The educator Gever Tulley did a TED talk in December of 2007 where he argued that danger is an essential element of growing up. He said that there are five dangerous things that kids should be encouraged to do, and one of those things was to work with a pocket knife. The thought of such an item in the hand of a child might be enough to send a modern soccer mom or dad into a fit of hysterics, but it hasn’t been that long since kids grew up in a world without being bathed in hand sanitizer and wrapped in the uncomfortably oppressive arms of a paranoid parent.
Though I had pocket knives growing up, notably my grandfather’s deer horn knife that still sits in my night table, I didn't consider them dangerous objects. I don’t recall any serious discussions or warnings from parents or any other adults about the dangers of knives. I even took my pocket knife to school a few times when I expected to need it after class and before returning home. It wasn’t until I got into Battletech and the art of building pewter mechs that I really learned to respect how much damage can be done with a knife and how the resulting carnage can be hidden from the eyes of parents.
A few days of piecing together battlemechs with super glue, one of my mom’s nail files, and a kitchen knife was a frustrating experience. Quickly, we begged for a ride to the hardware store where we were properly kitted out with a metal file, epoxy, and brand new X-Acto knives. We were proud of our technical skill as we wielded our new tools to piece together Timberwolves, Phoenix Hawks, and dozens of others. My older brother, however, seemed to take delight in just how sharp the X-Acto knife was. Snipping off pewter scraps soon gave way to cutting paper, plastic, fabric, and even several discreet locations on his bedroom furniture. He was a master of the knife and there was nothing that he couldn’t cut.
One afternoon, after school and before our parents came home from work (and the best time for any teenager to get into trouble), I heard my brother running down the hallway from his room, past my doorway, and into the bathroom. I stuck my head out and noticed immediately a trail of crimson dots on the grey carpet in the hallway. Seeking to find out just how much trouble my brother was going to be in when our parents got home, I peeked into the bathroom. There, standing over the sink, I saw my brother frantically trying to put the tip of his thumb back on his hand. With the precise skill that only a panicking teenager can show, he tried to wipe away the gushing blood long enough to align the quarter-inch bit of flesh back onto his finger.
I should probably take some time to tell you a little bit about my older brother Ty. He was three years older and didn’t particularly like having me around. Throughout our childhood, he sent me to the emergency room on multiple occasions, most notably with a cracked skull and gaping head wound thanks to the butt of a wooden rifle procured at Disneyland. He was quick-tempered and had very good aim, a combination that doesn’t bode well for a little brother. That being said, it was important to me at the time to keep from bursting out laughing at the scene playing out in front of me. I was reasonably sure that the adrenaline coursing through him as he tried to fix his finger could easily translate into a vicious beating should I mock his efforts. The only thing I could think to say was, “what happened?!”
With a tear running down his cheek, Ty responded, “I was putting together a mech when the piece broke and the knife cut me. That's what fucking happened!”
“Can you fix it?” I responded with a healthy amount of concern for the future of our hobby. As it turned out, constant pressure and several prayers to the Battletech gods yielded a finger that almost (but not quite) matched the one that he had a few minutes before. A thick bandage would have resulted in questions that we weren’t keen on answering, so a trip to the garage yielded the greatest medical device of the 20th century.
As it turns out, neither parent questioned why my brother spent the next few weeks with duct tape wrapped around his thumb. Perhaps they just assumed it was some fad like Pogs or MC Hammer pants. Maybe they were just happy that he wasn’t injecting heroin into his eyeballs and didn’t want to jinx it by bringing up the tape in dinner discussion. A month later, the tape came off, and Ty was the picture of health. Except for a thumb print that now has a curiously offset tip, you wouldn’t know that he ever had a run in with that X-Acto knife.
This episode taught us to respect the mighty power of the X-Acto knife. And at least for myself, I treated it as I still do, as something that is actually self-aware and wants to stab you given the opportunity. Such a mindset has resulted in only a few minor wounds over the years, and thankfully, no duct tape bandages. Now that I have my own son, I look forward to the day when he’s old enough to own his first knife. Hopefully he will be more responsible with it than we were.
Additional articles in this series can be found here: