Jack the Knife
There's a modern cliche that it takes only three or four phone calls to get in touch with anyone in the world. But trying to contact action-film mogul Joel Silver for comment on Jack Crain, the Weatherford knifemaker whose career in action movies he singlehandedly created, repudiates it handily.
The gazillionaire producer--currently ensconced in a bungalow on the premises of the Warner Bros. studio lot in suburban Los Angeles, where his self-named production company has its headquarters--is one of the most feared, admired, and sought-after men in the industry. His big-budget, technology-laden action pictures, which include the Die Hard and Predator films and a half-dozen Arnold Schwarzenegger epics, have grossed over a billion dollars worldwide.
Silver's orbiting protective force field of underlings reflects this fact: even his assistants have assistants. But no matter where you get transferred at Silver Pictures, chances are the flunky at the other end of the line has heard of Jack Crain. And he or she is well aware of how highly Silver, who owns several examples of Crain's work, values this obscure Texas craftsman.
"You're doing an article on Jack Crain?" asks a young assistant to Silver. "Funny. You know, I'm sitting here looking at some of his work right now. Joel loves that guy. He mentions his name a lot. Jack Crain this, Jack Crain that."
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The harried Silver, who's finally snagged for a few moments of conversation after two months of long-distance pursuit, says with evident affection, "Jack and I have been great together. He has an incredible design sense, he works really quickly, he adapts his work to enhance whatever the storyline might be about, he makes knives that look fresh and different, and...ehhhh...I guess probably the best way to say it is that Jack Crain's knives just look really, really cool."
Cut to a wet fall day in Weatherford, Texas, a rural town situated a blink or two beyond the area's low-rent thoroughbred and quarterhorse racetrack, Trinity Meadows.
Jack Crain, self-described "weapons master," stands beside a workbench that holds an assortment of the most gorgeous, elaborate, and frightening weapons you've ever seen--daggers, hunting blades, gigantic combat knives and even larger broadswords, sheathed in leather scabbards festooned with straps and belts and buckles.
"You might recognize this one from the first Predator movie," drawls Crain, displaying a combat knife of hilariously phallic shape and fantastically overscaled proportions, so huge and heavy it looks more like a machete from Mars than a useful military blade. "Arnold Schwarzenegger pinned a guy to a post with it and told him to 'stick around.'"
Crain, 48, is a tall, chunky, bespectacled man with a wild halo of unkempt brown hair, an aw-shucks West Texas accent, and blunt-fingered hands covered in grime, knotted with muscles and veins and peppered with scars from accidental cuts, both old and new. As he unsheathes the weapons one by one, offering a brief description of each, he beams like a proud parent.
There's a broadsword made of stainless steel, with a bronze crosspiece carved to evoke the talons of a prehistoric beast. Next is a ritual dagger forged in serpentine shape, like a steel water moccasin streaking toward its prey, fashioned from 512 layers of micron-thin steel. Then Crain shows a knife cut in a geometric pattern and fitted with an amber handle; it is inscribed with Celtic runes that invoke a blessing on any warrior who uses the weapon to defend himself.
You've probably never heard Crain's name before now. But if you're a fan of action movies, you've seen his handiwork showcased onscreen.
He first edged into Hollywood feature work with the help of producer Joel Silver, who encouraged Crain to design custom blades for one of his earliest big-budget action pictures, the 1985 Schwarzenegger vehicle Commando. Crain designed the monster combat knife with which the Austrian Oak ventilates the throats and torsos of various swarthy foes.
The assignment marked the start of a series of starring roles for Crain's knives in the films of Silver and other action moguls. In the past decade, Crain's work has been featured in both Die Hard movies, both Predators, and Roadhouse, Action Jackson, The Last Boy Scout, The Last Action Hero, Demolition Man, and various TV series, including "Airwolf," "War of the Worlds," and "Walker, Texas Ranger." The press kits that accompany these films all bear the same simple phrase: "Knives designed by Jack W. Crain of Weatherford, Texas."
Crain also makes duplicates of his movie knives for use in close-quarters fight scenes. They come in a variety of forms: metal with unsharpened edges, replicas made of plastic and hard styrofoam, and wooden versions for filming in water environments, so that if actors drop them the weapons won't sink and be lost.
