Providence is a fitting name for the location of ALPCA’s 50th annual convention. Providence, taken
from the dictionary, means “luck from outside” or “divine intervention.” It took more than a little luck for everything to roll together… being in New England, the location would normally have been out of ALPCA’s price range. However, with compromise, patience, and a whole lot of time spent by Richard Dragon, one of our prominent members, everything came together and we had a year to remember.
I left Ottawa at four o’clock in the morning. I was bringing a display and I wanted to get to the hall by early afternoon so I could assemble it. Although the convention wouldn't open until Thursday, we would be allowed to enter the hall a day early for the sole purpose of assembling displays. It was a great idea! The last time I brought a display, in 2002 at Niagara Falls, I wasted almost a whole day of trading just putting it together. This time around, however, my display was a lot smaller and I was able to put it together in only two hours. That still seems like a lot of time, right? Well it's because I have to engineer the display so that it fits in my tiny car's trunk when disassembled. When you consider that I have to screw the frame together, mount floppy panels so they’re taut, and then attach 29 plates, it may be more obvious how the time adds up.
Anyway, I digress—I’m ahead of myself here. The way I’m telling the story, I haven’t yet arrived at the convention. I crossed into the US at Quebec-Vermont where Autoroute 55 meets Interstate 91. It was about 7 am. Despite the crates, boxes and planks in my car, I was asked six quick questions:
“What’s your citizenship?” —Canadian.
“Where are you going?” —Providence, Rhode Island for a vacation.
“Where do you live?” —Ottawa, Ontario.
“Do you have any alcohol or tobacco in the vehicle?” —No.
“Do you have any meat or citrus products in the vehicle?” —No.
“Ever had difficulty entering the United States?” —Never.
That’s all there was to it. He didn't look at the passport I was holding, nor did he ask me to pop the trunk. I merrily drove southward through Vermont and New Hampshire. The highway was quite scenic in the morning sunshine, and it reduced to a single lane in each direction with a speed limit of 45 as it wound through Franconia Notch State Park. I didn't get to see the Old Man of the Mountain, the famous rock formation, because it had collapsed the previous year. But I made up for it by spotting a NH House of Representatives plate, number 4-5. I finally arrived at the Providence Convention Center at noon. An eight-hour trip, with no slowdowns. Not bad.
Providence is a pretty city. I didn't get to see that much of it during the drive into town, because our hotel was quite close to the Interstate. But the view from the hotel room showed off many of Providence's sights in a single glimpse.
The first sound I heard as I drove my way through the parking garage was Doug Brekke facetiously calling out, “Ooohhh noooo!” I don’t think he knows me, so he must have been calling to someone else. I passed through the parking lot trading action and was just about to pull into a parking spot when a familiar figure suddenly appeared. He wasn’t in my way, but I yelled at him anyway:
“Hey, you! Get that hat outta my way!”
It was none other than my favorite dairy farmer, Tom Dayton, who thrust his arm through my open window to shake my hand. Tom spent a year or so away from the club, but I bribed him back with the promise of a rare pesticide plate for free if he showed up at the convention. Actually, there are lots of great people and farm plates at the convention, so really, there are many reasons to rejoin!
I wandered around and picked up an Ontario diplomat-related issue that I hadn’t yet found for my collection… a mint red F-prefix plate from 1972, issued to non-diplomatic foreign embassy staff. I also picked up a new Sonora sunburst graphic plate from Mexican collector Alfonso Baca. I’ve wanted one ever since I visited Nogales the previous summer.
I got talking to Manny Jacob and David Wilson, two fellow collectors from Ontario. Manny was on his way back from lunch when he spotted the Providence Mayor’s car parked on Washington Street in front of City Hall. We walked over, cameras at the ready, and photographed the plate. It’s a number 1, with two golden shields on either side, kind of like police badges, both of which read, “Mayor, City of Providence.” It was a neat plate to see.
We were standing there, discussing what a find we’d made, when we saw a black SUV lumber past, with a number 1 plate as well. We were caught off-guard and couldn’t photograph it in time, but less than two minutes later, it passed by again, going in the same direction. I suggested that we to circle the block in the opposite direction, counterclockwise, in the hope that the SUV was trying to find a parking spot. We turned south down Eddy street, and there it was, in a Mayoral staff parking spot. This plate was the number 1 House of Representatives plate. It had an interesting mounted gold shield on the rear plate, but the front one just had a golden outline of the shield. We took pictures happily, to the amusement of the locals. We noticed another House plate, 25, on our way back to the parking garage. The State Capitol is just a few blocks north on Francis street, and we figured it was the reason for seeing the House plates. I ended up seeing a couple more during my walks over the ensuing few days.
The remainder of the day involved putting my aforementioned display together, buying Popeye’s chicken at the Providence Place food court, and mingling briefly at the ALPCA reception that evening, held on the top floor of the Biltmore hotel, where I was staying. It was a nice view up there, and the Waterfire exhibit was interesting to see (or as Dave Kuehn called it, Firewater). They light up about 100 bonfires mounted on platforms in the small rivers through town and tend them until after midnight. I didn't stay awake that long, though... I crashed well before then. It had been a long day already, and there would be more to come once convention hall opened and the trading began.
