April 1996

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Of Pocketknives

And Mumbledy-Peg


John Rezelman

Index of articles by John Rezelman

Today, at least in some places, I'm told kids may not have pocketknives in school. Not to be completely naive about it, if they have them, it's not allowed, it's a violation. If they had them, it's said, they would not only be classed as concealed weapons, but used as such, so it does seem sound reasoning to prohibit them.

By contrast, to this day, whenever I have my pants on I feel incomplete unless there's a trusty pocketknife in my right side pocket, and it has been that way ever since I was a six-year-old first-grader. In those days it was the norm for boys and pocketknives to be inseparable, one each, always. I have scarred fingers, too.

Mostly we boys in the lower grades carried a kind of knife chiefly distinguished by being cheaply acquired and replaced. They usually had but one blade and had metal sides for handles, stamped and painted to resemble deer horn. They cost about twenty five cents in what we called variety stores. They were sufficiently durable for our kind of user. We didn't wear them out, but we lost them with regular frequency and frequent regularity. We saw them disappear into bodies of water sometimes, but most often they fell out of, or through holes in, our pockets at times and in places unknown, so it was rarely possible to find them after their loss had been discovered. Even in pre-Depression and Depression days it was not prohibitive to come up with a quarter for another one.

We used them to clean our fingernails if a school inspection came up, to carve initials in tree bark and school desks, to cut string or divide apples, to bore holes in acorns and horse chestnuts, to scale and gut fish, to whittle sling shots and such products and so on and on. We would have tried to use them to skin and dress small game if we had had any, but we were still in the B-B gun stage then. Our take was very limited, including little that was skinnable. Some few boys had Boy Scout knives, with one big blade, a can opener, a bottle opener, a leather punch and other gadgets. These were quite admired, but really quite heavy and cumbersome.

We knew about better quality knives, too, with names like Ka-Bar and Case attesting to their superiority, but we were somehow practical-minded enough not to covet them. They were for men. Young and middle-aged men used them for everything, including cutting off chew-size portions from plug tobacco. Their knives, like themselves, were in their prime. Old men had the same kinds but theirs had been ground sharp so often the handles no longer completely covered the blades' points, and the nickel plate was worn off in places showing brass alloys underneath. They were like their owners in many respects.

I have been threatened on occasion with some spectacular forms of violence, and subjected to some I didn't enjoy—but never did any of them involve a pocketknife. Somehow, for some reason, I don't think the idea ever occurred to us. Hardly explicable in today's light, but it was effective restraint nevertheless.

What we did do with our knives was to play Mumbledy-Peg. The only equipment needed was a pocketknife.

When I decided to try to write about that I came up against a revelation. If I had tried to teach this game to my son when he was at the age for it, and I barely thirty, I think I could have done it. But this is not a game fathers often taught their sons; more likely older brothers did, or else it was a matter of observation and monkey-see, monkey-do. Anyway, in the early 1950s there was no demand. It has been over 60 years since I played it myself and I find there is much I can't remember. Nevertheless, I'll try to record what I can recall. Perhaps some other oldster will recognize what's missing or in error and supply or correct it. That way, the whole story might still end up stored in a computer some day for whatever value that might have for posterity.

Mumbledy-peg is a game of skill consisting of many prescribed moves, each of which to be successful had to end up with the knife point sticking in the ground firmly enough so the knife would stand without falling over. This meant a relationship between the kind of soil in an area and the popularity of this game. Out on the eastern end of Long Island where I lived in my mumbledy-peg years there were very few stones and the game was much played. When we moved to Ithaca where gravel and shale fragments were so numerous you couldn't stick a pitchfork in the ground without several tries, I never saw it played, and that's easy to understand.

A "move" consisted of propelling a knife from various positions so it struck when it hit the ground. All boys, seemingly, knew all these moves and the prescribed order in which they were performed. There were few rules and no referees. Any disputes were settled in typical boy fashion—by yelling. "You cheated." "I did not" "You did, too," etc. etc. etc. Listen in on any boys' ball game these days: you will hear this has survived intact. The contestant who can yell longest and loudest and induce the most on the scene to join him wins his point. He did then and he does now.

The "moves," yes, what were they? Well, one was holding the point of the knife on each fingertip of the left hand (or the reverse if you were left handed) and pushing it off from about chest height so it did a complete flip-over in mid-air, landing on its point. Many moves were similar, from various points of the anatomy. Some had names. One of this latter type was Tony Chestnut. The Player sat down with his foot upright, put the knife point on his shoe at big toe position and flipped it. This was a difficult one, as it wasn't very far to the ground. I couldn't do it now, but I know we did do it. Then knee, then chest, then forehead—in each case placing a thumb at each of those positions and the knife point resting on and launched from the thumb. Toe, knee, chest, head— "Tony Chestnut."

Four rings were formed by thumb and each finger in turn, of each hand and the knife dropped straight down from chest height, about a foot above the ring. The knife was laid on the back of the hand, pointing away from the hody, then flipped over for a complete change of direction again before it hit the ground. Another named move, occurring late in the game sequence, was "Spank the Baby." One hand rested on the ground on heel and little finger to form an upright wall. The knife was balanced on this wall, handle on the side toward which it would fly. The handle was then struck with the flat of the hand so the knife rose in an arc, again the complete flip-over in mid-air and again on its point, hopefully to stick. There was a whole series in which you held the knife tip between thumb and forefinger and flipped it at the ground. There were others that elude my memory. They all required some real skill to perform. Had our knives been kept in top squirrel-skinning, wood-carving condition we'd have been copiously bloodied at every game. But they weren't, and we weren't.

Several could play at once, of that I'm sure, and usually each with his own knife rather than sharing a communal one. Failure of the knife to stand, toppling over, counted against you. Just how score was kept I can't remember either, but as I recall it, the game ended with only one grand loser, and one winner who had done the best. I am sure that this was not recorded on paper or in writing, and that arriving at the outcome involved much yelling, but somehow it was arrived at.

Now for the game's name. The winner prepared a wooden peg about two inches long and pushed its point into the ground. All participants were entitled to a certain number of whacks at it with the back of the closed knife, until it was driven down to the surface of the ground or better still, if they could achieve it, somewhat below the surface. Now the loser had to lie down on his belly and with his teeth grip and pull out the peg. This made clear the "Mumbledy" part of the name—often it involved considerable spitting out of dirt and was a masterpiece of humiliation. To have had more than one loser would have diluted the disgrace of the moment too much. There was a stimulus to avoid losing.

Like many such "folk" activities, the game may have had local variations. I have reported what I knew, the best I can remember it. If readers know variations or can clear up omissions or mis-recollections—well, posterity's waiting. Its strong points as I recall them were that it needed no equipment beyond what the players could be expected to have—nothing complex, nothing electronic, nothing costly. The game must have taught something of enduring value besides finger dexterity—a "feel" for trajectory, maybe. Or perhaps, in common with other boys' games, the yelling practice may have increased later effectiveness in serving on committees or in legislative bodies—some of them currently suggest that possibility.

© 1996, John Rezelman
Index of articles by John Rezelman
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