Pennies From Heaven
An Unbelievable True Story
The dusty tan Impala station wagon slowed to a crawl in yet another tiny town in the southern Okanagan region of British Columbia. Nearly as road weary as the car, a passel of children tumbled out of all available passenger doors as the driver, a woman with dark hair pulled into two long ponytails draped over her ears, eased to the curb along what appeared to be the town’s main street. The woman and the smallest child, a blond boy, headed for a bank across the street from the parked vehicle. The other two children looked up and down the road and then selected a bank about a block away. The girl appeared older, though not much taller than the boy, but she led the way confidently as if she knew exactly what she was doing and where she was going. The boy, looking mildly annoyed followed a half pace behind.
Arriving at their chosen target, the girl strained to open the heavy door and stepped inside the dark lobby. Definitely a small town bank she thought, eyeing the two teller options. She chose the smiling older woman and stepping up to the window, stretched herself to her full height and a bit more. “Hi,” she began.
“How may I help you?” asked the friendly though curious teller. Clearly she did not recognize this small customer.
“I was hoping to buy as many pennies as you have.” The girl was confident and to the point.
“Oh honey,” the lady smiled, clearly amused, “we have a lot of pennies.”
With an almost rehearsed response, the girl smiled back, “Great! May I please have five hundred dollars worth of pennies then?” and she pulled her hand out of her worn pants pocket, placing 10 bright red fifty dollar bills on the counter. She knew it was unlikely they would have this many, but it delighted her every single time to watch their faces change from amused and patronizing to shocked and stammering. She paused waiting….
“Oh! My. Well. We don’t have THAT many pennies. I thought you meant just a few dollars worth,” “Ummm let me go see what we have.” Clearly caught off guard the woman walked quickly to the back.
She returned shortly, almost suspiciously eyeing the unlikely pair, “What do you want all these pennies for?” she inquired, heaving two bank bags apparently full of rolled coins onto the counter.
“How much did you find?” asked the girl, avoiding the direct question.
“I can give you $125 worth,” she said as the other teller deposited another set of bags on the counter. “If you need more, we can special order them to be here next week.”
“OK thank you. That is a big help. I will let you know if we would like to order more.” Handing the woman 5 of the pretty bills, she waited for her change. Then quickly stuffing the paper money into the front right pocket of her pants she gestured to the boy to grab several of the canvas bank bags. Picking up the remaining bags, she smiled sweetly at the teller. “Thank you! I’m sure we will see you again.” Catching up to her brother who had backed out the door and was leaning against it holding it for her, they headed as quickly as their heavy load would allow them, back to the car. Unlocking the rear hatch they slipped their cache under the tattered sleeping bag that was tossed loosely in the rear cargo area. Looking around, they headed the other direction this time to another mini bank and the scene was repeated. It was always a variation of the same thing. Casually asking for “As many pennies as you have.” Waiting for the amused or even condescending responses and then flashing the wad of cash and watching the employees back pedal their response as they scrambled to fill the unlikely order.
Town to town they drove until the car was heavy laden with thousands of tiny copper coins, 200,000 of them to be exact. They were great travellers these three, although as the pennies filled the back, their staked out territories in the car got smaller until they were forced to sit in the back seat like regular travellers. They looked forward to the delivery of their hard won cargo so they could once again lower the partition and spread themselves out in the full back hatch. The oldest was the girl and she claimed the very back. Then came the 10 year old boy in the middle and the 7 year old up close to mom in the front. They built walls with blankets, sleeping bags and pillows. The girl was 13. She had a book stash in a bin at the very back and was rarely found without her nose in a book, unless they were singing or listening to music or poor audio cassette recordings of their favorite television shows. They had always been good travellers, but this season of the pennies they had perfected the art of staying entertained for hours, day after day. Sometimes the girl brought BJ, her pet worm, out of her pants pocket. BJ could usually be found buried down beneath the money where he rested, just waiting to entertain her little brothers.
How this unlikely crew came to be driving around southern British Columbia collecting pennies is a long story. It really started several years prior when the dad came home for lunch one day. Living in a small town the young family often enjoyed the luxury of sharing the mid day meal with dad before he rushed back out for his 10 minute commute back to the lumber company where he was the data processing manager. On this particular day, he came in with an excited look on his face. “Alma,” he started before he was even fully in the house, “There is this house on 10th Street. It used to be the Dean of the University’s house and it is going up for auction. Do you want to go look at it? Just for fun?” This was an out of the blue opportunity and they had never done anything remotely like this before. “Sure, replied the mom! That sounds interesting.” Leaving the kids with instructions to eat lunch and then get back to their school work, mom grabbed her purse and headed out the front door to the car where her husband was waiting. She could tell he was reservedly excited about this unusual opportunity.
The house was large. Four stories with unlikely features like cork floors, frosted windows between rooms, knotty pine woodwork in many places, and more. Outside there were multiple patios and a giant empty lot next door that went along with the house. It was very run down and quite filthy but, as dad said, “the bones were solid.” “What do you think, Alma?” he asked as they headed back to the car so she could drop him at work and head home to finish the homeschool day with the kids. “I mean, it could be a really nice house with some work. You can tell it was once beautiful.” They looked at each other and neither could ever remember who said it first, “Let’s put a really low bid in and see what happens!” They agreed and submitted their “ridiculously low bid” into the sealed envelope and basically forgot about it. As mom drove dad to work they both realized he could easily walk the half mile straight downhill from this house to his job. They exchanged glances again, and shrugged.
