Grimsby 2013 was a long-awaited event that was a year-and-a-half in the making—for me, anyway. You may wonder: How can an annual event be more than a year in the making? Well, dear friends, this was the first Ontario swap meet that I had been able to attend and truly enjoy in the past eighteen months. I had been serving a domestic "sentence" for part of those 18 months, and being a dad for another part of it. Of course, there are some collectors whom I haven’t seen at a swap meet for a much longer time—but I’m so nuts about my hobby that I think nothing of a six-hour drive to get to a swap meet, and it kills me when I can’t go. The last local Ontario swap meet I had attended was Acton in April 2012. I had to sacrifice Grimsby in the fall of 2012 because I had exhausted my “weekend away” points. While I was able to appear in Acton in April of 2013, I had to leave after a mere two hours because I was involved elsewhere in a much bigger event: My three-year-old son, who was born an amputee, attends the War Amps CHAMP conference each year to play with other child amputees. The conference was in nearby Burlington on the same weekend as the Acton swap meet. I was able to borrow two hours of time away, but no more. But I digress.
The last Friday in October arrived, and I had made plans to carpool with Eric Vettoretti. After getting our items packed and kissing our kids goodbye, we started rolling down the highway a little after five o’clock. Eric had been in contact with a guy in the Brockville area about a small lot of plates, and we were going to make a pit stop at his house to buy them. No problem—we’ve made such detours many times before.
We exited from the 401, and proceeded north and away from Brockville. We soon reached the road where we had to turn westward. Click-click, went the turn indicator. We turned and proceeded down the road. The guy’s house was number 63 (number changed to protect his privacy). We looked at the numbered signs on the driveways along this country road, but they all were numbered with four digits, in the four-thousands. Maybe we had taken a wrong turn? Eric pulled over and gave the guy a call.
“Uh-huh. Oh, yeah—sure. That makes sense. OK, see you soon.” Eric hung up. “The guy said we’re on the right road. We just have to go for a mile or two before the numbers restart in two-digit format. He said to look for the yellow van.”
“We probably have to cross a county line or something,” I replied.
We pulled back onto the road and soon came to the village of Lyn, where the four-thousand-series municipal numbers turned into two-digit numbers. We were at 93 and descending. Eric slowed the car as we passed into the 80s, 70s, 60s. We passed 65, and then a school, and then 61. There was no 63. Surely, we had missed something. After two U-turns, and me stepping outside to survey the scene in the rapidly fading twilight, we concluded that there was still no 63. We decided to keep heading toward the centre of town. We were coming in from the east—so maybe the numbers would bottom out at 1 and then start ascending again on Main Street West. It turns out we were right—the numbers started to increase again. We passed the 20s, 30s, and 40s. Eric slowed. We passed 61, an intersection, and then 65. Once again, there was no 63! What the hell? We did another U-turn. There was an un-numbered house right on the corner between 65 and 61, which had to be number 63. So we pulled into the driveway. It led behind the house where there was an old farm garage. A rough-looking guy was standing outside, talking on a cell. He looked like a miner who had just clocked out. Eric rolled down the window while we were still rolling forward. Eric called out, “Are you Phil?” The guy just nodded in agreement and clearly waved us forward to a spot where we could park. Obviously, we had found our guy. We hopped out of the car.
The guy was totally hammered. He slurred and stumbled his way through his phone conversation, mostly “Oh yeah... Oh yeah...” trying to get off the phone. After a minute, he ended the call, and took a long drag from his smoke. For someone who had been beckoning us to drive on in, he didn’t seem to know why we were there.
“So, you’re Phil?” Eric said.
“Whaa? Phil? Who’s Phil?”
“We’re here to pick up some vintage licence plates that we’re buying from Phil. He said he was at number 63.”
The guy furrowed his brow and didn’t know what Eric was talking about. He muttered in confusion. “Phil... You sure? Phil... Uh... I never heard of him,” he said. Then he let out a laugh that reminded me of Wolfman Jack. “Y'know, maybe one a' the boys in the back knows,” he cackled. “C'mon in.”
It was getting dark, the wind was strong and cold, and the gnarled branches of the naked trees reached upward as if they were crying for help. The guy motioned us to come inside the dark garage as he went in through the open door. He headed to a dimly-lit side room that I could see from outside. A cloud of smoke hung in the air within. Eric and I entered with trepidation. It felt like entering a haunted house.
We walked into their garage kitchen party—the room was the size of a bus shelter. A light bulb hung from the ceiling. A tired orange couch sat beneath a wall of boards with various redneck trophies hanging from it—an antlered buck head, some retired ATV helmets, a few framed black-and-white photos, a rusty tree saw, and an old flag from a Husky service station. A table sat in the middle, holding ashtrays and beer. The other two fellas were dressed in hunting gear and hats, relaxing with their smokes, and looked surprised to be suddenly hosting city folk like Eric and I. They were pleasant enough, and apparently not as inebriated as their compatriot who had invited us to come inside.
