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In the Great Depression, kids found treasure underfoot

I still vividly remember the Great Depression, sometimes with nostalgia and sometimes with despair. Money was scarce and kids were denied the simple penny pleasures found in candy store glass counters. At times I lucked out, finding coins dropped on city streets and sidewalks.

One discovery that excited my best friend, Charlie, and me were the goodies sometimes found at the bottom of the curbside iron grates that directed rain water into city sewers. The flat concrete surface below the grate acted as a depository for a variety of objects, including coins. How to retrieve these treasures was a problem since the spaces between the iron bars were too narrow to put my arm through.

"What now, Charlie?"

He didn't respond as we sat on the curb in deep thought trying to conjure up a solution to the problem. We put our 11-year-old brains together and soon found a potentially workable method.

"A stick!" we both shouted almost simultaneously. We found an old broom handle and flattened the bottom of one end.

"We need gum," Charlie said.

We managed to scrape up some pennies to buy gum and took turns softening it. With an ambivalent feeling about sacrificing the hard-earned pleasure of chewing, we hesitantly pressed the gum to the bottom of the broom handle. We were in business.

Approaching the first sewer grate with high hopes we found nothing to retrieve. Unfazed, we pressed on and finally found a grate with a nickel at the bottom. With hearts pounding, fingers crossed and extreme care, I lowered the broom handle between the metal bars and pushed the gummed stub against the nickel but failed to make contact.

"Damn!" I tried again and went off the deep end when the gum fell off the broom handle.

In time the system worked and we retrieved various coins during rounds that covered many square city blocks. One day we failed to find any coins but instead saw an object that astonished and excited us both. Nestled in the muck and surrounded by street debris, this object was different. We looked at each other and wondered what it was.

"Let's get it, Charlie," I hollered.

I lowered the long stick down to the bottom of the grate and gently pushed the gum end against the object.

"I got it, Charlie!" I cried and, with trembling hands, I pulled the stick to the top of the grate and died a thousand deaths when, with my unsteady hand, I let the stick hit the grate irons, sending the object back into the muck.

"Damn you, Johnny!" Charlie yelled while looking at me with murder in his eyes.

To my amazement Charlie went deftly through the process and successfully brought up what looked like a diamond ring. I patted my best friend on the back and hid my embarrassment.

"Now what, Charlie?"

"Beats me," he said and proceeded to clean the ring as we wondered about its value. We quickly realized that it was of the Cracker Jack variety and continued our search for real treasure. We diligently kept searching all summer and found pennies, nickels, dimes and even the occasional quarter. When school started, our pace slowed considerably due to other obligations, but we never gave up completely. In fact to this day, 76 years later, I have no qualms about bending down to pick up a coin. When I do, I fondly think of my old friend and classmate Charlie Eder, who would have flipped when, just recently, I found a $20 bill lying by the curb.

John M. Angelini, 87, is a painter and writer living in Hudson.

In the Great Depression, kids found treasure underfoot 01/26/09 [Last modified: Monday, January 26, 2009 9:57am]
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