It was the Christmas of 1960 and John F. Kennedy had just been elected president. The 1950’s were over, and along with them, my boyhood.
The 1960’s were just beginning, along with my teen years, and there was a palpable feeling of excitement in the country and in my growing body. I was 13, then, and a boy scout. That year, I received an interesting present from my aunt.
It was a green book with a sturdy cardboard cover and a couple of pages with little circular slots in them for pennies. It was designed and manufactured to be sold to coin collectors. Under each of the circular holes was printed a different date for that particular coin as well as the total number of coins that were minted that year at the various mints, Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco.
To advance up the ladder of success as a Boy Scout one has to earn merit badges. These merit badges are worn on a sash across your chest at special public events and during certain ceremonial occasions. They too, are round, and colorful, and are awarded based upon the achievement of a certain level of competence, experience and expertise on a wide variety of subjects. There were merit badges for hiking, cooking, camping, good citizenship, beekeeping and coin collecting. Each merit badge had a different graphic image on it.
George Linsky, 21, the assistant scoutmaster of Troop 108 was an Eagle Scout, as high as one could rise in the scouts, and had many merit badges across his chest. So did Doug Lang, another older boy of fifteen or sixteen. He was a Life Scout, one level below Eagle.
As an only child, who always wanted an older brother, I looked up to and admired both of these young men. In my adolescent mind, those merit badges were the teenage equivalent of having a chest full of medals, the kind of decorations that are awarded to heroic soldiers in a war. Anyone who wore medals like that on his chest was a person to be admired and respected.
When I was a young boy, I had seen such soldiers from World War I and World War II marching in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in my hometown. I had seen the proud looks on the faces of other men and women, ordinary citizens, who lined the parade route and applauded and shouted out their gratitude to the heroes as they marched by.
I secretly hoped, and desperately wanted people to look at me like that one day.
In the meantime, I figured I might as well earn some merit badges. I determined to start with some of the easier ones, like stamp collecting and coin collecting. So my aunt’s gift to me came at a very opportune time in my life.
I went through the few pennies in my pocket and through those of my father when he came home from work, looking to fill the empty slots in the book. I went into my grandmother’s room and together we looked through her little black silk purse with the brass snaps on it. I climbed a small step ladder in my parents’ bedroom closet and went through each of my mother’s various pocketbooks, which she kept on a high shelf. I filled a few more slots in the book.
On Saturdays, I would ride my bike to my mother’s place of business and she would let me go through the coins in the cash register. In this manner, I was able to fill a good number of empty slots in the green album with the gold lettering on the cover that spelled out the words LINCOLN CENTS, 1909-1959.
Within a few weeks, I was completely obsessed with finding pennies to fill the empty slots in the book. It was becoming increasing difficult to do so, and required my looking through many more coins and in more places than usual.
I began hitting neighborhood stores, a beauty salon and a dry cleaning establishment down the street. Some merchants seemed to want to lock the door when they saw me coming, while others were friendly and helpful.
One such person was the owner and operator of a small Mom and Pop grocery store in my neighborhood called Manuel’s Marketeria. It was the store where I had spent my very first nickel. I had purchased a small box of Animal Crackers. His store was conveniently located near the kindergarten I attended in the recreation room of the church, which was located a mere fifty feet from his door.
He was tall and thin and wore a white apron which was tied neatly in the back by a bowstring. He had a thick crop of wavy black hair and behind one ear he kept a yellow wooden pencil with which he would write out a receipt for everything he sold. He spoke little, but smiled easily and his facial expression was that of a man who, in his own mind, had just heard the punchline of a corny joke he repeatedly told to himself.
He was nice to me and more indulgent of, and friendly to children than most adults I knew. Some kids I knew even thought him naive or perhaps slow-witted and sought to take advantage of him by shoplifting small items from his store.
Once, Hank, the boy who lived next door, who was two years older, told me that anytime he needed money for the movies or to buy ice cream, or a model plane, he would sneak out back behind the grocery store where the man kept the glass soda bottles and take as many as he could carry around front and redeem them for 2 cents each from the store-owner.
You could do a lot with a quarter in those days. Even if it wasn’t yours.
By the time I was in the fourth grade, I was going into the grocery store on a regular basis on my way home from school to buy candy or a bottle of soda. In Miss Guerry’s class, we learned that Abraham Lincoln had once run a small grocery store and since Mr. Manuel looked a lot like Mr. Lincoln, soon, the two of them became inextricably fused in my mind.
Then, after I began collecting coins, I would often stop into his store in the afternoon to look through the coins in his cash register.
One day, he told me that he had come across a very special coin that he thought I would be interested in.
He showed it to me. I had never seen anything like it. It was the size of a penny and was a dark chocolate brown in color. It had an eagle on the front that was in full flight and you could see all the feathers on its wings. The coin was dated 1857.
I told him that I would get a book on coins and find out what it was worth and that I was interested in buying it from him if I could afford it.
There were essentially two books we used to find the value of coins in those days. One was called The Red Book and listed the retail value of coins. The other was called The Blue Book and listed the wholesale value of coins, or the price a dealer might pay for a coin for resale.
The next day at school, I told a friend about the situation. I confided to him that I was going to be a little clever and show the man The Blue Book value of his coin– with the goal of buying it from him for a cheaper price.
My friend told me he had an even better idea.
He had an old copy of The Blue Book from several years earlier in which the prices listed for coins were even lower. He suggested that I should take that book with me when I went to bargain with the man in the grocery store for his old coin. I went along with the idea without any reservations.
The next day, I took the old, out-dated Blue Book my friend had loaned me and two or three dollars I managed to somehow scrape together to the grocery store.
I found the man behind the counter in the area where the meat was sold. He had a broom and a dustpan in one hand and he was sprinkling sawdust on the floor with the other. He greeted me in a friendly manner and he seemed to know why I had come. He took a break from his work to deal with me.
I followed him over to the cash register and he opened it and he took out his coin.
I told him the book said that the coin was listed as being worth $2.65. That was a lot of money for a penny in those days. He held the coin in his hand and asked me if he could see the book for a minute.
What could I do?
I handed him the book.
It was a thin book, dark blue in color. He looked at the cover of the book and read the title out loud. Then, he opened the book to the first page where I am quite sure he noticed the publication date: 1957.
Then he looked up at me and asked me, “Ricky…is this your book….?”
“Uhm. No, Sir…I borrowed it from a friend.” I said.
“Hmmm….I see…..” was all he said.
Then he looked up the coin in the book. The book said it was worth $2.65.
“I’ll give you three dollars for it, “ I blurted out, feeling quite guilty at having tried to deceive him, although he hadn’t questioned me about it.
“I’ll tell you what, “ he said, smiling at me and looking me straight in the eye.
“Do you have a penny on you….?” , he asked.
“Y-yes”, I replied, not sure where this line of questioning was leading.
“Well, then…..”, he said, “I’ll trade you my penny for yours.”
I reluctantly, and humbly, and sheepishly, with averted eyes, accepted his offer.
As many people know, a Boy Scout is friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.
The Boy Scout Manual didn’t say anything about being honest.
And five out of nine ain’t so great, either.