I was summoned for jury duty over the summer, an occasion which happens with stunning regularity every five years.

It reminded me of a situation that occurred decades ago, the first time I appeared for duty. After entering the courthouse with a stream of other ordinary-looking people and falling into the security line, I had put my purse and jacket on the conveyer belt for screening and waited my turn to pass through the metal detector. As I was waiting, I heard one of the security officers say to the other, “This one’s got a knife.” I gasped audibly, thinking to myself, “Who in the world would bring a knife into the courthouse?”

Robin Conte lives with her husband in an empty nest in Dunwoody. To contact her or to buy her new column collection, “The Best of the Nest,” see robinconte.com.

Well. It was me.

My Swiss Army knife was in my handbag.

I used to carry it with me everywhere. I had purchased it while in college during my foreign-study jaunt through Switzerland, as a treasured reminder of cowbells and hot chocolate and train rides through green Alpine pastures to snow-capped mountains. It was a genuine Victorinox: a sleek red body, embossed with the white cross of Switzerland’s flag, that encased a wonderland of tiny tools. I remember deliberating at length over the variety of gizmo combinations available for purchase and finally settling on a nifty version that included two blades, a scissors, a can opener, a bottle opener, a corkscrew, a nail file and a pair of tweezers. Everything was made of quality stainless steel, except for an odd yellowish piece of plastic hidden in the end that I didn’t figure out was supposed to serve as a toothpick until a good 20 years later.

If you needed an apple peeled or a stick whittled, I was your girl! If a screw was coming dislodged, I could tighten it with the top of my can opener! If you were lost in the woods with nothing but a can of peas and a bottle of wine, I could free them both for you! If you broke a fingernail, I could provide you with a rough-edged piece of stainless steel that would help smooth it out a bit, after 30 minutes of rigorous filing!

I think I even used it to carve a jack-o’-lantern once.

I walked around with that thing in my purse for years, confident that I was equipped to field-dress an elk at a moment’s notice, should the need arise.
It inspired in me an air of self-reliance, and, to be honest, a tinge of superiority, because, let’s face it, how many of my peers were packing such a useful, yet authentic, treasure?

None were. That’s how many.

It was as natural in my handbag as my lipstick and Tic Tacs. So natural that I hadn’t thought twice about walking into a courtroom with it. So natural that, never having learned my lesson, I forgot to remove it before I boarded a certain flight, and, crestfallen, I was forced to part with it forever.

I did replace it, but, detached from the Alpine setting in which the original was purchased, the new knife was more utilitarian and less sentimental.

Still, the security lines threatened it wherever I went until I finally removed it from my purse and tucked it into the console of my minivan, where it languishes still, because there aren’t all that many sticks begging to be whittled while sitting in traffic.

But one day, that hidden toothpick just might come in handy.

Robin Conte

Robin Conte lives with her husband in an empty nest in Dunwoody. To contact her or to buy her new column collection, “The Best of the Nest,” see robinconte.com.