Who knew a simple penny could turn your world upside down?
By Larry Richardson
A struggling single mom working as a cashier at a New Mexico convenience store discovers a rare 1943 copper penny in the register, appraised at over a million dollars. Overjoyed, she believes all her troubles are finally over. What she soon learns is that everything and everyone she holds dear is now in mortal danger.
In 1943, the Lincoln head penny, humblest coin of the realm, prepared for a dramatic makeover on behalf of the war effort. Minted from copper since 1793, with more than a billion coins in circulation, the penny held not only sentimental affection, but monetary value. A Lincoln head bought you a copy of the New York Tribune, you could ride the rail for a penny a mile, or buy a stick of candy. But the War Department desperately sought copper for electrical wiring and radio circuitry. So, the Treasury prepared to introduce a replacement for the copper penny with a coin made of steel and coated with zinc.
At the San Francisco Mint, workers prepared new dies that had the new date and also were made differently to stamp harder steel rather than softer copper. The supervisor called out the orders.
“Today we start minting war pennies,” he explained to his men. “I want any blank copper planchets removed to make way for steel pennies. So, before you load the hoppers full of steel coins, make sure you’ve pulled out any stray copper blanks. We’ve got a full day ahead of us, so let’s get to it.”
The workers bent to their tasks, fingering deep into the idle machinery in search of copper strays. The pressman signaled to the boss.
“We’ve cleared out everything we can find,” he said.
“You’re sure?” the boss said.
“We’d have to dismantle the whole press to be dang sure. There may be a few copper slugs still caught in the guts of the press, but it’s not worth tearing the whole thing apart just to catch five or ten copper slugs.” The boss nodded and he turned to the press foreman.
“Light’em up,” he called out. “Let’s start stamping coins.”
Cog wheels began grinding round and around, belts started rolling, and the numbing roar of industrial machinery filled the massive factory. Workers wheeled bins full of steel planchets to the gaping mouth of the chute, and dumped them into the open mouth of the press to be stamped with the impression of Lincoln on the obverse and wheat sheaves on the reverse, with the year “1943” and the letter symbol of the mint – “S” for San Francisco.
At the other end of the die stamping machine, quality control workers eyed each new coin rolling off the press to catch any imperfections that might require a shutdown. As soon as the first few coins emerged, one worker waved his hand and called out.
“Hold up,” he shouted. “We got copper coins coming out.”
“What the hell?” the supervisor said. He turned to the press foreman. “Shut it down.” The foreman signaled to the operator and the spinning wheels of the die press ground to a halt. The supervisor walked over to examine the spurious coins. Sure enough, at least twenty to thirty coins emerged from the die press imprinted on copper planchets.
“How’d this happen?” the supervisor called out to no one in particular. The foreman offered a theory.
“There may have been a few copper planchets still caught in the guts of the machine when we shut it down last night. There’s nothing you can do about it. You just gotta let’em work their way through.” The supervisor nodded – the explanation seemed plausible. He examined the beltway to see steel coins emerging behind the copper coins.
“Okay,” the supervisor said. “Fire’em back up,” he called to the foreman. The die press resumed its hum and roar.
The quality control worker asked, “What do you want me to do with these copper coins?”
“Forget about it,” he said. “It’s legal tender. Just toss ‘em in the bins with the steel coins. By the time this day is over, we’ll have a 100,000 steel pennies all stacked, rolled, and lined up in wooden crates ready for shipping. Do you think anybody’s gonna even notice a couple dozen copper coins in the midst of all that currency?”
The worker shrugged his shoulders and tossed the copper coins into the bins. The next morning, an armored truck backed up to the loading dock where fifty wooden crates full of newly minted coins sat waiting. The driver collected his shipping instructions from the dock supervisor.
“These crates go to the Federal Reserve Bank,” he said, handing a clipboard to the driver to sign. The dock crew loaded the crates into the armored truck and locked the doors shut. Within an hour, the armored truck arrived at its drop-off. Bank personnel supervised the delivery of crates stacked full of coins and bags of bundled paper currency, all under the watchful eye of the bank manager.
The entire world breathed a collective sigh of relief when Nazi Germany surrendered in May of 1945, and Japan likewise called it quits in August of the same year. American serviceman mustered out in droves to return home. In the fall of 1945, David Santangelo, a young Army veteran, still in uniform from his tour in the South Pacific, returned to the States, and approached the ticket agent at an Oakland, California, bus station for his ride home. He was lean and tanned with dark hair. His deep brown eyes gave him an intense, soulful look.
“One way, please, to Albuquerque,” he said.
“That’ll be $45.61,” the ticket agent replied. David handed him fifty dollars in bills and received four dollar bills and thirty-nine cents in change, including a shiny, 1943 copper penny. That afternoon he boarded a vintage Greyhound “Silversides,” with its flanks fashioned from fluted aluminum. The twenty-hour drive gave the young war hero ample time to plan a marriage proposal for his sweetheart back home, anxiously awaiting his return.
