Monday, March 11, 2013
The story of the “Sanchez Knife”
Many years ago, I worked in a factory setting. It was a shop that provided heat treatment of steel tools such as dies, broaches, punches, and inserts. My job was to temper steel in molten salt baths. Essentially, we applied heated salt to steel as a strengthening measure. As I preformed the associated tempering tasks, I did not stop to consider the simple roots of the craft of metallurgy. That is, not until I heard about the Sanchez Knife.
One time at the shop, I mentioned to a colleague named Al that it was difficult to trim the jungle-like grass from my sidewalk and driveway. Al said, “Hold on, Bouchard. I have just the thing. Let me get you a Sanchez Knife”
After a few minutes of rummaging, he produced what looked like a homemade butcher knife. Its blade was about nine inches long and clearly made from an old discarded tool called an insert. It was a bit uneven and rusty. The blade had irregular dents, as though someone had tried to pound it straight with a specialized hammer. The handle, roughly 4 inches long, was constructed of two pieces of wood bound around the base of the blade with dirty, worn duct tape. It truly looked like a failed shop project.
Evidently, I could not conceal my disappointment, because the Al said, “Don’t judge it by looks, son. Go to the grinder and sharpen it. Take it home and try it on your edging project.”
Al was right. The steel was effective, almost magical. I simply pressed the knife along the pavement and pulled back. The tough vegetation yielded to the tool. I tamed the jungle of my lawn and rescued the sidewalk from disorder. Like a hot blade through butter, the Sanchez Knife did the job.
I reported back to Al and thanked him. Normally, Al was quiet, punctuating silences with an occasional witticism or remarkably caustic (but true) comment. This time was different. He told me the history of the Sanchez Knife.
In 1954, Al started his career in the shop. Louie Sanchez worked with young Al and took him under his wing. As time went on, Sanchez revealed tricks of the steel heat treatment trade to Al. He would pepper in a few stories of his experiences during World War Two. Sanchez served in the European Theatre. He was captured by the enemy and held in a prison camp for a few years. He told Al that he and other imprisoned Allied troops acquired steel occasionally, despite the efforts to the contrary of their captors. They sometimes hardened the steel by using water, heat, and salt.
After the war, Sanchez brought his knife making abilities to the shop and crafted blades for heavy-duty use for his friends and colleagues. I never met Mr. Sanchez, as he left prior to my arrival. Al has since passed. I never got to ask him if the Sanchez Knife that he gave to me in the 1980’s was a “Louie Original”. I like to think that it was crafted by Mr. Sanchez.
My life’s path veered away from the steel shop. I started a job in a maximum security prison as a librarian. Training, stories, and other factors made me aware of contraband and security-conscious. However, when I saw my first prison-made knife, I could only think about Sanchez’s experiences. I am not a believer of mysticism. But the eerie foreshadowing of my corrections career in the steel shop was notable.
That prison made-knife may not have been tempered by heat and salt. But, the tools to do so were available. The opportunities would have been few, but still possible. Prisoners could acquire salt, heat, and water. True, they did not have access to sodium nitrite and salt bath furnaces. However, the fundamentals were attainable.
This may suggest that prisoners routinely apply a metallurgical process in the construction of a shank. I do not believe that this is true. In fact, I believe that this is quite rare.
One could speculate if it any prison-made blade is tempered. But, this is a secondary consideration. Primarily, staff are grateful that the shank is discovered. The speculation starts of its origin and path at the point of discover. In the end, it is about staff controlling tools, materials and opportunities.
The players in the stories have diametrically opposed roles. Sanchez was a captured soldier, a fighter for democracy behind enemy lines. The blade in prison was manufactured by someone who was lawfully incarcerated and who sought to make himself (and the prison) more dangerous. There may be some similarities in the motives. But, my perspective on each of the characters is different. Clearly, we hope for Sanchez’s success and the thwarting of the contrabandist prisoner.
I wonder if Mr. Sanchez knew that his survival in a German POW camp would later reflect in his steel working vocation. I also ponder if Sanchez might get a bit of satisfaction from knowing that his stories to Al helped make me more aware of the dangers of contraband. Whatever the answers may be, I have more than a useful knife. I also have a noble contraband story attached to a durable, heavy-duty blade.
These are the opinions of Joe Bouchard, a Librarian employed with the Michigan Department of Corrections. These are not necessarily the opinions of the Department. The MDOC is not responsible for the content or accuracy.