scholars and rogues

Atheists and pocket knives

by Terry Hargrove

If you stick around in this world long enough, you’ll see and hear things you never imagined. Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about angry atheists. What’s that all about? Anybody who doesn’t believe in God, has obviously never played mumblypeg.

When I was a kid, every guy I knew had a pocketknife. It was an essential part of our wardrobe, an accoutrement that helped us navigate a world that still didn’t have twist-off tops or cable TV. We needed pocketknives for fishing, to cut string, to whittle, and to play mumblypeg.

We played mumblypeg the old fashioned way, by the Marquis of Queensbury rules. In case you’ve forgotten, two guys played at a time. First, a suitable peg, or stick, was thrust into the earth, then the two contestants tried to drop their pocketknives closest to the peg. You could do a one-drop, a one-spin, a two-flip, a blind-man’s hurl, or an above the head lob. The point was that your knife had to stick blade first, and a bounce was an event of much laughter and derision. Once a challenge had been made and the contest decided, the loser had to pull the peg out of the ground with his teeth.

For reasons that have remained a mystery, I was very good at mumblypeg. I don’t know why, and maybe God will explain it to me in the afterlife. I could have been good at basketball or baseball or golf or anything else that actually makes some guys money, but no. I was good at mumblypeg, and the last time I checked, there were no Olympic medals, no World Series, no World Cup, no trophy whatsoever for mumblypeg. But that doesn’t mean the game didn’t create some high drama.

Chris, whose last name I don’t remember so I’ll just call him Snot, came down from Nashville to visit his aunt one September Saturday in 1966. The park had closed for the winter, so we milled about in front of the library waiting for somebody to show up with a football. To pass the time, Chris Snot played two rounds of mumblypeg and had Barry and Jeff on their hands and knees rooting out pegs and dirt with their teeth in no time. I watched this with a casual air, then moved forward to put this interloper in his place.

“I’ll play you,” I said. I pushed the peg so deep into the dirt that only a fraction of an inch was available for purchase, then pulled out my pocketknife, Terminus Rust.

“Marquis of Queensbury rules?” I asked.

“Of course,” replied Chris Snot. “Hey, that’s not a bad knife. Can I see it?”

I handed it over, and he admired it for several seconds. It was a nice knife. Four bucks she had cost me, plus a Topps 1965 Mickey Mantle card and issue #14 of Spiderman. But Terminus Rust was a perfectly balanced and supremely crafted Case Knife. I had won many matches with her.

“I don’t suppose you’d want to play for keeps?” he asked.

We had heard how some people played mumblypeg for keeps, meaning that the winner took possession of the loser’s knife. We considered such a wager vulgar and common. It was one thing to strip a guy of the last vestige of his self-esteem, but to take his knife? Man, that was un-American. But I was young and foolish and confident. So I agreed.

But all that I thought I knew about mumblypeg deserted me when I faced off against Chris Snot. My hands shook and my head hurt. He scored an easy win when my triple flip over head lob clunked against a rock. Terminus Rust was gone! I had lost at mumblypeg for the first time ever. Chris Snot folded up her blade and put her in his pocket. As I spat dirt, he laughed and laughed.

“Double or nothing,” I asked, but he could hear the desperation in my voice.

“You got another knife?” he chuckled.

“At home,” I said. “I just live right there, and I’ll be back in two minutes.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s getting late, and I need to get back to the house. Besides, I don‘t think you‘ve got another knife that I‘d even want.”

“Don’t let him leave,” I screamed. I tore toward our house as fast as my Dollar Store shoes would take me. It was true. I didn’t have another knife. But The Dad did. He had fifty pocketknives that he’d collected over the previous years, and he kept them locked up in his room. But often, he’d come home with one and forget to put it away for a few days. “Please,” I prayed, “Please let there be one out.”

And God heard my prayer. There was one knife out, not in The Dad‘s room, but on the kitchen counter. It was a genuine two-blade Case Pen Knife with an India Stag Bone handle, still in the wrapper and still in the box. We’d heard The Dad say that a knife like that loses its value if it’s even removed from the box, so to tamper with the box meant death, and to open and actually use the knife meant, I don’t know, maybe hell. What was God trying to tell me? Anything? I didn’t catch that, Lord, could you speak a little louder?

While I was gone, Chris Snot had played Jeff and Barry for keeps and in doing so, had won their knives as well. I took The Dad’s knife to the park and when he saw it, Chris Snot’s eyes gleamed. He wanted it, and he wanted it so badly that his skills left him. I won back Terminus Rust with a two-flip, one-eyed, over the shoulder lob, then used Terminus Rust to win back Jeff and Barry’s knives. Chris Snot left our park and never returned. I can still see him drooling dirt and grass onto his green chin.

