One thing I learned about Philadelphia is that it’s bigger than the map makes it seem, and it takes a longer time to get to different attractions than I thought. Friday was the day I learned that lesson.
I wanted to catch some time in the convention hall, and take in as much of the donation auction as possible, so that meant that 8-year-old Greg and I would head into Philly in the early morning and hopefully be back at the convention by early afternoon. No way was I going to drive into the city during the morning rush hour, so we took the train from Norristown. We checked out the Reading Terminal Market, with all of its delicatessens and meal stands. I got Greg an ice cream at 10 in the morning because, as the counter guy at Bassett’s assured us, “It’s never too early for ice cream! Breakfast of champions!”
We took the river ferry over to Camden, so we could tour the most-decorated US battleship to be commissioned, the USS New Jersey. Camden is a city that has had more than its fair share of hard times. My first-ever foray into the Garden State was basically a toe-dip along the waterfront, which is well-maintained. The alt-rock Warped Tour was in high gear at BB&T Pavilion while we were there. Warped is the largest and longest-running music festival in the US, having started in 1995. With me being a Gen-Xer, alt-rock used to be somewhat my thing, but the band performing on stage was too hard and angry for my taste. My own college angst has long since given way to management of adult responsibilities and parenting. Greg pretended not to notice the foul language that was printed on some of the passing festival-goers’ shirts. We left the scene behind and boarded the battleship. At the urging of the retired naval vet who greeted us, Greg made his way over to an M2 Browning machine gun and began firing at the music festival. The trigger was hooked up to a very loud speaker, which fired a cacophony of gunfire sound effects at the Warped crowd. Greg absolutely loved the battleship tour. It was worth the journey across the river just to see his eyes light up.
After our tour, we spent a lot of time commuting back to Norristown. The ferry back to Philly runs only once an hour, and the subway couldn’t get us to the high-speed-rail line in time to connect quickly, so there was some waiting around at 69th Street station. We finally got back to the convention hall a bit past three o’clock——substantially later than I’d hoped——and by then, the hall activity was well past its peak. I wasn’t terribly upset at having missed the bulk of Friday in the hall, because spending time with Greg in a new place is important.
I decided to buy some of those cool Pennsylvania dealer plates that I found at Jake Eckenrode’s table yesterday, but he had already packed up and his tables were vacant. I wandered around the thinning crowd, looking for Canadian plates. Bruce Pearson was at his table, which was still fully-stocked with plates of all kinds. Bruce is always a pleasure to talk to. He had a couple of red Ontario “External” plates from the early 1980s, which were and are still issued to foreign nationals who are non-diplomatic members of embassy staff. I knew Eric Vettoretti was back home and might be interested, so I texted him to ask. I’d come back and see Bruce later when I had an answer.
I took some time to view some of the displays. The craftsmanship that goes into many of them is quite remarkable; many of these displays are truly of museum quality. I had briefly considered bringing a display when I made the decision to drive to the convention, as opposed to flying, but with Greg in tow, it would have been too much on my plate.
Five o’clock came, and the hall was closing. I had made the most of my brief time there today, but the best was yet to come. The auction was coming up that evening, and that’s always a lot of fun. Greg likes to be given jobs to do, and he was interested in being a runner in the auction. It’s a great way to involve the kids.
Greg and I had dinner at the hotel pub, and then we arrived at the auction hall a few minutes before it started. I brought Greg up to the auction table and introduced him to my old friend Andy Pang, who is ever-present during the donation auction, helping track the bidders and amounts. Andy gave Greg a quick run-down of what to do. Greg stood by along the side wall, waiting for the auction to start. I grabbed a seat next to Xavier Dubé and Emilie Ouellette and chatted with them.
Before long, Chuck Sakryd took the podium and began auctioning some plates off. Greg waited his turn patiently. When it came, Chuck handed him a single plate: Convention souvenir plate number 7 (passenger size).