He scanned the bus to see other young vets headed home, some Navy, some Marines, some Army, like himself. He slipped in beside a Navy guy, knowing he would make good company.
“How far you going?” David said.
The Navy boy nodded. The long drive allowed these two GIs a chance to share their stories, congratulate each other, and give thanks. David recalled the sheer terror ascending Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima, and the Navy vet spoke of his tour on the aircraft carrier Enterprise.
“We were the most decorated ship in the war,” he said. “We downed over 900 enemy planes and sunk seventy-one ships.” David nodded his approval, but he could see from the pain in his buddy’s eyes that those victories came at a high price in good men who would never return home. When the Navy vet napped, David opened a ring box to admire the small diamond he just purchased the day before, and imagined the expression of joy on his beloved’s face. Gloria Jimenez and David met at the hardware store where he worked. She was a knock-out, with long black hair and more curves than a mountain road.
“I think I need a pipe wrench,” she said. He chuckled at the thought of her trying to wrestle with a leaky pipe and offered to assist.
“You don’t need to buy a wrench. I’ve got one in the back of my truck. Maybe I could help. Where do you live?
“It’s my mom’s house,” Gloria said.
“Oh. Can’t your dad fix it?”
“He works for the Forest Service. He’s gone a lot. If we wait much longer, I’ll need to buy a canoe.” He smiled at her sense of humor under trying conditions.
“That settles it. Let’s go,” David said.
“But I don’t have the money to pay you,” she said.
“Join me for dinner tonight and that will be payment enough,” he said.
The leaky pipe turned out to be a loose connection – an easy fix. David knew he had scored points with Gloria by taking the first step to winning a girl’s heart – do something excellent in her presence. The two dated for a year until he got drafted in the Army in 1942. After basic training, he shipped out to the west coast for deployment. The night before he left, the two made solemn vows sealed with a night of passion.
Sometime after midnight, the bus eased into the Phoenix station. The Navy boy nudged his new Army buddy.
“This is my stop.” David rubbed his eyes and stepped into the aisle to let his seatmate scoot out. They shook hands. The Navy boy pulled his duffle bag from the overhead bin, then slipped a small piece of paper to his comrade.
“Here’s my address. Look me up sometime and let’s have a drink.” David nodded.
“Count on it.”
In another 400 miles, just after dawn, the Albuquerque welcome sign came into view along US Highway 85. The familiar Sandia Mountains flanked the city and welcomed him home. David’s eyes filled with grateful tears at the sight of it. Named Sandia by the native Indians, the word translates to watermelon for its pinkish colored granite peaks. Also, when viewed from the west, the profile of the mountains is a long ridge, with a thin zone of green conifers near the top, suggesting the “rind” of the watermelon.
From the bus station, he took a taxi to the apartment building where he had mailed so many aching love letters over the past two years. Gloria Jimenez, his beloved, shared apartment #42 with Betty Goodloe, a girlfriend. They both worked at a local garment factory in the shipping department.
When David arrived at the building, he set his duffle beside the front door of apartment #42 and knocked. Gloria’s roommate answered the door. She immediately recognized him from the picture Gloria taped to her bedroom mirror. Betty squealed with sympathetic delight.
“Oh, you must be David,” Betty said. “Gloria’s at work – I have the day off. But, hey, c’mon in and make yourself at home. I’ll give her a call.” David leaned his duffle beside the sofa and listened as Betty rang the factory’s main line.
“Hi, this is Betty. I work in the shipping department. I need to talk to Gloria Templeton – she’s also in shipping…Yes, it’s urgent.” She held her hand over the handset.
“It’ll just take a minute for her to get to the phone,” she said to David. She waved him over to the phone to be ready. Every second felt like an hour. Finally…
“Hello, this is Gloria.”
“Hi, this is Betty. I have someone here who wants to talk to you.” She handed the phone to David.
“Hello, Gloria? This is David.” He could hear her voice crack.
“David? My David?”
“You’re home? You’re here, right here in Albuquerque?”
“Right in your apartment. I like the way you’ve laid it out.” He heard Gloria squeal to everyone nearby. “My David’s home.” Then she got back on the line. “Are you here for good?”
“Forever, baby,” he said. “Get yourself home. We got a lot of livin’ to do.”
“I’m on my way. Don’t you go anywhere.”
That night, David took Gloria to dinner, and proposed during the dessert phase, in front of the entire restaurant. Everyone applauded. They held a long-overdue wedding ceremony one week later, surrounded by friends and family.
They honeymooned in Denver, Colorado, because according to David, he never wanted to see another ocean again for the rest of his life. Once back home in Albuquerque, with the help of a GI loan, they closed on a home of their own – a quaint, adobe structure in a modest neighborhood. To make it official, he carried her over the threshold. Once inside the front door, he made his bride a promise.
“I know this house isn’t new, but it’s new to us. This is only the beginning.” Gloria cupped her hands around his face and kissed him tenderly.
