Palo Alto Weekly 34th Annual Short Story Contest
Adult Honorable Mention

The Final Magic Of My Uncle Sid

by Bill Burns

Author Bio

Bill grew up in Burlingame and at 17 moved to San Jose where he graduated from Campbell High in 1959. He attended San Jose State College, graduating in 1966 with a degree in English. He joined the Teacher Corps, taught in Indianapolis, grew disenchanted, and moved back to the Bay Area and Palo Alto. The San Mateo County Office of Education offered him a position in 1969 teaching Court & Community School students. He earned his Administrative Credential and became a Principal, Director, and Administrator of Court & Community Schools before taking early retirement in September of 1997. He has spent the last 23 years teaching poetry to men and women in San Mateo County jails. He is now preparing the second BEST POEMS BOOK of his students' poetry.


My inspiration came from an uncle Sid who attended the backyard family parties my parents held in our Burlingame home. He showed me this "Magic trick" that I couldn't figure out and it haunted me for years. In 1981 I wrote the first draft and filed it. Last year while purging my files I found it hand written on yellow notepad paper. I fished it out and finally finished the story.

I was searching the internet looking for a pocket knife when I saw this picture of a classic Bartlett pocket knife, and I was suddenly carried back 70 years and thought of my Uncle Sid. He wasn't really my uncle— my two uncles were Uncle Bert and Uncle Walter.

They were my blood relatives. Sid, and his wife, Aunt Virginia were just two of the couples who were always invited to my parents backyard parties on Saturday or Sunday afternoons in Burlingame, California. They all lived in the city but loved our place because it was more quiet and much warmer than often often-foggy San Francisco.

Sid was the life of the party, always telling jokes and laughing hard. I only saw him do his "Magic Knife Trick" twice, but the first time I saw it he did it with a Bartlett knife. This magic trick was something I would never forget. There are some things that happen in your life that you just never forget, especially when you're just seven years old. This knife trick was like that.

It reminded me of when I was six and first went to the San Mateo County Fair. A man with a megaphone was yelling at the people and asking them to gather ‘round to see something special. He held up a small red and white device that you attached to your shoelaces and when you slid it up your shoe it tightened them for you.

Wow! This was a really keen invention. Since I was having problems tying my laces, I thought this was a great idea for me. So I ran and found my mom and brought her over to see the man and what he was selling. As soon as I found her and guided her to the right spot, I heard his voice calling out to the people, "This is something you've never seen before, am I right?" He seemed to be looking straight at my mom and me, so I politely said, "I've seen it before." And the man just stopped talking and looked directly at me.

His face was red and he sounded angry: "Where did you see this son, tell me where you saw this before."

"Well." I said, "I was here, about 20 minutes ago. I thought it was so neat that I brought my mom to take a look, and maybe buy one for me."

The man and the crowd both burst into laughter, "Out of the mouths of babes," he said. "Well, folks, let me show this kid and his mom how it works." He went through his demonstration while my mom was telling me it was way too expensive. We walked away as she was again saying to me, "You are going to learn how to tie your own laces if it takes me a year and a day or even more."

So much for a neat gadget that I'd never have. But Uncle Sid's Magic Knife Trick was truly something I had never seen before. Oh, don't get me wrong. I had seen lots of magic tricks, but none even close to his. My Uncle Bert showed me a magic trick he said was based on sleight of hand. He said it was called the "French Drop."

He held a quarter between his thumb and the second finger of his left hand with the palm facing up, "Now watch closely," he said. He appeared to grab the quarter in his right hand and hold it tightly in his raised clenched fist. But instead of grabbing the quarter let it drop into the palm of his left hand which held he lowered to his side.

While every eye was focused on his right fist, he slowly opens it to reveal an empty hand. The quarter had suddenly disappeared— but using his left hand he could make the quarter "reappear" somewhere else . . . behind the ear of any little boy or girl closely watching him.

