My longtime friend Bud came through town the other day, on his way home with an 8-week-old pointer riding shotgun. We greeted the pup like a new member of our extended family, which in many ways he is, and will become.
As I visited with Bud, talk turned to all the other dogs that have shared our lives, and I was a little surprised to recall all the firsts that occurred in Bud’s company: my first tundra swan; my first successive limits of Hungarian partridges; my first hunting dog, a rescue Lab cross who hid under my bed the first time she saw a gun but developed into a talented retriever of anything with wings and a cackle, thanks in part to Bud’s encouragement.
This is graduation season in my world. Not only do I have a pair of strapping sons who matriculated from their high school in the past weeks, but I’ve received dozens of graduation announcements from departing collegians, high-schoolers, and even a couple of audacious middle-schoolers.
Most of my replies are of the free-advice variety, offering good wishes, profound wisdom (write home, brush your teeth, pay your bills) for future citizens, and challenges (take chances, sleep outside, don’t brush your teeth). But a few special recipients get an additional tool to carry into their future: a pocket knife.
Inspiration for the bladed gift is the outsized role that knives have played in my life. We have a rule in my family: on the 10th birthday of a McKean, you get a bicycle and a pocket knife. If you wreck your bike or you lose your knife, the second (and third, and fourth) ones are on you. Since my own 10th birthday, I’ve disabled plenty of bikes, and I’ve lost more knives than I care to admit. But I’ve never not had a knife in my life.
I’m looking at my current pocket pal now. It’s a scarred and abused and well-loved folding lock-back. It’s made by Ka-Bar, has hand-worn orange scales, would have had a 3-inch drop-point blade had the terminal ¼ inch not been broken off prying a stuck pellet out of the breech of a pellet gun, and it wears the marks of a good decade in my company. I’ve gutted countless fish, grouse, and deer with that knife, which holds an edge longer than I’ve held many jobs.
It’s sharpened sticks for campfire meat, sliced steak at fine restaurants, cleaned my toenails, and cut cheese, rope, baling twine, and apples for my kids. The thing about this knife -and all good knives – is that it’s just as capable of doing all those things for the next decade.
So, for those kids who are elevated in my esteem, they get pocket knives this season. Some of their future friends will come and go. They may take jobs that don’t last. They will wreck bicycles and cars. But a good knife will take them a long way into the future. And even if it cuts Spam instead of steak, it will link them to the past and whatever is next.
Andrew McKean wrote this for Father’s Day 2010, the first without his dad, Mike, who died the preceding August.
To say I lost my father is a form of linguistic denial, like saying I misplaced him, or that I’ll find him like a favorite pocketknife in an old pair of jeans.
My father is not lost. He is dead. I learned as a newspaper obituary writer to avoid euphemistic references to this most final fact. He did not “pass away” or “expire.” He did not “go to his reward” or “depart this life” or “go to meet his Maker.”
He died. And this is the first Father’s Day I haven’t had what I now realize is the exquisite luxury of calling him, both of us pretending that I was phoning to discuss the weather, or calf prices, neither of us once mentioning what he considered a cynical holiday engineered to sell greeting cards and cheap tools.
My father didn’t suffer what he considered mass-market frivolity. He would have been baffled, and even a little offended, if I gifted him a Father’s Day tie or an electric razor.
Instead, he preferred to simply talk, about too much or not enough rain, about his grandchildren, my job and when I was coming home on my next visit. I didn’t get to make that last trip. Dad died in late August, sudden as a thunderclap. The news reached me as I was hitching a tractor to a brush cutter, like I had helped him do so many times as a child.
I’ll call this Father’s Day to the abandoned farmhouse where I grew up. I’ll dial the number to the old rotary phone on the wall of the kitchen where my father died. And I’ll wait with a disbelieving suspension for him to answer, for his rich voice to fill the crackling void, before the sharp metallic jag of the automated operator jars me from my fantasy: “You have reached a number that has been disconnected…”
My father is not disconnected, just as he isn’t lost. But it’s small moments like today when he is found, however fleetingly.
When most of us think of a mentor, we picture an elder.
Maybe not a white-bearded sensi, but someone older and more experienced than we
are. That’s natural. We hope to gain knowledge by synthesizing the experiences
of those who have passed this way before.
But not all experience is linear, or can be counted by
years. As you are considering mentors in your life, don’t just look forward to
those with more experience, but also sideways to those who have other types of
experiences from your own. And don’t hesitate to look behind, to mentors who
are younger and have a different take on life and how to live it.