Now, I don’t know if the whole “license plates” thing is going to stick with Greg. As a grade-schooler, he’s highly impressionable. He doesn’t have the critical thinking skills to know whether he’s really into plates, or if he’s just running along with Dad. For that reason, I’m not going to bestow an ALPCA membership upon him, or start collecting on his behalf. If he decides as a teenager that it’s for real, then we’ll sign him up. But the possibility exists that the “plate bug” may bite him during this trip, and it may grow into a life-long love of the hobby, as it did for me. And in that case, sentimental trinkets of the early days are keepers. So I decided to bid for the very first plate that Greg held in a donation auction. There was some light competition, but I held my paddle up.
Chuck proclaimed, “Sold, for fifty dollars. Paddle number one-seven-four.”
“Oh my gosh, my dad won!” announced Greg. The audience erupted in laughter. Greg walked down the centre aisle and passed the plate to me. I gave him an enthusiastic thumbs-up while the laughter started to subside.
“That was good,” Chuck smiled. “Kid, you’re hired!”
More plates were cycled through the auction runners. Some batches, some choice-out, and some singles. Greg was right up there with the others, holding plates high above his head for viewing, with the occasional wisecrack to keep the audience interested. I myself ventured beyond my usual collecting interests. I picked up a nice 1910 Massachusetts porcelain for only $60, and a glass-beaded 1970s Pennsylvania POW sample plate, in white, red and blue, for $20. One of the Ontario MTO donations went up on the block: a trillium graphic plate, bearing the unusual word “SAMPLE.” Ontario sample plates aren’t supposed to have that word on them, because the combination “SAMPLE” was actually issued as a vanity plate to a certain member of our club, so I consider the “SAMPLE” plates to be error plates, and not actual samples. A few of them had come out of the MTO woodwork over the summer. As it happened, Greg was the runner for the trillium plate, which I also bought.
The donation auction has its share of hum-drum bulk plates, and so it’s up to the auctioneers to goad the audience into bidding. “You can make more money; you can’t make a plate!” said Chuck.
Joe Sallmen bought a large batch of booster plates early in the auction——maybe there was a tiger plate in there somewhere——and was razzed by Mike Naughton when he came up to take his shift at the auction podium.
Next up was a batch of much-reviled Illinois plates from the 1950s and 60s:
“Get your tetanus shot! Here comes Illinois. The only plates that are sharper than paper, because they’re thinner!” (I’d have suggested getting a gas mask, because the early reflective Scotchlite really smells. The plates are fifty years old and still off gassing.)
Greg kept running for while, but by 8:30 he was tired——not surprising, after our tour in Philly and Camden——and he asked me to bring him upstairs to go to bed.
I returned to the auction hall afterward, and might have bought a couple more items. Time was wearing on, and I knew I couldn’t hold out until the very end, although the donation pile was largely gone by the time I cashed out. Rich Dragon, the club’s treasurer, pulled my paddle results out of the spreadsheet.
“Let’s see… a hundred and sixty-six dollars.” He looked up and smiled. “How’d that happen?” I wasn't quite sure. I paid for my loot and went upstairs to photograph my entire haul from the convention. I could have picked up more, but I've become choosy.
The next morning, Greg and I were seated comfortably in the hall once again, ready for the business meeting and awards presentations. We found ourselves seated next to Chuck. As the meeting starts, it’s customary for the President to ask certain present members to stand and be recognized. The members of the ALPCA Hall of Fame were asked to stand in recognition. Chuck modestly rose at the call, and received a warm round of applause from the membership. He was deeply humbled when he was inducted four years ago, and he clearly felt the same way again this morning. He leaned over, after he was seated once again. “It still blows me away,” he said to me quietly. But when I think of all Chuck has done to support the hobby and the club over the years… well, it blows the rest of us away.
Greg got to stand up and be recognized four times: For attending his first convention, for being a junior participant, for volunteering at the auction, and for attending from a place other than the US. He watched with interest as some other kids, who are full-fledged members of the club, were presented with awards for their displays. Are we planting the seeds? I guess time will tell.
I was pleased to see that Joe Sallmen won a first place award for his display of South Korean plates. Joe designs the awards each year, and I thought his award design this year is among the best that I’ve ever seen. I really wanted to whip up a display to get a shot at one, but it just wasn’t in the cards.