Thursday was brisk. I was a member of the volunteer security team for the third consecutive year, and as such, I had to be in the hall 45 minutes before opening time for our briefing. It’s nothing secretive, really... just knowing where the doors are, where to send people, assignment of radio callsigns, and basic procedures for run-of-the-mill situations. My handle turned out to be Unit 4, and I was assigned to watch the main door during entry of the line-up. It’s nice to be able to say hello to people as they walk in the door, and reassure them, if they ask, that they are indeed at the right place.
After about an hour of meeting and greeting at the door, I was free to set up my own table. I set up shop in the middle third of the floor, beside Andy Pang, who has become my traditional roommate and table neighbour at the annual convention. I brought every trader I had (both crates) and laid them out in as appealing a manner as I could. I had let my trade stock dwindle in the past year, so really, my single table offered me more than enough display space.
Much of my security work this year was of a plain-clothes nature, which meant that I had to be alert for much of the time, but I had the freedom to wander the hall as long as I wasn’t actively onto something. What could I be “onto,” you might ask? Without saying too much, it involves staying within visual range of one or two anonymous, eccentric individuals whom we have reason to fear may pick up and walk away with a plate that doesn’t belong to them (happily, no one transgressed through the convention).
My first big find of the day was at Paul Reid’s table. He’s a fellow Canuck from New Brunswick. He had a nice selection of natural Ontario sticker-years that I needed for my passenger run, and I was glad to take them off his hands. I also picked up a nice NB veteran plate from him at a great price. He has lots of other nice Canadian plates, and although I didn’t end up buying anything else from him, I did stop by his table several times to take extra looks at his plates… some great stuff there.
Bob Gammon, a ham radio plate collector from Windsor, Ontario, had a couple of Ontario hams for sale out of a briefcase. I collect them, but I couldn’t recall if I needed the exact ones he had (I collect baseplate variations). He caught up with me later on and offered them to me for a price I couldn’t refuse. They now have a home in my collection, and as it turned out, I needed both plates!
Later on, I returned to my table to find Andy chatting with a woman who appeared not to be a collector. She had a notebook, and was taking down notes. I figured she was from the Providence Journal, which has its office across the street from the convention hall. The line of questioning spread over to my table as well, where I mentioned that Andy and I had met each other through the club, and over the past few years, we’ve become friends. Well, she took an kind of interest in that idea… it seemed to dawn on her then that the ALPCA Convention isn’t just some all-business trade show. She thought it was cool that an Canadian and an American got to know each other because of trading license plates. She asked us both more questions about our backgrounds and collecting interests. I asked which paper she was from. “The Times,” she replied. When I asked which one (lots of cities use that name), I was surprised to hear her say she worked for none other than the New York Times. She even had her photographer trail us for 25 minutes as we checked out the displays… he must have taken a hundred shots of us. I don’t know when the article will be printed, and there were no guarantees we'd be in it; the reporter had interviewed a number of people over the course of the day. Whenever it prints and whatever it says, I’ve asked Andy to buy a copy of the paper. If a small-time collector like me potentially catches the attention of one of the world’s biggest newspapers, I want to read all about it. (Footnote: The article did print, and although there wasn't room for pictures, Andy and I were both profiled. True to his word, Andy sent me a copy of the article, which I framed.)
I started Friday off with a trade with Tom Dayton. I happened to have a few farm plates for trade, plus my unusual Ontario pesticide plate, which he accepted for some interesting picks from his trade box. I was pleased to find a Washington state Transporter plate, number --gasp-- 7135 (with an A suffix). That’s the first time I’ve randomly come upon my ALPCA number in almost ten years of membership in the club, without it being buried in a seven- or eight-digit alphanumeric soup. I snapped a picture of this momentous occasion as we sealed the deal. It was just a trade for run-of-the-mill plates both ways, but it’s fun every time.
My own sales picked up a little that morning. After little to no attention at my table the previous day, I sat for a few minutes to talk to my table neighbour and roommate, Andy Pang, and I made $38 selling three plates. It never rains, but it drizzles.
I passed by Bob Patterson’s table, and he had an impressive selection of porcelain plates that were hopelessly out of my price range (not because the price was unfair, but more because I’m on a budget). On his table, I saw a stack of ALPCA Registers. I began flipping through them to see if I could replace either of the mail-damaged issues that I have at home. Our conversation went like this:
“Hey Bob, are you selling this stack of newsletters?”
“Yup, sure am.”
“Are you selling them individually or as a set?”
“You know, I guess it doesn’t matter. You can have whichever ones you want.”
I guess I didn’t clue in. “Great! How much for the lot?”
“You can just take them all!”
Now I was clueing in. “You mean, for free?”
