The things you experience in life definitely shape who you are. So if you were wondering how I got here from there, what makes me who I am and where I am going, read on.....
I was born and raised in the logging and mill town of Sweet Home, Oregon. We were basically a "Brady-Bunch" family where one side of the family married the other side. My dad already had 3 sons from his previous marriage. My mom already had 2 daughters and 1 son from her previous marriage. Mom and Dad then proceeded to add 3 more boys to the mix, with me being the youngest. 7 sons and 2 daughters spread out across two generations. I actually have a niece that is older than me but that is another story...
My 6 oldest siblings left in short order to start families of their own. Mom and Dad got divorced and there we were. Dad had no interest in being a part of it all, so I grew up with my nephews, brothers and friends for company, as my mom was always working or getting ready for work.
It was about this time in my life that I discovered the outdoors in earnest. We lived on the edge of town near a large wooded area. Pretty much like any area on the outskirts of Sweet Home. There, often with my friends and more often with just my dog, I would spend whole summers without once spending a night under a roof. Days were spent fishing, swimming, riding bikes and generally just being kids. Those days were interspersed with days mowing lawns, bucking hay, cutting firewood or collecting and selling lost lures for spending money. By the time I was in 7th grade, I looked like a wild man with long bushy hair and very few social skills to speak of.
In junior high and then in high school, I realized that school work wasn't hard and in fact is was so easy it was boring. So I applied myself to sports to keep things interesting and to have a purpose and a feeling of belonging; weightlifting, wrestling and football provided a sort of family and comradery that I had not really experienced up to that point. I did well in sports, making 1st team all state in football and placing 4th in the state bench pressing competition my senior year. I also did well in academics, as I only got one "B" in 4 years with all the rest being "A's". It probably helped that I only missed one day of school in those four years, mostly due to sports and the urging of my teachers and coaches.
My wrestling coach at the time told me to apply to one of the service academies so I did. I applied and was accepted into the US Military Academy at West Point, NY. I left for "Beast Barracks" after finishing high school but dropped out after basic training at the beginning of fall term. I am not proud of this, but again, that is another story for another time.
After coming home from West Point and having thoroughly disappointed my family and everyone in my home town (or so I thought), I took a job in the woods clearing fire trails, cleaning creeks, planting trees and doing other forest project work. I still had plans of getting a degree, so in the following school year, I went off to Oregon State University to study industrial and manufacturing engineering. The first school year flew by, and at the end of my first year at OSU I got a job with the Oregon Department of Forestry as a wildland firefighter.
I got paid good money to work my ass off in the woods with other young men and women. I got to ride in helicopters, planes, crew vans and "crummies". As the sawyer, I got to fell and buck huge trees, work with huge equipment and helped to save family farms and homes from going up in smoke. Looking back on those seasons, I think that is where my affection for the outdoors really took hold.
I grew up not having seen much of the west, but now I was getting paid to go all over Oregon and the west: places like the Bitterroots, Steens, Wallawas and Siskyous were mountains I had only heard about, but now I was getting paid to live there for weeks at a time! I fought fires in the dry high mountains in Arizona, the Montana Rockies and all over the Oregon Cascades and high deserts. It was a dream job except for the fact that it is a seasonal gig and mostly reserved for those younger and much more bulletproof than I am now.
After the first fire season, my studies (such as they were) at OSU faltered. I got pretty heavy into things not related to school. Call them "extra-curricular" activities. As each school season ended and the next fire season started, I began to question my resolve to get a degree. At that point in my life, there were really only two seasons: fire season and getting ready for fire season. This change in focus manifested itself in my course load. I had started as a freshman with 16 credits per term and by my 7th term I was only taking 3 credits. Clearly, it would take a while to get a degree at this rate considering it takes well over 200 credits to graduate with a dual major in manufacturing and industrial engineering. I withdrew from the university after my 9th term.
United States Army
At the end of my 5th year fighting fires, Saddam had invaded Kuwait, the first Gulf War was on and I needed to make a decision: should I go back to OSU or enlist in the Army? I had a lot of growing up to do and I knew that if I went back to school at this stage in my life that I had a very slim chance of graduating. Make that zero chance. Besides, all the talking heads on CNN were saying that it would be a huge war with high US casualties and a likely reinstatement of the draft. So I decided enlistment was my best option. To this day, I still thank God I chose that path.
I had always been interested in the trades; machining, welding, electricians and the like. I chose machinist with an MOS of 44E. The sergeant asked if I had any language skills and I replied that I had indeed taken Spanish 101 at college. He then asked if I knew anything about helicopters and I told him of my experience riding in them as a firefighter. He noted my answers in my folder; I believe this is why my first duty station was with an aviation unit in the Republic of Panama.
My experiences at both West Point and as a firefighter were helpful in getting me through enlisted basic training relatively unharmed. I was designated the platoon guide which is basically the enlisted private responsible for the platoon. There is both good and bad with that position. Since I grew up hunting and shooting, it was no problem to win the high basic rifle marksmanship award for the company. My firefighting experience put me into pretty good shape and I also won the high physical training score. So looking back on it, basic training was actually pretty fun compared to what I had gone through prior to that.
After basic, I attended Advanced Individual Training (AIT) at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland. Since the first Gulf War was in full gear, we were put into an accelerated training regimen, taking classes for 10 hours a day on the "graveyard" shift. I still remember gathering around the TV in the break room at lunchtime watching CNN. We all knew the odds were high that we would be sent to the middle east right after graduation; you could hear a pin drop in the lunchroom and of course James Earl Jones' Darth Vader voice telling us that "this is CNN". No kidding.