For scenes in which actors appear with knives stuck in their flesh, Crain provides rubber duplicates with blades that stop at the halfway point. And because some of his creations are so large that a person of ordinary strength can't easily lift them one-handed, Crain sometimes offers actors duplicate blades crafted from aircraft-grade aluminum, which is one third as heavy as stainless steel. (In the TV movie "Kung Fu: The Legend Continues," sixtysomething martial artist David Carradine fought with a lightweight duplicate of the enormous Bowie knife Crain made for him because he couldn't heft the real one without grunting.)
Although Crain regularly works with celebrities, by the standards of "Entertainment Tonight" he's virtually anonymous--just another faceless craftsman you'd sign on for the film crew, same as you'd hire a costume designer or stunt man.
But in the culture of knife collecting, a field that boasts as many subdivisions as car or coin collecting, Crain is a celebrity of the highest order.
He produces about 50 knives a year, all of them signed originals or personally crafted reproductions. None is mass-produced; each one is forged and shaped and polished by Crain, who won't entrust his work to a single employee. The knives range in price from $400 to as much as $15,000.
Crain has no need for advertising. He sells via simple word-of-mouth among collectors, some of whom will order an item over the phone or through the mail, sight unseen, just because Crain produced it, as well as trade shows Crain visits both stateside and abroad.
Most of the shows spotlight work by an array of knifemakers, from small regional shops with staffs of six or fewer craftsmen through giant international cutlery corporations that stamp out "limited edition" knives in runs of 100,000 or more. Other shows are limited solely to old-style, loner craftsmen like Jack Crain; artisans who employ even one assistant are barred from entering.
Jack Crain knives that have featured prominently in movies or on television can sell for tens of thousands of dollars. His steadiest international clients include a group of Greek hotel tycoons, a Turkish Coca-Cola bottling magnate, and assorted European and Japanese businessmen.
Crain is also a sought-after speaker at knife collectors' conventions. When he attends them, he finds himself surrounded by admirers seeking autographs, technical advice, or critiques of their own attempts at knifemaking. Many of them first learned of Crain through one of the newsletters and even full-color, glossy monthlies devoted to the field known as "custom cutlery"; titles include National Knife Magazine, Knife World, Fighting Knives, Tactical Knives, and S.W.A.T. Crain's name pops up as frequently within their pages as Arnold Schwarzenegger's does in movie fanzines.
"Jack has been an important player in custom knives and cutlery for the last 12 to 15 years," says Greg Walker, founder and executive editor of Fighting Knives magazine, one of the oldest glossy collector's publications. "His influence continues to be felt. He's made some very expensive knives that sell for lots of money to very wealthy people, and he's made less expensive knives that almost any serious collector can afford."
Cutlery is a huge international business; two years ago, Fighting Knives counted some 5,000 full-time, private cutlerers in North America alone. But Crain's work inspires a singular fanaticism.
Walker compares Crain's fans to people who collect sculpture or watercolors by their favorite artists. For such people, it's the aesthetic appeal of an artist's work that matters, and the pride one takes in owning it--not how much the item costs.
"These collectors share an appreciation for knives as a specific manmade tool," Walker says, "one that can take on an infinite variety of forms--whether it's grandpa's old bear-skinnin' knife, or something that's so incredibly elaborate in terms of craftsmanship and embellishment that it truly becomes a work of art.
"But these collectors all share another, more specific common thread," he adds. "They're all people who love Jack Crain knives."
Crain's admirers include plenty of cold-eyed capitalists, too--the sort of person who views a custom knife as an investment rather than a possession, and attaches more cachet to its dollar value than its look or heft or cultural significance. Crain runs into a lot of these folks: they're the kind who purchase knives over the phone sight unseen, then resell them immediately for double the purchase price or more. With a Crain original, such instant profits are possible.
Earlier this year, Crain got a call from a woman in northeast Texas who wanted to purchase a dagger he hadn't even finished. Crain quoted her a price of $2,200 and promised to mail the knife within 30 days; in the meantime, the woman paid for it. When Crain called to tell her he'd finished the dagger and was about to ship it, she told him to hold on to it and call another number. It turns out she'd already resold the weapon.
Crain called the new owner to ask where to send the knife, and the man told him to hang on to it--he was driving south to Weatherford to pick it up.