"Most magic is trickery based upon speed, distraction, and sleight of hand." Uncle Bert explained. I guessed Sid's Magic Knife was some "Special Magic" because once his knife up in the air it was just gone— and it never came back."

I only saw Sid dot his trick twice. But the first time he showed it to me he told me it was a Bartlett Knife. He said it was a very good brand, and when he took it out of his pocket he said I could hold it if I was careful. I felt it's heavy weight and saw how its silver trim seemed to shine. It felt warm in my hand, and I wondered if it was giving off some magic. But then I figured that it was just because it was hot that day and it had been in Sid's pocket for hours.

I started to give it a small toss up, but Sid quickly grabbed my arm. "Don't he said firmly, but not angrily. "There's only so much magic in that old knife and I don't want it wasted." he said as he took it back.

Then he rubbed it with both his hands and asked me to stand up. He pushed his shirt sleeves up his arms to show me he had nothing up his sleeves. He held the knife in his open and empty right palm, raised it to his chest level and said, "Watch closely." I was right next to him as he gently tossed his hand up about a foot and I saw the knife leave his hand, rise about two feet and disappear. I mean it was just gone! In a fraction of a second it wasn't there at all.

I couldn't believe what I had seen. As Sid lowered his right arm he showed his empty right hand, then his empty left hand. There was nothing to see.

"It's gone." was all he said. Then he emptied his pockets of a wallet and some keys. "Come here," he said. "Pat all my pockets and you'll see the knife is gone."

When I asked how he did it all he said was, "It's not a trick. It's magic, that's all I can say." And since I couldn't see the knife anywhere, I knew it was.

The last time I saw Uncle Sid was about two months later, and I was with my neighbor, Jimmy. I had told him about The Magic Knife Trick and he didn't believe me. Jimmy wanted to see for himself. So the next time Sid came over I ran and got Jimmy. I asked Uncle Sid if He would do his knife trick again and he said, "Sure." But when he pulled out his knife it was a new one. "What happened to the other knife?" I asked. "You saw it," was all he said, "It disappeared. They never do come back. That's the magic. I bought another one. It's getting to be a very expensive magic trick."

Then Uncle Sid asked us both to watch closely. He took the new knife carefully in his right hand and tossed it up. We watched as the knife left his hand, went up about two feet in the air, and was gone. "That's it. That's the magic and another knife gone." Sid said. I was still smiling and had this ecstatic feeling. I looked over at Jimmy and he was laughing. "What's so funny?" I asked. "It's not funny" Jimmy said, "It's just that I've never seen anything like that before, and it makes me a little nervous inside."

That's when Uncle Sid asked Jimmy to pat him down if he thought it was a trick. Jimmy patted my uncle down, sure there would be the knife somewhere in his clothes. But after a few minutes Jimmy's eyes grew wide, and he said, "Gosh, I have no idea where that knife is. I guess it's really gone." Uncle Sid looked at both of us with a serious look. Then he smiled and said, " I told you it was magic—I not just a trick."

"Wow!" Jimmy and I both said at almost the exact same time. We both thanked Uncle Sid and walked away shaking our heads.

It was almost a year later before my folks had another backyard party. I remembered being happy that I'd see Uncle Sid again. I didn't say anything to anybody. I just kept looking but I didn't find him. Now that was unusual because Sid was tall and usually easy to spot in a crowd. But most everyone was there, but not Uncle Sid. That's when I realized Aunt Virginia was there, still smelling of perfume and looking sadder than usual. Her eyes were dark and she cried a lot.

I was told not to ask any questions. I kept hearing people say, "So sorry for your loss." and I guessed my Uncle Sid had passed away. I was sad because I would miss him, but more because I knew that I'd never see his knife magic or figure out how it worked. My Mom said that as I grew older there would be a lot of things I'd see and not know how or why they happened.

"You'll just have to realize that there are a lot of mysteries in our lives," she would say.

I guess Uncle Sid just went with his knives, wherever that was.