photo of mourning doves

Like many ineffectual people, I am addicted to the transitory endorphin buzz that comes from impressing somebody besides my own mother. Such moments live in my memory for decades–mostly because they are so few in number. Here’s one. Driving back from a canoe trip 30 years ago, our party suddenly noticed tackle boxes, pots, and stuff sacks bouncing off the blacktop behind us, courtesy of a burst zipper in our canvas cartop carrier. While the braver souls dodged traffic to retrieve gear, I scrounged pieces of rope from the trunk, joined them with sheet bends, and tied a bowline loop in one end. Cramming everything back into the carrier, I tossed the line over and around the rack and cinched the whole thing down with a taut-line hitch, the knot you use on tent pegs. It was not the best knot for the application, but it was all I knew. More important, it got us home. And for a few memorable minutes, I reveled in the quiet awe of my companions. I suspect this is how the inventor of the glazed doughnut felt.

In today’s world of duct tape, quick-release belts, and bungee cords, no skill demonstrates manly competence so quietly but conclusively as the ability to make rope do your bidding. Knowing this, I recently began buying books on the subject: The Klutz Book of Knots, The Morrow Guide to Knots, and others. Eventually, I discovered The Ashley Book of Knots: 640 pages, 3,854 knots, and 7,000 illustrations. Published in 1944, it has reigned unchallenged ever since. It is the bible, encyclopedia, and mother of all knot books.

It’s also the kind of tome that any guy with mild obsessive-compulsive tendencies (i.e., any fisherman or hunter) might take into the bathroom, along with a piece of rope, fully intending to be back on task momentarily. Days later, he could emerge to discover that his wife had taken the kids to her mother’s, the phone had been cut off, and two guys from the electric company were pounding on the door. Such is the hold that knot knowledge can exert.

I began honing my skills immediately on the subjects at hand: my daughter and my dog.

Emma, only 6, was so hypnotized by the televised adventures of SpongeBob that it scarcely registered as I loosely wrapped a constrictor knot around her ankle. This simple arrangement exerts a ratchetlike grip when tightened on any curved surface. And tighten it is exactly what Emma suddenly did, returning to her physical body and flailing with great energy. The knot performed as advertised, my daughter went bonkers, and it was only by immobilizing her in a scissors grip with my own legs that I kept her still long enough to undo the aptly named knot. In return for a dinner consisting solely of raspberry Fruit Roll-Ups and Fudgsicle pops, however, she agreed not to inform Mommy.

Thereafter, I confined my efforts to the dog. I secured Snoop’s initial compliance with the hobble knot (No. 226), long used by cowboys. My ultimate goal was the double diamond hitch (No. 416), the gold standard among packers for lashing side packs and a riding load, such as a barrel, to a mule. Not wishing to overload the dog, now 12, I substituted sofa pillows for packs and a 72-ounce Quaker Oatmeal cylinder (available at any Costco) for the barrel. Again, unforeseen difficulties arose. After the sixth crossing, I had to consult the book for the next step. Snoop, who is at an age when she no longer suffers fools, sensed her opportunity and administered a small but authoritative bite to my hand before hobbling off to her lair under the sideboard.

I next attempted No. 442, by which a game animal is lashed to a tote pole with clove hitches, useful to know in country too rough for dragging. The perfect stuffed animal in Emma’s inventory for this purpose was a lavender unicorn about the size of a yearling doe. The arrangement was a success, but even I had to admit a unicorn looks sad bound and hanging upside down from an old broomstick. I felt as if I’d trussed up innocence itself and freed the mythical beast without showing my handiwork to anyone.

I was in despair over my prospects of ever impressing anyone again when a strange thing happened. One night, over at my parents’ house, Emma and I went into their garage for a pump to inflate her new Bounce-oline, an injury-inducing toy my sister had bought. Noticing that the garage door had been left open yet again, I pulled the rope and shut it. Emma had never even been in a garage before. To see an entire wall of a room suddenly appear, slide shut, and slam into place was, to her, a revelation. “Whoa!” she cried.

“What knot was that?”

I paused, but only for a moment. “A very special one,” I said as endorphins began bathing my brain in a sense of well-being. “That is the ancient and powerful daddy knot.”