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The Old Cutting Edge

  He’s found his niche, and he’s sharpening it.

  James Smith, born on Marrowbone Creek at Lookout in Pike County, will be 76 years old this April.

  “We lived so far up the holler, we got to use the water first,” says Jim. The “retired” lumberjack, carpenter, and poet still arises at four in the morning because, he says, that’s when it’s the quietest.

  He’s become one of those rare breeds: he’s a sharpener.

Chain saws to scissors, knives to pinking shears, James Smith turns “dull” into razor-sharp. He can build teeth on a steel surface where there weren’t any before.

  In the throwaway society booming into 2000, most consumers equate dullness with “done in,” “done for,” and “dead for certain.” James Smith acts on the belief that anything that ever had a cutting edge deserves a second chance and is therefore a candidate for repair.

  In his tiny 10′ x 14′ shop behind the house he built with his own hands in Montgomery County, Mr. Smith stands tall amid equipment seldom seen by a public that prefers newness to buffed-up and restored.

  There’s the clipper hone for sharpening the tools of barbers, beauticians, and sheepshearers. Then come the scissors vise and the pinking shears sharpener. There are the handsaw filer, the handsaw retoothing machine, the band sander for limb trimmers, the machine for coating carbide sawteeth, the tote welder, and the knife grinder (any size up to 3 feet).

  Over the door, inside his postage stamp-sized shop, hangs James Smith’s father’s old crosscut saw from Pike County, hanging there as a reminder of the days before rural electricity. By the door stands the hard steel ax from the ’30s and ’40s, when Jim left home to go west with the Civilian Conservation Corps. Back then, he was only 16 years old. His father and mother, Fred and Mae Bartley Smith, had moved from Pike to Floyd to Montgomery County.

  Jim was sent to logging camps in Idaho and Washington. He earned $1 a day with the CCC. Once a month, the government sent $15 to Jim’s parents, held out $6 for a savings account, and presented Jim with a princely $10-if there were 31 days in the month.

  After his tour of duty with the CCC, Jim was a natural as a “rigging slinger” in the logging industry in the Pacific Northwest, and he moved up to a whopping $6 a day! When World War II began, Jim headed home to Kentucky and joined the Army. When that was behind him, he proved the value of vocational training.

In his time as a carpenter, James Smith helped to build the IBM facility in Lexington. He helped to erect the Singletary Center for the Arts at the University of Kentucky. He installed the fold-away bleachers at Rupp Arena. He built 35 houses, including the one where he shares a 55-year marriage with Blanche Harvey Smith, a native of Magoffin County. Nowadays, while Jim sharpens tools she designs “chicken scratch” quilts.

  She looks up from the work in her hands to remind Jim to tell his visitor about the verse he’s written.

  The sharpener smiles and begins to recite Just How Tall is a Tree.

Look around you and you can see

That nearly everything you touch,

Nearly everything you see,

Is in someway built or constructed

from a tree.

  People usually say to Jim: “Can you sharpen this?”

  He usually replies: “I’ll have to study it.”

  His vocation today is a culmination of a lifetime of looking at tasks, sizing them up, and going to work to make them right. From the days of his youth when he shoed mine ponies in the coalfields of eastern Kentucky, to this latter time of his seniority, James Smith stays keen on the pleasurable edge of achievement.

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