I joined ALPCA in the summer of 1995, as soon as I learned about the club. My registration materials and the newly-printed August newsletter arrived in a timely manner. I read with interest about how the 1996 Convention was going to be in Peoria, Illinois. I found Peoria on a road map and figured that I could probably drive there in a day. I made a mental note to clear a block of time next summer so I could go.
Then, I started reading the current year’s back issues, which had been included with my stuff, because I had paid a full year’s membership. I wondered where the 1995 convention was happening. I wondered if it wasn’t too late for me to attend. It was only a three hour drive away, in Toledo, Ohio! But, as luck would have it, I missed that convention—by two measly weeks. To this day, no convention has been closer to my home than Toledo was from my basement apartment in London, Ontario. I resolved to go to Peoria, no matter what it took.
Over the ensuing winter, I made a few online friends and did some trading with other members of the club. As the convention dates came closer, it was time to start planning. I was dirt poor—I drove a $600 car, my collection consisted of dollar plates, I worked for minimum wage, and I didn’t eat meat simply because pizza pockets and Kraft Dinner were cheaper. No doubt, I was going to have to split a room with someone. That someone turned out to be Joe Sallmen, who knew about ALPCA for a number of years, but joined at approximately the same time I did.
The Tuesday of the convention week, Joe departed Toronto and picked me up in London during the mid-afternoon. I was already packed and had gone to watch “Phenomenon” starring John Travolta at the Smuggler’s Alley Cinema. We alternated the driving in Joe’s Eagle Talon, a sporty hatchback with a minimal amount of storage space. I had virtually no traders at the time, so it suited us fine. We drove through the Michigan evening. I was at the wheel through the stressful drive along I-80 south of Chicago—there was major construction, and we were down to one lane, with a concrete barrier on either side and no margin for error. We emerged unscathed, and arrived in downtown Peoria close to midnight.
The next morning, we headed to the convention hall, which was about a block away from the host hotel. We arrived in the hall and were both pretty much stunned to see hundreds of tables of plates, with hundreds more people buying and selling. It was sensory overload! Less than a year before, I was under the mistaken impression that I was probably the only collector of automobile license plates in the world. And there, in Peoria, to see all of this action going on in front of me—I had no idea where to start. So I started everywhere.
That day, I found a table with a whole bunch of Illinois plates for sale—all a buck each—and in splendid condition. The price was within my budget, and I figured I might as well start my Illinois state run (never mind the fact that I had only crossed the border for the first time into Illinois less than twelve hours before). I loaded up on a stack of them—great condition, and all sorts of awesome colours, too. I found it curious that they were made of such thin aluminum. And the reflective ones smelled a bit like Ernie Wilson’s house… very curious. I didn’t learn until much later that earlier reflective plates stink to high heaven because they offgas all kinds of chemicals.
There were Illinois plates everywhere at the convention. I found a JON-1955 vanity on the then-current Land of Lincoln base. I didn’t buy a convention souvenir plate that year – too expensive, and they all sold out – so I jumped a July ’96 expiry sticker from another plate and stuck it on mine. I’ve long since lost interest in collecting other jurisdictions for pretty much any reason, but I still have that plate in my collection.
I learned early on that there many freebies to be had at a convention. One table had a big “free” sign on it—a lot of what was there was rusty and not worth a look, but I did pick up four 1955 Pennsylvania truck plates in good condition. They traded very slowly through the years, but they did eventually disappear from my trade box. I have always liked the goldenrod and navy blue colour scheme of Pennsylvanian plates, but my budget was such that the plates had to be free, or close to it, in order for me to take them home.
