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A Real Bladesman : Swiss Army Knife Aficionado Says It's a Cut Above

September 26, 1987|GORDON SMITH

SAN DIEGO — Rick Wall examined his Swiss army knife thoughtfully. "I've used it to cut loose threads off my slacks," he said. "I've opened wine bottles with it. Once I used a Swiss army knife to fix the phone when something got stuck inside it.

"And I never go to a party without one--they're great for opening beer cans if the tab breaks off."

Wall, 38, is a true fan of the Swiss army knife. He even shares the study in his Tierrasanta townhouse with the Swiss Army Knife Society. But it's no trouble--really.

Sure, the society's brochures, membership cards, stationery and other paraphernalia take up a lot of room on his shelves.

Stacks of the society's book--"Swiss Army Knife Companion: The Improbable History of the World's Handiest Knife"--are loaded in the closet, and Wall's desk is often used as a paste-up table for the society's newsletter, The Crimson Cutter.

Founder of Society

But Wall doesn't mind any of this; the Swiss Army Knife Society was his idea. He is the founder, president and driving force behind it.

The international group, which boasts of more than 200 members, was formed about a year ago because "I'm crazy about Swiss army knives," Wall said.

"But in a sensible way," he added quickly.

Wall's wife, Janet, 35, used to wonder about that. When she learned of her husband's plans to found the Swiss Army Knife Society, her reaction was less than enthusiastic. "I thought he was nuts," she said.

Now Edits Newsletter

But opinions have a way of evolving. Janet Wall now edits articles in The Crimson Cutter and looks after the society's finances.

In a way, it's logical that the Swiss army knife would have inspired a society of admirers. The handy little knives that include everything from scissors and screwdrivers to saws, toothpicks and bottle openers have become phenomenally popular since the first one was patented in 1897.

Only two Swiss companies are licensed to make "official" Swiss army knives--the ones with a white cross on the red handle. One of the companies, Victorinox, manufactures 20,000 knives a day and exports more than half of them to the United States.

Swiss army knives have been to the top of Mt. Everest, where mountain climbers have used them for trimming fingernails and toenails, among other things. An Indian doctor once used one of the knives to perform an emergency tracheotomy on a child during an airplane flight between Bombay and Bangalore. And Stars & Stripes crew member Scott Vogel is said to have used a Swiss army knife to make emergency repairs in the heat of the recent America's Cup competition.

The Swiss army knife has even been made part of the design collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It has inspired imitations and countless cartoons.

A Life Style

And it has certainly inspired Rick Wall. "People are always talking about the utility of it," he said, "but the people I talk to see the Swiss army knife more as a life style."

Those people include Wall's family. When Wall was a kid, he often went camping with his family, including his two uncles. Everyone took along a Swiss army knife, he said.

Eventually, whenever family members prepared for a trip, they joked that although it looked as if they were going camping, they were really on their way to a meeting of the Swiss Army Knife Society.

"No matter where we were or what we were doing, the one thing we all had in common was a Swiss army knife," said Wall. "At first I thought we just had a weird family."

"You do have a weird family," his wife commented.

In any case, as Wall got older he learned that Swiss army knives were becoming more and more popular. Two years ago, encouraged by his family, he decided to write a history of the multipurpose little tools.

That project turned out to be too serious for him, though. Besides, there really wasn't much history to write about. So Wall wrote a tongue-in-cheek history instead, one that includes drawings of Swiss army knives with chain saws, coffeepots, shovels and other equipment.

He and his wife spent $3,000 to print 2,000 copies of "Swiss Army Knife Companion." Wall said about 1,200 copies have been sold.

There are no problems with copyright infringement because the name "Swiss army knife" is considered public domain, he said. In fact, when Victorinox Senior Vice President James Kennedy learned of the book, he ordered five copies from Wall and gave them to the company's sales representatives.

Interesting Stories

As a kind of companion project to the "Swiss Army Knife Companion," Wall founded the Swiss Army Knife Society. In addition to membership cards and registration certificates for their knives, members receive quarterly issues of the newsletter, which includes factual articles about the Swiss army as well as "field reports" about members who have used their knives in creative ways.

In one recent newsletter, a woman said she was on her way home from the supermarket when she encountered her cat, which had disappeared a few days earlier.

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