When he arrived, Crain handed him a handmade wooden box containing the dagger. The man shook Crain's hand, grabbed the box, and hopped into the car without even opening it.
Crain was taken aback. "I'm an artist, you know," he says incredulously. "I like for people to tell me what they think of my work. It's really important to me. So I asked the guy, don't you even want to look at it? I said 'Mister, for all you know, I could have given you an empty box!'
"The guy kind of shrugged, opened the box, looked inside at the handle of the knife, and said, 'Yep, it's in there. Thank you. Now I've got to go. I've already sold this knife to a man in San Antonio, and I've got to deliver it to him right away.' And he drove off."
Four weeks later, while Crain was attending an intimate, invitation-only knife show hosted by a small community of Norse descendants in Solvang, California, the knifemaker discovered the very same dagger had been displayed at the show briefly just before his arrival. It found its way into the hands of a traveling Japanese collector, who bought it for several thousand dollars.
And a month after that, Crain spotted the same blade advertised on the back cover of a glossy Japanese knife magazine. The asking price was 1,230,000 yen, or about $11,000.
"I think it's great as a craftsman that I didn't even have to die for that piece to increase in value," Crain says wryly.
Jack Crain became a full-time knifemaker by accident--a car accident, to be exact.
It happened in 1975 in Fort Worth, where Crain owned a formica fabricating shop. He was tooling across town one sunny afternoon in a shiny new pickup when he was struck head-on at 70 miles per hour by a sedan full of joyriding, pre-adolescent truants. Crain wasn't wearing a seatbelt. The impact of the crash blasted him into the windshield head first, and the weight of his body slamming forward cracked the truck's steering column--and a bucket full of bones in his torso--while one of his legs folded back on itself like a jackknife.
"It was a pretty strange sensation," Crain says of the aftermath. "I was just sort of laying there, looking up at the sky. There was glass everyplace, and I saw the clouds going by, and heard those kids crying in their car. And even though I was hurt real bad, I was thinking that I felt real sad for those kids, because I'd probably heal up and get better, but they were gonna have to think about what happened that day for the rest of their lives."
For a year after the accident, Crain was incapable of performing concentrated physical labor. "I nearly went nuts," he says.
A native of Mineral Wells, Crain had first learned the principles of craftsmanship from his father, a professional barber who took near-fanatical pride in his work ("I was the first kid in my town to have one of those sleek-looking '50s flattop haircuts," he says, grinning. "It kind of created a stir.") At the time of the accident, Crain had been making knives for six years, mostly as a hobby. Knifemaking was an adjunct to operation of his small formica and architectural millwork shop. Crain oversaw an eight-man staff that made everything from kitchen counters to shopping mall handrails and church pews.
But the blades he was using to cut raw materials were neither sharp enough nor specialized enough to achieve the effects he was after, so Crain designed his own. From there, he branched out into hunting and fishing knives. "They were pretty crude," he admits, but he loved working on them. Better yet, they sold. And because their new owners showed them off to friends, Crain found his work was getting noticed--and demanded--by people he'd never met in states he'd never visited.
By the time Crain had recovered from the accident enough to return to the shop, a year's worth of custom knife orders had piled up. Crain realized he'd have to make a difficult choice: run his shop or make his knives. It was a choice between doing what was expected of him and doing what he loved.
"I told myself, 'You know, you're not supposed to do this,'" Crain recalls. "'You're supposed to live life the way everybody else does, and go to work for that mean old taskmaster the job every day, dawn to dusk, and save the thing you really love until the weekends.' And then I thought, 'Well, you know, why not just do what I love for a living? To heck with it.'"
So Crain turned over his fabricating shop to an underling and began making custom knives exclusively in 1978, working on them as often as his damaged body would permit. By 1979, he'd recovered sufficiently to work at his new profession full-time.
Crain would perfect his skills through the study of ancient Japanese swordmaking techniques, which he'd begun exploring even before the accident. It is a complicated process in which hundreds of extremely thin layers of superheated metal are stacked to produce blades that are dense and strong yet eerily lightweight, and flexible enough to fold back on themselves without breaking. Although this style is now relatively common in the cutlery field, in the late 1970s it was rarely seen outside of Asia.