Eric again explained that we were looking for a guy named Phil at number 63, who was selling plates to us. It didn’t ring a bell with either of the other two.
The hammered guy seemed to be ready to make a deal anyway. “You guys are into antiques, eh? How ‘bout this?” He showed us a woodstove against the near wall. It was forged in an antique style, but was clearly new and not yet in use. He opened it up and pulled out a couple of sheets that looked like instructions, but they were printed to echo the same antique look as the stove. He laughed, “Ya wanna buy an antique woodstove?” We all chortled over that one, although he would have sold it to us if we were interested in loading a 200-pound stove into a station wagon. One of the others stood up and did his best to give us directions, but he was describing the way he had come, going back to the highway. Eric and I decided that the best thing to do was just get out of there and head the way he suggested – back into Lyn – and phone Phil for further directions. We said goodbye to our hosts and left them to their party as we hastily got into the car and drove off without delay. We were unnerved at having dropped in unexpectedly on a redneck party (although the guy did wave us over). Part of me wanted to go and find a six-pack and rejoin them. We laughed crazily about it as we headed back into town.
Eric got back on the phone with Phil. Apparently, the “couple of miles” was going to be four times that. We got back on the same road, and headed in the same direction. We passed the garage with the presumably-resumed redneck party. The house numbers turned from two digits to four – once again – before we passed into a different township and the numbers reverted back to a two-digit series (the third on this stretch of road, and the fifth civic address series we’d driven through in just a few miles). We carefully watched the signs, and finally, we saw number 63. I remarked that if we had just mindlessly followed his directions until we had come to a “63,” we would have arrived half an hour earlier. We were finally sure that this was the right place. The yellow van was there. The guy waved us in—but he was stone cold sober and holding a coffee, in stark contrast to our previous mishap.
He invited us into the garage – complete with a woodstove and chairs – and showed Eric the plates. Phil was also interested in getting a pair of 1929 YOM plates, which Eric had on-hand, so our wild goose chase actually translated into something worthwhile. A train horn suddenly blared close by. Night had fallen, so we didn’t realize that we were right beside the main CN rail line that goes across southern Ontario. The train passed, and we headed back on the road toward Mallorytown, and found our way back to the 401.
We had spent nearly an hour on what should have been a 15-minute diversion, so we were anxious to make some time. We were still a good four hours from Grimsby, presuming that we wouldn’t hit any traffic tie-ups in Toronto. Lucky for us, it was smooth sailing on dry pavement. We cut through downtown Toronto, which was also smooth sailing. We made our way through the jungle of condo towers, and past the CN tower, along the Queen Elizabeth Way, and arrived at our hotel in Grimsby by eleven o’clock. We were exhausted—that’s the way of it on this red-eye trip—so we fell asleep quickly.
I set my alarm on my iPhone for a six o’clock wakeup. We were outside the hall by 7:08 am. We figured we might be the first ones there, but not so—Terry Ellsworth and Joe Sallmen were already there in their respective vehicles. It had rained the night before, and the temperature had cooled. Eric and I started unloading our trader boxes and leaned them up on the wall beside the locked door, which would save us valuable minutes after the hall would open, and help keep us dry in case it started to rain again. Don Goodfellow, our meet coordinator, came by about ten minutes later with the keys to unlock the hall.
I’m never sure what to do at this point. Either I put my table together and miss out on any crazy-good deals, or I shop around while leaving boxes strewn all over my tables. This time, I did a bit of both, although I didn’t do either very well. I finally got my table put together after other people set up shop on either side of mine. I was going to spread out more and use one more small table, but that wasn’t to be. I also didn’t go through all the trade boxes completely, and I missed an awesome farm plate, as well as a recent passenger that would have capped my run nicely (the plate was in Eric’s trade stock, which I had a chance to paw through the night before, if only I realized he had it). Note to all: If you have one of the latest alphabetical series on a passenger plate, let me know!
Bill Thoman knows Eric and I restore plates, and he kindly brought a present each for us. He used rivets with nails and constructed a neat license plate holder that allows you to spray paint top and bottom sides before they’re dry, thus saving time. I have always sprayed my plates on a sheet of flat cardboard, which means I have to wait a day for one side to be fully dry before doing the flip side. Neat idea on Bill’s part, and they’re easy to make if you have the materials handy. Thanks again, Bill!
The meet was rolling in high gear by a quarter after eight, a mere 15 minutes after the official opening time. Quite a few folks had showed up early, which is great—it makes for quite the party on a dreary Saturday morning. I was especially pleased to see Alan Bones. We both live in Ottawa, so we see each other from time to time, but a swap meet is a different kettle of fish. Alan is a diplomat and recently served as the Canadian Ambassador to Iceland. His job, while very interesting, does not permit for free-and-easy travel to just any swap meet. Indeed, he mentioned that the last ALPCA Convention he had attended was the 1998 event in Niagara Falls. I remembered that, because Alan had given me a lead on a cool plate at John Rubick’s table. I could have sworn that it was the 2002 Convention (also in Niagara Falls at the same hall), but Alan had his name tag on hand from ’98. How about that!