“It’s beautiful, my love. I couldn’t be happier.” They set about to repaint, refit, and rewire obvious defects. David made partner of the local hardware store, where he worked before the war. By Christmas, their holiday tree stood proud in the living room with ornaments and lights ready to be plugged in. With ceremonial flare, David plugged in the lights as Gloria looked on. The lights flashed momentarily then suddenly flickered out, along with the other lights in the living room.
“What happened?” she said. Her husband sighed.
“Must have blown a fuse,” he said. “I’ll check it out. He found a flashlight and fumbled his way through the dark to the old-style fuse box and opened the covering. Finding the burn out fuse, he unscrewed it.
“Yeah, I was right,” he said. “We blew a fuse.” She wasn’t really worried – she’d married the co-owner of a hardware store.
“Can you fix it?”
“I can make due,’ he said. “Sweetheart, there’s a bowl of change on top of the dresser in our bedroom. Could you go get it?” She retrieved the change bowl and handed it to her resourceful spouse. He fished around the bowl, populated mostly with dimes, quarters, and nickels. Then he spotted a copper penny.
“This’ll do,” he said. He pinched it out of the bowl and popped it in the fuse opening and cinched the blown fuse on top of it. Instantly, all the lights came back on. His wife applauded at his ingenuity.
“You’re my hero,” she said.
Twenty years later, a “For Sale” sign appeared in the front yard of the Santangelo starter home. A realtor met a young Hispanic couple, Raul, an appliance repairman, and Susie Trujillo, a pretty dark-haired Hispanic girl. Nervous to leave the barrio, but anxious to chase their dreams, they set their hearts on a home where they could grow and raise their kids. Their new home impressed them with the care the previous owners took in its maintenance.
“How soon can we move in?” Raul said.
“The sellers have already moved out. So, it’s ready to occupy as soon as you close.” Within a month, a moving truck backed into the driveway, and the Trujillos started unloading their belongings. The electrical contractor’s van sat beside the moving truck in the driveway, as the electrician inspected the wiring throughout the house to bring it up to code. In the garage, he opened the old fuse-type electrical panel and examined it.
“Whoa,” he muttered, as he unscrewed an old fuse and spotted the copper penny used to replace a round fuse. He dug it out with a screwdriver and called out to the new owner.
“Si,” the young owner said. The electrician waved the copper coin with distain and then pantomimed a house in flames.
“Muy, muy peligroso,” he said. Then he tossed the coin to Raul, who caught it and dropped it in a Folgers coffee can, along with some other loose change and placed it on a shelf in the garage.
That evening, Raul and Susie celebrated their first night in their dream home with a fragrant pot of carne adovada bubbling on the stove. Unopened boxes stood three and four tall in every room, but the moving adventure could wait until morning. Tonight, these love birds shut out the world and focused on each other.
Susie gently stirred the pot as Raul opened a box of record albums. Fingering through the albums, he spied The Latin Album by Trini Lopez. He positioned it on the turntable in the small living room and set the needle on the seductive “Besame Mucho” song. As the opening strains filled the living room, he gently removed the ladle from Susie’s hand and led her to their own private dance floor. She surrendered to his amorous touch. The moon in the sky and the music set the mood as Raul took Susie into his arms and held her close. They slid across the living room floor as one, pausing, turning, caressing, so close they could feel each other’s heartbeat. Time itself suspended in the magic of the moment.
“Welcome home,” Raul whispered in her ear. She rested her head against his chest and he kissed her forehead as they melted into each other.
“This is the happiest moment of my life,” she whispered back.
Ninety miles south of Albuquerque, a set of railroad lines ran straight through the middle of the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge. As the stout locomotive thundered through this sprawling nature preserve, it announced its presence with a blast of its air horn. Instantly, a living wall of winged creatures exploded into the sky. Giant Sand Hill cranes, white tufted ducks, and thousands of perching birds all took flight at the same time.
The Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge encompassed over 57,000 acres, providing a critical stopover for migrating waterfowl. The refuge was well-known for the tens of 1,000s of cranes, geese, and ducks that wintered there each year. The refuge included wetlands, hiking trails, observation platforms, and a visitor’s center. Caretakers even planted an annual crop of corn to feed the migrating birds.
A marine green aluminum fishing boat, called a “Jon Boat,” sat in the shallow water at the banks of the Rio Grande River while a flying “V” of Sand Hill cranes flew in formation overhead chirping with their distinctive clicking call. The flat-bottomed boat bobbed about with various scientific jars and tackle boxes. A decal on the side of the boat read “U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”
Looking up at the flock of airborne cranes, Roberto Jaramillo shielded his eyes as he followed the track of their flight. Forty years of age, Roberto relished the serenity of this job, in sharp contrast to the ear-splitting chaos he endured during his three tours in Afghanistan. Decorated for bravery, he represented his fellow Native Americans well, rising to the rank of Captain before mustering out. Now back home in his ancestral lands, he found peace and purpose along the Rio Grande among the wildlife and the aviary treasure house he served. With his Fish and Game uniform sleeves rolled up, his exposed, rugged arms glistened with a sheen of sweat in the desert afternoon sun.