Crain apprenticed with a practitioner named Elmer Seybold--a resident, oddly enough, of Mineral Wells. Seybold worked in the ornate, gothic style of Samuel Yelling, a master blacksmith of a century-and-a-half earlier whose elaborate metal angels, gargoyles, and demons adorn the wrought-iron gates and doors and hinges of cathedrals throughout the industrial northeast.
Seybold taught Crain the Japanese technique that entailed folding and refolding hot metal as though it were bread dough. One first cuts the metal into a desired weaponry shape, superheats it in a fiery forge, then presses the raw material by striking it with a hammer so that it thins out and flattens and can be folded back on itself. This action must be performed quickly and with considerable precision--within two or three seconds of removing the weapon from the forge. Under Seybold's tutelage, Crain learned to judge temperature changes in the metal and determine exactly the right time to strike by watching the superheated weapon for subtle shifts in color.
Ironically, Crain notes, those ancient Japanese swords weren't strong simply because of the way they were made. They were strong because of what they were made of: steel, a man-made alloy that would ultimately revolutionize combat weapons--and all of civilization.
Japanese swordmakers stumbled onto this resilient new alloy through an elaborate tradition that mixed craftsmanship, ritual, and religious superstition. Steel, Crain explains, is little more than iron with a certain amount of carbon content. The carbon entered iron-based Japanese swords when the people forging them wrote out prayers on small pieces of wood, bark, or parchment, then dropped the prayers into the melting pot during the weapon-making process; the carbonized ashes entered the melted iron and caused chemical reactions that created steel.
Crain's description is a parable for the act of creation itself: the artist does what feels right to him, and through a combination of gut instinct, hard work, and serendipity, stumbles onto something that's strange and unique and maybe even revolutionary.
"These Japanese craftsmen probably thought they were simply making good weapons through a process other cultures hadn't quite figured out yet," Crain says. "But unbeknownst to them, they were actually adding the key ingredient for steel. They had no way of knowing that, of course. All they knew was that they had to make a prayer each time to ensure their swords would turn out good--and that if the prayers were right, the gods would answer them."
Crain's knifemaking relies less on mystery than hours of extraordinarily painstaking craftsmanship. When he decides on a specific knife design, he'll use metal-cutting machines to slice a rough outline of the weapon from a sheet of steel, titanium, or other metal, then heat it to thousands of degrees in a furnace behind his workshop. He'll hammer the weapon for dozens of hours until it's strong and resilient and possessed of a textural pattern he deems pleasing.
Because each creation is so time-consuming, Crain usually makes them in lots of five or 10 or more, keeping several in the furnace at the same time. He'll then remove the blade to cool it, and sand and shape and sharpen it until it precisely matches the image in his head. Afterward he'll inscribe it with patterns, lettering, runes, drawings, or other flourishes.
Next he attaches the hilt (or pommel), which is designed and created separately. He'll finally go over the completed weapon, fixing flaws and adding subtle last-minute touches. One device he uses is a dentist's drill with a collection of tiny, supersharp bits that spin at 400,000 rotations per minute. Crain uses the drill to engrave the blades, guards, and pommels of weapons, and to drill holes he'll later fill with gems and other eye-catching objects. "It's the same kind of drill dentists use for root canal work," he explains. "It's annoying to work with it for hours on end because of the sound. When I get done at the end of the night, my teeth hurt, because I've been clenching them the whole time."
Crain's determination to experiment might be his most important distinction as a weapons master; he makes all kinds of knives, some mundane and others splendidly ornate, and his custom-ordered work is designed to appease the idiosyncratic desires of customers. He treats the knives with odd substances in order to bring out their colors and textures, heating them in a furnace with ashes or motor oil, or burnishing them with copper nitrates or mild battery acid.
There is no hard natural substance Crain can't somehow incorporate into a weapon. His workplace is packed with hundreds of thousands of dollars in raw materials, from gems and raw metals to animal bones and fossils and chunks of rare slate and stone and amber. Some materials he acquires during trips abroad to attend conventions and private shows. Others he purchases through classified ads in knife publications.
Crain's treasure trove contains chips and chunks of ivory from many creatures, including part of a walrus tusk that he's planning to shape into a dagger hilt. Near the front entrance of his shop is a wooden shelf lined with fragments of deer and antelope antlers culled from the deserts of North America, the steppes of Russia, the jungles of India, the icy plains of northernmost Europe, and the rain forests of South America. Crain's workshop sports multicolored pieces of rare marble, even a jagged chip from a millenniums-old mastodon tusk sold to him by a natural history museum that had no use for it. One of his most prized items is a hunk of green marble a diver located while poking around in a sunken island off the coast of southern Italy.
