The Day My Heart Stood Still
But today I had a jolt stronger than any I ever got from caffeine. Get this: a few days ago I started “penny mining” — when I go to the bank, in addition to my regular transactions I also take out some rolls of pennies to sort through while watching TV at home. Pre-1982 copper pennies go in one jar, the very occasional wheat penny in another, and I re-roll the rest to deposit in my account.
So I went to the bank today and came home with $10 in penny rolls, which I sorted while watching a DVD. When I opened one roll and scattered its contents across my work tray, there among the brown and red coins I saw a silver-colored one. “Cool,” I thought, “a steel wheat penny in good condition.” But the back of the coin showed the Lincoln Memorial, and when I turned it over I saw the date was 1974.
The old cliché about time standing still describes the moment too well for me to seek out something better. One of the rarest recent American coins is the 1974 aluminum penny; that year, in light of high copper prices, there was talk of minting pennies from aluminum. (The proposal failed, of course, and copper pennies minted until 1982.) Over a million aluminum pennies were struck; one was donated to the Smithsonian, and a few more passed out to congresspersons and cabinet members and similar people. The US Mint recalled the coins when it abandoned the plan, but about a dozen of the aluminum pennies were never returned.
Nowadays the missing coins are officially considered US government property, and the Secret Service is tasked with confiscating any that are found and returning them to the Mint. Or so it’s believed; nobody knows for sure what would happen if a 1974 aluminum penny turned up, because nobody — not one of the relatives, mistresses or favored lobbyists of the Congressmen who initially refused to return the coins — has ever publicly come forth, admitted holding one and offered it for sale.
I stared down at the silver 1974 next to Lincoln’s silver head and felt hot and cold and dizzy all at once, thinking: “Here I sit with a literally priceless coin in my lap, and there’s collectors who’d pay millions for it except I have no idea how to find any of these people, plus the Secret Service will confiscate the penny if they know I have it.”
All this and more flashed through my head in a fraction of a second, but eventually realization sank in that an aluminum penny would be noticeably lighter than the one I actually held. I have a few aluminum coins on hand; a French franc from World War Two is about the size of a quarter, yet weighs noticeably less than my penny. Then I remembered how, before safety regulations went insane, “turning pennies into silver” was a common high school chemistry experiment.
So I didn’t have a priceless artifact fall into my lap today. If I had, I wouldn’t have updated my blog today either, and would probably continue neglecting it awhile longer until I logged on to report “Hi, everybody, I now live in one of those non-Middle Eastern countries that refuses to extradite rich people to the US. No TSA here, either.”
(Confession: once I realized I had an ordinary copper penny after all, I felt an overwhelming urge to call the Secret Service in the guise of a patriotic citizen who thought she’d found an aluminum penny and was doing her civic duty by reporting it. But I decided not to, figuring I’m probably on some watch list already.)