Our Town

People and places that define Orlando

Precious Metals

Forging loyalties and dear memories, Randall Made Knives remains as unique as each blade the SOBT business makes.
By Joseph Hayes

Country music singer Guy Clark once wrote a song dedicated to his late father and a knife. It’s a melancholic melody about a quiet man, his prized Randall Made Knife and a young son who borrowed and broke it.

If you’ve ever held a Randall knife
Then you know my father well.
And if a better blade was ever made
It was probably forged in hell.

You don’t hear that kind of sentiment over a Swiss Army Knife.

Gary Randall reacts humbly when he hears his company is considered among the world’s best makers of hand-crafted knives—the kind used in hunting and war, not in the kitchen.

“We’ve just been around forever,” he says of the company his late father, Walter “Bo” Randall, started in 1938 and, two years later, began running out of a modest shop on South Orange Blossom Trail. Randall Made Knives has been there ever since.

Knife World Magazine, the bible of all things sharp, says Bo Randall “quite probably founded the entire benchmade knife business as we know it today.”

During World War II, Bo’s knives were so popular that orders would arrive addressed to “Knife Man, Orlando.” “We used to get letters from soldiers during Vietnam,” Gary says. “Now we get e-mail from Iraq.”

The late Gordon Cooper helped design the “Astro” model that Mercury astronauts took with them into space. Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz and Army Air Force Capt. Ronald Reagan were customers. And singer Harry Connick Jr. stops by every few years to pick up his orders.

If you want a Randall knife, you can visit the shop and look over the models, but you’ll leave empty-handed. The shop makes 170 knives a week—all of them spoken for, at a cost of $210-$755 each. Orders placed now will be ready by fall 2014. There’s always eBay, however, where the 50th anniversary model, which retailed for $325 when it came out in 1988, has been listed for as much as $10,000.

Bo died in 1989, leaving Gary and his sons, Michael and Jason, to continue the legacy.

In the shop, which employs 22 workers, craft and art coincide as knife-makers create blades as they have done for centuries. A shower of sparks from a grinding wheel obscures its operator. The machine-gun chatter of a pneumatic hammer transforms hot steel into roughly hewn blades, glowing deep red under the influence of a 1,900-degree forge. Wood and horn are carved into handles; the finished talon of a blade is polished until it gleams like silver. “There aren’t any templates or molds,” Gary says. “The grinder knows what model he’s making and just makes it.”

Each knife is unique, and, as Clark’s song implies, worthy of being a precious keepsake.

“When he died,” Clark says of his dad, “there was the bond of the knife between us.”


Taking Back Life’s ‘Toys’

When someone can no longer afford the frills, repo man Randy Craft pays a visit.
By Dan Harkins

Vinny climbs aboard his 31-foot luxury travel trailer for a last look inside. He passes a wooden plaque by the door—“A wise monkey is a monkey who doesn’t monkey with another monkey’s monkey”—then goes through some drawers while taking deep breaths. He bites his lip hard, choking back tears.

He’s 78, a retired longshoreman and a Korean War vet. The trailer was an extravagance, but he could afford it. That is, until he couldn’t. “I’ve never had anything like this happen to me before,” he says, noticeably embarrassed. “I always paid my bills.”

Repo man Randy Craft stands nearby, waiting quietly and patiently before moving in to get various specs on the travel trailer—its chic sleeping berths, full bath, kitchen, flat-screen TV room. It’s a slightly cheaper version of a fancy RV, towed behind Vinny’s Ford F-350. He and his wife started using it three years ago to take trips out West.

Vinny, who asked that his last name not be used for this story, says he’ll tow the trailer the next day to Craft’s lot near Eustis. It’s one of dozens of holding areas statewide for possessions that few needed in life but bought nonetheless: boats, planes, RVs and high-end trailers. Toys, Craft calls them.

Craft, 41, strikes the image of a country boy in the city: the Bluetooth and gold earring; the blue jeans, cowboy shirt and camo ballcap. He’s got flip-flops on today, but there’s a pair of snake-skin boots in the back seat of his truck, just in case he has to trek through brush. Mounted to the dash of his work-battered pickup is a GPS and laptop, its desktop cluttered with files of cases.

Craft works for International Recovery Group, which keeps its southern headquarters at Orlando Executive Airport. The firm specializes in recovering planes, boats and RVs. As the economy has faltered, so too has people’s ability to make the payments on their possessions.

At the start of 2009, IRG handled about 45 plane and boat repos a month, says Craft. But as the recession deepened, IRG’s repossessions grew threefold. For Craft, that means longer days and a lot of travel throughout Florida as well as other parts of the Southeast. One day he’s in Ormond Beach, Port Orange and Lake Mary. The next he hits Naples, Sarasota, Bradenton and Tampa, taking away people’s toys at
every stop.

The recession has been a boon to his line of work, but it’s also driven up competition in the recovery business. Lenders have repo guys on their speed dials, and Craft is grateful that his phone
is ringing.

Craft a repo man since he was 19, has been with IRG for a dozen years. His official title: lead investigator, a nod to the detective work that comes with taking back things people sometimes don’t want to give up.

In late summer, he tracked a yacht to Puerto Rico and a plane to Hawaii, where their owners had them stashed. They didn’t count on Craft showing up with a satisfied smile.

