Lesson 49 - SURVIVE - Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss

Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)


Lesson 49


Cogito ergo armatum sum—I think, therefore I am armed.

This was Mad Dog’s philosophy.

He told us that he liked to go to airport gift shops and see what items he could turn into weapons.

He told us that his daughters wore glass epoxy composite chopsticks in their hair when they flew, so they could sharpen them into daggers if they needed to stab someone.

He told us that he usually traveled with a fighting cane in his hands, which airport security thought was a regular cane.

He told us that anyone could make a killing baton on a plane by wrapping two rolls of duct tape around a tightly rolled magazine.

Listening to Mad Dog, all the FAA regulations prohibiting box cutters and lighters and pool cues and snow globes on planes seemed like a charade, capable of discouraging only amateurs.

Katie sat in the backseat of his truck, petrified. Maybe I’d chosen the wrong survivalist to bring her to.

Mad Dog parked in front of his workshop, MD Labs. Instead of a business sign on the door, there was a notice, as severe as Mad Dog himself, reading WE ARE NOT OPEN TO THE PUBLIC … IF YOU ATTEMPT ENTRY WITHOUT AN INVITATION OR APPOINTMENT, YOU WILL BE ARRESTED FOR TRESPASSING IN A FEDERAL CONTRACTOR’S FACILITY.

On the wall inside were pictures of his daughters, all cute girls carrying deadly bladed weapons. The workshop itself was an immense warehouse, the size of an airplane hangar, full of machinery and carbon steel knives in various stages of manufacture.

He lectured us in a slow, measured voice that left no room for things like humor or questions. “A drill bit is two knives in a helix. Scissors are two knives set up in opposition to one another. A saw blade is dozens of tiny little knives. But the finest expression of mankind’s most important tool is the fixed blade knife.”

“I’m afraid I’m going to hurt myself with a knife,” Katie interrupted.

“Why?” he asked. “You have sharp edges all over yourself.”

“No, I don’t.” She was offended by the very thought of it.

“Some of the earliest tools were bones. And look at your nails. I could teach you to defend yourself with those so you could scratch someone’s eyes out.”

Katie fell silent.

I noticed that Mad Dog never used phrases like “I think” or “I believe” when expressing ideas. To him, they were facts, as clear and present as the 5.4-inch blade he was now pulling out of a slip sheath in his waistband.

It was a knife of his own making, the Bear Cat. “This is like one of my kids or my daughter,” he said, deadly serious. “It’s not expendable.”

He then walked us through the meticulous process he used to make this kid—the band saw that cuts the knife form out of the carbon bar, the milling machine that fine-tunes the band saw cut, the grinder that fine-tunes the milling machine cut.

“This is where the soul of the blade is born,” he said as he brought us to his main furnace. Next to it was a long metal box containing the quench oil that cools and hardens the blades. It was filled mostly with vegetable oil. As for the rest of the liquid, he said, every time he cut himself while working, he dripped the blood into the oil. Thus, every Mad Dog knife was hardened in his own blood.

People like Mad Dog make the best instructors. They are so obsessed with their craft—a table to Mad Dog, for example, is not a table but a hard object shaped by an edged blade—that they don’t just give you a lesson, they brainwash you.

More than Spencer, whose strength came from his bank account, Mad Dog was the kind of guy I wanted to be with WTSHTF. A life’s savings could disappear overnight, but Mad Dog’s strength, conviction, and skills came from within. In a survival economy, they were gold.

I picked up a polished blade nearby. It appeared to be close to completion. I could almost see my reflect—

“If you break that,” Mad Dog said coolly, “I’ll stick a knife in your throat.”

Then again, maybe I’d rather be with Spencer WTSHTF. I looked at Katie to see how she was holding up. “Are you okay?” I asked.

“At first, he seemed kind of crazy,” she said, “but when he talks to me, his voice gets softer and he always checks to make sure I’m comfortable. Those are, like, nice-person signals.”

We moved to a table in the center of the workshop, where Mad Dog gave us a primer on knives.

He taught us why carbon steel blades hold an edge better than stainless steel.

He taught us about cutting tools, prying tools, and whacking tools.

He taught us about flat grinds, chisel grinds, and convex grinds.

He taught us about the primary bevel, the secondary bevel, the tang, the clip, the ridge line, the ricasso, the choil, the belly, the false edge, and the grind plunge.

He taught us cuts like the chop, push, slice, whittle, tip cope, and edge cope.

He even taught us how to sterilize a knife with sodium hydroxide in order to get rid of DNA evidence.