I did find an Ontario plate of interest, but it was outta sight for me. An elderly collector from Nevada named Don Holler, who passed away a few years ago, had a collection of twelve Canadian amateur radio plates for sale… one for each province and territory (remember, this was 1996 and Nunavut didn’t yet exist). There was a beautiful Ontario plate in the run, and I had wanted one for as long as I’d known that VE3 plates were ham radio call signs (as in, about a year). The run had a hefty price tag on it, at $300. I talked to Don a couple of times over the course of the week. He was deaf in one ear and hard of hearing in the other, so it was hard for a young, meek and mild new collector such as me to inquire, but I did ask him if he’d sell the plates separately. “NO” was his answer in a loud voice, although I couldn’t tell if he was loud so he could hear himself, or loud because he was irritated that I had asked. I had enough in the bank that I could have made an ATM withdrawal and bought the run, but that would leave me with enough to pay the rent at home, or eat, but not both. I didn’t see Don again during the latter half of the week, and given my weak-kneed reaction to the plate I wanted, it was probably just as well. I learned the easy way (as opposed to the hard way) that a hobby like this requires disposable “play” money, and as much as I wanted to buy whatever I wanted, I simply couldn’t afford it. I was working for an hourly rate of 15 cents over minimum wage. Some things would be beyond my reach for quite some time.
Downtown Peoria was a fairly quiet place when I saw it—either coming to or going from the convention hall. It was very hot and humid that week, and there was a yeasty kind of smell in the outdoor air, as if a brewery or bakery were nearby. There wasn’t much to do, and nothing obvious to eat within walking distance. I took most of my meals at the hotel restaurant either with Joe, or by myself. I didn’t really know anyone yet.
Friday night, when the auction started, convention chair Don Merrill kicked off the bidding. He wore a bright red, one-piece jumpsuit that looked like nothing I’ve ever seen anyone else wear. It was a cross between hospital scrubs and mechanic’s overalls—but bright, bright red, with his name embroidered where the breast pocket would be. He brought in the bids by lecturing, rather than fast-talking. “Come on folks, that’s a lot of plates,” he’d say, to guilt the next bidder into raising a paddle. I was far too short of money to casually bid $40 on anything. The only thing I could hope to do was start the bidding at $5 and hope that no one else jumped in—but that didn’t happen.
I was a spectator through pretty much the whole convention. Of course, with me having only a few dozen unremarkable plates to my name back home, it didn’t even occur to me to bring a display. I remember looking at all of the boards there and simply wondering about value: How much would that number 14 California plate be worth? What about that Japanese plate? The only display I could truly relate to was a roadkill display, as it resembled a lot of the junk I’d been collecting on my cottage bedroom walls as a kid. One table I visited had the first 1911 Ontario porcelain plate that I had ever seen. It was in beautiful shape, and I think the price tag on it was $400—a fair price, but out of my range. I didn’t bellyache over that one. I figured a porcelain plate would happen for me at some point, but not in Peoria. I was still in undergrad university, and until I could earn my Bachelor of Science, I’d be stuck in the minimum-wage doldrums. Joe, on the other hand, is older than I, and had been working professionally for a few years already. He brought home a New Brunswick porcelain plate from this convention, and if I recall correctly, it was the first such plate of his collection. If not, I’m sure he’ll correct me.
The convention came to a close, and we began the drive back to Ontario. We parked next to Drew Steitz’s PL8S van while we were loading up. Night fell while we were driving through the northwest corner of Indiana, and by the time we reached Lansing, Michigan, on I-69, we were pretty bleary-eyed. We unknowingly missed the exit to stay on I-69 and kept left on the main highway. It wasn’t until about 45 minutes later that I noticed the mile markers were decreasing, and not increasing as they should have been. I pulled the map out and realized that we were travelling on I-96 west, and heading the wrong direction into Grand Rapids. We took the next exit and turned around in the opposite direction. 45 minutes later, we were back in Lansing and realized that our error was because that even though we had already been driving on I-69, we had to actually exit the highway in order to remain on I-69.
Our trip home didn’t become any more complicated. We crossed back into Ontario at Sarnia and were easily waved through customs. It must have been about 3:30 am by the time Joe dropped me off at home. By the time I had brought my things into my apartment and was ready to sleep, the eastern sky had just begun to lighten. Of course, with it being the height of summer, sunrises were early, and I remember Joe telling me the sun was rising by the time he got home to Toronto. I was tired, hungry, and nearly penniless, with hardly any plates to show for my trip, and very few pictures—but all I could think about were plates, plates, plates.