He does enjoy curtailing someone’s extravagant tastes—the well-to-do executive, for example, who no longer can afford the yacht but keeps it for appearances’ sake. But Craft runs into more cases of hard luck than of vanity nowadays, like the blue-collar worker who couldn’t make the payments on a boat after he lost his job. Or repossessing Vinny’s travel trailer because whatever disposable income he had left of his fixed income had to go toward paying medical bills.

At the Port Orange retirement village where Vinny lives, Craft shows up with his 20-year-old stepson, Chase Wilbanks, who’s learning the repossession trade. Wilbanks has the fun part of the job down pat, like when a boat is too big to be trailered away. That means he’s in for a boat ride—with a licensed captain—to IRG’s docks in DeLand or West Palm Beach.

But he’s still learning the human aspect of dealing with people faced with imminent loss of possessions that sometimes are extensions of their egos. There’s a host of emotions to deal with, and it takes the touch of a bomb-squad expert to keep feelings of embarrassment and anger from coalescing into an explosive mix.
For more sensitive cases, Craft takes the lead. While Wilbanks remains outside Vinny’s home, Craft goes inside to talk. Vinny knew this day would come, but now that the repo man is here, standing in his house, the situation goes from the inevitable to the actual. Vinny starts to cry.

He had a second open-heart procedure in April, then more stent surgeries. The bills trickled, then poured, in. He just worked out a deal to save his house, but he’s expecting another repo man to come and take away his truck.

“In cases like these,” says Craft later, “I handle things with kid gloves.”

At the trailer, Craft politely makes note of its upkeep, as pointed out by Vinny. “Brand new tires,” says Vinny for the second time. “They don’t even have 7,000 miles on ’em.”

Vinny slowly walks back to his car, wiping away more tears. “I want to go hide in the corner. It’s embarrassing,” he says, then advises:

“Don’t get old.” Craft and his stepson nod sympathetically. They’ve heard that advice before, though Craft doesn’t agree with it. “Don’t get overextended,” he counters out of Vinny’s earshot.

The repo man and trainee prefer cases that don’t pull so much on their heartstrings. Like the job they had in the morning, which began with a drive to River Bend Airport in Ormond Beach. A pilot-training school there gave seven single-engine Cirrus planes back to a bank, so Craft had to inspect them and arrange to have them taken away.

“It’s not always exciting,” Craft says of his job as he hops into his truck. “When people are told they have to lose their home… or lose their plane—they usually choose the plane.”

Or the travel trailer, RV or boat.


Building a Better Mouse?

Change is coming for Disney’s biggest star. But the new Mickey may not be “as welcome as can be.” By Jay Boyar

Mickey Mouse has been something of a problem for a very long time, but Disney is only just now getting around to doing something about him.

Mickey, of course, is one of the best-known characters in the world. That’s not the problem. The problem is that he is not—let’s face it—exciting.

It wasn’t always thus. Mickey started out as an adventurous, even mischievous, little guy—sort of a cross between Bart Simpson and Indiana Jones.

The public loved that early, Steamboat Willie-era version of the mouse, and even the intellectuals of the day approved. In his popular song “You’re the Top,” Cole Porter listed Mickey Mouse alongside “a Shakespeare sonnet” and “the smile on the Mona Lisa” as one of the best things in the world.

But as the years rolled on, Mickey increasingly came to represent the squeaky-clean image of the Disney company. And as the family-friendly organization’s mascot, he couldn’t afford to continue to be impudent, let alone edgy.

As a result, the 81-year-old rodent has become a super-nice guy with all the personality of creamed corn. Everybody likes him but not many people—including kids—are terribly psyched about him.

Disney is now attempting to fix this by returning Mickey to his roots. And the first major sign of this mouse-amorphosis will surface in Epic Mickey, his first game for Nintendo’s Wii.

Allowing for the visual style of such games, the new Mickey doesn’t actually look much different from the one we all know. But he will be a lot scrappier (although not evil). In Epic Mickey, which is expected to debut later this year, our hero will use a magic paintbrush to do battle in an animated netherworld full of forgotten Disney characters.

You never know: The revamped Mickey just might catch on. And if he does, we may see him in other platforms, presumably including theme parks.

Still, that makeover is definitely a risky business.

“One false move and Disney could have New Coke on its hands,” warned The New York Times’ Brooks Barnes in a front-page report about Mickey’s impending transformation.

All too true. Mickey is such a firmly established icon of all-American niceness that it might not be possible—or even desirable—to mess with him. They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and that may also go for old mice—even if the new tricks are actually old ones.

Still, something must be done.

Another possibility would be to keep Mickey more or less as he is and to introduce a new character—say, Mickey’s mischievous look-alike cousin, Tricky Mouse. There could be a new cartoon series in which Mickey attempts to keep everything all sweetness and light while Tricky goes around upsetting apple carts.

A series like that would give a boost to Mickey (in his traditional nice-guy role, with perhaps some strategic tweaking) while adding an intriguing new star to the Disney pantheon.

Of course, there would still be the question of where that leaves Minnie. Would she stay with Mickey or drop him for Tricky?

Odds are she would switch. Her homespun polka-dot skirt notwithstanding, Minnie has always seemed like the kind of gal who cannot resist the “bad” mouse.

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