You know those "pressed-penny" machines that you find at places like the St. Louis Science Center and the Saint Louis Zoo -- those machines where you stick a penny in a slot and, for 50 cents, your penny stretches into an elliptical shape that's stamped with a design like a dinosaur or an ape?
Technically, they're called "elongated coins," and locally, self-described "ex-hippie" Nina Macdonald is an evangelist of the little souvenirs. She can often be spotted cranking away on the machines, pressing pennies to trade with an international cadre of collectors. (Macdonald says there are about 70 different designs to be discovered in St. Louis machines, with 27 at Six Flags alone.) If you don't see her, that's probably because she's on one of her cross-country trips, for which she packs herself and three dogs into a 1974 Ford Concord RV and seeks out machines to increase her collection of about 8,000 elongated coins.
Her hobby is perfect for kids, who love to turn the machines' cranks and marvel at the force that turns a solid metal coin into a smashed souvenir.
A good tip: When "smashing," use copper pennies from 1981 or before -- the zinc pennies minted in '82 and after will emerge with unsightly "stretch marks." Say hi to Macdonald at firstname.lastname@example.org, and see a list of the location of every pressed-coin machine in creation at www.pennycollector.com or www.pennyatlas.com. -- Byron Kerman
Digging the Stones
At nature's rock show
Strange things happen at the Stratford Inn in Fenton. Earlier this year a raging thunderstorm ripped off much of the hotel's roof and sent it flapping down I-44. Once a year a group of local science-fiction aficionados host a "relaxicon" at the hotel that involves cigarettes, liquor and discussions of sex with aliens. And now one of those Mineral, Gem and Fossil Shows, with pyrite (fool's gold) nuggets, mosquitoes in amber and those banging, headache-inducing lapidary machines operated by grinning oldsters, barrels into the space (4-8 p.m. Friday, November 7; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday, November 8; and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, November 9; 800 South Highway Drive; $2; 636-861-3865).
But seriously, kids love the inexpensive polished rocks and turtle-poop fossils at these shows, and this time they'll even receive free "rockhound starter kits." --Byron Kerman