Cumberland Times-News

Columns

March 16, 2013

A tale of pocket knives and serving spoons

Last week, we discussed the way my great-grandfather used to drink his coffee: saucered and blowed, which meant he poured it into his saucer and blew on it until it was cool enough to drink.

A few days later, I was having lunch in a restaurant when a lady in the next booth told the waiter she had an unusual request.

She said she’d like what was in her cup to be half coffee and half water. The waiter said he would see to it.

The lady and her husband looked somewhat familiar (although by now, everyone looks that way), so as I was leaving I decided to tell her a story.

I said I hadn’t been eavesdropping, and my opinion is that people should drink their coffee the way they want it.

With that in mind, a fellow I used to know would pour half of his coffee into the saucer, then fill the cup with milk and put four spoonsful of sugar in it.

After he drank that, he returned the rest of the coffee to the cup and repeated the process.

The rest of us tried to avoid watching him. What it must have tasted like, we could only imagine ... and it wasn’t a pleasant thought.

Now that, I told the lady, is unusual. She and her husband laughed, and she said that from now she wouldn’t feel so out-of-place when she ordered coffee.

My great-grandfather was a dapper, well-dressed man who wore a flat-brimmed straw hat virtually all of the time, except for when he was in bed, when he was at my grandfather’s barber shop getting his hair cut or having his daily dose of hair tonic applied, or when he was at the dinner table.

After dinner, when he retired to his easy chair to take a nap, he tilted the hat forward to cover his eyes and — my dad suspected — so he could smell the hair tonic on its liner.

One evening after helping himself to the mashed potatoes, Dad forgot to return the serving spoon to the bowl. He was a lad of tender age at the time.

My great-grandfather, who was sitting at the opposite end of the table, asked him to return the spoon.

Now, when my dad was a youngster, he often played a game called “mumbledy-peg,” which was a variation of what my friends and I called “stretch.”

In both games, two opponents stand facing each other a few feet apart and take turns throwing a pocket knife so it sticks point-first in the ground.

If Player A throws the knife, Player B has to stretch one foot out until it touches the knife. Keeping his foot in that place, Player B picks up the knife and throws it to a place where Player A has to stretch out his foot to reach it.

If it doesn’t stick, the player loses his turn. This goes on until the knife winds up in a place where one player can’t reach it.

We did this during recess on the dirt playground behind the school.

If kids tried that today, every police officer in the county and their dogs would be summoned, and the school would be placed on lockdown.

Parents would be called to the school, counselors would be brought in, and the offending stretch players and all of the witnesses would be suspended, possibly to be expelled.

The matter would wind on front pages all over the country, newspaper columnists would write about it, talking heads on TV would have more to say than most people want to hear, and so on.

You laugh, but a 7-year-old elementary school boy in Baltimore was suspended for two days recently for biting off chunks of a strawberry tart in an attempt to make it look like a mountain — only the result in at least one grownup’s eyes looked more like a gun.

As Jimmy Hatlo used to say, That’s When The Fun Began.

Wouldn’t surprise me if his friends start calling him The Cookie Monster.

How fond are his memories of school going to be? The same can be asked of a second grader whose mom told me he still doesn’t understand why he was suspended for pointing an index finger and going “Bang! Bang!”

Whatever happened to explaining to the kid the error of his ways, then telling him to go and sin no more?

That’s how my dad handled such things during his time as a high school principal, back in the day when any male student who did not have a pocket knife was considered a sissy. Even some girls had pocket knives ... handbag knives, if you will.

They were useful. Kids who had vocational agriculture or shop classes used them as tools, and you could clean the dirt from under your fingernails with them.

My dad’s knife had white bone grips that have yellowed with age. He sometimes used it to clean the bowl of the tobacco pipe my great-grandfather bought him.

Mine had brown and white plastic grips that looked like they were carved from wood. I still have both of them, plus a few others.

One is a blue Swiss Army knife that a former girlfriend bought in Switzerland to bring home for me. It bears my initials and is small enough to hang on my key ring. It has a pair of scissors and a fingernail file that often come in handy and a toothpick I haven’t used yet.

Metal detectors and some security guards don’t like it — although most see no problem with it. How damn many airliners am I going to hijack with a knife that’s 2 1/4 inches long?

At any rate, when my great-grandfather asked him to return the serving spoon, Dad treated the matter like a mumbledy-peg game.

He flipped the serving spoon end-over-end from one end of the table to the other, and it landed business-end first in the middle of the potatoes. It was, Dad told me, a great toss.

The bowl was sitting directly in front of my great-grandfather, and a portion of its contents went onto his vest.

Some of the things my father did, he did only one time.

In that respect, he and I are very much alike.

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