But my problem had just begun. I had to sneak the knife back into its case before The Dad came home. Barry walked with me.

“That’s a stupid rule,” I muttered. “Why does a knife become less valuable when you take it out of the box? What good is it if it stays in the box?”

“That’s to keep the blade safe,” said Barry. “My old man got me a pocketknife for Christmas two years ago, and when he saw me sharpening it, he almost had a heart attack. According to him, the blade has to be perfect for a knife to keep its value. If it’s got any scratches on the blade, the knife is just worthless.”

At that, I had to examine the blade on The Dad’s knife. Oh no! There was a scratch on it, all right. At least an inch long it was, deathly white on stainless steel. I was dead. Time to start praying again.

I put the knife back in the plastic wrap, put that back in the box, and continued the prayer. That night, mom gave The Dad that knife as a birthday present.

“Open it and see if it’s the one you wanted,” begged my sister.

“He can’t do that,” I shouted, a little too loudly. “Open the box and it looses its value, right dad?”

“That’s right,” he said. “Never take a new Case knife out of the box. Besides, I’m sure it’s just fine.”

And I’m sure it is too. Except for a brief foray into the sunlight in September, 1966, it has never come out of the box, and I have never stopped praying. I guess that settles that. Atheists. What do they know?

Terry Hargrove lives with his wife and son in Connecticut. His first volume of columns, Don’t Mind Me, a Tennessean Lost in Connecticut, is available at ladder, at and at He’ll sign it for free.

If The Dad is reading this, I made the whole thing up. Really.


Categories: scholars and rogues

4 replies »

  1. Have you ever stopped to wonder how you survived childhood? When I read one of these pieces I’m always stunned to reach the end and find you upright and walking under your own power…..

  2. Great post as always

    Always being a fan of pocket knives, I got a new one for my birthday, a William Henry knife. I’ve never owned a nice knife before, my best being a $20.00 Case.
    Check this beauty out.

    I would never risk this knife in a game of skill as I have no edge in knife games.


  3. Odd how something sticks with you, but I thought of this piece quite a bit last night. I suppose I wondered how I could grow up a rural kid and be 11 years old in 1966 and NOT have ever played mumblypeg or have known any boy who did. I have known other boys who grew up playing marbles, but none of the boys in my town even knew the rules.

    I was given maybe four or five pocket knives over the course of my young life, mostly by my father who had carried one as a boy and continued to do so until the day he died. I would carry a new knife around for a while, but would eventually forget to put it in my pocket, and it would be assigned a fate inhabiting my dresser drawer buried under my socks. It seems to me that it was the same with the other boys in my town. You’d see them flashing a new pocket knife for a bit, and then you wouldn’t see it again.

    I wonder if it doesn’t have something to do with the usefulness of the tool. For instance, I did, eventually, carry a Swiss Army knife around for years as an adult, but that was during my heavy traveling days when I found I could make minor repairs to my luggage or my hotel room with my trusty Victorinix in my pocket. 9/11 put paid to that habit.

    Maybe it has something to do with fishing. Fishing has all kinds of uses for a pocket knife, not the least of which is to cut the line when you’ve snagged an underwater tree limb, which was pretty common in my neck of the woods. Boys in my town didn’t go fishing alone. There were farmers’ ponds around that were well-stocked with catfish and perch, but they weren’t within walking distance, and bike riding on the twisty, farm-to-market roads that surrounded my town was riskier than most parents could live with. Not to mention the hills where I lived and the fact that our bikes were almost all one-speeds, making the slog up 500 feet or so of hill from the creeks all around us more than even our young legs could take consistently.

    There was also an enormous lake nearby with every variety of fish available to us in the Southside, including bass, but it was at least five miles away, and we didn’t go there by ourselves. When we did go fishing, it was almost always with our fathers, and they had their own pocket knives.

    Recreation in my town, which was full of boys my age but, inexplicably, almost no girls, revolved around the sports cycle. You would ride your bike up and down the town, checking out all the usual fields, until you spotted someone tossing a football or baseball, or shooting hoops. You would join in. Pretty soon some other boys would show up, and you’d have a game. That’s pretty much the way things worked. On occasion, we’d head back in the woods against our parents explicit instructions and play king of the mountain on THE CLIFF. THE CLIFF was about 15 feet high with just enough slope that, using the roots growing out as handholds, you could climb it. Playing King of the Mountain there was an exercise in being pushed backwards through space, breaking your free fall on the red clay beneath. Why none of us died there, I do not know.

    Thanks for the memory. I really, really enjoyed reading it.