Pockets full of memories

John Nordell/The Christian Science Monitor/File
John Gould sits at his desk at home in Rockland, Maine, in 2001. At times, he filed two or three columns a week – while writing 30 books.
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I change my trousers now and then, and I take the few things out of the pockets and put them in the other pockets. My wallet contains such abandoned keepsakes, as my World War II Coast Guard ID for clamming, toll tickets for bridges now free, and a recipe for buttermilk biscuits. 

Then there’s my father’s boyhood jackknife. It has one blade, a smooth horn handle, and a great future.

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Most of the objects we carry on our person are handy for what they can do. Others, as in the case of John Gould’s jackknife, are precious for what they conjure in thought.

I feel a heavy responsibility, owning, as I do, the only (probably) jackknife in Maine ever to be associated with a rattlesnake – you’ll have to read the full tale for detail.

What’s left of the blade is dull and useless. But I’d be lost without it. I need it the same way I need the Canadian cent coined the year I was born and odd treasures like those I appraise as I change my pants.

I change my trousers now and then, not only to rest them but to accommodate the nettoyagical cycle, and I take the few things out of the pockets and put them in the other pockets. My wallet, which is a repository of abandoned keepsakes and no funds, is of good leather and durable. In it, were I or anybody to look, can be found my Coast Guard ID for clamming at Nugent’s Point in World War II, my membership in the 4-H Club, toll tickets for several bridges now free, my admiral’s commission in the Navy of the Great State of Nebraska, permit to indoor bird-watching, pass on the Boston and Lynn narrow-gauge railroad, 50 francs old money, a recipe for buttermilk biscuits, and the telephone number of Gladys Hasty Carroll – things for which I have no immediate use, but you never can tell. I have also kept there several documents that I don’t now know what they are. 

Then I have my jackknife. I could never get along without my faithful jackknife. I fondle it as I shift it from one pants pocket to another, and I think of all the happy years we’ve had together. I can’t remember the last time I used it.

I’ve worn out, mislaid or lost, swapped, donated, and otherwise said farewell to many pocketknives and quickly found another to go right to work. From playing mumblypeg to dressing a codfish, a jackknife goes with boyhood and manhood in Maine, and over and beyond one’s own uses. You never know when somebody will want to open a bag of grain or sharpen a pencil. 

Why We Wrote This

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Most of the objects we carry on our person are handy for what they can do. Others, as in the case of John Gould’s jackknife, are precious for what they conjure in thought.

For many, many years now, as I forsook my several trades and professions, I have carried a residual folding knife that is not my own, but is useful as a souvenir and reminder of all pocketknives past.

It was my father’s boyhood knife, and as well as he could remember, he acquired it in 1886 in a swap with Foster Crosman. Foster got a rusty relic found in the crud from the pumpkin factory, and my father got a similar knife found by Foster in some other mother lode. Dad’s prize had one blade, a smooth horn handle, and a great future. 

A jackknife swap was not altogether a just and upright transaction. You showed your good friend your good jackknife, which he would admire and covet, and then you concealed your “swapper” in your other hand and asked if he’d like to swap. Every respectable young man had two knives, at least two, of which one was his less useful “swapper.” My father, in upright and forthright honesty, had thus yielded his own and had acquired Foster’s swapper. My father inspected his new knife and decided the swap had been in his favor. He carried it the rest of his life and gave it to me at last.

My father left home when he was 15 to work on a dairy farm, so it would be around 1890 by his recollection that he went to Topsham Fair one October. The last fair of the season, Topsham Fair was usher to winter. It was the gala windup. The farm and household exhibits were important then, and hoss trottin’ with its gaming appeal was yet to be thought of. Farm nags did the racing, and family buggies outnumbered sulkies. The free-for-all set few track records, but Tom against Joe with old Fan and Tige and express wagons had their merits. On the midway, that jackknife year, my father was bug-eyed at the rattlesnakes.

We’ve never had rattlesnakes in Maine. They have them in New Hampshire and Vermont, but they seem to dislike our climate or taxes. There’s nothing in our woods to bite you but blackflies.

So while my father was standing with his young friends in the crowds around the rattlesnakes, another boy spoke to him: Did he have a jackknife? My father didn’t know the lad, so was wary. Yes, he said, he had a jackknife.

So the strange boy asked if he might borrow it for a moment. 

Cautious about dealing with a stranger in a crowd, my father quite properly asked the boy what he wanted it for. 

I’ve always felt that the boy’s explanation, while perhaps not expected, nonetheless made sense under those circumstances, and my father should not have been altogether surprised. The boy said, in straightforward manner, that he wanted to cut the rattles off his rattlesnake. 

But my father was suspicious about that, and to keep a grip on the matter, he said, “I’ll go and watch.”

The cool Maine weather of congenial October had proved inauspicious for the imported rattlers used in the show, and one specimen had expired. The boy seeking a jackknife was of the traveling family doing the snake act. My father looked on as his jackknife was used to take the rattles as a souvenir. He told me the boy stood up, folded the blade back into the handle, handed the knife back, said thank you, and was lost in the crowd. 

Owning, as I do, the only (probably) jackknife in the state of Maine ever to be associated with a rattlesnake, I feel a heavy responsibility sits upon me to keep and preserve it. 

Since coming into our family, the knife has been sharpened so many times that little of the original wide and strong blade remains. Even so, what is left of it is dull and no longer helpful as a sharp tool. I must saw briskly to sever a twine.

I do not plan ever to hone it again. But I’d be lost without it. I need it the same way I need the Canadian cent coined the year I was born and odd treasures like those I appraise as I change my pants. 

This is one of a few previously unpublished works that essayist John Gould wrote for the Monitor.

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