Wednesday, June 17, 2020
More of the Good Ol' Days BY SUSAN HARRIS
In May I paid tribute to a friend Bob who had passed away in late April.
When it was announced in 2012 that the penny would be removed from circulation, I interviewed Bob on the coin's once-upon-a-time worth. Bob was a simple man whose goodness touched the lives of many, and his anecdotes were as entertaining to kids and oldsters alike. Our much-loved friend Peter Black wrote in the comments of the May blog that he read the delightful story aloud as part of his speech therapy exercise. Peter is the only person I know who have read my articles from 2014 to now (and he reads everyone's blogs as well), and today I share another of Bob's story for dear Peter. Bob is Bill and the story is set in the same coffee shop as the Pennies in The Locomotive. I might be Isabelle.
Isabelle touched Copper in the pocket of her thin cardigan. She carried the penny around because it reminded her of all the pennies that once had value to buy a single item. Then she took Copper out and set it on the table of the coffee shop, drinking in the details of Bill's anecdotes more than she did the hot chocolate in the white ceramic mug. She loved hearing the stories from the good ol’ days when a penny had its own purchasing power.
Bill was a natural storyteller. At six feet two inches, he often joked about being the second shortest male in his family, grinning as he sketched the others who towered an additional five inches. His large frame was encased in blue jeans and a navy jacket, which he informed Isabelle was made from recycled milk jugs. Plastic ones. Two letters were printed neatly in white on the left side of the jacket.
Isabelle was ecstatic as Bill told stories of the years gone by that had been shared with him by older people. His parents had grown up during the Depression of the 1930s and money was very scarce. Back then, instead of buying items at stores, people bartered goods and traded services. In fact, stores were sparse, sometimes non-existent, in the struggling towns of the Canadian Prairies.
The old man's blue eyes dimmed as he remembered his parents. His dad was a Swedish/Scottish farmer, and he described his mother as having “a bit of every nationality including some Cree.”
"Dad said back in the 1940s he used to buy a cigarette from a machine for a penny," Bill recalled. "I never saw a machine, but he would put a penny in the slot and a cigarette would pop out." And he could buy a book of matches for a penny."
Penny matches. Another star for little Copper's value.
"Dad also told me that people could weigh themselves on the scale at the store for a penny." Bill finished his father's recollections and then his eyes brightened and a smile broke on his clean-shaven face as he recalled his own years. As young teens he and his twin brother John had earned pennies in 1957.
"John and I used to sell rides for a penny on our little horse, Poika." He chuckled at the memory.
"Poika?" Isabelle repeated the new word and Bill quickly explained that it meant 'boy'. He described the dapple grey gelding as good-natured and willing to do anything—except pull a car. To overcome this resistance the boys would place blinders on the animal, and with only tunnel vision, the horse was tricked to move the car in tow. Poika was traded to another family over some winters so the small children could ride to school, since their little legs could not make the long walk in the snow. No cash was exchanged.
Bill told Isabelle of the weekends when the lads took Poika to the baseball diamond, and sold rides to kids, who ranged in age from toddlers to ten years. For one cent a child would ride on Poika's back, from home plate around the bases. This was a grand event, and the energetic teens, possessing both the charm and the tongue of the skilled marketer, drew customers in large numbers. Children often took multiple rides, and a beaming Bill reported that one weekend the brothers had earned over twelve dollars.
"That was over twelve hundred rides," he announced. "All we did was give rides for days."
This was indeed exciting news. A penny for a ride! It was neat to reminisce over the value Copper once possessed. As it faced retirement, in many ways it was as though the little coin was hearing its eulogy.
Bill explained that with the earnings the boys bought Christmas presents for their parents and siblings.
"We could buy three jawbreakers for a penny." Bill continued, then paused as if he was savouring the sugary taste of the round confection. He sipped his coffee and added, "Six more when we returned a pop bottle to the store."
In his day a deposit of two pennies was made when purchasing a bottle of pop. When the glass bottle was returned the two cents would be refunded, but young Bill often chose six jawbreakers instead. "Yes, I could happily spend a whole afternoon with jawbreakers," he soliloquized. "The same with the bubble gum we got for a penny. Those made the largest bubble you could ever want. It could cover your face, and if it popped on your eyebrows, that could be something to remove."
He also described the comic strip paper that was wrapped around the bubble gum, with pictures of popular television characters. Bill had kept a collection of comics for a while. With both the jawbreaker and bubble gum, he could suck or chew until his jaws ached. Isabelle rubbed her finger on Copper's circular outline as she listened.
Bill grinned again. "The tooth fairy always left a penny for us." Which child has not willingly endured the pain of a loose tooth to gain the coveted penny? Still laughing he added, "My granddaughter now demands a loonie for her tooth."
Since Copper came into circulation, it had been placed under pillows a few times. Oh, it was so much fun to hear the children squeal when they discovered that their tooth was gone and a penny was left in its place. As an ambassador, working with the tooth fairy was a delightful task. Nowadays, greedy children demand more money for their tooth, but however high the price rises, the saying will always be 'a penny for your tooth.'
Isabelle was asking about when payment was short. A few years earlier many stores had started carrying penny dishes where customers could take a penny if they needed one, or leave one if they did not want their change. She was curious as to what was done in the past. If a child did not have a penny in the 1950s, did the storekeeper withhold the purchase?
Bill shook his head. "Actually, I could charge a penny to Mom and Dad's account." His eyes veered slightly to the right of the coffee shop as a customer opened the fridge to take a pop. Then he continued, "The storekeeper would write it on a charge account he kept on a foolscap sheet of paper, and my parents would pay it when they went to the store."
Copper's value was accounted for. It meant something and was not dismissed.
Then Bill talked about the penny fundraiser at school. He got a card that was divided into 100 small squares. A penny was placed in each spot and when the spots were full, it amounted to one dollar. It was an easy way to raise money. He had another memory. "We could get ten minutes of parking time for a penny at the parking metres in Manitoba."
Ten minutes of parking. Wow. In that era it was probably the same in many parts of this great nation. In our present time, ten minutes of parking would cost twenty-five cents in smaller cities, and more in urban centres. Copper was happy because the little penny had truly been a winner.
Here Bill drained the last of his cold coffee as he came to the end of the exciting narratives. The faraway look in his eyes was gone, and the approaching night signalled that Isabelle should go too. How many other celebrations of the penny were there? Unknown.
What Copper's special heart knew was that it and its little penny peers, would be fondly remembered by the old and would leave dents in many hearts.
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