Dave Grant, also from Ottawa, made the trip. He and his wife were using the weekend as a getaway, so she was relaxing at their hotel closer to Toronto while Dave came to Grimsby to get his geek on. Joe Sallmen was there, as were Norm Ratcliffe, Will Loftus, Jim Becksted, Mike Franks, new granddad Bob Cornelius, John Rubick, ALPCA stalwarts Chuck Sakryd, Cyndi McCabe and Ned Flynn, Martine Stonehouse, Paul Frater (who now lives in Germany and times his vacations to coincide with our swap meets), Dave Steckley (who hosts our spring event in Acton), and a whole host of others. Attendance was great this year—it was a who’s who. I did notice that Matt Embro was absent—I e-mailed him and he sheepishly admitted to thinking the meet was on a Sunday. Too bad—my reminder to Matt that the Leafs suck will have to be delivered here instead.
I’ve been collecting Ontario plates so actively and exclusively for such a long time, and it’s not that often that I can actually find plates to add to my collection. I consider myself lucky if I find one plate that goes into my run somewhere. Mike Franks brought such a plate. It was on the 1973 “Keep It Beautiful” base, and Mike had initially identified it as an old-style vanity plate, based on the fact that it contained the letter G and had a triple 5: ONG-555. I dismissed it as a vanity plate as well, but Alan was nearby and mentioned that back in the 1970s, he remembered seeing the ONG series on province-owned service vehicles. It appeared, as he remembers, that the plates had been issued in the ONG series and skipped ONH. We all knew that provincial vehicles are given the ONx series, but the letter G wasn’t used in any regular series back then, and if Alan hadn’t been there to clarify the situation, none of us would have known. I did trade a trillium graphic plate to Mike in exchange for the ONG. It’s a badly-pitted front plate, but nice and straight, so I have nothing to lose by restoring it over the winter.
Don had procured a couple of door prizes, and he asked me to put my “teacher’s voice” to work by announcing the draw and the call for the group photo. I grabbed a couple of beat-up plates from my dollar box (before some new guy bought them all) and clacked them together to get the crowd’s attention. After I was done my spiel, Martine announced her efforts toward re-compiling the books on the Ontario leather plates, which had recently been found in the (now late) Wayne Plunkett collection. The books are not complete, with some large gaps here and there, but this will be the first time that the info from the earliest Ontario plate issues has been properly looked at, with an effort made to disseminate the information. Martine will be busy through the winter, but we are all looking forward to a look at the registration info she compiles, hopefully by the Acton meet next spring. I’m interested to know if I there’s anything in there about the owner of plate 508, which resides in my collection.
Ned Flynn, the ALPCA Convention Chair, also offered a plug for the Rochester convention site next year. I plan to be there, come heck or high water—it’s been five years since I’ve been to one, and ten years since the one previous. I think I’m going to book my room now and worry about logistics later. He expects the host hotel reservation block to sell out well in advance of the convention.
This swap meet was a total whirlwind. We took the group photo at 10:30, I blinked, and it was suddenly afternoon. My trade stock sold briskly, which kept me busy, and I had lots of fun yacking with half the people in the group shot. If I didn’t have to get home, I’d have stayed much later. But I was hungry, the crowd was thinning out, and I wanted to be home in time to tuck my kids in. Eric and I packed our stuff up, and went out for a sandwich with Will and Norm at a local English pub, The Judge and Jester, that I found by asking my iPhone.
The four of us sat in comfort, drank beer and ate wings / sandwiches / fries / soup while we swapped stories. Norm finally sold a plate that he’d had for over thirty years, dating back to his first ALPCA convention in Benton Harbor, 1982. Norm had found a Kansas trailer plate with a bunch of 9s in it, and as an inexperienced teenaged collector, he snapped it up for what was probably going to be his Kansas run. That run never took hold, so the plate soon appeared in his trade box. And there it stayed, year after year, until today, when Norm sold it for a whole dollar, thereby quadrupling his investment. I was able to recycle a couple of great yarns from the past couple of years of this column, as apparently, neither Normy nor Will are regular readers anymore. Eric says he reads it, but it’s because he’s in it half the time. I quit! Oh well-- It’s nice to catch up, when one makes the time.
The drive home was uneventful, although we did stop at the Pickering Antique Roadshow market to look for even more plates. We did find some, but none we wanted, so on and on we drove. The rain pummelled the car as the sky grew darker, and so ended the 2013 plate-collecting season. See you in the spring.