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Future Shock at the register

Apr 1, 2012 - By Randy Tucker

One of the more memorable episodes of my early teaching career came in the weekly sessions of "Men's Night" every Wednesday in Lusk.

By default I joined the other coaches at Niobrara County High School in serving a couple of times a year running the grill, the bar and in cleaning up the place after everyone left.

Thursday mornings at the high school took on an almost religious tone, as students knew better than to create any problems with the tired male staff. Because almost every one of their fathers had been out with us the night before, the sentiment was shared at home as well.

One evening, as midnight drew close, a couple of older ranchers remained at a table in the corner. With no warning they started swearing, staggered to their feet and began to swing wild "haymaker"-style punches at each other.

At age 24, I jumped over the bar and caught one of the elderly gentlemen as he spun around and lost his balance. I helped him to his chair as my friend Mike aided his opponent to a seat on the opposite side of the Niobrara County clubhouse.

We called their sons, each of whom was a World War II veteran in his late 50s at the time. Both of them lived far north of Lusk, so we had a bit of a wait until they arrived. As one of the guys fell asleep we noticed his wallet lying on the floor.

Mike picked it up and said, "Look at this."

The older fellow carried it in his shirt pocket because it was much too big to sit on.

Inside the wallet was a slug of $100 bills. I counted 57 of them.

I placed the wallet on the bar before giving it to his son when he arrived.

Imagine packing 57 Ben Franklins in your wallet. That $5,700 would get you robbed, and possibly killed, in many locales in America, but it was just standard practice for the generation of ranchers living in Wyoming, a generation born long ago, near the turn of the last century.

Last week, you might say the trend went full circle.

As my son-in-law Adam and I checked out early one morning at a Laramie grocery store, the clerk look perplexed as I pulled out a $10 bill to pay for my purchase. She just stared at the money then called for an assistant manager.

"How do you handle cash?" she asked.

The manager was quick to respond, "Just the same as a pre-paid debit card. Put in the amount, and the register will make the change."

Wow.

The clerk had never worked a cash payment before.

She was evidently skilled at her job, but in a college town, almost no one paid in cash. The debit card has taken the place of Washington, Lincoln, Hamilton and Jackson in generation Y.

The change from cash in hand to credits in some faraway bank has long been predicted, but it is arriving on a wide scale.

In 1970 author Alvin Toffler introduced the term "Future Shock." Future Shock was defined as too much change in too short a period of time.

Change has been the only constant in the western world since Toffler's book hit the bestseller list 42 years ago.

Cash is virtually non-existent among the young in Western Europe and Japan, and no doubt it soon will be thought of with the nostalgic reverence we now have for black-and-white television programs.

Experts claim that the American $20 bill is the lingua-franca of currency worldwide. They also claim that a scan of nearly any sample of circulated American twenties will reveal traces of cocaine.

We no longer produce bills larger than $100, partially to thwart criminal activity. Suitcases of bills are now routinely transported to carry out illegal transactions across the globe.

On the other end of the currency spectrum we have the lowly dollar bill, costing nearly as much as its face value to produce and maintain. Our own U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi supported bi-partisan legislation that would replace the dollar bill with a dollar coin.

It makes fiscal sense, just as the replacement of copper with a zinc alloy in the cent back in 1981 when the value of the copper in a penny was more than the value of the coin represented.

We used to laugh at the person who paid for a pack of gum with a credit card, but now the practice of paying via plastic has become so ubiquitous that card readers adorn nearly every drive-through lane, retail counter and sales booth in the civilized world.

Those old guys from 1981 carried enough cash to buy a new car in their pockets. Their great-grandchildren do so as well, but it comes with a bank logo and a magnetic strip on the back.

The world is changing quickly around us. In Fremont County we now exist in an economic microcosm where cash is still valued.

And you wonder why kids can't make change today.

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