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Whittlers Never Die

A knife has a life of its own. Especially sharpened just right for whittling.

I’ll always remember the whittlers of cedar on the front porch of Blevin’s Grocery in Preston, east of Stepstone, north of Hope, a short way from Peeled Oak in Bath County.

I wrote about the whittlers 10 years ago in The Quiet Kentuckians, a book out of print now, but recently I picked up the phone and spoke howdy over there to Blevin’s Grocery alongside the old Chesapeake and Ohio track, and it was good to know that Roscoe Cassidy had turned 96 years old.

Postmistress Helen Blevins called Roscoe to the phone, and I asked about his health.

“Pretty good.”

“How do you stay healthy?”

“Lord, I don’t know—good pasture and water.”

“Still whittling?”

“Not when the weather’s bad. When warm weather comes I sit on the front porch and whittle.”

“What’s your favorite knife?”

“Like ’em all. Sit around and trade knives. Boss cuts the best.”

We didn’t talk long because quiet Kentuckians are not known for gabbing.

“When March rolls around, I’ll come visit,” I offered.

“Come over and we’ll whittle awhile,” Roscoe concluded.

We’ll miss whittlers Oscar Copher and Roy “Johnny” Donahue, who’ve passed on, but Coon Conyers may still be of a mind to build a morning of shavings, and we’ll be on the lookout for him. And Sam Ingram, he’ll pull up a chair and open his good knife—we whittlers have got a right smart whittling to do before the big sundown.

During the past 15 years that this column has appeared on the back page of Kentucky Living, from time to time there’s a connection that makes all the whittling worthwhile.

It comes in a letter from Debra Salsman of LaRue County. Her husband passed away last November. It had been a long journey of poor health, but she remembers him for his love of family, people—and knives.

“He needed a way to remain connected to people. His lifelong fascination with pocketknives, Case knives in particular, gave him exactly what he needed.

“He and a friend, who was also retired, traveled Kentucky, finding flea markets, knife shows, and knife clubs. There was London and Greenville, Leitchfield and Louisville, Cave City, Glasgow, and Halifax. At all these stops, he found knives to trade but what he enjoyed most were the people he met.

“He made friends everywhere. They enriched his life, many became part of our very extended family. I learned so much about people and relationships from him. He helped me understand how unimportant material things are and how important people and our relationships with them are.

“It’s only now, after he’s gone, that I’m realizing what a profound gift he gave me and what a blessing he was in my life. He loved your columns in Kentucky Living because you write about people. His constant reminder to me was to come outside of myself and connect with people, to see life as an adventure and a journey.

“I believe that now he must be in Heaven, reunited with the storytelling friends who have gone before, saving a place at the table for those yet to come. He held a deep belief that death was not an end but was a beginning of a new adventure, a new journey.

“Sharing a little of his story with you has helped. How he’s connected with one more person.”

Ten years ago, when I returned from Preston to Plum Lick, I asked Rube Blevins if I could bring some shavings back home.

“We’ll sack you up some of it,” said Rube, who’d already treated me to a baloney sandwich.

When I arrived home, I asked my wife to close her eyes: “Now smell.”

She like to not stop crying.

Said it reminded her of her father.

He used to be a whittler of cedar.

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