Back on shore, the slamming sound of metal on metal echoed across the refuge, as his intern assistant abruptly closed the back gate of his pickup truck. The noise triggered a flock of cranes to bolt from the water, disrupting Roberto’s moment of reverie. Chris Hancock, a twenty-year-old summer college intern studying biology at the University of New Mexico-Valencia, chose to gain some knowledge and school credits by assisting the Wildlife Service over the summer.
“If you’d just slam that back gate a little harder, you might be able to scare away every last bird and fish along the Rio Grande,” Roberto said. “Then we’ll have nothing to observe and we can go home.”
“That’s okay. Grab the cooler out of my truck and load it onto the boat. I want to go downstream a ways.”
Chris walked to Roberto’s 1972 blue Chevy C-10 short bed cruiser. A classic. Chris pulled out the cooler and brought it to the shoreline, where Roberto pushed the craft tightly to the shore with his paddle. Chris awkwardly handed over the cooler and Roberto stowed it between the benches. Then he offered his hand to help Chris climb aboard and pointed him to the front seat. Roberto took the back seat with paddle in hand and grinned. That look disturbed Chris.
“What are you grinning at? You gonna hit me with that paddle?”
“I don’t know – you gonna make any more noise?”
Chris gave Roberto a glance.
“Just kidding,” Roberto said. He suddenly noticed a mama duck and four ducklings silently paddle right next to the craft. Roberto gently pointed to them and Chris’ eyes widened as he followed the duck family down river. He looked at Roberto and grinned. Roberto nodded.
“See what you can find with a little peace in your heart?”
Roberto pushed the craft from the bank. The slow current gently took them down stream until the boat slid itself aground on a sand bank. Chris handed over a green fishing box filled with vials and notepads. Then he watched as Roberto gingerly stepped out on the sand bank, knelt down, and scooped up two water samples. He held them up to the sunlight and studied them.
“How does it look?” Chris said.
“Hard to say,” Roberto muttered as he twisted the vials with his fingers. “We’ll put’em under the microscope at the center. Let’s get some more samples down river, then you can paddle us back to the trucks.”
“Me paddle us back?”
“I’m the captain, you’re the first mate. I guide. You paddle.”
Chris stood and saluted in mock subservience.
“Si, mi capitan,” he said. Roberto just grinned.
Near sundown, Roberto and Chris circled back to shore and loaded the cooler and jon boat into the back of Roberto’s Chevy pick-up.
“See you tomorrow,” Roberto said. Chris waved back from his own pickup.
Roberto watched Chris drive off, then remained in the cab for a few moments to savor the serenity. Finally, he turned the ignition, put his truck in gear and drove to the Fish and Wildlife office to test the samples he’d collected. While waiting for the computer to analyze the samples, he grabbed his sandwich from the fridge and flipped on the TV, stretched out on his office couch and watched the Weather Channel until he fell asleep.
The sun’s morning rays spilled through the office window and found Roberto rolled over on the couch, one arm dangling over the side. He squinted at his surroundings to recall his location, then checked his watch – 6:45 a.m.
“Shit,” he muttered. “I’m supposed to be somewhere.” He stretched the kinks out of his back and tottered over to the office bathroom to splash some water on his face, brush his teeth, and comb his hair. He checked his face in the mirror.
“Who are you?” he asked the reflection. He shrugged his shoulders, tucked in his shirt, and jumped in his Chevy pickup.
Sandra Spielman called out to her son, Zeke, as she finished scrambling some eggs.
“Zeke,” she called down the hallway. “Breakfast.”
Thin, willowy, with ash blonde hair down to her shoulders, she could pass for twenty-nine, though her driver’s license revealed she was thirty-four. Despite her fetching looks, there was heaviness to her, an airy spirit chained to the earth by a failed marriage that ended five years ago with a man who once promised her the world, but ultimately walked out and left her penniless. The divorce settlement required that he pay child support, but he moved out of state and rarely sent a check.
The one joy in her life that buoyed her fragile heart just sat down at the table – Zeke, her twelve-year-old son. Every day, he was living proof that she got the best of the spousal settlement – she got Zeke. He was bright, playful, and quick to learn. Like everyone, he struggled emotionally. In groups, he felt awkward and out of place. School counselors suspected he might be on the autism spectrum. He battled insecurities, teasing, and the occasional bullying from cruel schoolmates. His autism usually presented as obsessive-compulsive urges to complete a task without interruption. One evening, he began constructing a Lego truck just before bath time and refused to leave it unfinished to the point of tears and screams. Sandra had to sit beside him to help him finish so that he could feel a sense of achievement.
Roberto met Sandra three years ago when Sandra took a day from work to help supervise Zeke’s class field trip to the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge to watch the bird migration. Roberto acted as the tour guide for the class, identifying the various water fowl and pointing out migration habits. Sandra stood in the back, watching how gentle and playful Roberto was with the kids. She specifically noticed how patiently he taught Zeke the use of the mounted telescope on the observation platform to watch birds at a long distance. She introduced herself during a break, and the two hit it off.
