Thursday, September 24, 2009

Coin Thursday/Collector’s Corner: A Smithsonian Encounter

Sept. 24, 2009
Written by John Dale

In May 1997, I was a newly signed-up member of the ANA, thoroughly in love with coins and coin collecting. I was also far too busy to think about them much, between a deluge of seventh-grade homework and obsessive studying for the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee. (It’s the Scripps National Spelling Bee now, but it was Scripps Howard then, and I still call it that.) When I got on a plane with my mom and dad and flew out to the Bee, though, both of those distractions stopped.

The National Spelling Bee has emphasized this pause, to spelling families and the outside world alike — after winning a paid trip to Washington D.C. for a week, spending the whole time huddled in the hotel and obsessing over Latin roots is a terrible waste.

An hour of studying just before bed is fine, but during the day, there will be sightseeing and other activities, like the ice cream social (chocolate for me, with hot fudge and about half a jar of maraschino cherries) and the Memorial Day barbecue (which hosted sack races and other contests that were almost as hotly contested as the Bee itself). Then there were the museums, monuments, memorials, and moments when tour guides realized they were facing down several dozen scary-smart kids who were not shy about asking difficult questions.

As many activities as were booked, though, there were mornings and afternoons the spellers and their families had to themselves, and it was on one of those afternoons that I set out with my parents, seeking the perfect souvenir for the trip.

After a good deal of calling-around, my parents had discovered that a few commemorative Smithsonian Institution silver dollars, struck in 1996 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Institution’s establishment, were still in stock at the gift shop in the Institution’s National Museum of African Art. (For reference, here’s an example of the design in our upcoming October Dallas U.S. Coin Signature Auction.)

That particular museum hadn’t been on our radar beforehand, but while we were there, we couldn’t help but look around before finding the gift shop. There, I bought my proof Smithsonian dollar, paying for it with traveler’s checks in my name (those traveler’s checks made me feel like such a grown-up!), and we went back to the hotel, where I packed it away for safekeeping… but not before taking a good, long last look.

At the Bee itself, I managed a respectable tie for 36th place, but in the fifth round, I heard that dreaded bell tell me I was wrong. (I will never, ever, ever misspell “myocarditis” again!) The two days I actually spent spelling, though, are the part of that week I least remember. What have stayed with me more strongly are the memories made away from the Bee - the conversations over ice cream or behind the back of a docent, the times I’d look out the window of my room and see legions of inflatable dictionaries staring back at me, the quest that took me to a museum I’d never thought to visit. It’s just one of the uncountable stories found at the intersection of a coin and a memory.

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-John Dale Beety

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