THE BERLIN WALL WAS no match for Fred Pickler's Swiss army knife.
"When I went over, everyone started laughing, saying I'd never get through. But I cut a hunk of the Berlin Wall off with my hacksaw," says Pickler, 48, of Hunt Valley.
Pickler is used to amazing people with the powers of his handy Swiss army knives -- all 500 of them. For six years, Pickler has gone everywhere from yard sales to Swiss showrooms to collect every conceivable version of the simple pocket tool created in the 1890s for Swiss army officers.
"The Swiss military needed a knife that would cut, turn screws, lift caps, and cut leather," says Pickler. The first knife designed by Victorinox founder Carl Elsener was a simple, wooden-handled affair meant for enlisted men's use; the second knife designed was for officers, with lighter weight and a second blade, corkscrew, can opener and screwdriver. Then Wenger, a competing Swiss cutlery company, came up with its own "Schweizer Offiziersmesser," or Swiss Officer's Knife. The Swiss army put in an order for knives from Wenger, and to this day, the two companies split the manufacturing of knives for Swiss army use. The two also share the thriving worldwide market.
These days, Swiss-made knives are a staple for the armed forces of many countries, from Spain, where the knives have a fork attachment, to Germany, where an eagle replaces the traditional white cross emblem on the handle. Allied soldiers in the Persian Gulf complained their American-made pocket knives and equipment were not up to the job, and wrote to Wenger and Victorinox, according to both companies. Wenger issued free knives with a Persian Gulf inlay and Victorinox sent free compasses to a limited number of soldiers in January.
The average Swiss army knife is a three-inch long, hard plastic compact that holds folded-up blades and a combination of miniature scissors, pliers, can opener, corkscrew, Philips screwdriver, standard screwdriver, orange peeler, nail file, leather punch, and almost any other tool imaginable. There can be varying names for the same knives. Hoffritz For Cutlery, a major U.S. importer of Victorinox knives, for instance, prefers to use its own monikers.
The price of an authentic, Swiss-made knife ranges from about ** $8 to $150, depending on the implements included. Victorinox's best-selling model, The Classic, is a lightweight tool designed for key chain use with just one blade, a nail file, scissors, toothpick and tweezers. One step up, The Climber adds an extra blade, a corkscrew, can opener with screwdriver, bottle opener and reamer (leather hole puncher). You could practically build a town in the jungle with the S.O.S. Knife Kit sold at Hoffritz. The kit has all the implements of the Climber plus pliers, Philips screwdriver, optical screwdriver, fish-scaler with ruler, ink pen and magnifying glass. A leather pouch encasing the knife includes a compass, ruler, Band-Aids, safety pins, needle and thread, sharpening stone and fishing line.
The knives became popular in the United States after World War II, when soldiers returning from Europe brought them home. These days, 80 percent of all army knives made in Switzerland are exported, most of them to the United States.
"I feel naked without it," says Pickler about his need to have a knife with him at all times. His key chain knife is a Grand Prix, a four-bladed tool similar to The Climber. For added coverage, his briefcase holds a heavy-duty Swiss Champ, with large blade, small blade, corkscrew, can opener with small screwdriver, bottle opener with large screwdriver, wire stripper, reamer with sewing eye, scissors, Philips screwdriver, magnifying glass, wood saw, fish scaler with hook disgorger and ruler, metal saw with metal file, fine screwdriver, mini screwdriver, tweezers, toothpick, pliers with wire cutter, chisel and ball point pen.
Pickler has taken his knives all around the world in his work as a salesman of tear gas and other law enforcement products to the police.
On a fishing trip, he will clean fish with the scaler, or start fires with his knife's magnifying glass. Once, stranded with a stalled car in the Australian outback, he rubbed the knife's nail file on the distributor points to restart the car. Another time, when it rained on a family camping trip, he sat in a tent for four days and carved a totem pole.
Pickler believes he may own the world's largest collection of Victorinox Swiss army knives outside of the factory in Schwyz, Switzerland. Pickler trades, buys and sells knives with a few hundred collectors around the world, and is so well known that Victorinox's American distribution office gives out his telephone number to interested collectors.
"We certainly know of him and he has a very large collection. I don't think too many people could outdo him," says Kathy DeBaise, customer service manager at Swiss Army Brands, Victorinox's U.S. headquarters in Shelton, Conn.
Pickler received his first knife as an 8-year-old Cub Scout many years ago.
"My father sat me down and told me it's a very sharp knife, but I cut myself right down to the bone. I cried like a baby, for sure," remembers Pickler. "I learned to properly use it from then on, to cut away from you and to always keep it sharp. If you know it's extra sharp, you keep it away."
Although Swiss army knives seem a world apart from standard, unsheathed knives, few will sell pocket knives to children. Sunny Surplus will not sell Swiss army knives to anyone under 21, and the age limit is 18 at Hoffritz and Chesapeake Knife and Tool Co., although assistant manager Scott Webb says Chesapeake occasionally makes an exception if a juvenile is accompanied by parent and seems very mature.
Swiss army knives also save lives. Pickler knows a doctor who performed an emergency tracheotomy on an airplane using one of the airline's minibottles of alcohol to sterilize the area and a Swiss army knife with a special scalpel attachment. Drug manufacturer Eli Lilly Co. gives the special knives to medical interns.
A knife may be helpful for in-flight disasters, but carrying a pocketknife inevitably sets off alarms at airport metal detectors.
"They always want to know what the big hunk of metal is," says Pickler. His solution is to carry the knife on a loop outside the bag and to politely open it for the inspection agents. This didn't work in Taipei, where an official tried to confiscate Pickler's Swiss Champ. Sensing the man really wanted to keep the knife for himself, Pickler broke off the blade and carried the broken knife onto the plane rather than surrender his long-time companion.
He sent the knife to be fixed for free at the Victorinox factory, which offers a lifetime warranty on all knives. And Victorinox would do just about anything for Pickler. The company gave him a day-long tour of the Victorinox factory, which is not open to the public, in Switzerland. The company's owner presented him with a commemorative Swiss army knife worth over $1,000, according to Pickler.
"They treated me like royalty," says Pickler about his Swiss trip.
Switzerland's public radio broadcast an interview with Pickler while he was in the country, and for the rest of his stay he was dogged by Swiss admirers wishing to shower him with knives.
"A Swiss soldier on a train showed me his pocketknife, and I said, 'That's not the official army knife.' He said, 'It's funny you recognized that -- so did my sergeant!' Then he gave me the
knife. I tried to give him some money for it, but he would not take it."
That's the way Pickler gets many of his knives. People often offer him their grandfathers' old, dull knives in exchange for a new knife. Those who do sell old knives ask high prices, but Pickler refuses to pay more than $200.
Pickler has knives with handles of anodized aluminum, mother-of-pearl, rosewood, granite, buffalo horn, stag horn and Bakelite plastic. His most valuable knives are Presidential-issue, commissioned to Victorinox by the White House. He has Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Dan Quayle knives in his collection -- "They wanted to do the Quayle one in pink," he jokes.
He also has knives that went up on space shuttle voyages, the gift of an astronaut.
Knives from outer space and the Oval Office are fine, but what Pickler craves most is the oldest military knife Victorinox made -- an 1891 wooden-handled soldier's knife. He's heard from a man in Arkansas who owns eight but won't part with any of them.
Old knives aside, there is always a bigger, better Swiss army knife on the horizon. When asked to design his dream Swiss army knife, Pickler grows quiet for a few minutes. Finally he says, "It would have non-slip handles, all the tools of the Swiss Champ, and there's one more thing I would add -- but I am saving that to tell Victorinox the next time I'm in Switzerland."