David E. Petzal’s Life in Knives
Six decades in the outdoors, told through the stories of four special blades
J. Alfred Prufrock, the protagonist of a famous poem, measured out his life with coffee spoons. I’ve measured out mine with knives. In the 60-plus years I’ve been mucking about in the outdoors, and in the nearly 60 years I’ve been collecting knives, I’ve had hundreds pass through my hands, and they’ve served as a kind of calendar. Here are a few of them. April 1952: The Kiddie Ka-Bar When I was 10, I was sent off to summer camp in the wilds of Maine. Part of the camp’s program was to get us out in the wilderness with inadequate equipment and have us travel by canoe and by foot. We slept in the rain without tents. We cooked over wood fires, and I found that no matter where I parked myself, that was where the smoke would blow. Loons bellowed at us in the night. Mosquitoes ate us in the evenings. We saw a moose drinking in the shallows. We saw a canoe that had hit a rock sideways in the rapids and split in two. Our head counselor was a flyfisherman. He’d cast with his bamboo rod in the mornings and catch trout for breakfast. We’d knock out the guts, put bacon in the body cavities, wrap them in tinfoil, and lay them on coals. I thought it was all terrific. I still do. A few months before I headed for the Great North Woods, my parents bought me a Ka-Bar sheath knife. I already owned a Boy Scout folding knife, but I pointed out noisily that it was unequal to the wilderness, and did they want their kid to die for lack of blade length? So they caved and bought me the Ka-Bar. It has a trailing point blade of just under 4 inches and a leather-washer handle that is so small I can only get three fingers on it today. It looks like it was owned by a 10-year-old.
I can’t remember cutting anything with it, including myself, but I must have used it a lot. Miraculously, I still have it all these years later. And if some other 10-year-old inherits it, the Kiddie Ka-Bar will serve him or her as well as it did me.
October 1985: The Yankee Gut Hook
I met George Herron in 1976 because I was by then a depraved collector, and here was this guy in South Carolina who was making knives that were not only eminently practical but also exquisitely fashioned. They were simple but showed a level of skill that was nothing short of sublime.
In 1985, he invited me to come to South Carolina.
Thus was I introduced to deer hunting in the swamps and fields of the Palmetto State. It’s all done from treestands. You do a three-hour stretch from predawn dark to morning, and then another three hours from late afternoon until dark. I learned that South Carolina deer materialize from thin air. You can be looking at a patch of beanfield, and there’s nothing there but beans, and you blink and when you open your eyes a fraction of a second later, a whitetail has beamed down.
After one such hunt, I had some time before I had to go back to the Land of the Yankee, and George decided he was going to teach me how to make a knife. He was famous for this. He instructed at least half a dozen men who went on to be professionals, and so influential was his work that it is now known as the South Carolina school of knife making.
“You, Yankee, come in the shop.” In the 25 years we knew each other, he never called me by name. It was always “You, Yankee.” I would catch him looking at me oddly, as though he expected me to put on a blue uniform and torch a plantation.
George once said, “I can make my hands do what my mind sees,” which is an eloquent way to put it, but doesn’t quite state the case. Knife makers like him have an ability in their fingers that can’t be taught or learned. Theirs is a touch that is denied ordinary mortals.
I have no touch at all.
I told him so. Like most people with an abundance of talent, he wouldn’t believe I could be as hopeless as I said, but he temporized. Rather than have me ruin a good slab of knife-making steel, he picked up a scrap of tool steel and an odd piece of Osage orange wood, and got me started on making a gut hook, which is far simpler than a knife.
As the work progressed, he couldn’t hide his despair. He never dreamed that anyone could be as ungifted as I was. Finally, he took the gut hook away and finished it himself. The result is a little on the crude side, but not at all bad, and that’s due to the fact that it’s 98 percent George Herron and 2 percent Yankee.
November 1991: Norm’s Knife
In 1971, I met Norm Strung, who lived near Bozeman, Mont. He was as close to the Compleat Outdoorsman as I have met. There was very little he could not do, or had not done, with a rod and gun. He and his wife, Sil, lived like pioneers. Everything they ate they shot or caught or grew. Their home was heated with wood that Norm cut in the fall. When Sil wanted a new woodstove, they found a magnificent and ancient one that had been discarded, and restored it.
