In the weeks after losing my father in August, I spent time around my parents’ house, supporting my mother in running errands, organizing belongings, and choosing what to donate, what to sell, and what to keep. Dad was a collector of many things, but there was no single theme in particular. He’d keep a rock that was shaped like a bone. He kept all the stray fishing lures that he found on the beach. He kept unneeded screws from various kits so he could use them down the road to repair something else. He kept art made by his kids and grand kids. He even kept our teeth after they were surreptitiously swapped out for coins by the tooth fairy. And, among many other things, he kept the various licence plates that I had given him over the years, not to mention keeping some of his own retired plates. They’re now with me. 2019 has given me a bewildering ride, in many ways. As the year comes to a close, I thought I would post Dad’s plates here, for catharsis, if nothing else.
Shortly after I joined ALPCA in 1995, I received a letter from Bill Verbakel of Sarnia, Ontario, which was an hour away from my home in London. I paid Bill a visit, and he happened to have a few mid-70s NWT bear passenger plates in his trade box. I picked out two of them: One for me, and one for my father. Dad always thought that the bear-shaped NWT plates were neat, and I knew he’d like one to hang up in the sauna or boathouse. I chose a bear from 1974, because that’s the year I was born… all the better to remind him of me. I gave it to him as a Christmas gift. He loved it, and sure enough, he hung it on the wall of his sauna change room, where it stayed for a couple of decades.
These beat-up truck plates were worn by my dad’s 1982 Chevrolet Custom Deluxe pickup. It was a bare-bones, straight-six model that had previously been used by the Ministry of Natural Resources (plate number JK5-833). The truck had apparently been in a collision sometime in its first year, and the MNR traded it in. It was repaired and put up for sale at Boston’s OK Used Cars on Bay Street in Sault Ste. Marie. My dad needed a truck for our cottage, and he bought this one in the late summer of ‘83. He was given new plates under the province’s plate-to-owner system: KC5-435. That truck served him faithfully for more than 12 years. One time, he had to pick up a load of lumber. The best place to buy it was Elliott’s Lumber, north of town. The beams were longer than the truck’s box. It was my job to sit in the back with the tailgate down while my dad drove up a steep, mile-long hill on Highway 17, and make sure the wood didn’t fall out onto the road.
Another time, late in the truck’s service life, I met my Dad in Toronto and swapped vehicles so I could borrow the truck to help my sister move. The truck had started to burn oil by this time. Dad would have to top up the oil with each refuelling stop. But as long as he had a bottle of 10W-30 in the cab, everything was fine. I drove the truck smoothly to London, with no issues, and helped my sister load up her stuff. By the time we hit the highway, the next day, I knew something was wrong. I couldn’t get any power, the engine seemed to wobble like an off-centre washing machine, and the top speed I could manage was about 50 km/h. It took us an hour to get from London to Strathroy, where I left my dad’s truck in a field and rented a newer one so I could get my sister’s stuff moved. I returned to get the truck a couple of days later, and even with the box unloaded, I had the same problem. I brought it to my local garage. The mechanic there suspected it was the transmission, and sent me downtown to a transmission repair shop. I went on a “symptom drive” with the guy who worked there, and he had a hunch. He put some oil into the engine, which took the whole bottle. And then a second bottle. And then a third one, after which time, the oil level was finally back up to normal. The truck started happily and drove normally after that. I drove it back up to Dad a couple of days later, and truck now took an entire bottle of oil with each gas stop! It was burning at an incredible rate, but otherwise, it was driving smoothly enough. Dad drove it for another few months before getting a new Chevy truck. But Old Grey’s time wasn’t quite up yet...
Dad gave that '82 truck to my sister and her boyfriend, who replaced a couple of body panels, and put in new gaskets to curb the truck’s oil-drinking problem. Once that was fixed, they used it as their daily driver for another three or four years, with the plate number above. Eventually, they moved again and parked the truck at my parents’ place, next to the garage. The truck stayed there for a couple of years before everybody realized it was time to say goodbye. Sixteen years of service in all to one family… not bad for a second-hand, optionless, ex-government pickup!
After Dad gave the ‘82 to my sister in the mid-90s, he brought home a new Chevy pickup, maroon this time, but still fairly spartan on the options side. Dad was a practical man and didn’t want to put a lot of whistles and bells into a pickup that wouldn’t see a lot of long-distance use. He used this truck
until after he retired, at which time he and my mother bought a fifth-wheel trailer, and needed a bigger engine to haul it. That truck ended up being a 2001 Ram, and he later bought a new 2011 Ram with the Laramie package-- a beautiful truck, the only one he bought brand-new, and sadly, it was also his last truck. I couldn’t get the plates from either Ram.