Norm Ratcliffe took home some hardware as well. He won a first place award for his display of state police plates, which might have included some of the goodies that he acquired in a parcel four years ago in Rochester. A very professional display, Norm, in all respects!
Another display I really liked was John Anshant’s “Tale of Two Cities” display, featuring vintage city licenses from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Those are very hard to find, and the porcelain plates from a hundred years ago are very impressive. I know a thing or two about finding city plates of my own… I’m trying to assemble a municipal plate run for Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario… the small northern city where I grew up. It had about 85,000 people at its peak.
Shaun Auchinleck, from Newfoundland, brought a super-interesting display of plates, photos, and actual hydraulic dies that were used at Robert Neal Limited, which is the Newfoundland firm that manufactured many Canadian plates, such as Newfoundland, New Brunswick, P.E.I., and the Northwest Territories, from the mid 1960s to 1992. The plant was closed and property / equipment were sold to a forklift repair shop. The dies remained on site, forgotten. When the shop closed recently, Shaun was fortunate enough to be in the right place and time to acquire the original dies!
The meeting adjourned, and I went with Greg into the convention hall, where about half the tables were now bare. We’d be leaving soon ourselves. Greg hadn’t spent much time there since Wednesday, opting to relax in the hotel room in between our day trips to Philly. I wanted to give him a chance to find some stuff, and with the hall a lot emptier than before, it would be easier for us to keep track of each other. So, I recycled an old idea from the Erie convention in 2009. I had called the idea “The Five Dollar Challenge”. The goal had been to take five dollars and buy with it the most interesting, unusual, or unique plate possible without going over budget. Of course, inflation being what it is, I doubled the amount for Greg and handed him a crisp ten-dollar-bill. Off he went while I stopped by a few folks’ tables to browse and say goodbye.
Fifteen minutes passed, and Greg hadn’t come back. I figured he’d spend his money quickly and come right back with some treasures, but it hadn’t happened yet. I scanned the hall and saw Greg having a talk with Ted Cline from North Carolina. Both parties seemed to be enjoying themselves, so I snapped a discreet photo and let Greg continue his conversation. Soon enough, I heard him calling me from a few rows over. “Dad, Dad!”
He ran over, carrying a few plates. “Look what I just got!”
He had a couple of interesting North Carolina non-passenger plates, presumably from Ted. “Did you use your whole ten dollars?” I asked.
“I didn’t use any of it!” Greg beamed. “The man gave them all to me for free! I said ‘thank you’.”
Greg still wanted to transact with his ten dollars, so we moved on through the hall. We found a neat pile of discounted plates at the table of Colin McGregor, of Maryland. Greg found a couple he wanted to buy, but just like Ted, Colin wouldn’t take Greg’s money, and insisted on giving them to Greg for free. Greg was grateful and polite and put them in his bag… but he still wanted to actually spend the ten bucks on something. So off he went again.
Soon, Greg ran into the smooth-voiced Jason DeCesare of New Jersey. Jason put in an auctioneering shift the night before and remembered Greg. Jason, a professional actor, had some production prop plates to spare. He explained what they were to Greg, and graciously offered them for free.
Through the convention, I’d barely had a chance to connect with my old friend Andy Pang, between my time out of the hall, and Andy being on the current Board of Directors. But Greg and I found ourselves at Andy’s table while we was there, and it was great to catch up. Years ago, before either Andy or myself were married with kids, we roomed together for a few conventions. I was a lock to attending most of them in those days. Truth be known, the genesis of my present YOM business came from Andy’s “self-funding hobby” model, where you buy low, sell for more, and keep a written tab on your buy-sell difference. We gabbed for a while while Greg flipped through Andy’s traders. A Yukon booster plate, with a high-resolution graphic of the gold-prospector, caught Greg’s eye. He had it in mind for his Ten Dollar Challenge, but Andy was just as generous as Ted, Colin, and Jason had been——and he let Greg have a choice of three boosters for free. One of them has an Ontario connection: It was issued to those attending the 1975 Shriners Imperial Council Session in Toronto. Already, Greg has an uncommon Ontario plate in his collection!
