I have a shelf in the corner of my shop where I pile my collection of tape measures. They frequently fall off the shelf, and this past week I finally got tired enough of picking them up off the floor that I put them in order. In the process, I noticed a drawer in a small parts organizer that the tapes had been hiding. The drawer was marked “Knives.” The handwriting, in black Sharpie, was mine, but I didn’t remember putting any knives in that organizer. When I pulled the drawer out I immediately recognized one of the knives in it. “Oh, there you are,” I said out loud as one does when finding a member of the family in an unusual place in the house. It was my marlinespike knife, which had been missing for over ten years. The last time I’d seen it, I had taken it apart to replace the pins holding it together—they had loosened considerably with age. The knife had once belonged to my grandfather, Francis Cunningham, Sr.
My father, Francis Jr., was born and raised in Lowell, Massachusetts. Every two or three years we spent our summers in Massachusetts, splitting our time between my grandparents’ home in Lowell and a rented summer house in Marblehead, a harbor town just down the coast from Boston. On one of our stays back east we took a trip to New York City. I think it was in 1960; I was just seven years old then, so my memories of the trip are quite dim. I remember going shopping with my father for a birthday present for my grandfather, Papa, as my sisters and I called him. We went to Abercrombie and Fitch. It wasn’t at all like it is now, a source of trendy, upscale fashions for those who can afford to show a bit of midriff. It was the store for adventurers outfitting safaris and expeditions. I recall a high-ceilinged showroom with dark, wood-paneled walls covered with the mounted heads of African wildlife. Dad bought a folding marlinespike knife for Papa. We then visited FAO Schwarz, and Dad picked out a toy sailboat with a bright royal blue hull and a sloop rig. I liked it, and in my young mind I saw no reason that my 71-year-old grandfather wouldn’t like it too, as one of his birthday presents. As we were leaving, Dad asked me which gift Papa would like most; I could have the other one. I picked the knife for Papa and the sailboat was mine.
Papa would have used the knife for working on MOLLY MAY, the 31′ cutter he kept in Marblehead Harbor. After my grandfather died in 1965, Dad brought the knife home with him and used it working on his 27′ Tumlare sloop. In the ’60s, when I took an interest in maritime skills, Dad gave the marlinespike knife to me. Its blade held a good edge and was the best I’d ever used for cutting rope.
Eventually the knife got a bit loose and the marlinespike wouldn’t snap open and stay steady, so I took the knife apart, intending to fix it. I was at a loss for how to go about the repair and I put the knife away, in pieces. As it often is with important things put away carefully so they won’t get lost, I forgot where I put it. Having the knife once again in my hand, I straightaway set to putting it back in working order, using common nails to make new pins and replace the missing bail.
I sharpened the blade and, just as I remembered, it cut through rope with ease. I haven’t seen Papa for more than 55 years, but when I look at the knife, I imagine it held in the hand of my grandfather and think, “Oh, there you are.”
Putting the knife back together