But contrary to first impressions, Crain isn't some meek hermit blacksmith pounding out obscure and fantastic works of art because he's too scared to face reality. Beneath his sweet smile and slow drawl and beguiling veneer of humility is an immensely prideful, confident, and tenacious businessman who protects his name and reputation with brutish vigor when crossed.
Crain currently insists that he alone produce every blade that bears his insignia. There's a good reason for this: in the past several years, he has twice allowed independent cutlerers to mass-produce replicas of Crain originals. Both experiments proved disastrous.
The first involved a Tennessee firm that subcontracted production of its Crain replicas to a factory in Pakistan; the knives were made so poorly that Crain's customers called him to complain. With the help of a patent attorney, Crain sued the knifemaker in federal court to halt production and make the company destroy all of its inventory.
When his second effort to market replicas through a central Texas knife company resulted in similar quality-control problems, Crain sued again, but this time the legal system moved too slowly to satisfy him. So over the course of several months, the Weatherford craftsman shelled out $80,000 of his own money to buy a 51 percent interest in the firm's stock--then voted out its president and destroyed all of the company's unsold Crain replicas, which numbered in the hundreds of thousands. It was a protracted fight that ultimately forced the firm into bankruptcy. And it cost Crain a bundle in legal fees--not to mention plenty of long nights spent gnashing his teeth and plotting Machiavellian moves and countermoves.
Recounting both misadventures, Crain's normally placid voice becomes uncharacteristically steely. He describes his victories against the people he accuses of sullying his professional reputation with the zeal of a barbarian recounting a particularly satisfying battlefield kill. And when he gets to the part about pushing the Texas company into involuntary liquidation, he lets loose with a wickedly gleeful chuckle.
"You can't mess with a man's name," he declares. "Something like that isn't right, and I just can't stand by and tolerate it."
Although Crain's work tends to occupy the corners of movies, they're distinctive and memorable corners. His first batch of movie-showcased knives, for the Silver-produced Commando in 1985, served as the atavistic centerpiece of the film's finale, which pitted Arnie against the villain's drooling, sadistic chief henchman.
The film's scripter, longtime action-adventure scriptwriter Steven F. DeSouza, calls Commando's climax "the most exciting knife fight in the last 10 years of action movies."
Then came a crucial snafu. Crain asked his agent to get him "credit" for his work. But Crain was unfamiliar with movie terminology at the time; what he'd meant to ask for was a printed acknowledgment during the end credits, known in industy parlance as the "final crawl." What Crain's agent got instead was simple written acknowledgement from Silver Pictures that he'd made knives for Commando.
Infuriated, Crain got on the phone, navigated through Silver's protective wall of assistants, finally contacted the mogul himself, and proceeded to complain loudly about being left out of the final crawl.
Impressed by the Weatherford knifemaker's tenacity, Silver told Crain that although it was too late in production to give him what he wanted, he promised to do so in the future. The two relaxed and began speaking as fellow professionals. It was the beginning of what would become a long and steady work relationship. Silver would eventually end up owning several examples of Crain's handiwork, and would include his knives in future films.
Crain continued designing Schwarzenegger accessories for the John McTiernan sci-fi flick Predator, in which Crain provided unique knives for each member of Schwarzenegger's platoon, including the titanic knife Native American actor Sonny Landham uses to ritualistically slash his own chest before entering battle, and the aforementioned Yber-machete used by Der Terminator to carve bamboo into homemade spears, stakes, and arrows for his final showdown with the creature.
Crain also contributed an assortment of deadly weapons to the Patrick Swayze exploitation flick Roadhouse. "Joel Silver was a big fan of Jack's work, so that's how I first got to know of him," says Rowdy Herrington, the film's director. "There's something about his work that's very visceral and elemental, probably because there's something about knives and knife fights that's very visceral and elemental."
At the request of Herrington and Silver, Crain designed distinctive knives for several of the film's main characters. "Jack came up with a small knife for the fat henchman, and a very huge, obnoxious, jerky kind of knife for the guy behind the bar," Herrington says. "One of the high points of the movie is the sight of Sam Elliott lying dead on the bar with one of Jack's big knives stuck in him. I bet Jack was proud when he saw that. It was an important moment."
