When I was four years old, my family moved into a little house that was originally built by coal miners. There hadn’t been any coal mining in Lafayette for many years, which meant that the house was old. About 80 years old. The paint was cracked and peeling, the roof was home to countless layers of shingles, and the crawlspace smelled like some of those old coal miners might still be down there.
Our family was young and rough around the edges; nothing like the Cleaver family on TV. We had little money, and we were still trying to find our feet. My brothers and I shared one of the two small bedrooms in the aging house. Mom and Dad shared the other one. Spaces were small, and possessions were limited. What we did have plenty of was…tools; a whole garage full.
Dad was a carpenter, and that meant that he had a wall full of shelves that had tools lined up on them. an abundance of devices that did astounding things. There were drills and hammers, saws and chisels, clamps and sanders, and of course, utility knives. KNIVES! As soon as I saw the utility knives, the world around me turned to static noise. Bulging eyes nearly left my head, as knives sliced with ease through just about anything on the construction site. Dad could flawlessly move the blade through wires, carpet, and drywall.
Later, while on a family mini-vacation to Estes Park, I watched as my dad unfolded his pocketknife, and began to whittle a carving into a piece of wood. As he worked, I watched the wood find new life. It was no longer just a piece of wood. I was captivated. Something awoke inside of me. It was a deep rooted feeling or instinct that if I had a knife, I could accomplish any task. I could cut cardboard, Styrofoam, and plastic. I might even be able to cut through metal. More than that, I could create masterpieces.
My dad, who recognized my longing for tools, got me my own toolbox when I turned six. Over the next year or two, Dad provided me with my own hammer, a sanding block, screwdrivers, and other simple tools. These tools came with expert advice on how to wield them correctly. I was always amazed at the new things I could do. I was pleased with my growing collection, and genuinely thankful, but somewhere inside me emptiness grew. I needed a knife. None of my other tools could do what a knife could do. This tool had become my forbidden fruit.
One fateful Sunday afternoon, we wandered into the old Lafayette Drug Store. This was a regular stop for us, whenever we walked home from church. Usually I spent my time in the candy aisle, deciding if I should spend my pocketful of change on Sixlets, Atomic Fireballs, gumballs, or Coffee Nips. On this day, it was something at the counter that drew my stare. Thoughts of candy disappeared, as I was introduced to my first love. She was a thing of beauty. It was a simple stainless steel pocketknife with a plastic handle. The plastic had bumpy, walnut shell imperfections, and milk dud coloring to give it the appearance of real wood. The gleaming treasure also had a key ring attached to one end. I was sure that this was so that such a valuable thing would never be lost. As I scrutinized the knife in the display case, my heart swelled with joy; the knife had not one, but two blades. The first blade was about two inches long. This, I was sure, was the blade I would use for cutting branches on trees and doing other heavy duty jobs. I imagined that the other, smaller blade was the one that I would use for carving the fine details into my wooden masterpieces.
I don’t know how often I asked him, but eventually, my beleaguered father gave in to his second born son’s request. We went into the store, and I strutted out with my first knife. I’m sure that he did more than his share of dispensing fatherly advice about the knife. I’m positive that he reviewed the safety guidelines for using a knife. I’m also sure, that I didn’t hear a word that was coming out of his mouth. All I heard was the knife hypnotically whispering my name. The thing I loved most about this amazing tool was that it was not my dad’s. It was not my older brother’s. It was mine!
That knife went everywhere with me. I wandered around the yard looking for objects that provided a test for my favorite tool. Whenever I found one, I would carefully unfold the large blade and get to work. I started small, with blades of grass and leaves on the trees. I would watch, as the steel slid effortlessly though these plants. To prove that I was mightier than the ground I stood upon, I stabbed the knife blade into the soil in different places around the yard. Then, I graduated to bigger things like cardboard and twigs. Twisty ties and sheets of foil proved powerless against the tremendous power of my knife. This practicing went on for what seemed like weeks, before I felt that I had mastered the big blade.
