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.
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.
Unfortunately, the frightened animal didn’t recognize her and couldn’t be approached. So the woman used her Swiss army knife to open a can of tuna, and enticed the cat into her car.
Another member noted that on a recent vacation one of the sun visors in his motor home came loose and hung down, obscuring his view of the road ahead. He tried to fasten the visor in place with a rubber band, but that didn’t work and he angrily cursed and batted at the thing for two days.
Finally, his 7-year-old son fixed the broken visor by tightening a single screw with the screwdriver attachment of his Swiss army knife. “I might have been more proud of him if I hadn’t felt so embarrassed by such a simple solution to the dilemma,” the man wrote.
Wall said he spends about an hour each evening answering such correspondence and sending out “membership stuff.” (According to Janet Wall, however, her husband sometimes spends “five or six hours at a time” on society business, “without eating.”) The society has members in 39 states as well as in Canada, Australia, England and Switzerland. “Many are environmentalists,” Rick Wall said.
But environmentalists or not, all seem to grasp that humor is part of the group’s raison d’etre --like the man who wrote that he had nearly starved to death after a plane carrying him and members of the Lithuanian national soccer team crash-landed in the Andes. Luckily, he said, he came upon a can of Spam buried deeply in the snow, and was able to open it with his Swiss army knife.
Most of those who join the society hear about it through word of mouth, but some join after seeing small ads for the “Swiss Army Knife Companion” that the Walls have placed in magazines such as Outside. The couple also plan to market an official Swiss Army Knife Society coffee mug, but, although they have toyed with the idea of producing other novelties, they have rejected it.
“We don’t want to turn this into a mail-order business,” said Rick Wall, a former sales representative for Carnation Dairies who is working to get a teaching credential from National University. “It’s a fun society for people who own Swiss army knives. There’s a camaraderie that Swiss army knife fans enjoy.”
Part of it has to do with the craftsmanship and precision of the knives themselves, he said. In addition, the knives “have a tradition to them. They won’t be out of style in a year. And they’re reliable, like an old Volkswagen beetle.
“But more than just the knives, there’s a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor that Swiss army knife fans seem to share. That’s what attracts me (to this whole enterprise). We’re not making money at it--we’re barely breaking even.
“But we’re having fun.”