Friday, February 17, 2023

Enjoying The Back Side of Winter

 It seems like half the town is in Hawaii or Mexico this time of year and the other half is wishing they were, except for that quirky bunch of folks that love winter. Those folks are out skiing, riding snowmachine, or winter running. These people are easy to recognize since their cheeks are windburned, they're dressed for the weather, and usually have their ice cleats on their feet and skis on their car. Yes, I'm one of them, but with a caveat, it's the back side of winter that I love, February, March, and usually part of April. What's to love you say? 

The back side of winter has all the good stuff that early winter lacks. Early winter in Seward is a slow transition from a cool damp fall to a wet cold pre-winter with plenty of wind and darkness. Not a great combination. By the end of January however, we usually have a good base of snow on the ground and on the lake. The chance of rain is less and the days are getting longer with bright sunlight filling the snow-covered land with light. This is the holiday winter that is promoted from Halloween to New Year's, but in often doesn't happen until February. All those scenes of snow-covered log cabins and snow-flocked evergreens are just as appropriate for Easter as Christmas around here. 
The back side of winter is the time of the hungry moose. Those poor critters are scrounging for vittles by trimming the willows and alders, preferably in places without loose dogs and deep snow. That leads them to be feeding in my yard this time of year, and I welcome them. The moose do a dandy job of trimming the willows between my house and the lake. Anything they cut I don't have to. The other night we had two sleep right up against the house, and they stayed there until Madelyn went out to haul firewood. I saw several moose while driving around town yesterday, and I was reminded that it'll be two months before they have any chance of eating something green. they're a hardy breed. 

Snow is falling on the lake now, blown by a northeast wind that will drift in the ski trails and pile a bit on the north porch. I know that in a day or two, the sun will be on the lake again and the trails will be fresh for skiing. In other places in the state, folks will be traveling snowy trails and frozen rivers to visit and play in places they can't get to easily in the summer. The back side of winter is where the joy of winter is to be found, and yes it also heralds a promise of spring coming just around the corner. And, like all the seasons, spring holds its own special joy.

Sunday, February 5, 2023

Sunday Dinner from the Past

 Sometimes I get a hankering for a good bowl of pinto beans cooked up with ham hocks. We ate a lot of beans when I was a kid and unlike some of the meals that crossed our table, like liver and onions, I still enjoy beans today. When beans are the main course at the supper table they can't just be a plan pot of beans. At our house, the pintos were simmered with a ham hock, or a ham bone, or if one of those weren't around then mom would use the bacon rind. We bought bacon by the slab, the whole side of bacon, unsliced. A slab of bacon still has the rind on which is actually not rind at all but skin. That skin is coated in fat and has all that rich brine and smoke treatment that bacon has. Throw that bacon rind into a pot of pintos with some onion, salt, and pepper, let it simmer for two or three hours, and you've got yourself a tasty meal. The rind gets tender and you don't even miss those tender chunks of ham that come with a hock. 

I was lucky this week and found ham hocks at the store when I was having my bean craving or maybe I got a craving because I saw the ham hocks. Either way, they came home with me. It used to be that ham hocks were dirt cheap, and "living high on the hog" used to be a literal concept. If you had money you could eat pork loin or pork chops, even a big shoulder roast, Farther down the hog was the ham, and farther down yet (almost to the foot) was the hock. Anyway, that smoky ham hock is chock full of gristle, fat, and flavor, just what one needs to turn a sack of pinto beans into a fine meal. No Gucci seasonings, just salt, pepper, and a touch of clove if you want to be fancy. We always ate our beans with fresh hot cornbread and --don't cringe-- a big dollop of cottage cheese plopped on top of that steaming bowl of beans and maybe some raw onion. 

Mom always had to make an extra pan of cornbread because after the bean pot was empty it was time for dessert. Dad was in charge of dessert and it was the one time mom let us act like hillbillies. Following Dad's lead we would crumble cornbread into our milk glass, top it with a teaspoon of sugar, then pour milk over it. If he didn't have pie, Dad would always settle for cornbread and milk. 

Tonight we had a fine dinner of ham hocks and beans with all the trimmings and even though the ham hock wasn't very meaty the flavor was there. I overate and found myself transported back to my boyhood. That's what the family recipes do, they trigger the memories of meals from the past and all those times
a family sat around the table together. 

Thursday, February 2, 2023

Knives OUT! Pocket Knives That Is.