They found they had a lot in common. Both were divorced, both born and raised in Albuquerque, loved the outdoors, and shared a guilty pleasure for Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.
After a year of steady dating, and occasional sleepovers, they agreed to have Roberto move in on a trial basis. He eased her lonely heart, proved quite a handyman around the house, and most importantly, helped with the living expenses. But the clincher in her mind was how Zeke adored him. Like a couple of kids, they played ball together in the afternoon and watched TV shows together on Saturday mornings. Even more charming, he let Zeke patiently explain each of the characters on the TV show Paw Patrol – their names and superpowers.
Roberto pulled into the driveway of Sandra’s modest stucco framed house, 50’s vintage – suitable but not fancy. He parked behind Sandra’s less-than-pristine Camry and helped himself through the front door. Instantly, the smell of eggs and bacon filled his senses. He rounded the kitchen door to find Sandra at the stove. She turned and smiled.
“Sorry I didn’t make it home last night. I fell asleep on the office couch.”
“Just in time for eggs,” she said. Roberto caught Zeke with a bear hug and gave him a 360° spin.
“How you doin’, buddy boy?” he said.
“You smell like dead fish,” Zeke blurted out.
“Zeke,” Sandra said. “Don’t be rude.”
Roberto stepped behind Sandra and planted a kiss on the back of her neck.
“Good morning,” he said gently into one ear.
“He’s right,” Sandra whispered. “You do smell a little ripe. Rough night?”
“The usual. No rest for the wicked.” She handed him a plate of sunny side-up eggs and a couple strips of bacon.
“Hungry?” she said. He took the plate and began picking at the bacon strips while standing up.
“Sit down,” Sandra said. “This isn’t a race.” Roberto smiled and pulled up a chair. Sandra began kitchen clean-up before leaving for work. She wore her Cozy Mart uniform, the convenience store chain where she worked to pay the bills. Zeke stood at the counter making a peanut butter sandwich for lunch.
“How are the birds?’ Sandra said.
“Must be good weather up north – lots of early arrivals,” Roberto said.
Sandra poured him a cup of coffee and sat down beside him.
“You remember about today? I’m working a split shift, but I told Morty I’d stop by the fairgrounds. So, if you could pick up Zeke?”
“Sure, I’ll pick him up. And I’ll put him to work – make a man out of him,” he said, looking to see if Zeke heard him. Zeke made no reply, so Roberto wadded up a dish towel and tossed it at him. Zeke grabbed the towel and playfully tossed it back.
“I heard you,” Zeke said. Sandra wearily watched the horseplay.
“Just don’t forget,” Sandra urged Roberto. “Zeke, get your stuff. We’re late.” Roberto rolled up the dish towel again and sent it flying back to Zeke.
Sandra sighed. “Boys – play nice.”
Cozy Mart belonged to a small chain of convenience stores scattered throughout the Albuquerque area. Their beer was cold, but taquitos and hot dogs rolled relentlessly on the hot table, and you never knew for sure if they were today’s batch or yesterday’s leftovers. The parent company, San Patricio, ran a tight ship, on the order of Captain Bligh’s Mutiny on the Bounty. One store manager asked corporate if he could just give unsold hot dogs to the late-night clean-up girl rather than throw them out.
“No,” replied corporate. “If you start giving away leftovers, the crew will just cook up enough dogs to make sure there will always be leftovers. We’re not in business to give away free food.”
Store managers issued threats of punishment rather than promises of reward to motivate employees. Under these tense conditions Sandra worked the register, completing transactions, trying to minimize theft, and enforcing minimum age alcohol and tobacco purchases. The store manager, Forrest Hambrick, was a twenty-eight-year-old graduate of Central New Mexico Community College, with a two-year degree in business. Sandra was not necessarily peeved at the thought of working for someone younger than herself. Her policy was “They don’t have to be my elders, but they should be my betters.”
Forrest wore a traditional bow tie, and insisted on being addressed as “Mr. Hambrick,” as if that mantle might age him up a decade or two. He wore his insecurities on his sleeve and lived in fear his corporate overlords would discover his incompetence any day now.
Shortly after Sandra stepped behind the register, Mr. Hambrick emerged from his back office.
“Good morning, Sandra.”
“Good morning, Mr. Hambrick.”
“We got a memo from corporate. They want us to push the hot snack items. Like the burritos. We throw out more than we sell.”
“Maybe we should sell something people want to buy.”
“Put it in the suggestion box. In the meantime, push the burritos, okay?”
“Okay. Push the burritos. Got it.” Hambrick continued to hover. “Was there something else?”
“They also say we’re using too much toilet paper.” Sandra responded with an eye roll.
“I don’t even know how they calculate that,” Sandra said. “It’s been my experience that people only use as much toilet paper as they need. If they are using more toilet paper, it’s because they need it. What do they want us to do? Dole it out to them square by square from under the stall door?”
“I don’t know. Just – whatever,” he said, then turned and retreated to his office.
