called me into the “frunch-room” (on the South Side of Chicago, that’s the front room of the house, known elsewhere as the “living room.”) He reached into his breast pocket and handed me a small black pocketknife. “Be careful.”
I thanked him and took it to my room for inspection. Smooth handled, two-bladed. Made by Buck. I carried it with me from that day forward, certain it would be needed for all kinds of stuff. Important stuff. You know, Man Stuff.
I skinned rabbits and cleaned bluegills with it. I won the neighborhood Mumblety-peg “championship” with it. Cut fishing line and rope with it. Carved my initials into our giant maple with it. It rose to every task.
Since I now had the adult responsibility of being a knife owner and carrier, I’d casually whip it out for an impromptu fingernail cleaning or to cut a string off my jeans. My buddies would ask to check it out. We’d compare our pocketknives, share the history behind them and argue over who made the best: Buck, Schrade, Case or Gerber.
When Grandpa came over for Sunday dinner, I showed him my prized possession. He sharpened it for me. We whittled some sticks; a skill I would later use to repair dime-store cedar arrows.
I’ve owned dozens of pocketknives since that Buck. I’m sure it’s still somewhere among my tackle-boxes or backpacks; maybe stored away in a memory box. The collection has indeed grown since then.
Today, whenever browsing through a hardware or sporting goods store, I always stop to check out the knife display. Sometimes, well, I might just pick up a new one. As the boys in my family reach an age of responsibility, they can count on receiving a pocketknife from Uncle Mikie.
For all kinds of stuff. Important stuff. You know, Man Stuff.