The penny and the apricot tree

The lone apricot tree at the nursery seemed to be calling out to us. It boasted one lone fleshy, ripened orb on its branches. A promise, we assumed, of its bounty yet to come.

We made an impulse decision to buy the tree, only to discover, after hauling it out to the car, that it was too tall to fit in our little hatchback. No problem, we thought, since we live just a few blocks from the nursery. We borrowed a hand cart from the store and began to hoof it home, pushing our new prized possession.

It was a quiet Saturday morning, but the neighbors were out in full force, trimming hedges, planting flowers. And there seemed to be a great deal of interest in our endeavor.

“Is that a Blenheim?” we heard someone say.

Having no idea what a Blenheim might be, we stopped and chatted with our friendly neighbor, who gave us a concise but comprehensive history of the area.

Our town, it turns out, was once a vast series of apricot orchards and Blenheims were the preferred variety of “cots,” as they were called by those in the industry. They were grown and dried for shipment worldwide.

The greater Santa Clara Valley, was, for approximately 100 years, the largest producer in the world of this and other fruits. Living here, it’s not hard to understand why. The soil is fertile. The weather is near perfect as ocean breezes and fog temper the heat of the valley in the summer and mitigate the cold in the winter.

At the start, ground water supplied most of the last vital ingredient needed to grow things. And by the turn of the last century, vast networks of aqueducts and pipes sucked that liquid commodity out of the melting snow pack of the Sierra range, slaking the thirst of the rapidly growing agricultural industry.

But after World War II, things changed, and in a hurry.

Technology quickly overtook agriculture as the primary economic force in the region. And with the new jobs, came a new need for housing. Over night, it seemed, the myriad rows of fruit and nut trees were displaced by crops of track homes and strip malls, office parks, freeways and all the other entrapments of modern suburbia. Gone were the orchards.

Santa Clara Valley transformed into Silicon Valley.

After a few more neighborly conversations on our trek home, we got to planting our new apricot tree. As I began tilling the soil, a dull, reddish glint caught my eye. I retrieved a well-worn but familiar-looking object. See a penny, pick it up, and all the day you’ll have good luck.

I could decipher that it was a Lincoln head, and the date appeared to be 1941. I dropped it in a bowl of lemon juice for three days, and the sediment of 75-plus years dissolved.

A litte worse for the wear, but it’s still in tact. This is a 1941 Wheat penny discovered in our garden.

A little research reveals that it is what is known as a “Wheat Penny,” for the stalks of grain that adorn the tail side of the coin. It is a bronze alloy of 95% copper, mined and smelted from Michigan, and a little tin and zinc.

It’s not worth a whole lot in the world of coin collecting, maybe as much as 35 times its face value.

Typically a coin has a small letter above or below the year of minting. The letter indicates the source of the printing; a “D” for Denver or a “P” for Philadelphia. But this vintage apparently had no such demarcation, or it is too worn to reveal its geographic origin.

But my research got me to thinking. This coin was our very own little time capsule. A glimpse into the past of this rich region.

The piece would have been pressed into service at a very tenuous (and soon to be turbulent) time in our history. The Great Depression was just ending, but by the end of that year, of course, we would have the day that would live in infamy, and a world war.

How many times did this piece of currency change hands during that global conflict and how many times thereafter? What did it buy? With eight of this particular monetary unit, you could buy a loaf of bread at the time. Five would get you a soda or a cup of coffee.

And when and how did this little sliver of stamped nonferrous metal find its way to being buried a foot or so down in what is now our front yard?

I imagine a farm worker tending the apricot orchards and the thing slipping out of his pocket. Or perhaps, when the orchard was ripped up to make way for housing during the Eisenhower era, the coin made its unintentional descent from a construction worker’s clothing. Hope he had enough to pay for his coffee break that day.

What a remarkable coincidence it would be, then, that I would find this penny while digging up the same soil to plant an apricot tree where the penny had been dropped while displacing that very type of tree 60 or so years ago.

A penny for your thoughts, they say. This one has given me more than that to ponder.

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