At the end of her shift, she clocked out and drove over to the Expo at the New Mexico Fairgrounds to see her dad’s old partner and dear friend, Morty Lang. Her dad, David Levi Spielman, grew up in New York and ran a rare coin collection business in Brooklyn. His habitual cigarette smoking led to chronic bronchitis, and his doctor urged that he stop smoking and recommended that he move to a drier climate, like Arizona or New Mexico. In 1985, David moved his family and his business to Albuquerque. He convinced his partner, Morty Lang, to join him.
“What do you want to stay in Brooklyn for?” he asked Morty. “Brooklyn is getting so crowded and expensive. I’m taking the business west. What are you going to do if you stay here?”
“I don’t know,” Morty said. “My brother is in the mattress business. I could maybe go work for him.”
“Forget mattresses,” David said. “The future is in coins, especially gold and silver. Trust me.”
David had never steered Morty wrong, so he trusted him with this gigantic leap of faith. The timing for this move west proved providential. Albuquerque boomed in the 1980s as the oil industry expanded and high tech industries, like Intel and others, took root, earning Albuquerque the label “Silicon Valley of the Southwest.” All this expansion triggered the need for more workers, new homes, new infrastructure, and many more jobs. For thirty-five years, the Spielman Coin Exchange flourished, particularly from 2000 to 2012, when the price of gold jumped from $462 an ounce to $2,279 an ounce.
David’s wife passed away in 2015, which also snuffed out the joy of life from David. His usual zest faded, and his health declined. Despite the drier climate, his chronic bronchitis worsened, and eventually got the best of him. He passed away in 2021. Morty took the reins of the company, changing the name to “Spielman, Lang, and Associates, Rare Coins.” Sandra grew up with Morty and considered him family. She never stopped calling him Uncle Morty.
The previous day he’d left her a phone message to stop by the Expo when she could. Still wiry and nimble and pushing seventy, his Brooklyn accent persisted even after nearly forty years living in New Mexico. The banner hanging over the exhibition hall read “SOUTHWEST COIN EXPO.” She breathed familiar air as soon as she walked inside. In her youth, this was like home. Her dad ran his own coin collection business in Albuquerque, and always manned a booth at the Expo. Many an afternoon she sat beside her dad as he explained to customers the difference between “fine,” “extra fine,” and “mint state.”
As she walked down the aisles, she watched people milling, stopping, looking, talking. She caught snippets of conversations between dealers and customers, shop talk about grading, proofs, and uncirculated coins. She loved it – the language of coins that she knew so well. She stopped to chat with various dealers, many of whom watched her grow up. She paused at one booth.
“Hey, Sandra, whad’aya doin’ here?” asked one dealer.
“Watching you guys hawking slugs – what do you think?”
The dealer laughed, then got serious for a moment of respect.
“Listen, sorry about your dad. They said you had to sell off his collection to cover his medical bills.”
“Most of it,” she said. “I kept what I could. His Mercury ‘42 over ‘41. A few nice barber quarters.”
“I’m glad,” the dealer said. “Be a shame to lose ‘em all.”
“Yeah. Tell that to the collection agency.”
She moved on, making her way down the aisle, stopping to look at various offerings and chatting up the dealers. A few collectors clustered around a booth at the end of the row. A sign overhead read “Spielman, Lang, and Associates, Rare Coins.” The small crowd parted enough for her to see Morty Lang holding court. She stood back as he schooled his customers about Lincoln head pennies.
“Now, you talking 1909 VDB or ‘S’ VDB?” Morty said.
“What’s the difference?” one customer said.
“Only about $1,000, depending on condition,” Morty said. He pointed to one coin. “This Philadelphia VDB? Seventy-five bucks, mint.” He pointed to a second coin. “The 1909 San Francisco VDB, like this beauty? Damn near uncirculated. $1,500.” He beckoned the customer closer. “These other jokers around here, they’re all a bunch of sharks. Probably charge you more. Here, take a closer look.” He handed the customer the coin in its sleeve, then suddenly noticed Sandra with a broad smile on her face. He opened his arms to embrace her.
“Hi, Morty.” They hugged, but Morty paused long enough to retrieve the penny he had just handed out.
“Busy being Zeke.”
“That reminds me. I got something for you.” He crossed over to a tray of half dollars, selected one, and handed it to her. “I came across this.” Sandra examined it.
“A 1919 Walking Liberty. Wow,” she said. Morty pointed at it for emphasis.
“Extra fine. I know you’ve been hunting for one.” Sandra gave it a loving look.
“How much?” she asked.
Book is $525. For you? My cost – $325.” Sadly, Sandra handed it back.
“I can’t. Not this month. I’m still crawling out from under.” Morty pushed the coin back to her.
“Go ahead. Take it.”
“No, I couldn’t.”
“C’mon, take it. If it weren’t for your dad, I’d be selling mattresses in Hackensack. Consider it a birthday present.” Sandra shook her head no.
“Morty, my birthday is in August.”
