COINS (Part 1)
By Gary Repetto
Charlie Resnick was an exceptional math student set to graduate that June of 1968 from Malloy High School in Chicago. Father Ed, his Advanced Trigonometry teacher crowed in the teacher’s lounge that the boy was the best he ever had. The good priest would write down complex problems on the blackboard and, giving the chalk to his prized senior student that wore fashionable brown wavy hair over his ears, Charlie would quickly solve the problems before other classmates had even a chance to digest them. The brilliant senior student looked like a scholar with thick glasses that made his brown eyes large and round and he rolled his head back and forth as he explained theories and premises. In addition to his mathematical talents, he was also a superb chemistry student. He was, in general, a terrific scholar at the west side all boys Catholic high school. Yes, the brilliant boy was up high on a pedestal. Maybe too high. For in addition to his acumen in the classroom, and unbeknownst to his teachers, Charlie enjoyed a considerable amount of larceny in his soul. He used this God-given acumen to make money, discovering a talent to figure largely the correct odds for college football games during the fall season of his senior year. Recognizing the opportunity to make a killing, he bought a simple printing press to produce parlay cards. For a dollar, a fellow student had the opportunity to make a pile betting on his favorite teams. Seldom did that happen, however, as Charlie worked the odds in his favor as any good ‘house’ gambler would. He flourished, making more than lunch money for sure. But he was not a greedy soul, realizing that making too much dough could bring trouble from the mob, who held the corner on parlay cards at that time. Misfortune wouldn’t come from that direction, however, but it would come. His talent in the chemistry lab would prompt the demise.
The calamity began one day during a project when he found that the properties of nitric acid had a dissolving effect on copper. Charlie then approached his chain-smoking chemistry instructor, Father Adolph, an emigre from Nazi Germany, about the possibility of procuring a jar of nitric acid to enhance his experiments at home.
“This could be very dangerous, Charles,” the priest said holding a half-burnt cigarette upward between a nicotine stained thumb and index finger. With his free hand he combed through his unkempt grayish dark hair, which he often did while trying to come to a decision.
“But, Father, I might be able to help advance the standing of our department in the eyes of the community.”
The good priest weighed this idea with a crooked head looking up toward the top of the wall of the laboratory and nodded. Charlie, a foot shorter than his teacher with thick horn-rimmed glasses, wearing a neatly ironed white shirt with the mandatory Malloy tie, loosely knotted, nodded along with Father Adolph. It was as if they had both come up with a dazzling solution to a most difficult problem.
“How will you get the sealed jar home?” the priest asked, already leaning in Charlie’s favor.
“I’ll transport it by car, of course, Father,” he replied with no intention of doing so. Passengers on the bus would be none the wiser that they would be riding along with the horribly hazardous solution.
“Good. Good,” Father acquiesced. “Yes, this is a splendid idea you’ve come up with, Charles.”
Later that afternoon Charlie took a freshly sealed bottle of nitric acid from the lab and transported it by bus to his home on Diversey Avenue near Kosciuszko Park. Once home, Charlie hustled the caustic liquid down to his makeshift lab in the basement where neither his mother nor father dared to venture down to as neither one quite understood their son’s interest in making things fizz and foam. Julie Resnick was content scrubbing floors at the parish rectory while her husband, Joe, preferred his work as an attendant with the Chicago Park District. The elder Resnick was uneasy with his son’s interest in the sciences and, while he was glad the boy was an exemplary student, he just hoped secretly that they didn’t one day get blasted through the roof of their modest home.
That evening after dinner Charlie began work on his venture. He had earlier developed a mathematical formula to determine the exact time it took for nitric acid to break a copper penny down to the size and weight of a dime. He arrived at the conclusion that this would happen at exactly sixteen seconds in the acid solution. Not fifteen nor seventeen, but sixteen seconds. Into a glass dish he poured enough acid to cover a penny and dropped a shiny copper coin into it. A rank cloud of smoke rose from the dish and Charlie readied tweezers, plucking the melted down penny out at precisely sixteen seconds. He repeated this process twice more and then timed two more at fifteen and seventeen seconds respectfully.
Running up the stairs after cleaning the transformed pennies off, he yelled to his mother, “I’ll be right back.” Charlie was off to test his theory on a pay phone at the park that required a dime to make a call.
