The Wussification of America

I hate to have to write a “Good Old Days” column, especially since I’ll be entering my late forties here in just a few weeks and anything making me feel even more like an old-timer is to be avoided like a… like a…


I forget sometimes.

And yet I must write a “Good Old Days” column.

Eleventh birthday, 1980, I got my first pocketknife. The models have changed some since then, but the closest match today would be the Swiss Army Explorer. And it was mine.

By that I mean, it didn’t get stuck in a out-of-reach drawer or locked in a safe or anything like that, to be taken out only on special occasions. Instead it went wherever I put it. My knife was on my desk when I was building a Star Wars model or working on some other project where it might come in handy, it was in my hand when I was outdoors whittling or whatever, and the rest of the time it had a comfy home in my right-front jeans pocket.

Of course I learned the obvious lessons like how not to cut myself, and the importance of keeping my knife clean and sharp. You know those kids who are always losing stuff? I was one of those — but I never lost the little toothpick or tweezers that came with my Swiss Army knife. The most important lesson though might have been just how much better a person is at the simple business of living, when they have a couple of blades, a screwdriver, a saw, and all the rest, always within easy reach.

I got so used to carrying a knife around, and so quickly, that I thought nothing of it just a couple months later when I dropped it into my backpack before boarding a plane for summer camp in Colorado. Back then, airport security thought nothing of it, either.


As a grownup with a house full of tools, I usually don’t bother with a big Swiss Army knife or a multitool — but thirty-plus years later you’ll at least find a little penknife occupying my right-front pocket. There’s a small catchall next to my bathroom sink filled with various pocketknives and penknives, and each morning I slip one in my pocket as the unofficial final step in getting dressed. The process is about as automatic as picking out socks.

Today’s model is a little yellow-handled number from W.R. Case, a holiday gift from my dear friend Ed. It’s clean and it’s sharp and I haven’t needed it for anything today — but the day is still young.

Last December my newly minted ten-year-old got a Swiss Army knife for his birthday — an Explorer much like my first.

It comes out when he needs it, and stays hidden from his little brother the rest of the time. As a Dad it’s wonderful to see my son’s serious-yet-satisfied expression as he tackles a problem or a project with his familiar red-handled multitool. That reminds me — he’s used his knife enough now that it’s time to teach him the ways of a turn box knife sharpener, too.


It’s a rite of passage, and an important one I think, for your children to earn their first knife and to learn its proper use and care. Unless your children are anything like these kids:

California State University at Long Beach on Thursday said that it has taken seriously an incident in which a faculty member saw a student with a small knife, in class, and asked him to leave and notified authorities. On social media, the incident was described by some as a threat by the student against a black female student in a class on gender and race issues. Many on social media have questioned why Cal State didn’t alert the campus to danger or take further action against the student. The university statement does not reference many of the details claimed on social media. But the university says that the incident remains under investigation by campus and local officials, and that a threat assessment determined no immediate threat.

Back in my university days — there I go again! — if a professor had asked for a show of hands for who was carrying a pocketknife, some men (typically but not exclusively men) would raise their hands. Some wouldn’t. But the point is that nobody would have really thought much of it one way or the other. I’d even be willing to wager that in some parts of the country, a man might feel a small bit of shame if he’d forgotten to grab his knife that morning. I know I feel naked without one — and next-to-useless, too, if I find I need one and it isn’t there.


But on campus today this handy little tool, suitable for most anyone with wits enough to blow out ten or so birthday candles, is a dangerous weapon. It’s a threat. A menace. And anyone carrying one is automatically suspect, worthy of investigation by university officials — officials who are presumably grownup adults.

Who are these adult-sized children, and what turned them into such cowards?


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