For the TV series "War of the Worlds," Crain consulted closely with actor Richard Chavez, a co-star of Predator, who'd been hired by the show's producers to play a Native American military commando with his own personalized killing devices. Crain outfitted the actor with several items designed to reflect the character's ethnic heritage--including a vaguely Jetsonian tomahawk and a dagger meant to conjure images of jagged arrow points dug up from the earth. The latter weapon Crain fitted with a hand guard designed to resemble the goose-necked alien spaceship from the 1953 feature film version of the tale. "That was just a little touch, but I really think it made a difference," Crain says.
"The Lone Ranger had a mask, a white horse, and silver bullets," he adds, "but he didn't use them as a crutch. Those things stood for his code and his values. They identified who he was and what he believed in. What I hope is that my knives can do the same for action heroes today--give them that little something extra to define their characters."
And when those touches have an impact beyond the screen--when they reach into the audience and fire up a moviegoer's imagination--it's sweeter still.
Take Rick Johnson, a native of Ocean City, New Jersey, who was spellbound by Commando and Predator and now has an entire room devoted to merchandise from the films. The centerpieces of his shrine are sets of original Jack Crain knives used in the pictures.
"I've got one of the big machetes," says Johnson, who developed an affection for well-made knives through his career running a chartered fishing boat company. "And I've got the one they used to build the jungle traps at the end. I've got the one Bill Duke used to remove a scorpion from the shoulder of one of the other soldiers, and I've got the one Jesse 'The Body' Ventura wore upside-down on his chest."
Fortunately, Johnson's wife appreciates his compulsion to collect such inexplicably meaningful objects. She owns a sizable assortment of merchandise related to the British royal family, including books, statues, commemorative plates, and two-foot-high replicas of Prince Charles and Lady Diana as they were dressed for their wedding.
"I bet if you could interview everybody living anyplace in the country," Johnson says, "you'd find out that just about everybody is a collector of something."
Life has recently been very, very good to Jack Crain. He's been favored with good seats at world premieres many Hollywood power players couldn't get invited to. He's eaten dinner with Joel Silver when the producer set up a row of small portable grills along the front sidewalk of his bungalow and treated his staff to an impromptu Hibachi-style barbecue. He's played touch football on the 20th Century Fox lot with the cast of Predator. He's flown out to Los Angeles on a whim to join a dinner of action film prod-ucers and stars celebrating the impending production of The Hunt for Red October. Arnold Schwarzenegger greeted Crain's late arrival by abandoning his dessert to pour the Weatherford knifemaker a fresh cup of coffee.
Yet Crain conducts himself with such a relaxed, folksy de-meanor that it's hard to reconcile his flamboyant work with the jes' folks persona. Of course he's only humble on the surface; he has tremendous confidence in his work and isn't shy about expressing it to people whose company he enjoys. Once you've gained his trust, Crain will trot out comparisons between himself and various immortal visual artists, including Picasso and Rembrandt, noting that the works of those men were also produced by one hand alone and have increased exponentially in value with the passage of time. (Crain prefaces such comments with, "Now, don't get the idea I'm comparing myself with these people"--then compares himself anyway.)
But among strangers, Crain values his privacy; the only precondition for an interview was that the article not describe in detail where he lives, because he shudders at the thought of being accosted by strangers and pestered for knife lore and movie trivia outside the confines of conventions. Crain refuses to work anywhere else, because he loves the beatific calm of the central Texas fields and the knowledge that he's alone with his tools and materials and needn't fear human interruption.
"If you're a friend, and you get me talking, I can ramble on forever," he says. "But with strangers, I'm not too good." He fears that when he recently attended a show-and-tell with his 13-year-old daughter, Jennifer, he was less than electrifying. "I bored those kids silly, I'm afraid.
"But I do like seeing my work on the big screen," he says. "I really do. I get excited, I admit--I always sit there during premieres wishing Stallone or Schwarzenegger would move the heck out of the way so the audience can get a better look at my work. If I made movies, they'd be the most boring movies you've ever seen--no dialogue, no plot, no characters, just two hours of tight closeups of knives. Knives, knives, knives, and knives.
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