Outside the large field house was a phone, and, with an added sense of cheek he called the local police precinct with a ‘sixteen second’ coin.
“Police, 14th District,” a gruff voice answered.
“Wrong number,” Charlie replied, excited that his undertaking was a success. To be sure he dropped the second coin in and successfully called ‘Directory Assistance’. He further fueled his vanity by slipping the ‘fifteen’ and ‘seventeen’ second copper coins into the phone without hearing the necessary dial tone for either. Charlie was ecstatic, pumping his arm upward and yelling loudly for joy that caused an older man walking a dog on the balmy night to look strangely at the high school student.
The next day after classes Charlie proceeded to the nearest bank to purchase several rolls of pennies. He was in business! That night he melted down a hundred pennies to exchange with students at Malloy for a nickel each. It was a slick deal. Charlie would see a profit of four cents per transaction while his student customers would be able to purchase dime candy and sodas from vending machines with the melted down pennies for the nickel they had paid Charlie. Everyone profited and was happy. That is, everyone but the owners of the vending machines who were essentially giving away the goods that they had loaded into the machines.
In a short period of time vending machines and pay phones throughout the north and west sides of Chicago became packed with the bogus coins. However, for a week or so little happened as vending equipment was normally serviced on a weekly basis. It was on a Friday when police phones began to ring off the hook. Scores of businesses and organizations called to frantically inform the authorities of the travesty massed upon them. But the city police, up to their ears in muggings and shootings, quickly saw their out as it was cited that this was a federal crime. They gladly passed the callers on to the Feds.
This was the last thing the FBI needed, however, with church bombings, hate crimes, race riots, anti-war violence and just general attempts to overthrow the government taking place in 1968. Plus, with so many businesses pleading at once for help, it was a considerably difficult task to pinpoint a source for this crime. That was until the cafeteria vendor at Malloy High School reported that the coin box for her candy machine contained the counterfeit money.
On a Monday, a day when many Malloy students were boasting of how successful they had been with their melted down pennies over the weekend, Special Agent Timothy O’Shea appeared unannounced in the principal’s office. Father John Sobykevich, in his tenth and last year as principal of the esteemed Catholic high school, sat down with agent O’Shea in his office and groaned decidedly when informed that students at his beloved school could be part of a city-wide crime ring.
“The most disturbing crime here, Father, is the counterfeiting of hundreds of dollars of coins,” O’Shea, a devout Catholic himself, stated. In his late twenties, he had a thin waste with a barrel chest and strong hands. Per agency standards at the time, his hair was cut short above the ears and he wore a brown suit with an ironed white shirt and a plain red tie, knotted neatly.
“And you think it’s connected to our school?” the principal, a tall man with light hair and wire-rimmed glasses.
The agent pursed his lips and said in a sympathetic tone folding his hands, “I think it originated here, Father.”
“Dear God!” the priest said rubbing the back of his neck with his fingers. He longed mightily at this moment for the year to end so he could return to his work as a Church historian. “What needs to be done?”
“I don’t have a search warrant yet, and we don’t have a student identified to name on one.” Having attended a Catholic school himself, O’Shea knew the ways of the good priests and waited for Father Principal to weigh the matter at hand.
Father John then nodded and said, “No search warrant is required, Mr. O’Shea.” This was the answer the agent figured would come and what he had been hoping for.
The principal leaned forward to speak into an intercom and pushed down a lever. “Wanda,” he beckoned his secretary.
“Yes, Father,” she replied through crackling static.
“Have Father Bill report to the office.”
“Yes, Father,” she replied through the noise that was hard on the ears.
A couple of minutes later Father Bill Cech stepped into the principal’s office. He was about average height with a powerful build and a slow methodical walk. He wore tinted glasses and he didn’t smile much. Father Cech was the one the principal went to when special corrective abilities were needed. A stern task master was the priest, but not a fanatic, both of which was important to the Malloy principal. Father John introduced the agent to Father Bill and explained the situation to his priest. Father Bill listened carefully with his head titled down and to a side, as he might in the confessional booth, to better hear as his ear drums had been damaged from canon fire while serving as a chaplain in Korea. He nodded with understanding after Father John had finished.