People On The Home Front
By Pfc. Debs Myers YANK Staff Writer
Chicago—When anyone opens the door of Ben Rocklin’s knife shop, a burglar alarm jangles, and out from a back room walks Ben Rocklin saying, “What the hell, quiet please.” He sells long-bladed knives that he calls “Jap stickers” to' soldiers, and he sells less lethal knives to civilians, provided he likes them. He doesn’t sell anything to people he doesn’t like. “I am an American citizen, 100 percent,” he says, "and I take no guff from any man, unless he is much bigger than I am,, and very little guff from women.”
Ben Rocklin at work in his Knife Shop
In the past three years, Rocklin has sold 6,000 knives to soldiers and marines. Judging from letters he has received, he estimates these knives have been responsible for killing 10,000 Japs. "Old Ben’s knives,” he says, “have gone across jungles, across deserts and across more than a few gullets. Sometimes, at night when I’m in bed, I say to myself, ‘Ben, you old fool, you are such a ball of fire at killing Japs, it is a wonder you’re not afraid of yourself.’ ”
He used to make knives for slicing bread. “I made fine knives,” he says, “and housewives praised me in maoy tongues. Then the bread companies started selling bread already sliced. When this happened Old Ben’s heart was broken, but Old Ben is not a man to sit and sulk. I made hunting knives. Old Ben was getting ready. Old Ben knew war was coming. Old Ben knows the Japanese. The Japanese are stinkers.”
He bought all the steel filing raspa he could get. This was the steel that went into his knives.
The knives have blades eight inches long and are sharp on both edges. “Old Ben tooled for war,” he says, “from bread knives to Jap stickers. As shy as I am, I sometimes say to myself, ‘Ben, you’ve come a long ways.’ ”
A Jap, he says, can be trusted no farther than a man can throw an orangutan by the tail. “I fought against the Japs when I was a soldier in the Russian Imperial Army,” he recalls, “and even 40 years ago they were stinkers.”
Ben Rocklin is 5 feet 4. He weighs 190 pounds. He quit telling about his birthdays when he passed 75. That was a few years ago.
He employs a Chicago telephone directory to illustrate how he used to treat the Japs. The Chicago telephone directory numbers 1,732 pages, is 214 inches thick and weighs 4 pounds 11 ounces. Bunching his shoulders, he takes a directory in his thick, stubby hands and twists it into four pieces. “I used to be a strong man,” he observes.
Ben has a three-room shop on the second floor of a building at 746 South Halsted Street near Hull House. People in the neighborhood call him the village blacksmith. This he does not like.
“I never shod a horse in my life,” he says. “I hate horses. I have ridden many of them and eaten more than a few. I never knew a horse that I liked. Besides. I am a typical small- businessman. When my country was threatened, I became a one-man arsenal of democracy. Also, people were no longer buying bread knives.” Once upon a time—he doesn’t remember exactly when—he was a professional wrestler and weight lifter. Many years ago, in Milwaukee, he wrestled the great Frank Gotch, when Gotch was world champion.
“It was a hell of a match,” says Ben. “I gave it to him good.”
“Who won?” Ben is asked.
“I was matchless that night, a pillar of flame,” says Ben.
“Who won?” Ben is asked again.
“The crowd cheered me wildly,” muses Ben. “I was a hero in Milwaukee.”
He grinds a knife, ignoring the question, then looks over his shoulder.
“Gotch,” he says, “in 7% minutes.”
On the wall of the shop are Ben’s own rules on how to be happy at 75 plus:
“1. Mind your own business and do not use bad remarks about certain people that you might be sorry for.
“2. If you have enemies, avoid them. Do not go into places where there is suspicion or where there is unsafety. Do not hear behind the door people talk or look in keyholes.
“3. Look in all directions when you cross the street; around the comer look out; keep out of arguments about elections.
“4. Eat and drink everything you like and don’t deny yourself pleasure.
“5. Watch out for some of your best friends who are your worst enemies.”
Ben is writing the story of his life. He thinks he will probably call it “The Nine Lives and Ninety TTiousand Knives of Ben Rocklin.”
“It’s absorbing,” he declares. “I have so much fun reading it I don’t have much time to write it.” One of the great days of history will come, he says, when the Allied armies meet the Russian armies in Germany.
“There’ll be Hitler, a pig on a pitchfork,” he gloats. “The Russian armies have been underrated for a long time. All we Russians had was broomsticks in the old days, and broomsticks may be good for riding but they are not good for shooting. There’s only one way to get along with a German or a Jap. Beat hell out of him and let him know who is the tough guy. Then keep on showing him who is the tough guy. Roosevelt and Churchill and Stalin—they’re all tough guys. It’s a good thing, too.”
Ben cringes a little when he remembers his own days in the Czarist armies.
“It was very rough,” he recalls. “It was not rich living. It was very rough. I had a general named Gen. Yarovitch. He was big as a stable and smelled like one. He had a great red mustache about six inches wide. When he roared out orders, his mustache waggled like a flag and he roared most of the time. He was a mean man.
“I was a foot soldier. But one day the cook deserted, and before I could get out of the way and hide, Gen. Yarovitch grabbed me and made me a cook. He carried a long whip called a knout with him all the time, and he shook that whip under my nose and told me I better cook good. Faithfully I promised I would cook good. About that time some Czarist dog shot a rabbit and brought it to the general.
“The general says, ‘Ben, cook this rabbit and cook it good or I will skin you and maybe eat you, with garlic, of course.’ So I clean the rabbit and flx a stew, but while my back is turned the general’s dog steals the rabbit, and when I look around I sit on the ground and put my head in my hands and I sorrow. Old Ben’s rabbit is gone. Old Ben’s goose is cooked.
“And along comes an old soldier, and he asks me why I sorrow and I tell him. And he says for me not to be a fool but to kill the regiment’s cat and cook it for the general. So I do this, with plenty of garlic. And pretty soon along comes Gen. Yarovitch swinging his whip and roaring. And he sits down at his table and I put the plate before him. He takes a mouthful, and he looks at me and says, ‘Ben, that is peerless rabbit,’ and he tips me a ruble.
“And some years pass and I come to the United States and become a citizen, and I come to Chicago and make knives. And then there is a great World’s Fair in Chicago and I go to it. And at the Russian exposition who do I see there but Gen. Yarovitch. His red mustache has turned to gray and he has no whip. But he is still roaring. And he sees me and he hugs me and he says, ‘Ben, you rascal. Once you cooked me a peerless rabbit, and I tipped you a ruble.’
“And I’m an American citizen and I’m in a free country and I look back at him and I say, ‘Thank you, Gen. Yarovitch, you son of a bitch. But that was no rabbit. That was a cat.”