Several weeks later, a random call came in. That “ridiculously low bid,” had apparently been the highest offer and a quick move across town was in their future. With the help of several family friends they worked feverishly to fix the new house to at least livable condition. They scrubbed and cleaned and staked out their rooms and territories. Amazingly the disgusting counters and cabinets cleaned to a sparkling brilliance and did not need replaced after all. The house was painted inside and out and wall papered with the latest 80’s style paper available including a wall sized mural of a forest and river in the master bedroom. This fancy house had a huge entryway, three bathrooms, three oversized bedrooms and a huge family room on the lower level looking out onto their wooded lot. This room soon became the school room for their family as well as several other families who joined their little homeschool. This was a good, though short season in their lives. Upon completing the fixing of the fancy house they realized this was a wonderful opportunity to become debt free. Wise in finances to this point the only debt they carried was a mortgage; and so, if they sold this house for what it was worth there would be enough to buy a more modest house for cash. It sold quickly and though eager for the next phase of their journey, it was hard to say goodbye to the house, the space and the memories.
Unfortunately, greed or as Bob, the dad, would say later, “green eyes” set in and they saw a cloudy vision of more instead of being grateful for the gift they had been handed. There was a bit of a real estate boom in a nearby town and they decided to leverage the money and buy three homes. One to live in on speculation and sell after fixing it, another to fix and sell quickly as well. The third house was in a town across the border in the United States and would serve as a vacation home. It could have worked. It would have worked. Except the lumber industry in the area crashed leaving people scrambling and out of work with house prices dropping instead of the anticipated increase. When Kootenay Forest Products closed its doors, many families were devastated. There were not enough replacement jobs. Bob was one of these employees. And with three mortgages and no job, things looked bad, really bad.
Every penny of unemployment went to housing. The two extra houses were listed for sale and Bob looked everywhere for another job. They were able to rent out the smaller house and almost cover all the basic utilities. There was no extra, and that was when Alma shared the great idea God had given her of how to afford food and maybe even a bit of extra money. You see, there was a great penny shortage in the US at the time. So, began the penny business.
The pennies were purchased with $2000 Canadian cash from their emergency fund. After collecting pennies far and wide they would head for the border. Thankfully selling the pennies was much easier. Their American customers were eager, even fighting for them. McDonalds was a favorite because in addition to paying dollar for dollar in American funds they would slip handfuls of free sandwich coupons to both the kids and mom. Catherine’s favorite was the Filet of Fish sandwich and as this was just before her 19 year hiatus from meat eating she thoroughly enjoyed many of the free “fish burgers,” as her mom referred to them. David and the youngest, Evan preferred plain burgers with no pickles and onions and the small town McDonald’s employees learned to anticipate their preferences. “It’s the penny lady,” they would call when the family pulled up, dusty and tired and excited to unload. “Here, Evan,” Catherine handed him the lightest bag, grabbing as much as she could carry. David also loaded up and their mother grabbed her suitcase of a purse and several large canvas bags full of pennies. “Hello, hello,” greeted the manager. “Let me help you.” And he would heft the bags up onto the end of the counter. Carefully the mom would unpack the bundles of pennies, each worth $5.00 and line them up neatly all across the counter. “Five, Ten, Fifteen, Twenty, Twenty-five, Thirty, Thirty-five, …. …..Five hundred.” It always depended what their need was, but they usually bought from $500 to $1000. Then it was on to the next town where the Old National Bank would take everything else.
If you are not tracking with the miracle here let me enlighten you.
After selling all the pennies and recuperating for a night or two, the family would go grocery shopping. Now, remember where the $2000 came from. It came from the end of their emergency savings. Carefully they would traverse the aisles of Costco, looking for the best deals and foods that would last the longest. Cheese was one of the best cost savings for Canadians and so their shopping trips always included a variety of cheeses.. “How much have we spent so far?” mom glanced towards Catherine who was already busily calculating the total using Chisanbop (a Korean style of finger math which was basically a calculator in one's fingers). Rarely more than a few dollars off, her mom relied on her accuracy to help them not over spend. “Two hundred twenty-seven dollars.” replied the girl. “Ok, we can buy a couple of treats, what does everyone want most?” “Cookies.” “Cereal” “Chocolate Milk Powder.” They wheeled back through the store grabbing a few fun items. “Two hundred forty-six.” the girl caught her mom’s eye. “Ok let's stop there.” They had to limit their spending for two important reasons. 1. There was a cap on how much they could bring back across the border each trip per person without incurring duty charges.. And 2. They needed to return with the full $2000 Canadian plus a little extra to help with the bills. You see, with the exchange rate between the countries being close to 30% they could return to Canada with roughly $1500 American and upon depositing it into their bank account it would be a bit more than the original $2000 again when converted to Canadian funds. After buying food, paying for gas and a few extras they would return home once again with the same amount of money they had left with and at least 3-4 weeks worth of groceries. It really was a miracle.
The penny shortage lasted just long enough for Bob to procure a new job and all three houses to sell. Then following a very adventurous month of pseudo homelessness, where they got entangled with a dog stealing ring, the family relocated to a new town, a new industry and a brand new life.
To this day, every time I get a new handful of change, I automatically scan it looking for extraneous Canadian coins. When I spot a Canadian penny in my hand, I smile fondly remembering, and wonder if this penny is here still circulating, because of our long ago efforts to keep food on our table.
About the author
Born a lover of stories. I love to read, write and tell them. Tales of inspiration, resilience and struggle.
A life long learner, I enjoy nothing more than sharing interesting and useful things I have learned so far.
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