A Portable Pint-Sized Toolbox

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It's hard to be basically an outdoor person and spend most of your life indoors. Lots of habits that get ingrained from outdoor living seem a bit weird to indoors-type folks. And you tend to get funny looks.

Take, for example, my habit of always carrying my pocketknife with me. I honestly can't imagine why anyone would not want to have a pocketknife with him or her all the time, indoors or out. But when I wear mine in a little brown leather pouch on my belt - even with slacks, shirt, and tie - all my trendy friends tend to stay at a certain distance.

But anyway, let's consider how a pocketknife can be useful in everyday circumstances. Take for instance the time I was out birding with my good friend Dick Bollinger. He's a ''predictive'' naturalist, the kind who will tell you what ought to be in a certain place, and when you get to that place, there, in fact, are his predictions.

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We were out one subzero January day on the frozen surface of Presque Isle Bay, near Erie, Pa., far from the shore. We spotted a large bird on the ice and went nearer to see what it was. To our surprise, it didn't fly away as we approached. Not that it didn't want to; it just couldn't. It was a young gull with its tail feathers firmly frozen in the ice. It must have fallen asleep standing there. Warm feathers had thawed a bit of the surface ice momentarily, and suddenly it was trapped.

Out came my trusty knife, off came the tip of the gull's tail feathers, and away he went (without so much as a squawk of thanks, I might add). Now that's a prime example of how useful a knife can be, just when you don't expect it.

Another example is about someone else's knife, not mine. I was in Mexico City, idly walking the streets one day when I came upon a peddler selling tooled leather belts. I needed just such a belt to hang my knife on, if not to keep my pants up. I riffled through his stock and found one I liked. How much? He gave me a modest price, but must have seen my face fall when we both realized that the belt was much too long.

Quick as a wink, he whipped out his knife and cut the end of the belt off, not very straight, but shorter. There, he said, no problem! I couldn't deny his ingenuity, even if he lacked finesse. I'm still wearing that crooked-ended belt, with my knife on it, 20 years later.

In the United States, most soda bottles now have twist-off caps, but in other countries you still need a bottle opener. If I get a splinter by rubbing my hand over a railing at the ball park, I have a pair of tweezers on the spot. If someone needs a new hole put in his belt to hold his pants up, I have an awl. If a screw comes loose on your glasses, I can tighten it with my tiny screwdriver. And if you need to get into a can of soup - or anything else - I can do that as fast as can be. If a little Phillips-head screw comes loose on your camera or binoculars, no sweat.

And thinking of that, a brand-new use came up last week. I was sitting up on a rocky outcrop in the Trinity Alps wilderness in northern California and realized that a filter was stuck on my camera lens. I couldn't turn it with my fingers, but out came the knife and it was loose in a trice. I can also open packages; cut out articles from the newspaper; cut flowers for my lady; peel apples, peaches, and oranges; and cut cheese on a picnic....

But you know, I have to admit that there's a certain competitive edge to this ready-for-anything business. I was standing deep in the crowd at a 25th anniversary party for one of our secretaries, and she was struggling to open the big box in which her surprise gift was packed. Another guy up front beat me to it and handed her his trusty knife.

Just to let you know that my heart's almost in the right place, I've given pocketknives to lots of my friends and relatives so they won't have to claim helplessness. It really feels great to be able to solve all these everyday problems with that simple little nest of tools. It allows us to preserve the illusion of self-reliance just a little bit longer in our indoor lives.

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