Eli had a house near White Plains, where his Boxer, Taffy, once took our spaniel mutt Patches’ head in his mouth before Eli pulled Taffy away. I was maybe seven or eight, walking with Eli in the small orchard he had there when he reached up and pulled down a ripe apple or pear.
“Here,” he said in his sandpaper voice, “try this, these are delicious. I grew them myself.”
I pointed to a bruise on the side of the fruit and he took it back, drew a pocketknife and made a small, quick circle that removed the blemish.
“Here you go,” he said, and I ate the fruit, amazed at how simply the problem had been solved. It was pretty good, even though I can’t remember fifty years later if it was a pear or an apple. It might even have been a peach.
What I do remember is the lesson, something I never observed in my own home. Eli, a man with a famously brutal temper, was perfectly capable, if in the mood, of acting exactly as my father would have. “Jesus fucking Christ!” he could have fumed, “I offer you a fruit from my own tree and all you can see is the goddamned bruise. You are some fucking piece of work!” and he would have punctuated the denunciation by heaving the apple against a tree trunk. It would have splattered and he would have stormed off.
Instead, without a word and in the most economical and practical possible way, he fixed the problem. Pocket knife, open, quick circular motion, hand it back to the boy with a little smile — problem solved. The very opposite of the frustrated helplessness that was taught where I grew up.
One reason, I suppose, that I have always carried some kind of knife with me, even if nowadays it is the smallest keychain Swiss Army knife they make. You never know when an otherwise unsolvable problem calls for a quick cut with a sharp blade. It happens more often than you would think.