Any Southern man worth his salt should carry a blade.

Carving Stick with Pocketknife
Credit: Malcolm MacGregor/Getty Images

One of these days, the last old man seated in the shade of the last country store on this earth will rummage around in the pocket of his frayed, baggy overalls and come out with a plug of Bloodhound, or Days Work, or Brown Mule. He will not bite off a chew, for he is not a Philistine. He will rummage again, this time coming out with a bone-handled pocketknife of no more than three and no less than two blades, all so sharp he could shave a cat if he could get it to stand still, and cut off a chew. He will hold the knife a little longer than he needs to, run his thumb along the edge, maybe even open and close it a few times, one-handed, the way he saw the old men do it when he was a boy, sitting in this same shade, listening to them dog cuss Herbert Hoover. Finally, he will snap it closed with that sharp click, with that sure, final sound a good knife has, and put it away for the last time.

Think, for just a moment, about your grandfather. He would have no more left the house without a pocketknife than without his breeches, for while a man of his era could survive this drafty world without pantaloons, he would sooner or later need to snip some twine, or punch a hole in an oil can, or dig a pine splinter out of some urchin's foot, or just slice an apple. One of these days, men will no longer love or need their pocketknives this way. That is when we know the last Southern man has shuffled off into the sunset, to make room for a world of helpless no-accounts.

I will never forget my first one. I would like to pretend it was a gleaming heirloom, handed down from the Yankee war, but it was just a busted, rusted wreck, with one-and-a-half blades, tossed into the bottom of a toolbox, forgotten. A single-bladed knife was useless; if it broke, you were helpless. Any more than three blades and you were a Swiss Boy Scout. This one, I reasoned, would have to do till I was rich and could afford a good knife, like a Case. I was maybe 7 years old, but I put it in the pocket of my cutoff jeans and became, in that instant, a serious man. It was a German-made knife, its remaining blade and a half notched and pitted, but I was careless with it and it drew blood. Them German-mades sure hold an edge, the old men said when I showed them my sliced thumb, and told me my wound would most likely not be fatal, unless it got rust in it. I waited to die for much of 1966.

A Southern man, knifeless, was pitiful. Men without knives were like men who rode around without a jack, or a spare tire, just generally unprepared for life. A man could not fish, hunt, or work at any respectable employment. I am a writer, which is one step up from helpless, but I have always had a pocketknife. I believe, foolishly, it holds me close to my people.

In my hometown, some older gentlemen gather in the Huddle House to drink coffee and talk about the world as they know it. Not long ago, one of them walked over to my table and told me he enjoyed my stories about our world, and gave me a small, heavy box. Inside, wrapped in honest, oiled paper, was a perfect, three-bladed, bone-handled knife. It was a Case, a serious man's knife. I went in search of something to cut, and, this time, it was not me.