All told, Greg spent about an hour browsing for plates and talking to people. He picked up around a dozen plates and movie props, and astonishingly, no one would take his money! Every person Greg talked to decided to give him something for free.
“Did they give them to me for free because I’m young?” he asked.
“I think they did it partly because of that. And partly because you used your manners and were very polite when you talked to them.”
“I still wish I could’ve actually spent the ten dollars,” Greg said. I could tell he didn’t want to cop out on a challenge. Neither of us figured ten bucks would be so hard to spend because the folks around us would show so much kindness. That’s truly a nice problem to have.
“Don’t worry, Greg,” I said. “You’re a very lucky boy to run into such kind people.”
“I know,” he said. “I just wish I could spend the ten dollars.”
“Enjoy it while it lasts. You’ll have people happily taking ten dollars from you for the rest of your life.”
“What do you mean, Dad?”
It was time to get rolling northward. We decided to take our time on the way home and spend an extra day. On our way out of Pennsylvania, we’d be passing through Scranton, the Electric City. We decided to visit the Steamtown National Historic Site from early afternoon until closing time. It’s the mother of all railroad museums. It’s located in a restored locomotive roundhouse, surrounded by a large, functional rail yard. It features parked steam engines and sleeper cars throughout the property, but the coolest aspect of the museum is that the turntable at the centre of the roundhouse still works, and it’s used to rotate a still-functioning steam locomotive that is brought out daily for tours.
Greg and I watched in fascination as the engine was reversed onto the turntable, having finished its day of touring, chugging all the while. It was rotated three-quarters of a turn, until it was lined up with its berth in the roundhouse. It slowly chugged its way into the shed, filling the air inside with coal smoke, before the engineers applied the brakes to stop it and then bled the steam away to shut it down for the evening.
We stayed until the museum closed, at which point we headed to a hotel on a steep cliff atop Interstate 81. We had dinner at the neighbouring Marzoni’s (very satisfying) and noticed a ski hill across the valley, a few miles away, where there seemed to be tents covering the slopes. Our waitress told us that yet another music festival was happening that weekend, and the campers just slept on the hill. I found out it was Camp Bisco, a festival for DJs and improvisational dance music. Apparently, that was the reason there were many shaggy-looking millennials hanging around the hotel, boarding a chartered school bus that would shuttle people in and out every twenty minutes or so. The hotel was surprisingly quiet and peaceful, with every festival-goer I encountered in the elevator calling me “sir” politely.
The following morning, we returned to Steamtown to visit the separate trolley museum next door. Then, I hit a couple of Autozone and hardware stores to find some of the US-only plate-cleaning goop that I had seen Chuck use in his seminar a few days ago. With that done, we hit the highway and drove north, with barely a stop. Rather than return to Canada via the super-busy, high-volume crossing at the Interstate 81 terminus at Hill Island, I took the scenic route east to Ogdensburg. The Canada Customs plaza was virtually deserted, and I had a pleasant conversation with the officer in the booth (not at all like my return from Rochester four years before… I guess having Greg in the car helps).
It reflects well on ALPCA as a whole to come across such generous people during the course of the convention. Greg came away from the convention with a small collection of about 15 plates and movie props which were donated to him, unsolicited, by five people during the brief times he was in the hall. Greg is a mindful kid who uses his manners and has an easy time understanding the concept of generosity. He’s accepting it from others in the spirit in which it’s offered. His first reaction is gratitude. I would like to publicly express my own gratitude to Gary Doherty, Ted Cline, Colin McGregor, Jason DeCesare, and Andrew Pang, for showing such kindness and demonstrating the friendly attitude that is integral to a fraternal interest club like ALPCA. As I mentioned earlier in this post, I don’t know if Greg’s interest in plates will sustain itself over the long term. However, Greg had such a positive experience as a guest at his first ALPCA convention that he may well be hungry for more. The club members he encountered, from those giving freebies to those working with him at the auction, did everything right. I don’t know when my next convention journey may be, but it’s quite possible that Greg may raring to go.