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Citizens make the town. That’s as it should be. But it’s not just the extremities–the rule and the fool–that make the place, though they tend to be the people we remember. Perhaps that’s why Howard chose an extreme character as the subject of his column for November 10th, 2006

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Kropotkin, the Knife-Man

Agincourt has been slow to correct and even more reticent to punish its social fringe. But no one tested that tolerance more than an itinerant mechanic named Kropotkin.

Our community has been exceptionally tollerant of deviance–that is, it has accepted difference from, even defiance of, societal norms. It neither rewards nor punishes for that difference from a so-called normative state or condition. Perhaps that’s our inheritance from the Dutch who came here in the 1870s, because the Low Countries have traditionally welcomed all, with an attitude that your behavior is acceptable so long as it doesn’t impinge upon mine.

Some time after 1905, a rough man calling himself only Kropotkin (Кропо́ткин in what an old friend calls the Acrylic alphabet–thank you, Cecil!) arrived in town with neither family nor much in the way of possessions. The little English he spoke came wrapped in a thick Eastern European accent redolent of onions. Everyone assumed he was Russian; some even inferred that his appearance was connected with the failed 1905 revolution in Russia which was so prominent in the local and national press.

Revolution was on everyone’s mind–from rumors that Victoria’s death would bring about a British republic, to fears that our own oligarchy might be threatened. It may have excited the natives to imagine that a card-carrying anarchist revolutionary was in their midst. Radical change can be frightening, no matter what its source.

Kropotkin didn’t live in town; in fact, for many years no one was quite certain where he lived. But he and his horse-drawn wagon appeared regularly throughout town to sharpen tools, kitchen knives, lawn mowers, ice skates–anything with a metal blade dulled from use or abuse. He was the master of metal, plying his skills as far as Fort Dodge and Storm Lake in good weather.

Kropotkin’s wagon held a large whetstone mounted on a foot-fed treadle. He would set up business on residential street corners and call attention to his presence by clanging a large cowbell and proffering his sharpening services in a rich basso-profundo that would have secured a contract with the Metropolitan Opera and the lead in “Eugene Onegin”! Eat your heart out, Robert Goulet.

A dozen years or so after his unheralded arrival, Kropotkin disappeared. Evaporated would be more accurate. It was only then that folks realized he had been living in an abandoned farmstead five miles south of town on the flats near Muskrat City. Pinkerton agents showed up a few weeks later seeking his whereabouts, which seemed to confirm local suspicion of anarchist tendencies and a possible return to Mother Russia following the more successful revolution of 1917.

An entire generation of Agincourt children ate their vegetables and took their medicine and respected their elders with a parental admonition that “the Knife-Man will get you!” if they misbehaved. What a sorry example of tolerance. And what a sad legacy for the memory of a stranger who did no harm—strange only because we did not know him.

Not all strangers are strange.

And our cutlery has never been the same.

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