Saturday, October 14, 2006

Smushed Pennies

Apparently folks in the know call them 'elongated coins' and it's big business in some parts but around here - we call them smushed pennies and it's a quiet affair to collect them. For several years, I tried to get my kids interested in them. No takers. I finally had to give in and admit that I am the one who is fascinated by them. (Sidenote: I'm not so great at the business of collecting. St. Ann can detail how long it took me to have more than one mermaid in my mermaid collection - and the four I currently have is a result of our concerted shopping efforts in several major ports and on at least two islands!) Smushed pennies have turned out to be muuuuuch easier for me to collect. I have five. As souvenirs I think they are perfect. They cost very little (51 cents usually), they remind you of where you got them (tiny picture pressed into them right then there), and obtaining them is great fun (you get to select the image and then crank it out yourself!) I especially like the fact that, when they first come out of the machine, the pennies are hot in your hand from being stretched. My delight in smushed pennies far exceeds any rational expectations.

Now I know why. I got a new one this past weekend. It is my very favorite one. It was a present. It's shiny and stretched but has no picture. It is perfectly smooth and curls up on the ends. It won't fit into a cute, plastic, pressed penny collector's book. This one was made the old fashioned way. Last Saturday, at the funeral, the younger generation of cousins did what we used to do as kids in California and Florida. They hiked up to the train bed and stuck all the pennies they could find on the tracks. One of my older cousins said he hoped they didn't see the little ones in the woods, because smushing pennies is probably considered an act of terror now. One train did slow almost to a stop right as it passed the section where the pennies were. Little Brittney's eyes were huge with fright as she came tumbling down the hill and out of the woods to hide behind her mother. The older boys had told her the engineer had probably seen her pink shirt and was calling a report into the authorities. Her step dad had to hold her hand and walk her back up to find her pennies after the train finally moved on.

Havoc and Mayhem let me have one of their smushed pennies - and it made me cry. When Havoc put that penny in my hand (still hot from the train wheels running over it) I realized what my delight with the machine-pressed pennies connects to. I'm from a train family. My grandfather and my uncle (the one who just passed) as well as two of my great-grandfathers and one of my great-great grandfathers all worked for the Santa Fe. The sound of train whistles in the night has always been comforting to me. My engineer great-grandfather had a whistle code to tell my great-grandmother things like he loved her, he had to work late, or he was bringing someone home for supper. My dispatcher grandfather could tap out messages into your hand in Morse code faster than you would believe. My childhood was peppered with weird words like 'hogshead' and stories from my father about the one year he had the back breaking summer job of laying train tracks. I soaked up the family stories and to this day I love train lore - but my only personal participation in the train world lay in the childhood adventure of making train smushed pennies. I remember the daring feeling of running up to the tracks and laying out the pennies just so. I remember waiting and waiting for the train to come by, hiding because some adult (older cousin?) had told us not to do it anymore. We really didn't believe the then-ignored and now-forgotten adult who told us we could make the train jump the tracks with our pennies - but there was a frisson of fear anyway - and hiding from the engineer was all a part of the process. I remember shrieking when the train finally came by. I remember the serious business of calculating how many pennies you had to lay out in order to be assured of getting at least one back. You see, the pennies get shot out and scattered about by the wheels so you don't always find them all. And of the ones you do find, many of them turn out only halfway smushed and don't count. The object is to get one fully pressed. If you're too stingy with your pennies on the front end, you run a big risk of having nothing to show for it all in the end!

Havoc and Mayhem managed to smash one perfectly on their very first try - and they gave it to me. They ended up with several - and even offered me a smushed quarter later. I told them thanks but no thanks - that first penny was exactly right. Absolutely the thing. They smiled at my tears and suffered my kisses before running off to play in the field with the herd of cousins and dogs. This smushed penny in my hand? I think it's my favorite souvenir ever.

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