Sharp Dressed Crowd

Visions of the SkillsUSA statewide competition in Chattanooga are still swirling in my brain. It’s not just the adrenaline of the competition that I can’t shake, but rather the spectacle of 2,000 Tennessee high school and college students competing in everything from Robotics and Cosmetology to Suitcase Display and Promotional Bulletin Board Design that keeps pinging through my mind.

I spent most of the three days in Chattanooga hanging out with building and construction trades guys, dressed in khakis and covered in sawdust. As a middle-aged mom and food writer, I have not historically been part of that clique, but I think I’m starting to fit in.

It was at the awards ceremony that I realized I am genuinely transforming into a trades person. Here’s what happened:

Two thousand high school and college students wearing either the red blazer of SkillsUSA student leadership or the khaki work shirt of the building trades–were filing into the University of Tennessee Chattanooga arena, and the line was moving really slow. My squad of builders was starting to get impatient and wondering what was up with the delay. As we got closer to the door, we saw uniformed officers searching everyone’s pockets and bags, as if we were boarding an airplane.

Suddenly, I had a mild panic attack and turned to the guy next to me. “I have a knife in my purse,” I whispered, referring to my 4-inch Husky folding utility knife. I have really come to love that knife, which is equally handy for deburring PVC pipe and removing shrink wrap from a bottle of smoked paprika. I did not want it confiscated.

“Me too,” my fellow builder confessed. He reached into his khaki pocket and extracted a knife much larger than mine. Then he flicked it open with a switchblade function that made me feel like maybe we were about to rumble with the red blazers.

No wonder the queue was taking so long to enter the arena: Everyone was armed to the teeth.

“What are they gonna do–take all our knives away?” my colleague asked, admiring his tool-slash-weapon. It was a rhetorical question, as we both knew the only way a UTC arena guard could confiscate his knife was by wrestling it from his cold, dead hand.

Then he added, “Don’t they know this is trade school? Rule Number One is always carry a knife.”


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