When I showed up to hunt elk with him in 1971, I was as green as grass and in the worst physical shape of my life. Norm taught me the Code of the West, and that you don’t hunt Montana elk as you do Adirondack whitetails, and that if I was going to hunt Montana elk, I had better not look like 200 pounds of chewed bubble gum.
So I lost 30 pounds and returned the next year, and we each killed a bull, and we hunted together for 20 more years.
In 1974, W.D. Randall, the late Florida knife maker who is to his craft as God is to organized religion, gave Norm a knife. It was the Bradford Angier model, named for the eminent outdoorsman who designed it. It has a 5-inch tool-steel blade with Norm’s name etched in it, a stag handle, and a brass hilt.
Norm used it, and misused it, for everything. He would pound it through the pelvis of a deer. When he carried it, he’d loop his game-hauling rope over the handle, which stretched the sheath in an unnatural manner. Within a few years, knife and sheath looked like hell.
In 1991, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and on a lovely autumn day, he managed to walk to his favorite trout lie and shot himself to death, just a little short of his 50th birthday.
I came out to pay my respects a while later, and asked Sil if I could have something of Norm’s to remember him by. She gave me the Randall. I cleaned up the blade, and sharpened it, and even had a new sheath made. I fully intended to use it, but to this day, I’m unable to.
In fact, there are times when I can scarcely bear to look at it.
July 2002: The Lost and Found
I have sold all manner of knives for all manner of idiotic reasons, then regretted almost all of the sales, and to this day, I cruise through the custom-knife dealers’ posts in the forlorn hope that I will see at least one of my old knives again and buy it back.
But only one of these has returned to me. That is a knife made by Ted Dowell, a college math professor who worked in Oregon (I forgave him the math part), a genius machinist, and an imaginative artist in steel. He was one of the early greats in the custom-knife renaissance.
I bought this particular knife in 1971 simply because it had a handle big enough to suit me. The blade is slender and made of a steel called F-8. No one uses F-8 anymore (it’s not even on any of the blade-steel reference charts) because, while it holds an edge forever, it’s damn near impossible to sharpen.
In the fall of 1972, when I went on my second elk hunt with Norm Strung, I had this knife on my belt. We began the hunt on the ranch of a friend of his in eastern Montana, looking for deer and antelope. The rancher and I did not hit it off.
Things came to a head between us when one of his other hunters shot a mule deer, and the rancher found himself without a knife. He turned to me. I had seen the way that he used tools and said, “Look for another one.” This was not only beyond his comprehension—as he was one of those people to whom a knife is a screwdriver is a hammer—but a clear violation of the Code of the West, which among other things states that if someone is in need of a tool, you lend it to him.
Someone else produced a pocketknife, and the deer got gutted, and I shot a deer and an antelope, and then we headed west to the mountains and the elk. This was the hunt on which Norm and I each shot a bull, toward evening, on one of the bitterest days that I can remember.
About halfway through gutting elk No. 1, Norm lost his knife in the snow, and without hesitation I loaned him the Dowell.
Filled with triumph, I went home and sold the knife at Abercrombie & Fitch for money to put toward a new gun. I realized, shortly thereafter, that I had made a terrible mistake. But the knife was gone.
Now we fast-forward 30 years or so to a town called Greenwich, Conn. Greenwich is like Beverly Hills, but with a lot more money, and in it there’s a store that sells outrageously expensive sporting goods, including hunting knives. And there, in the window, was my Dowell.
I emitted a bleat like a deer that has just been ruptured, ran inside, and got the serial number, which is 71-43-F, and called Betty Dowell. Yes, it was the knife that had been sold to me back in 1971. I bought it back for many times what I sold it for.
I don’t know where it was in the three decades we were parted from each other, but all I have to do is hold it in my hand and I’m transported back to an arctic evening at 7,000 feet that was probably my most triumphant in 60 years of hunting.
Someone else will own this knife when I am gone, but it will not be because I have sold it to them.