I never knew a simple blade could be so complex. Like learning tracking with Tom Brown, a language I’d never known existed before was opening up to me. From that day forward, I would never look at a knife the same way again. It was art, science, poetry. It was an entire liberal arts curriculum, but with a practical application.

I looked at Katie’s notes. She had begun by taking meticulous dictation, but somewhere between the chisel grind and the primary bevel, her notes had turned to doodles. When Mad Dog started teaching us how to sharpen blades with Karate Kid-like repetition, she whispered to me, “Sharpening knives is boring.” Then she walked to the bathroom and emerged with an armful of Maxim back issues to scour the photos for makeup ideas. I suppose, in her own way, she was working on one of her gender’s oldest and most powerful survival skills.

Katie and I woke up early the next morning for a day in the forest learning more advanced knife handling with Mad Dog. As I slipped into my cargo pants, tactical shirt, and gun belt—my entire wardrobe had changed since Gunsite and Tracker School—Katie informed me she wouldn’t be joining us.

“What’s wrong? You’re going to be bored staying in the room all day.”

“That’s okay.” She dropped resolutely onto the bed and pulled the covers up to her chin. “I’m scared of the forest.”

After thirteen minutes of pointless debate, I gave in. When Mad Dog picked me up and asked where Katie was, I told him, grumpily, that she wasn’t coming because she was scared of the forest.

“She’s a survival liability,” I sighed.

“Not necessarily. She’s an excellent source of protein.”

If I was going to be a survivalist, I suppose I’d have to start getting used to these kinds of jokes. That is, if they were jokes.

Mad Dog was wearing dark sunglasses, cargo shorts, and a sleeveless T-shirt that read TO SAVE TIME, LET’S JUST ASSUME I KNOW EVERYTHING.

“Did your family get you that shirt?” I asked.

He nodded, smiled, and began telling me about his background. A softer side of Mad Dog—the side Katie had noticed in his workshop—was starting to come out. Though he had a reputation for being harsh and irascible, especially within the knife community, he wasn’t a misanthrope like Tom Brown. He was an artist, compelled to make knives because no one else did it the right way—which was, as his shirt stated, his way.

Born Kevin McClung, Mad Dog grew up in Redwood City, south of San Francisco. “Imagine the mind of a college sophomore trapped in a skinny ten-year-old’s body in 1968,” he explained. Consequently, he was picked on and beaten up regularly. In fourth grade, when a bigger student threatened to cut him, Mad Dog brought two feet of dog lead chain to school the next day. When the bully confronted him in the schoolyard, Mad Dog ran at him and swung the chain. As he recalled, “The kid’s head popped open like a red tomato. He never fucked with me again.”

After that experience, Mad Dog always made sure there was something he could use as a weapon in his pocket or within arm’s reach, whether it be a steel-jacketed ballpoint pen, a bicycle-lock chain, or a glass soda bottle. In eighth grade, he made his first knife in shop class out of a piece of steel bar stock. At eighteen, he made his next knife by grinding down the edges of a metal file. After working at two veterinarian’s offices, two international arms dealers, and a rocket company, he decided to start his own business, Mad Dog Knives.

In the forest that day, he taught me how to use fixed-blade knives, as well as machetes, axes, and saws. After helping me make a spear by lashing a blade to a stick, he showed me how to use the full weight of my body to kill effectively with it.

“You have to learn how to hunt—even if it’s just small game—in as many ways as possible, from clubbing carp in shallow lakes to shooting deer with a rifle to killing pigs with a spear to setting traps,” Mad Dog explained. “Protein is a commodity. You can trade that for other things you need.”

To learn to prepare that protein, I chopped wood and carved some of it into a spit pole and drying rack for meat. Then, using a magnesium fire starter and a knife, we built a cooking fire with the rest of the wood. Finally, we stalked through the forest with a bow and arrow Mad Dog had made, looking for game. Fortunately, we didn’t find any.

It was the manliest day of my life. Even the day I lost my virginity didn’t feel nearly this masculine.

Afterward, we went back to his workshop, where he gave me a knife exam. He handed me a wooden plank and instructed me to turn it into a spoon. After two hours of laborious sawing, whittling, and gouging, I produced this:


It was a monstrosity. But three days earlier, I could barely even cut the knot off a stick, let alone turn it into a spoon. I felt ready to start practicing the wilderness survival skills I’d learned at Tracker School.

Unfortunately, I still had one more day left with Mad Dog. And it would be a day for which I’d never forgive myself.