I lived in Maryland for 1998 and 1999, which offered a perk that was unique to most any Canadian: It was actually possible to order stuff by mail and have it shipped for a reasonable amount to my home address. When the Pennsylvania DMV came out with its Flagship Niagara plates around that time, I was able to buy a couple of samples for a very reasonable price. They arrived in the mail, and I brought one of them to Dad during one of my summertime visits. He always liked ships of all kinds. Growing up in Sault Ste. Marie, there were many freighters that would traverse the St. Marys River and pass through the Sault locks. Every now and then, we’d be out for a drive and we’d see a giant ship passing by, so Dad would find a spot to park and wait for the ship to get closer until he could read the name. Occasionally, a special vessel would pass through town and be berthed at the waterfront for a couple of days. Sometimes it was a cruise ship on a tour of the Great Lakes, and other times it would be a tall sailing ship. In 1997, it was the Bluenose II that stopped by, and we went aboard. The year afterward, when the Niagara plates came out, it seemed like the perfect gift. He hung it in his newly-built sauna, along with the NWT bear plate I mentioned at the start of this post.
My dad turned 54 in 2002, and it was earlier that year that I found an old Iowa vanity plate at the Niagara Falls ALPCA Convention. I would have bought the plate for him anyway because it said “FORD”, which was my father’s given name. It was a coincidence that the vanity plate also featured the number 54, ostensibly intended for a 1954 vehicle. I gave it to him for his birthday, and he hung it up in his workshop.
Another plate that went into his workshop was this seemingly-random Ontario passenger plate, 583-JFL. I have no memory as to where I acquired it-- it’s probably one of the thousands of surplus Ontario plates that have passed through my hands over the years as I buy large lots to restock my YOM business. This plate also hung in the workshop.
What's important about JFL, anyway? Well, Dad was the unwitting creator of many “Fordisms” in our household: Things he would say on a recurring basis, which the rest of us understood fluently, but outsiders would scratch their heads and wonder what we were talking about. “JFL” was an acronym for “Just f***ing lovely,” which Dad would remark dryly while imitating my mother’s English accent. “JFL” would be an appropriate response if, for example, someone dropped a bowl of soup, or if a dog horked up his breakfast.
I mentioned earlier that my parents bought a fifth-wheel trailer to go on camping adventures during their retirement. They actually used the fifth-wheel trailer for about three years or so, before concluding that it was a bit cramped for their needs, especially in the bedroom with its raised floor atop the hitch. They traded the fifth wheel in for a slightly longer trailer with a rear receiver hitch. This was the trailer they pulled to the west coast, in a sort of re-tracing of Dad’s 1970 hitchhiking odyssey (a great story for another time). They went to the Maritimes. They went up through northern Ontario. Probably the place they went the most often was Cedarville, Michigan, with a local group of RV enthusiasts. And most importantly, this was the trailer they used to stay alongside the rest of the extended family during our annual beach cabin vacation in Thessalon, Ontario. Road-tripping and prepping the trailer became more of an arduous task on Dad’s back and knees, and they were using it less often, so he actually sold the trailer a few months before he passed. Fittingly, he sold the trailer to a friend who parked it in Thessalon at the same campground as our rented beach cabin.
It occurred to me, a few years ago, that I had never given my parents a plate for their shared birth year of 1948. During yet another of my YOM restocking acquisitions, I turned up a nice single 1948 plate. Rather than slapping a $10 price tag on it and dropping it in my trade box, I kept it and gave it to Dad on yet another birthday. This plate was more quaint than the other, more run-of-the-mill plates that Dad had hung in the workshop, so this 1948 plate found a home as a decoration on the bookshelf in their office. As they added more books to the shelf, it ended up being stored in between those books.
This silly plate was the last one I ever gave to Dad, and he only owned it for four days, before he suddenly and unexpectedly passed away. It’s based on another Fordism, from back in the old ‘82 grey truck era. He used to joke, in a faux Italian accent, “You toucha my truck, I breaka you face.” When this booster plate landed in my hands, I knew it would probably end up in his workshop. It did get there, but Dad never got around to hanging it from the pegboard wall.
After Dad died, I spent some time helping my mother organize the items in the house in preparation for a large moving sale. I wasn’t able to keep the plates from his truck, because it had just been issued a new validation sticker and in order to get a refund for the 11 ½ months of unused time, my mom was ordered to surrender the plates. She was able to save the plates from the ATVs, though. 27VE0 was worn by Dad’s red Polaris, and 4BD40, a newer plate, was worn by my Mom’s newer camouflaged Polaris. My mom is more of an indoor girl, but she enjoyed some light ATVing with Dad. Dad enjoyed rolling through the rougher trails in the forest, and I accompanied him on a few outings over my summer visits.
Thank you for indulging me... I suppose this is just a part of the healing process. I will miss him always, but it feels better to remember than to push it away.