As dear as pennies, as near as stars

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

These are dark times, and it's easy to find cause for concern. Listening to the news on NPR lately is enough to send a person spiraling into depression. People are suffering. We know this, even when we aren't faced with evidence.

Recently, though, I pulled the evidence from my pocket. Each night I take the day's accumulated change out and put it in containers on my dresser. Pennies in an old cocoa can, quarters in an old coffee can, and dimes and nickels in an old mayonnaise jar.

After several decades with this nightly ritual, I've become adept at recognizing older coins on sight — the patina of age. Usually the older coins date back only as far as the 1960s (though that's still a half-century). For a moment I contemplate what was happening during that year and where I was. Then they go into their container. Very, very rarely, I'll find a really old coin — from the 1950s or even the '40s. I leave those out to show people. Over the past three years or so, I've collected maybe a dozen.

So it doesn't happen often. One night a few weeks back, three of the four pennies in my pocket looked old. The back side is a dead give-away. Instead of the Lincoln Memorial, you see "One Cent" flanked by shafts of wheat. People call them "wheat pennies." The change occurred in 1959.

These three were wheat pennies. Looking at the dates, my eyes widened: 1934, 1938 and 1945.

This kind of thing just doesn't happen by coincidence. Somebody must have been breaking up a coin collection to pay for something. It could have been a kid, I suppose, raiding his big brother's collection, but I doubt it. I saw it as a sign of someone who doesn't have much disposable income.

If so, it's fitting that the dates roughly correspond to the Great Depression, of which there are ominous echoes around the world at the moment.

At any rate, a reason to worry.

Evidence of the economic downturn can also be seen in the rising numbers of families using the Food Pantry of Oak Park-River Forest and those enrolling in the annual Holiday Food and Gift Basket Program, run by a dedicated corps of local volunteers.

Do-gooders "adopt" a family, then shop for them, donating wrapped presents, which are delivered by volunteer drivers on the Saturday before Christmas. Wednesday Journal has adopted a couple of families for years. Participating employees sign up for one member of a family. We're given the age, gender, clothing size and a wish list.

I signed up for a 13-year-old boy who asked for "Books about stars." Maybe I'm jaded, but I assumed by "stars" he meant professional athletes or celebrities. Fortunately, before running out and buying biographies of Tiger Woods and Angelina Jolie, I asked.

To my delight (and relief), he wanted books on astronomy. In fact, he also asked for a telescope, which was too big a ticket item for this program, but Adler Planetarium heard about the request and donated one for him.

With the help of Rachel at the Book Table, I found several books about stargazing (the celestial kind) and threw in a book on planets for good measure.

You never know. I always hope my gift to an underprivileged kid might change his life. Even if he doesn't become a famous astronomer, maybe he'll be inspired by the fact that people he'll never meet encouraged his interests — and conclude that dreams are worth pursuing.

As Oscar Wilde put it: We're all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. Keep looking, kid. It puts you ahead of a lot of people who describe themselves as "so fortunate."

And it gives all of us a reason to hope.


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