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Stopped by coppers

They are tiny, 2.5 grams in weight, and since their inception there have been 288 billion of them made in the United States. Set edge to edge, they would circle the earth 137 times. And it seems as though most of them have been in my possession at one time or another.

What am I talking about?

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Pennies.

I'd always had a love/hate relationship with pennies. For the times I've made purchases and they've been there to save me from breaking another bill, I love them. But for the times I've been vacuuming and had to stop to pick them up, or the times I've cleaned 15 of them out from under couch cushions, they've seemed more like obstacles. I made the mistake of expressing that opinion to my friend, an undercover penny lover.

"What are you doing?" my friend Rene exclaimed as I dumped a pocketful of pennies into a fountain.

"I'm getting rid of some change, making a dozen wishes," I joked. I looked up to see her face, which lacked even a trace of amusement.

My friend obviously had an affinity for the coin that I had often referred to as "the little pains in the neck."

I'd heard the stories from my grandparents: Back in their day, they'd been able to go to the movies, buy ice cream, and fill up their cars with gas for just a handful of pennies. Today, the coins are a nuisance.

When I think of pennies, I think of wallets unable to close because of the girth of the coin purse. I think of pants drooping because the little coppers weigh down the pockets. I think about the fact that it takes a hundred of them just to make one dollar.

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It has always seemed such a shame that Abraham Lincoln, a man so regal, so important, sits atop the tiny, tossed-aside penny. When I tell Rene this, she lets me have it.

"You don't think pennies are important, huh?" she starts out, practically rolling up her sleeves.

"Well, uh, I mean, it's money, so, uh...." I stammer. She begins to tell me things I'd never known about pennies. Here are just a few:

• Two centuries ago, pennies were so important, and copper was so precious, that the US Mint accepted copper from the public just to be able to produce them.

• Most pennies last more than 20 years.

• There have been 11 designs for the American penny. Lincoln has been on the face of the penny only since 1909, to commemorate his 100th birthday.

And this last little fun one:

• If you look closely, you can see Lincoln's statue between the pillars of the Lincoln Memorial on the back of the modern penny. It's in the center.

This last fact has me searching for pennies just to check them for the statue. I'm fascinated. As I hold a few pennies under the sunlight to check, Rene adds one more tidbit:

"The pennies I saved in a year were enough to pay for half the cost of the trip I took to Paris in high school," she says proudly.

This is even more fascinating to me. Where might I have been able to go if I'd saved the pennies I'd frivolously tossed into fountains or let store cashiers keep in the drawer.

'Wow!" I say. I look into the fountain and see Lincoln looking back at me at the bottom of the cold water. It's as if he's saying, "Tough break, kid!"

It's too late to rescue them, but I find I have a new respect for the little coin. We walk away from the fountain and I ask Rene where she kept all those pennies.

But not before I thank her for putting in her two cents.


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