Gary Presley has written essays for a variety of publications, including the New York Times, Salon, and Notre Dame Magazine. His memoir, Seven Wheelchairs: A Life beyond Polio, was published by the University of Iowa Press.
I still have the first knife I was ever given, ever trusted with, an original Swiss Army knife with a screwdriver, a hook-nose can-opener, a small cutting blade, a leather punch, and a corkscrew, all in a package no more than the width of my palm, no thicker than a five-stick package of gum. My father gave me the knife on my tenth birthday, a tool he thought I had grown worthy of, knowing that the knife would carry a meaning for me beyond the utilitarian.
Five or six years before that, my father had spanked me because I had accepted a knife from a Japanese man. More likely, since my father hated lying, he spanked me because I lied about having the knife and lied about where I got it. I hadn’t stolen it. I accepted it as a thing I lusted for and my father had denied: a knife.
I don’t know why the Japanese man offered me the knife. Then I only knew I wanted it. Now I know the knife may have had a deeper meaning to the man, perhaps a remembrance, a token he offered to recapture an image, perhaps his own memory of a boyhood that had turned to ashes when the Americans firebombed Tokyo. You can tell by that—the firebombing, and the city—that the gift of the knife was a long time ago, the late 1940s, in fact. There’s symbolism certainly, the Japanese man giving the knife to the American boy, and whatever lies within the gesture is probably worth thinking about, but it isn’t that metaphorical connection beyond language and circumstance that sticks with me now. It is the idea of a knife, and a boy who wanted a knife, and how it shifts about in my memory of Japan, of how it propels me through that time when I lived within borders drawn by my mother and father.
I like knives even today, the idea that they are both tool and symbol, utilitarian and beautiful. I know I was fascinated by knives then, fascinated long before mystics might have told me that to dream of knives is to dream of manhood, to dream of power through violence, to dream of cutting through all that controls and restricts.
My father then was part of the occupation army in Japan, those few short years after the war, our family living in a barracks-like apartment above the Yokohama harbor. That day we had gone on an errand, the three of us, and stopped at a place where I was left in our car for a few moments. Perhaps it was near the commissary or the post’s exchange. It would have been normal to see a Japanese person thereabouts, for the military did its best to employ civilians within its labyrinth. I sat in the car, content to be left to my thoughts. The Japanese man, dressed in white, wearing the traditional Japanese sandals, the geta, squatted near where the car was parked. Maybe he worked shining shoes. Maybe he was a peddler. We didn’t communicate, other than through his smiles and gestures, and my wariness, my knowing only the words for “hello” and “thank you.” I watched him, and he watched me, and somehow — I would be lying if I said I remembered how — I ended up with the knife, which was a little single-blade pen knife, no more than two inches long.
The Japanese man who had little, from all appearances, except his quiet dignity and his amusement over the whims of children, gave me the knife, a gesture that might have meant nothing, or something, to him.
I took the knife. I possessed a knife. I hid the knife. And my father found the knife.
Then came the music of childish lies, anger from my father, and the discipline of a spanking. I understand now my parents were confused, cautious, coping daily with the slippery, never fully realized insecurities of living in a foreign country, always alert to protect their only child. And they knew what I would not learn until I turned twelve, knew that gifts from man to boy are sometimes not innocent, sometimes not without motive.
I do not know what my father did with the little white-handled pen knife. It disappeared. I do have other things that mark my memories of Japan, pieces of brass, a portrait of a samurai warrior on horseback, and more.
The Swiss Army knife, though, speaks of Europe to me. My father gave it to me on the morning of my tenth birthday, in the spring of the year 1952, my first day in France, as I came awake in an apartment above a pharmacy three blocks south from the medieval city gate of Verdun, France, two blocks west from the Meuse River. The knife is too fragile to use much now, if you can think of such a thing as being fragile, but I carried it for years, front right pocket, there because I’m right-handed.