When I was in fourth grade my mom, in a way very unlike her, succumbed to my begging and bought me a pair of lace-up leather boots that came with a pocket knife in a scabbard on the side of one boot. I thought I was the richest kid in the world, and perhaps a dangerous pirate armed and ready for anything. I wore these boots proudly to school every day and showed off the knife at recess. I’m sure the other boys were jealous. Of course, this was in the early sixties when no one would look twice at a kid carrying a knife at school. In reality, this wasn’t much of a knife; it was made of cheap steel and didn’t hold an edge. I probably broke it or lost it after a few months, but this was my first knife and got me started with pocket knives. 

This cheap knife in a boot was probably my first pocket knife and it didn’t last long, but it got me on the road to being the pocket knife-toting man that I am today. In fact, I can’t believe that adult humans actually go around quite comfortably without a knife in their pocket. I use my knife at least once a day, whether it’s opening a package from eBay or cleaning my fingernails. In fact, I feel incomplete when I walk away from the house without one. 

After a few months, I had replaced that novelty knife with a good Barlow knife, one of the most popular knives before the Swiss Army knife came on the scene. The Barlow was a sturdy knife with a carbon steel blade and a grip that fit the hand well.

I’ve had a variety —maybe dozens— of knives in my time. Some I broke, most I lost, and others I passed on in favor of a new shiny one. When I was a Boy Scout I found a giant folding knife the size of my fist that had a dozen different tools

including a spoon. Being a guy that’s always ready to eat, a folding knife with a spoon attached seemed just the thing. Of course, the blade was cheap and flimsy and some of the tools were already broken, so this gem didn’t stay in my inventory long. Plus it was far too big to carry in the pocket of my jeans.

When I was in junior high I had a part-time job which meant I had money burning a hole in my pocket. Many a payday I would be down in Fourth Avenue prowling the glass cases full of knives. They had everything from beefy, stag-handled Bowie knives to little knives for trimming the tips off cigars. I my buddy liked looking at the Switchblades 

For a while, I had a folding Buck knife, again a knife too big for the pocket, that I carried in a leather scabbard on my belt.  I can’t say I lost that knife because I know right where it is, or was. I left it stuck in a log at a campsite on the Moose River, and I was miles down the river when I realized it. I’m sure the next people that camped there were glad to see it came with a knife big enough to split kindle with.  Most of my lost knives are truly lost, dropped overboard, abandoned on the top of a car to sail off into the ditch along the highway, or lain down and walked away from. All these are remembered too late to recover. The real joy is the kind I had the other day when I put on my Woolrich bibs and found a Swiss Army Bantam I’d given up for lost three months ago. There it was in the left-hand front pocket where it was supposed to be, right where I left it. 

When I talk about pocket knives I mean a small knife that will actually fit a pants pocket comfortably without banging my hip, pulling my pants down, or taking 5 minutes to fish out of said pocket. They make folding knives as long as my forearm, and I have a folding Swiss Army Camper that measures a good four and a half inches and is close to an inch thick. Now, I’m no Esquire magazine pants model but who wants a tool that size in their pocket. Not me. In fact, I like a slim short knife that fits nicely in the hand or pocket, but not something small as a pen knife — a penknife is a very small pocket knife often two inches long, that's named for its use in the days of quill pens when a writer had to be trimming the end of the feather pen. When I talk pocket knives I don’t include box cutters or utility knives like we all have laying around our garages and hobby rooms. These are handy tools in their place, but there is nothing like a pocket knife for general day-to-day, always on had usefulness. 

Currently, I carry a Swiss Army knife Bantam with only one knife blade and a combination screwdriver bottle opener. It has, of course, the Swiss Army toothpick and tweezers tucked in the handle. 

I tried for years to get my wife to carry a pocket knife as well but she usually doesn’t except on camping trips. Instead, I make sure there is a knife in each vehicle and daypack. Yea, I have that many pocket knives around. I’ve got a couple multitools around too, the traditional Leatherman-type plier/knife combination, but I don’t like to carry them, they’re bulky and the knives are usually not comfortable to use. I would just as soon have a good pocket knife and small pliers. Some folks carry these in holsters on their belts and do the same with the big pocket knives, but I don’t. I like to carry those bulky multitools or big Swiss Army knives in my pack. A few years ago my son got me a big Swiss Army Trekker that I carry in my truck and on my pack when I’m in the woods. It’s a beefy knife 

with a serrated blade, screwdrivers, a saw, and an awl. A handy toolkit for days in the woods. 

