Often, folks ask me how I get ideas for my essays. Usually, they come from a moment in time; a memory, an experience or an observation that just pops into my head or in front of me. These moments happen anywhere and everywhere throughout a day, a week, a year and a lifetime. And, I like to use them as a foundation for telling a broader story.
The following (which I wrote in 2014) is an example of how the smallest moment or "thing" can create memories, and ultimately, a story.
It was 80 years old and still working every day. “That’s cool,” I thought.
I noticed it one day when I bought a cup of coffee. In my change, one of the three quarters I received felt different than the others. So, I looked at it. The date read 1934.
Now, I’m much of a collector at this point in my life, but in my younger days, I collected things.
Like any kid growing up in the 1970s, I loved sports cards (mostly baseball), back when you did it for fun and to trade with your friends, not to see if you could get rich off them. They came 10 to a pack, with a brittle, lifeless stick of pink bubble gum that lost its flavor immediately upon hitting your taste buds. I probably had a couple hundred cards at one point, nothing major but enough to fill a shoebox.
I also collected beer cans, which when I was a kid didn’t seem strange, but now, if one of my kids took this on as a hobby, I’d probably wonder if they had a screw loose. But not in the 1970s.
And, I had quite a collection, everything from regional brands like Grain Belt, Buckhorn, Olympia (“Made with Fine Artesian Water”) and Rolling Rock in (8, 12 and 16 oz. sizes), to the obscure: Acme, Fife & Drum and Old Frothingslosh, the self-proclaimed “pale, stale ale with the foam on the bottom” that featured a black-and-white photo of an obese woman posing in a bikini (“Miss Frothingslosh” Fatima Yuchberg, according to the can).
I would even go to local beer can collector events (there was such a thing), mainly held on Saturday afternoons at our local Turner Hall, where I’d buy, sell and trade with people generally four to seven times my age. Not weird at all, right? Anyway, I think my dad liked that I collected cans because it gave him an excuse to drink more beer. It was “for the cause,” after all. (What a dad!) “Just make sure you open the can from the bottom,” I’d remind him. (I was told by one of my creepy Turner Hall beer can collector brethren that cans had more value when they were opened from the bottom to keep the pop-top intact.)
I remember the scene plain as day, my dad sitting in his chair, drinking some obscure brand of beer, upside down, every time proclaiming, “This is the worst goat piss I’ve ever had,” just before draining it so he could “upside-down open” the next in line. (This from a man who made his beer-drinking mark on the world by downing cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon and, in a pinch, it’s sorry cousin, Red, White & Blue.)
Beyond that, I wasn’t an autograph or memorabilia seeker. I didn’t collect rocks or bugs or stamps. But for a while, I did collect coins. Although in my late pre-teen years, I didn’t have much occasion or wherewithal to buy or trade them, so most of my time was spent looking for wheat pennies, which were replaced in 1970 (or thereabouts) by the Lincoln Memorial version. Now and again, I’d get a steel penny, a silver version circulated during World War II. (Apparently, we needed copper for the war effort.)
I liked to collect coins because my big brother, Mark, did it when he was a kid. And though we never really talked about, after he left for the military, I would often take out his collection and examine the coins, run them through my fingers, sort them by year, or by where they were minted (indicated by a tiny letter just under the year). He probably didn’t have more than 70 or 80 in all, but I was always impressed because I was impressed with everything Mark did or said. (He was, after all, my big brother.)
Mark didn’t talk much, but when he did, people listened. He was kind of a rebel in my eyes. He liked to work on cars and seemed to know something about everything. If something needed to be built, he built it. If it needed to be fixed, he fixed it. So why wouldn’t I be impressed with his coin collection, too?
Anyway, Mark had some Indian Head pennies, Buffalo nickels and lots of other things that had long become obsolete by the early 1970s. He kept most of them in these blue folders made specially for collectors, with spaces for each type of coin and the year. He kept the Indian Head pennies in a small clear bottle, and he also had a small assortment of half-dollars, silver dollars and foreign coins.
To go along with his collection, Mark had a book that would tell you the approximate value of these coins. Value was determined by the coin’s age, appearance and overall condition. (By the way, I also had a book like this for my beer can collection title, “The Beer Can Collector’s Guide.”)
I loved to go through Mark’s collection and find specific coins in the book, hoping and wishing that one time, I’d run across one that was truly rare and valuable, and I could give him the great news when he returned from the Army. That never happened. However, after returning stateside, Mark did become a major source for my beer can collection. He was a truck driver who often hauled beer, and sometimes, he’d bring back brands I had never seen or heard of, to my delight and my dad’s chagrin. (“I see you brought us more goat piss.”)
My collector phase lasted about four years, eventually giving way to other things, like playing sports, riding bikes, and generally, doing what kids do. But no matter how often I pulled out Mark’s coin collection (or later, my own), or examined my beer cans or sorted my baseball cards, it never got old for me. It was relaxing, and for some unexplained reason, I never got bored with it. It gave me something to do on a rainy day, and it allowed me to always be on the lookout for that next baseball card my friend didn’t have, the oddball beer can, or the one Wheat penny in a handful of change I got after buying a candy bar.
So recently, when I ran across this 1934 quarter, I held for a long time. I rubbed it between my thumb and forefinger. It was smooth, thanks to the decades of handling, the years spent in people’s pockets, purses and change jars. The hundreds or thousands of times it was placed in vending machines, used at a coin-op laundry, pushed across the bar to buy a tapper of beer or put up as a friendly wager.
And then, I started to think about all the places it had been. Had it left the country? Had a criminal ever touched it? Was it ever spent by anyone famous, or used to determine who would kick off in a friendly game of touch football, or in a college or NFL game? Did a grandpa ever give it to his grandson, telling him “Don’t spend it all in one place”? Was it ever dropped in the hands of a homeless person by a busy passerby on a busy street in a busy town?
It was then I realized why those collections held meaning and value for me. It wasn’t the thrill of the chase, the potential to get rich or even to one-up my friends. The value came in the history and memories that these things held, the people, places and times that helped me build my history, a story that I hope is someday as rich and impressive as the history of that 80-year-old quarter.
© 2014 David R. Haznaw