It was a sign of trust that knife, expectation, responsibility. No longer five or six. Ten; an age of some accountability. And living also in a safer place, a place where at least — and you’ll need to understand this because my parents grew up in a time when segregation plagued the world and the Japanese were relegated to internment camps — where at least the people looked like us, white-skinned, blue-green-or-brown-eyed. Whatever they felt, my parents, I found little different between the Japanese and the French. At five, and at ten, I understood I was an outsider, a small quiet reminder that something had been taken from them and replaced by men in uniform and women and children who were too loud and too large and too friendly. In France, it is true, we weren’t occupiers treading on the land of the defeated as we were in Japan. We were guests, the U.S. military there to face the Iron Curtain until De Gaulle’s pride said we were unnecessary. And we were constantly reminded we were guests, maybe because, I think now, we were scars, vestiges of a defeat. Life and politics being what it was then in France, we could read “Yankee Go Home” on walls all over Verdun, and Étain where we moved later, and every other French town with a wall.
I used the Swiss Army knife for years, even though early on I was young enough and stupid enough to nearly ruin it. A dull knife is dangerous, folk wisdom expressed every place there is a knife to be sharpened. After we left France, after short sojourns in California and El Paso, and after giving my father time enough to heal from a serious car accident and be sent to school to learn about radar-controlled anti-aircraft guns, our family ended up on Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington State. I soon learned the Air Force, being the glamour military service of the Cold War, had more amenities than the average Army post. Among the gyms, theaters and clubs, and all other things to distract a teenager on the base, there was a fully equipped hobby shop. I found a grinder there, and I began to sharpen the blade of my Swiss Army knife, too much in the two years or so we spent there, sharpened it so that the primary blade, the cutting blade, was finally pared down from the fat, flat torpedo of a carving blade to a stiletto shape.
I carried the knife, the remembrance, the validation, the talisman, even after we moved back to Texas, where my father decided the army was for him no more, took his pension, and moved us to Missouri. There in the hills I found myself isolated from the only life I knew and understood, a remainder of the boy who loved the impermanency of travel, a boy soon forbidden the promise of a manhood, soon attacked by poliomyelitis, an attack no knife would divert, and left to take temporary residence in an iron lung, a place more foreign than Japan, even less welcoming than France, a place where no knife was useful or necessary, a cage no knife could cut away.
Things changed, as things do, and I came home, a kid no more an Army brat, a kid no more a few months from graduating high school, and I found my knife in a desk drawer. It is difficult to carry things in a pocket if you sit down all the time in a wheelchair, and so when I got home, and I wanted my talisman, my Swiss Army, that amulet of magical powers within my former self, I hooked it on a peg that stood out on the front of my wheelchair, hooked it through the little metal half loop at knife-end meant to hang the tool on a piece of military equipment, since it was an army knife after all.
I carried the knife there for years as the chair became as much a part of me as the knife, and I used it, taking care to sharpen it by hand so that the blade wouldn’t be ground down so narrow as to be useless. I carried it and I used it until one day in the office where I worked, I don’t remember when or how, the knife or the wheelchair or the peg on the wheelchair caught on something, and I moved, and the Swiss Army knife, then thirty years old at least, twisted until the little metal half-loop, the half-loop meant to hook the knife firmly to a belt or pack, twisted and popped off, and the knife fell to the floor.
And so the thing I carried for years, I began to carry no more, at least not regularly. The missing loop makes no less of it, not hurting its usefulness, its pure practicality, its life as a talisman. I keep the knife now in a box, and take it out only to remember, unfolding the blade ground away to stiletto width in search of perfection of sharpness, as if there was an ultimate edge where the knife would find its utter purity as knife, as perfection the boy perceived, but the man knows is ephemeral. The knife now as always retains its honest aspiration, its ability to cut, to separate, to cleave, even though it’s damaged like me, the man who roiled through anger, frustration, and self-pity until something snapped, and I forgot about all that was gone and began to think about all that was left.