“So, I’m four months early.” For her dad’s sake, she accepted the gift. Touched, she put the coin in her purse and gave Morty a hug.
“Thanks, Uncle Morty.”
On her way home, Sandra pulled her Camry into the parking lot of a large cemetery to visit her father’s grave. She stood over his headstone, which read: David Levi Spielman, 1944-2021. Beside his grave rested his dear wife, Naomi. Now, at last, they were together again and forever. A vacant space beside her father and mother insured a resting place for Morty as well, whenever his time came. Sandra sat beside her parents’ graves. Her aching heart reminded her that she was indeed an orphan. She surveyed the headstones that dotted the landscaped hillside. Her gaze settled on a family on the other side of the road, sitting on a blanket with a picnic basket so their dearly departed loved one could join them in spirit.
On top of her father’s headstone, Sandra noticed a small collection of stones, as well as a few coins. She recalled her father telling her about the Jewish tradition of leaving a small stone to show you’d been there. She figured the coins were tokens left by a few visitors in honor of his lifelong profession. She stood and reached into her pocket for a penny of her own, which she placed alongside the others, then stepped back.
“How you doing, Pop? Hi, Mom. Treating you good up there? I’m doing okay, I guess. Just getting by. It’s a lot harder here without your parents. But I’m sure you know that. Zeke is getting bigger. You’d be impressed. I saw Morty today. He’s a sweetheart. Not much else going on. But I’ll keep you posted. And, Dad, don’t get bored up there – I know they don’t deal in currency inside the pearly gates. I guess everybody’s on the honor system. Must be nice.”
At the Pajarito Elementary School, Roberto slowly drove onto the school grounds, just in time to spot Zeke exiting the main building. To Roberto, it reminded him of the lake full of Sand Hill cranes suddenly exploding into the sky. Kids scattered in all directions, searching for that familiar car or truck. Zeke stood at the top of the long concrete staircase, scanning the parking lot for Roberto’s pickup. As he surveyed the sea of autos, a couple of older boys spotted their prey. One brushed roughly by Zeke, shoving him into the stair railing, then mocked him as he passed by.
“Hey, watch where you’re going, kid. You could get hurt.” Zeke ignored the encounter, and stood himself up, resettled his backpack and continued his search, hoping no one noticed. Roberto gave his horn a couple of beeps and waved until Zeke spotted him. Once inside the pickup, Zeke settled into the seat. Roberto handed him a soft drink.
“Every man needs a tall cool one at the end of the day,” Roberto said. Zeke popped the lid and took a huge sip as they pulled out of the parking lot. Zeke turned and stared out the passenger window.
They drove down the busy north-south westside highway. Beyond it ran the edge of an old acequia, or what locals called “the ditch,” an ancient irrigation canal filled with water destined for the alfalfa fields that dotted the south valley. On the other side of the highway sat a large shopping plaza.
“Hey, that’s where my mom’s bank is,” Zeke pointed across the street.
Roberto got an idea. He pulled the truck off on the embankment.
“You ever throw stones in the canal?” he said.
“Yeah, sometimes mom lets me while she is in the bank.”
“Let’s throw some now.” Roberto jumped out of the driver’s seat and Zeke followed him. They walked to the edge of the acequia and watched the lazy, muddy water ease its way down the canal. Roberto looked around for some nice flat stones, then pitched them in. Zeke joined him. After this brief diversion, they were back on the highway.
“So, what did you learn in school today?”
“Nothing,” Zeke said, then took another sip and continued to stare out the window.
“Nothing? No math? No science? You all just stared at a blank chalkboard all day?”
“We’re doing stupid story problems,” Zeke said.
“Story problems! I love story problems.” Zeke turned and gave Roberto a look. They drove down the road for a few minutes in silence.
“I got a story problem for you,” Roberto said. “You want to hear it? It’ll be fun. I think you’ll like it. Are you ready?” Zeke heaved out a huge “millennial” sigh.
“Okay, if Farmer A has two acres and Farmer B has twice as many acres as Farmer A, and Farmer C has half as many acres as Farmer B, how many acres can Farmer A, B, and C, working together, plant in a week?”
Zeke turned his head and scowled at Roberto.
“Easy! They just hire all my cousins! Get it?” Then Roberto slapped the steering wheel with both hands and howled with laughter. “Hey, I thought that was pretty funny.” Zeke shook his head in distain, turned and stared out the window. They sat in silence for about fifteen minutes.
They drove on for a few more miles. When they passed the turnoff for Zeke’s house, Zeke spoke up.
“Hey, you missed our turnoff.”
“I know. I’m taking us to the Wildlife Refuge. I want to show you something.”
“But I’ve been there before, already. My class went there for a field trip. Remember?”
“Not where I’m gonna take you. It’s off limits to the public.”
“You’ll see. Get ready to be amazed.”
They drove for about an hour and talked sports to pass the time. Zeke liked football. It seemed to him a simple enough game to understand – you throw the ball, you catch the ball, you run with the ball.
“But I got one question,” Zeke said.