After AIT, I was able to go home for a couple weeks prior to being sent to my first duty station. It was during that leave that I married Kathleen, whom I had been dating for 4 years. Of course I had known her for much longer than that, as we had grown up in the same neighborhood; I had hung out with her older brothers for at least since grade school. Who knew we would eventually marry? Anyway, as I noted earlier, my first duty station was in an aviation unit in Panama. The US military had recently captured the notorious drug-runner Noriega and things were not settled down in that part of the world yet. In cases like these, the tour is called "unaccompanied" meaning that you can't bring your spouse to live with you at your duty station. So I spent the first 2-1/2 years of my marriage in Panama, coming home on leave every 6 months or so. What a way to start as a young couple. I guess Arnold's saying "that which does not kill you makes you stronger" applied in this case, as Kathleen and I have been very happily married now for 22 years. Being separated was not fun but it really did make us a stronger couple.
Panama was a unique experience for anyone, and especially for someone who grew up in a small logging town in Oregon. I hadn't experienced a third world country, and had no idea of how the rest of the world lived. What an eye-opener. Days were either spent in the machine shop making parts and tools for the helicopter technicians or on guard duty. It was hot, it was incredibly humid, and there were uncountable numbers of hazardous creepy-crawlies everywhere. Panama was a great experience for me, full of life lessons and both good and bad times.
Back to School: Oregon State Engineering
After my enlistment was completed, I went back to live with Kathleen in Bend, in Central Oregon. While there, I worked as a welder/fabricator, building utility trailers, dump trailers, car haulers and 5th-wheel equipment trailers. I also attended the local community college and got my engineering associate's degree. I was again accepted into OSU and we moved back to the wet Willamette valley so that I could complete my degree.
Once again, I enrolled in Industrial and Manufacturing engineering at OSU. There is a national top-tier program within the engineering school known as the Multiple Engineering Co-Op Program. MECOP for short. In this program, students are required to work as engineering interns at two separate companies for two 6-month periods. I participated in this program and had two outstanding internships; the first at a titanium manufacturer and the second at the Boeing Company in Everett, Washington. Great learning experiences with the added benefit of actually drawing a decent paycheck. What a bargain!
After graduation, I worked as a manufacturing engineer at Fujitsu Computer Products of America, FCPA for short. I worked in a department that did new product introductions for tape data storage devices. These were huge contraptions that held what looked like big 8-track tapes. These tapes were used to store huge amounts of data for banks and similar institutions. Tapes you say? Yes tapes. In an age where tape drives were becoming "old-fashioned", FCPA neglected to invest in other forms of data storage. Seeing the writing on the wall, I decided I needed to move on to my next adventure. Good thing I did, because FCPA closed the doors to their Hillsboro factory within 3 months of my leaving. Turns out tape data storage was not such a great idea for a sustainable business model.
Gerber Legendary Blades
My next employer was Gerber Legendary Blades of Tigard, Oregon. I started at Gerber as a manufacturing engineer, mainly helping with production issues and new product introductions for products designed by the design team. Of course I thought this was pretty awesome, as I had always been interested in sharp and pointy things. So working in a large knife factory was about as good as it could get for me at the time. In case you are wondering, yes, Gerber does indeed have a factory and makes product there. It is not all imported from overseas. They employ over 200 people designing, building, marketing and selling knives, tools and other gear right here in Oregon.
Within a few years, I transitioned into the product design group, mainly concentrating on knife designs and new product introductions. My first projects involved a lot of minor product improvements to existing products and some reverse engineering of other designer's knife designs, getting them ready for mass production. So over the years I got to work with Ernest Emerson, Bill Harsey, Rick Hinderer, the late Bob Lum, Butch Vallotton and Chris Reeve to name a few.
I was the lead knife designer and design engineer for Gerber for 11 years. My last actual title was Knife Innovation Manager. I was known as the "knife guy" in a big knife company, which was pretty cool and meant a lot to me. Many of the products I designed and/or developed over the years are considered best in class and are sold and used all over the world. I hold over a dozen design patents and have several innovative utility patents pending. Basically, if it was a knife introduced by Gerber within the last 10 years, then I either designed it, directed the design, engineered it or implemented it into production. So that's a lot of knives.
My biggest knife design influences have come from Al Mar, Blackie Collins, Bill Harsey, Rick Hinderer and of course Brad Parrish.
In the end, my last 15 years with Gerber was a great learning experience. I learned a lot about consumer product engineering, knives, knife design and the knife business and gained many new friends over the years. Gerber is full of talented and smart people and I wish them continued success in their business. But it was time to move on to the next challenge.
Freeman Outdoor Gear LLC
After I left Gerber, I searched around for other engineering jobs. It had been some time since I had been out of work, at least since the last 25+ years or so. I didn't know what to do with myself and thought I had to get back into the job market ASAP, regardless of the industry. I interviewed for several mid/sr. level engineering jobs in the Portland, Oregon area and the one question that my interviewers kept asking was this: "With your experience, why don't you start your own knife company?" or "if we hire you, what's to keep you from running off in a year or two to go work for another knife company?". Why indeed? Without that prodding, I might have only daydreamed and may not have taken the step into the world of small business ownership. Plus, 15 years is a big investment in time and training and I felt it would be a waste of hard-earned knife knowledge to leave the industry that I have grown to love and know so well.
I sincerely hope that my gear will help you and yours to enjoy your outdoor activities to the fullest.