I’ve had a lot of Swiss Army knives in my time some with several blades and tools from the corkscrew to a saw blade. When I was teaching I used my knife all the time in my classroom, and my students got used to Mr. Walker whipping out his knife to sharpen a pencil, cut tape or tighten loose screws on a wobbly chair. That came to a screeching halt when the school district decided to ban knives on school campuses. Now there’s a rule that is almost impossible to enforce. Of course, my son who is a conscientious rule follower got caught in that milieu. He came down to my classroom one day at lunch, which he rarely did. Speaking in a low voice, he said, “Dad, I’m in big trouble.”

Of course, I was aghast. “What happened?”

I’ve got a knife and shotgun shells in the truck. I could get expelled.” I had to work hard not to laugh. He was not in a joking mood. This was no laughing matter to him. I had let him drive the family pickup truck to school, and that same day the powers at hand issued a reminder to the students about knives and other weapons being banned on campus EVEN IN VEHICLES. “Wow, Are the searching cars in the parking lot now?” I asked.

“Dad, this is serious.” 

I tried to reassure my law-abiding son that no one was going to rummage through our truck looking for weapons, so he just needed to leave things where they were. He wouldn’t have it, so I had to drive over to the student parking lot and empty the contraband into my car, so my son could have some peace of mind. Of course, this silly rule didn’t stop many of us who carried knives, both teachers and students; we just became more discreet. We kept our knives in our pockets for a few months, and then people turned their attention to other issues and most of life went back to normal.

One of the big hassles of a dedicated knife carrier is air travel. I loved it when I traveled to the bush on the small local air services. No TSA, nor baggage searches and my knife could stay in my pocket giving me comfort that if something happened I had a basic survival tool, my knife. But when I jumped on Alaska Air to head south Things get complicated. I hate to think how many pocket knives I have surrendered to TSA agents when they find the blade I left in my daypack. Usually, I remember and put my knife in my checked bag. In fact, sometimes it’s the only reason I check my luggage, so I can have my trusty pocket knife when I reach my destination. 

I read about a guy who got to the airport and forgot he had his Swiss Army knife in his pocket when he got in line for a security check. He got out of line and buried his knife in a planter outside the terminal. Upon his return, he recovered his knife from its secret stash. This has me wondering how many knives are stashed in little corners of America’s airports by guys like me who don’t want to lose our precious tools. 

When we traveled to Canada last year, my wife and I decided to travel light and because we had several different flight transfers we didn’t check our luggage. Since we had only a carry-on I couldn’t take a knife and pouting commenced. You can imagine how I whined about that, but I didn’t want to risk lost luggage either. “I’ll just pick one up at a second-hand store,” I said. When we landed and got our rental car we stopped at a grocery store for picnic supplies because we were going to be doing a lot of driving. After that, we stopped at the local Salvation Army store for our usual treasure hunting, and I asked searched all over that store for a knife, finding nothing. Finally, I asked at the cashier section and the lady said, “Oh we don’t sell knives here, Too much liability.” I found out that a man had attacked some people in Montreal or Toronto with a knife that week, and some people were being over-protective. I finally when to a hardware store and bought a pairing knife so we could at least have our picnic lunches. In a funny, not so funny, end to this story, on our return flight home we check our bags from Seattle to Anchorage since it was just one hop. It took a week to get our bags back and in the process ended up with someone else’s bag for a while. 

When I was traveling frequently, I started testing different knives that I could smuggle aboard a flight in my carry-on. I had a little knife that looked like a house key, and I got that through TSA several times before an astute agent snagged it. I tried the toolkit/knives combo shaped like credit cards and little multitools so small they’d fit inside your fist. I found little knives that hung on a key fob and weren’t even shaped like something you could cut with but they did have a sharp edge. Sometimes they when through without a hitch, but eventually, I lost them all. Now I’m thinking better find some good hiding places at the airport for the knife I forget to leave in the car. Or better yet maybe open a chain of contraband exchange stores in airports around the country. Drop your knife at the store in Anchorage and pick up a replacement when you land in Minneapolis. There’s a business opportunity for someone. 

I know it sounds materialistic to make so much a little tool, and yes, it’s easy to complain that objects in our lives don’t matter. Only people matter. But there are physical objects that give us pleasure and comfort, connect us with our past, and help us do the things we do. We humans are toolmakers, and sometimes those tools become part of our character, a talisman whose meaning extends beyond its basic function. I probably seem old-fashioned carrying a knife everywhere I go, but I also carry a Zippo lighter, and no, I don’t smoke. I figure if a person can cut stuff and make fire, he like our primitive forebears will be a leg up on facing most challenges that come along.