Manhood and the Totin’ Chip

By Paul Koch


Every now and then I get a strong craving for hot wings. When I lived down in Georgia it was never much of an issue to satisfy such a longing, for there were incredible restaurants that were dedicated to the craft of making perfect wings. And while you can certainly find good wings in California, you also find a lot of very average wings. So while on a quick getaway with my wife last weekend I spied a Buffalo Wild Wings and knew they offered great wings. So in we went and together we plowed through a pile of chicken wings smothered in various delicious sauces. As we were preparing to leave, I was approached by a large man dressed all in black. He looked like a security guard, and in fact that was exactly what he was.

He was polite and quietly referred to the metal clip fastened to my right pocked. He asked if it was a knife. I told him it was (actually it is a Gerber Multitool, but I don’t think he would have cared about the distinction). Then he said that I needed to leave it in my car. Now look, I wasn’t trying to get on an airplane, I wasn’t sneaking a knife into a ballgame around security screening, I was eating some wings with my wife.  I’m sure there was a reason for such overzealous caution; perhaps they had had an incident before and were trying to prevent another problem, a sort of restaurant level “Patriot Act.” But the whole thing got me thinking about the values and fears of our society, and about what happens when tools become viewed only as weapons.


For those of you who were in the Boy Scouts of America as a child, you will no doubt remember the Totin’ Chip card. This card was essentially your license to carry a pocketknife, swing an ax, or operate a saw. The rules were straightforward:

  1. Read and understand woods tools use and safety rules from the Boy Scout Handbook.
  2. Demonstrate proper handling, care, and use of the pocket knife, ax, and saw.
  3. Use knife, ax, and saw as tools, not playthings.
  4. Respect all safety rules to protect others.
  5. Respect property. Cut living and dead trees only with permission and good reason.
  6. Subscribe to the Outdoor Code.

After meeting the criteria you were given a card and no one worried about you carrying a pocketknife. Now this may sound like a small thing, but for me (and I assume many others) this was sort of a rite of passage toward manhood. I joyfully tucked that card into my OP wallet with Velcro closure and began carrying a knife in my pocket since I was about 11 years old. If any leader ever saw me failing to observe the rules for safe use of such a tool, they would review the rules and then cut one of the corners off my Totin’ Chip card. If you ended up with all four corners cut off you were no longer allowed to carry that knife, swing that ax, or operate the saw.


Now this whole process, as simple as it might seem, provided something crucial. To begin with the knife, ax, or saw is viewed initially and intentionally as a tool. They are not weapons to be feared but crucial items to achieve essential goals in everyday life. In addition, the whole notion of the Totin’ Chip taught young men that not only could they carry a pocketknife but they should carry one. To carry a tool with you was part of what it was to be a man, which means that there was a sense of self-reliance built in to the whole endeavor. After all, why carry a tool if you don’t expect to use it?

There is something inherently good about a certain amount of self-reliance. There is something invigorating about having some sort of mastery over the world around you. However, today we are constantly pressed into reliance on others and not in a good way. We are not simply encouraged to seek out the gifts and wisdom of others to aid and guide our endeavors, rather we are told to outsource the whole job. Increasingly everything from changing the oil in your car to installing a new light fixture to chopping firewood is something that we are encouraged to leave to others, to experts, who are properly qualified.


More and more, men today won’t even give it a shot. They just assume they should leave it to others. And everything around us reinforces the wisdom of such an approach. After all, when our phones don’t work we have to take them in to the store. Not that they can fix it either, they simply sell you the new upgraded version. When we open the hood of our cars, we come face to face with another hood all together, one made of a mass of wires and smog compliant components that we can never get through. And so this lack of spiritedness has infected the church, as well. We hesitate to take action far too often because we have been conditioned to wait for the approval of the experts.

I, for one, think it is time to reclaim our self-reliance. Even if we fail, let’s go down swinging. Let’s impart to our children a desire to have mastery over the things in their life. Let’s put our Totin’ Chip cards back in our wallets. And when we are asked by some random “expert” to leave our pocketknife in the car, just take out that card and show them that at least a few corners haven’t been cut off.