Eventually, I grew bored of the brute work I was doing. I was intrigued by the possibilities that came with the smaller blade. What work of perfection would emerge when I used this precision instrument? Would people travel many miles to see what I had crafted? Would they gasp when they learned that the artist was only a young boy? I had dreamed of the sculptures I could create for so long, that I couldn’t stand to wait any longer. I anxiously walked around the yard, looking under trees and near rocks for the perfect piece of wood. It had to be dead, not green. It had to be big enough to work with, yet small enough to maneuver. It had to be just like the one I found near the alley.
The piece of wood was about the size of a roll of quarters; perfect for my small hands. It was as if someone had broken the old branch down to size, just for me. I found that the bark was easy to peel off, just like a banana peel, so I soon found myself with a perfectly smooth, never been carved, piece of wood. It met my criteria completely. I was ready to begin.
With a desire to be shielded from the eyes of the world, I quickly went back to the house, and into the front hall. This small sanctuary was a step up from the sidewalk outside, and a step down from the hardwood floor of the kitchen that wrapped around it. I stood there, for a moment, on large, dark chocolate ceramic tiles. This would be an easy place to clean up any mess that I might make. With much anticipation, I carefully unfolded the smaller blade, and beheld it.
An unexpected realization brought me out of my trance. After all the dreaming, I suddenly wasn’t sure what to make! How could my mind be blank? I didn’t have time to come up with a plan, my patience was gone. Besides, surely this had happened to all great artists throughout history. I would uncover my work of art as I went along, just like they did.
I held the stick in one hand, like someone might hold a remote control. With my other hand, I carefully held the knife. Gently, I placed the blade next to the wood and made my first pass. A tiny shaving curled up on the cutting edge, then drifted softly to the floor. I paused, with a widening smile, at what I had done with such little effort. Looking back at the wood, I decided to make a bolder pass. I forced the blade to go deeper. A larger curl began to form. I could feel the wood fighting me, not wanting to lose part of itself, not wanting to be broken. My hand started to shake as I forced the blade onward. As I neared the end of my cut, something unexpected began to happen. The closer the knife came to resurfacing, the faster it went. As the blade emerged, it had its own intentions. I was no longer in control. Moving against my will, it easily began to carve a new medium. After a moment or two, I realized that the new material was my thumb. In a flashback, I pictured my dad using the knife correctly. I heard him warning me to keep my fingers and thumbs away from where the blade might go. Now I was listening, but it was too late. I had done it all wrong.
Disappointed, angry, fearful tears filled my eyes and fell to the floor. Blood dripped from my hand, and mixed with the tears in a puddle on the floor. I should have been looking at a floor covered with coiled, slender shavings, evidence that I had unveiled my shrouded masterpiece. Instead, I found myself staring down at a growing, bitter pool. After all of the practice and preparation, I had failed on just my second cut. What would Dad do when he saw what I’d done? I clenched my thumb in both hands, hoping that I could make it stop and go away.
As if on cue, my dad opened the front door. Before the door had even closed behind him, he stopped. He had known right away that something wasn’t right. I tried to tell him that nothing was wrong, but the whole scene before him bore out the truth. Without much explanation, he knew what I had done.
He wasn’t mad like I thought he might be. Dad walked me to the bathroom. Then, he helped me to wash up and bandage my thumb. Very quietly, he reminded me about how one is supposed to handle a knife. It was a replay of the image I’d had in my head only minutes earlier, but I listened anyway. It was all part of my penance. I had learned a lesson.
“Maybe, you just weren’t ready for a knife yet, Terry. I know you wanted it so much. I think I’d better hold on to it until you’re a little older.” Dad said gently. Finally, the thing I had dreaded most about the knife had come true.
I handed the double-bladed, imitation wood wrapped treasure to him. In his hands, I also placed a childhood dream, whose time had not yet come. It hadn’t ended the way I had imagined, but I think how dreams are. We wait and we hope. Many times dreams don’t come true, but every now and again, they do. The funny thing is, even those that come true, often don’t end the way we think they should. Looking through my dad’s eyes, I saw that I wasn’t ready, even though my heart believed I was.
When contentment finds you, it is often in that place between disappointment and dreams. Looking back now, I guess the knife was the first time that happened for me.