A boy watched when his father took the shaving mug from the medicine cabinet above the sink. With the help of hot water and the remains of a bar of soap, he brushed the lather on his face.
I could only hope that someday I would have enough whiskers to do the same. I had practiced doing the same thing without my Dad’s knowledge a time or two. He would not have liked it had he known, because certain things were off limits.
The black jackknife was one of those. It came out from his bib overall pocket to cut twine strings, plug tobacco and feed bags. It sat on top of the dresser drawer at night along with small coins, nuts and washers. Mother had grown adept at pulling pants’ pockets inside out before each wash. The coins were added to her collection, while cotter keys and small bolts were left to be claimed.
It appeared that Mother’s full-time chore was washing, with a long and hard time spent scrubbing the filthiest on the wash board. The homemade soap — scented and seasoned with lye and ash — was left to solidify in the Red Wing crock, cut into bars, shredded and kept in a circular cardboard container. Mother lugged several clothes baskets up the stairs with only the occasional help of a child and hung the items on the line. Some things froze before they dried, which required they brought back to the basement where they were attached to a line near the furnace.
The wash did not attract my interest, but Dad’s jackknife sure did. Several schoolmates owned jackknives and brought them to school in spring and fall to play Mumblety-peg on the playground. The rules differed based on who played. Regardless, a small crowd watched while the winner celebrated.
School officials were not alarmed by the presence of potentially dangerous weapons. Disputes were settled with fists and wrestling matches that at worst ended with bloody noses and black eyes.
I had worked up the courage to take Dad’s pocketknife to school, but an older brother intervened to warn that taking it would end badly at the hurting end of Dad’s belt.
My father never used the belt on me. The family theory at the time held that because I was the last of 12, he had little energy or interest in iron-fisted discipline. Mother ruled with a gentle hand, asking for good behavior for heaven’s ultimate sake.
Dad was not one to walk away from a good fight. Family legend has it that he won our Mother’s heart during a barn dance. She had come with another; Dad threatened to win her back with fisticuffs and her date relented. Throughout his life, he refused to back down from a friendly or not-so-friendly argument.
The issues — whether a president was good or bad, Ford vs. Chevrolet, Holsteins vs. Brown Swiss — sometimes grew heated and seemed to a child observer as much too long. It was a welcome sight when Dad pulled out his Red Man tobacco pouch to signal the debate was over.
Mother wanted him to end the Red Man habit and thus it was decided that he would try pipe smoking. The aroma of Prince Albert filled the living room, which in my opinion was much worse than anything before. Mercifully, he did not keep the habit long.
Toward the end of his life, Dad discovered lemon drops — a candy he said helped fight indigestion and restless nights. He kept a large bag of lemon drops in the hall closet and said that I must keep my hands off it at all cost. However, he did not miss one or two at a time, which allowed his son’s thievery to go unnoticed.
I do not know what became of his shaving mug. However, the jackknife has remained in my desk drawer ever since.
Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minn., with his wife, Kathy.