INFLATION, and the urge to outsmart it, have turned many people into feverish collectors. Stamps, beer cans, Ming vases; you name it, somebody's hoarding it, waiting one day for the big speculative payoff. About all I collect are overdue bills and parking tickets. But once I collected coins.
In the silver of my youth lay the sweep of the century: Coolidge-era pennies, dimes struck in the deep of the Depression, quarters minted along with the guns of European war.
This variety intrigued me, so I bought blue cardboard folders in which to hold all this mesmerizing metal floating around out there in the world of commerce.
When my father came home at night and laid his change out on the dresser, I'd comb through it. When I went over to friend's houses, my eye often would wander around their rooms in search of fat piggy banks. Going to the store was an adventure. You never knew when some dupe of a clerk was going to hand you change that included that hard-to-get Mercury dime that hung in your dreams like a full moon.
In time the folders filled out and got heavy. I got serious and subscribed to a few trade journals. Fantastic stuff, full of more exclamation points than the comics, full of advertising that read like good Agatha Christie. There were revelations about fresh bags of silver dollars (!!) that had lain unnoticed in vaults for decades. There were revelations about one-of-a kind Buffalo nickels coming to light (!!).
These treasures also happened to be for sale, and satisfaction, needless to say, was guaranteed. All this exhortative verbiage amounted to a happy brand of propaganda designed for gullible little people such as me.
One great story I recall reading involved the 1950-D (Denver mint) Jefferson nickel. Only 2.6 million had been minted. This coin was tough to come by, short of going to a dealer and laying out some big money. In my nickel folder the 1950-D was the most conspicuously absent coin. It was like having a perpetual toothache. The story went on to report that a man went to a dealer and bought one. Then he received his change which included a 1950-D nickel. What a story (!). There was, after all, a numismatic god. a
My fortunes rose dramatically the summer of my 12th year when I went to visit my grandfather. The memory is as fine and as vivid as though it were yesterday. In the front hall of the house, full with the soft light of morning, there stands an upright oak chest. The white-haired, steel-rim-spectacled man reaches for an impossibly high drawer, withdraws a Whitman's Sampler box, and confers it upon the child. To the child it feels like a lead brick.
Inside the box were coins I never knew existed, coins from the 19th century. Here was Liberty in all her crowned splendor, Liberty standing, Liberty seated and wearing what looked like her nightgown. Here were stars, arrows and eagles' talons. I was dazzled.
So things were getting serious and more coin literature was coming in. One piece which grabbed me was a newsletter from a man in Nevada that sported graphs with steep, jagged lines that looked like lightning bolts. His message was clear: The Russkies were about to land on the beach at Santa Barbara, and if you wanted to hang onto your paper money that was your business. (This, is after all, was a free country for another week or two). But if you were looking for a piece of the rock to cling to in the storm ahead he'd be happy to sell you a chunk: silver Dollars (!!). I latched on, buying 30 uncirculated silver dollars for $109.
In time I became a teenager, interested in livelier things than coins. I relegated my collection to the bottom drawer of my desk. Economic events have since relegated it to the safe deposit box -- and kids on fixed incomes to the collecting sidelines.
In 1965 the Treasury decreased the silver content in half dollars from 90 percent to 40 percent; in dimes and quarters from 90 percent to zero. This turned a lot of adults (read speculators into instant collectors, and numismatics into something more than child's play.
Half dollars, quarters and dimes minted before 1965 -- richer in silver content -- vanished from circulation. Getting change from a vending machine is no longer like playing the slots in Las Vegas. There's no point in persuading your best friend to crack open his piggy bank. Inside you'll find the same old new stuff.