“Why do you just get one point when you kick the ball through the uprights after a touchdown, but you get three points if you kick a field goal from the same distance?”
“Well, little buddy, that’s one of those mysteries of the universe you just have to accept and don’t ask why,” Roberto said.
“Mysteries of the universe?”
“Yeah, like for example, did you know that your elbow is the only part of your body that you can pinch as hard as you want and it won’t hurt?”
“What?” Zeke said.
“Go ahead – try,” Roberto said. Z eke pinched his elbow as hard as he could.
“Yeah, you’re right. Why is that?”
“It’s a mystery. You don’t ask why, ‘cause nobody knows. Understand?” Roberto said.
“Oh. Okay,” Zeke said.
They reached the dirt road leading to the water fowl lake.
“Okay, keep your eyes open,” Roberto said. “You’re not going to see anything like this in town.” They followed the dirt road until they reached a small parking area near the water’s edge.
“Come take a look,” Roberto said. Zeke got out, and the two approached the dock. An enormous flock of Sand Hill cranes had just landed in a large inlet. As far as the eye could see, cranes crowded in together.
“Whoa! Where’d they all come from?”
“They all come down here by the hundreds of 1,000’s from August to November.”
“Mostly for food, water, and a safe nesting place away from all the winter snow up north. They’re called the ‘Watchmen of the Swamp,’” Roberto said.
“I’ve never seen so many cranes.”
“Let’s go,” Roberto said. “There’s a lot more to see.” They got back in the pickup and drove on.
“This out here – this is God’s little gift to humanity,” Roberto said. “Sometimes I see things out here that just can’t be described.”
“Like what?” Zeke said.
“Just wait. It’s like a Cracker Jack box out here – you never know what’s inside ‘til you get in there and take a look.”
They drove on to a small observation platform and quietly walked to the railing to watch another convention of water fowl for several minutes. They saw cranes, snow geese, ducks, hawks, eagles, black birds, ravens, and coots.
“Wow,” Zeke said. “I never seen so many birds in one place. Are there just birds here?”
“No, I see mule deer, coyotes, wild pigs, you name it.”
“Is this your job – to just watch them?”
“No, I wear a lot of hats down here, checking on the habitats, sorta like an environmental doctor. I watch to make sure all the systems are running well. That make sense?”
Zeke just nodded. They got back in the truck. Roberto turned onto another side road, which led to an even more primitive side road. Soon they disappeared into the tree line. As they turned toward the lake, a small squadron of javelina spooked at the sound of the truck and raced across the dirt road.
“Whoa! Pigs!” Zeke said.
“Those are javelinas. They must be headed for the lake for their evening water,” Roberto said.
An opening in the trees revealed a quiet area of the lake, unknown to most birdwatchers. Roberto stopped the truck.
“We getting out?” Zeke said.
“Yup. Grab a bucket in the back of the truck.”
The two walked toward the lake. The air vibrated with the many sounds of nature – bird calls, frog croaks, hawk screeches.
“You hear all that? It’s like music, sorta. You like music?” Roberto said.
“Yeah, I guess.”
“One of the keys to my job is listening. Whether you are at a concert or out in the woods, it pays to keep your ears peeled. Back when I was in the military, the guys in my squad would always give me a hard time, being a member of the Apache Nation, and all. They just wouldn’t shut up about it. In fact, they never stopped razzing me about it. You know what I mean?”
“Yeah, I get that, too,” Zeke said.
“Just understand it’s not because of you. Sometimes people are nervous about folks who seem different from them. Usually ‘cause they’re not willing to listen.”
“So, what did you do?” Zeke said.
“Out on the battlefield, I saved lives, even those who picked on me the most. Now some of those guys are my best friends. You follow me?” Roberto said.
Zeke nodded, as he quieted his mind to listen to the music of nature.
As the sun lowered in the sky, Roberto walked to the shore of the lake and lifted a heavy nylon rope tied to a tree trunk.
“Help me with this,” he said. Zeke came over and grabbed some of the rope. They both tugged on the line, which disappeared into the water. After hauling in about thirty feet of line, they pulled out a steel fish trap with several fish flapping in the cage.
“Whoa! What’s that?” Zeke said.
“That, my friend, is tonight’s supper.”
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Where the west commences
Western authors Larry & Tom Richardson have long shared a passion for the west that led them to write the western novel series we call “The Mason & Thorn Western Adventure Series.” From that literary effort, they went on to create a weekly show, where they gather around the kitchen table to compare their nostalgic love for the rich legacy of the American West and the profound ways it shaped our culture. With a touch of humor and a dash of reverie, they pay homage to a time that once was and still calls to that cowboy in all of us. Once a week their 30-minute episodes share their thoughts about western movies, TV, music, art, trivia, and just about anything about the west that strikes them as fun to explore. From time to time they even take their audience with them as they visit western historic sites, museums, and landmarks that celebrate the heritage of the west. So, they invite you to join them each week as they take you to “Where the West Commences.” Just click on the following link: https://.wherethewestcommences.libsyn.com or wherever you get your podcasts.