Hot late afternoon sunlight fixed on Paul Kuykendall’s tanned shoulders while his eyes fixed on survival one knot at a time.
A primitive red and white sign on the side of 64 Highway, just inside Polk County, Tennessee, grabbed my attention one day last summer. The sign read “Survival Bracelet” in big bold letters. The “open” sign greeted passers-by as the craftsman sat at a gray weather-worn picnic table weaving together a strap designed to be taken apart.
“This is a handed-down craft,” Kuykendall stated as he carefully tied colorful parachord material into square knots. “Someone accidentally showed it to me. They used to call it macrame.”
Macrame, however, is for decorative purposes. Survival bracelets can save lives or at least save face. Stories abound on websites about survival bracelets, or survival straps, being used for everything from securing weapons in war zones to tying cans on the back of a wedding car to making an impromptu leash for a service dog or tying a drifting boat to a dock.
“You can build a shelter,” Kuykendall said. “You can take the bracelet apart and connect poles…make a lean-to. You can tie sticks together to start a fire. If you take it apart, there’s about eight feet of rope.”
Kuykendall, who set up his roadside business last summer to survive tough financial times, explained that he used parachord, parachute material with military roots, to make the bracelets, which he had arranged on a small round rack between bricks. “It’s not random jewelry,” the man said. “It’s borderline gear.”
Still, Kuykendall added, “The materials make this art what it is, having an eye for what goes together properly.” The rack of bracelets, lined up as well as woven together with military precision, called attention to an array of colors including purple and burgundy, sky blue and white, red and green and many other color combinations.
Making the bracelets helped Kuykendall relax, he said. “I get to be alone,” he remarked. But that didn’t mean he didn’t care about what’s going on in the rest of the world while he was trying to make a living using his outdoor skills.
Kuykendall made special note of a special kind of survivor–those who’ve been to war and lived through it. He referred to the Wounded Warrior Project.
I don’t know if Kuykendall will still be making survival gear as thousands of visitors pour toward the Ocoee River this summer for kayaking, whitewater rapids-riding and other outdoor adventures. But that day last year, he wondered aloud as he sat and then got up to walk toward his house. “You didn’t ask the important question,” he said.
Then he talked about remembering our wounded warriors. Once the answer was written down, Kuykendall walked back to his work table. (I’ve driven by looking for Kuykendall and his bracelets this summer of 2012, but didn’t see them. But you can still find survival bracelets somewhere, I’m thinking).