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Monday, February 3, 2014

A Five Penny Post…

Jefferson nickelThe nickel is the ugly duckling of all U.S. small change. A nickel lies in the palm of your hand as dull and burdensome as a stone. Nickels minted after 1945 contain only forty-three cents’ worth of metal (25% copper; the balance, nickel), yet weigh nearly as much as a quarter (5 grams), twice as heavy as pennies and dimes. Unlike the shiny penny or the dime, the “liveliest of coins,” according to Truman Capote, “the one that really jingles,” a nickel is much the same in appearance and value as the steel slugs punched from  the electrical boxes we kids used to find in housing projects. Endangered--as is the shiny penny--the nickel costs the U.S. mint nearly twice as much to mint as it is worth (9.41 cents per coin as of this post).

Some time ago on my Valley walk I found a Jefferson nickel. I looked down and there in the mud and gravel opposite Swiss Hall was the august and stoic profile of our 3rd President, the squire of Monticello, gazing up at me from the shoulder of the road. Readers of The Ripple know I am always on the lookout for dropped coins (“The Principled Science of Roadkill, 11/15/2012). In terms of simple math, finding a nickel is fivefold times better than finding a penny. I lifted my latest roadkill coin from the mud, wiped it off on my pants, and looked it over. The nickel bore the mint date of 1961. When I find a coin with an ancient mint mark, I think back on that year and try to recall what was going on in my life at the time. Hmmmm…1961. I was a junior in high school, borderline failing chemistry, consequence of misplaced priorities, which as I look back on those days, concerned chemistry of another kind: finding a date for the weekend (Wait a minute, perhaps that was biology? No, I took that my sophomore year). 1961…fifty-three years old. I wonder how many times that nickel had changed hands? How many pockets, purses, cash registers had it visited before it ended up here in the mud opposite Swiss Hall…? 

In the summer of 2007 my environmentally-sensitive friend Nancy L found an 1897 nickel  in the vicinity of Johnny Deck’s mailbox.1897 nickel obverse The nickel belonged to the Liberty head or “V”series, coins minted between the years 1883-1913. The obverse face featured the head of Lady Liberty; the reverse a “V” for the Roman numeral “5.” I wonder what was going on in Nancy L’s life the year that nickel was minted? Whatever it was, she wasn’t willing to share.

Liberty nickel, reverse

When I encounter a nickel of any kind, be it a road find or in a handful of change, it’s not without a slight sense of foreboding…or maybe a touch of sadness. Several years back I read a slim, little book by the Southern writer Eudora Welty. The book, One Writer’s Beginnings, is Welty’s memoir about the early life experiences that influenced her literary career. I read her book long ago and don’t remember much about the it, but the little I do recall comes to mind whenever I happen upon a nickel.

When Eudora was a child, her mother gave her daughter permission to open the bottom drawer of her chest of drawers where she kept certain boxed treasures. The child was allowed to remove “…a switch of her [mother’s] own chestnut-colored hair, kept in a heavy bright braid that coiled around like a snake in a cardboard box.” Eudora would hang the braid from a doorknob, unbraid it, and comb it out. “It satisfied the Rapunzel in me,” explained the author.

One day while at play in the drawer, Welty found a small white cardboard box the size of those that enclosed her mother’s engraved calling cards. Succumbing to curiosity, Eudora opened the miniature box and to her delight discovered two nickels. She scooped them up and took her discovery to her mother for permission to take them out and spend them. “No!” her mother exclaimed. The startled and confused child begged, and when her request was denied, burst into tears. Her mother regained her composure, the author recalled, wrapped her arms about her little girl and explained:

“…that I had had a little brother who had come before I did and who had died as a baby before I was born. And the two nickels I wanted to claim as my find were his. They had lain on his eyelids for reasons untold and unimaginable.”

Five grams apiece each nickel weighed. A mere trifling weight, true. But added to the weight of a mother’s broken heart, what a ponderous burden indeed….

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