I asked him if he was serious, because it was his last chance to say he was messing with me before I was going to walk off with them. He was dead serious in the most generous way, and so off I went with my big stack of ALPCA Registers. But not before thanking him profusely.
I found a few Ontario plates from the teens at Scotty Nelson’s table, including a beautiful 1913 that really made me think. Actually, thinking about that plate was pure torture, because as much as I wanted it for my own collection, the price tag was steep, although not ghastly. It was beyond my budget, anyway, so I spent the day thinking and making obsessive trips back to the table to make sure it was still there. Scotty had a 1934 that I needed, but it disappeared into a buyer’s hands while I was considering it for myself. I didn’t want that to happen to the 1913… my 1913.
Andy made a great find of his own, picking up a nice low-numbered 1916 Virginia… his favourite (and soon-to-be-home-again) state. It was a beautiful plate, although seeing how guilty he felt afterward, I began to wonder how much of his life savings he had to sacrifice for it? Gee, I hope his wife isn’t reading this!
While Mike Weiner was making the collection rounds for the donation auction, I saw a bright yellow plate with red numbers lying on the cart. It was from Ethiopia, although the vehicle type escaped me. I’m a sucker for red and yellow plates, but don’t tell Mike, because he’ll relentlessly try to sell me one of his New Mexico runs. Anyway, I wished silently that I’d found that plate before it was donated. No matter—If I wanted it, which I certainly did, I’d have to attend the auction and watch carefully.
Just then, Jeff Francis bellowed out the words that start a feeding frenzy on an annual basis at his table: “Half price sale!” I scooted over there, in the mood for a bargain. I found a flat District of Columbia plate with the “Taxation Without Representation” protest slogan, plus a couple of older Wisconsin plates. I found a number of others, but I held back because that 1913 Ontario was constantly in the back of my mind, and I didn't want to be short in the wallet.
At the auction that evening, I watched closely for the yellow Ethiopian plate to show itself. I was worried that I’d get too tired to continue, and maybe I’d miss the plate if it didn’t appear until later in the auction, or even worse, maybe it would get hidden in a large lot. Luckily for me, it came up early, and just with one other plate: an older Transvaal plate with embossed plastic numbers held on a crimped aluminum backing. I took both for a high bid of $45. Higher than I wanted, really, but that yellow Ethiopian plate just had me on a mission.
The auction ended earlier than in recent years, but it was a record-breaker with over $18 thousand raised for the club.
As always, Convention Saturday starts with the general business meeting among yawning collectors, bagels, and cups of fruit juice. I was relieved that no one had anything negative to say when the Board invited criticism about increased hotel / parking costs. I was expecting to hear somebody complain about more expensive costs, or losing a day in the convention hall (we started Thursday this year, not Wednesday). No one had any complaints to share. As far as I’m concerned, any worthy complaint can and should be shared with others, and since there were none, I conclude that pretty much everybody liked having the meet in Rhode Island and were happy to make a few small cost-cutting sacrifices to be on the east coast. What a great site for a convention! I think it’s by far the most interesting place that ALPCA has visited, in terms of local attractions and fun stuff to keep non-collecting members of the family occupied.
Also, this meeting gave rise to one of the best ideas I’ve heard of for ALPCA: A hall of fame. Not an actual hall building, but an official roll of extraordinary members, which could be viewed either in print or on ALPCA’s website. Bill Dickerson made the presentation to the membership. He had done some significant preliminary work with the blessing of the Board of Directors and had come up with induction criteria, a committee, and a standardized “plaque” for each member. The plaque would depict a plate from the inductee's home state bearing his/her ALPCA membership number, and a small image of the person. The first three inductees for the Hall of Fame are to be Cecil George (member #1 and club founder), Asa Colby (#2), and everyone’s buddy, the recently departed Roy Carson (#17).
The other business for the meeting came and went, including the display awards. I won second prize in the International category for my diplomat display. I wasn’t really sure if I’d be in the running because I had to limit the scope of my display to 1960 and up, simply because I didn’t have any diplomat plates from 1959 or earlier. 1960 is a round enough cutoff point, I suppose, but I had to make reference to the years 1947 (when they purportedly began) and 1959 (first year of the white-on-red plates). I originally entered the display in the non-passenger category, but the judges have a way of shuffling people around a bit. I’m quite pleased with my porcelain award plate, although I almost wish I’d taken third place instead, because those awards were made with real 1954 Rhode Island plates (with metal date tabs), mounted on a polished wood plaque. Very sharp-looking!
After the meeting, I wandered around the hall, closing as many pending deals as I could. I bought a bunch of colourful French plates from Xavier Hadjadj (pronounced “HAD-aj”) to beautify my international collection. I also continued my aching and paining over that expensive 1913 Ontario. The desire to acquire it had intensified since I last saw it, and the price seemed as steep as ever at $325 in US dollars. I borrowed fellow Ontario collecting buddy Norm Ratcliffe and discussed the pros and cons of picking it up. I could always recoup part of my costs by eBaying the one I already have. The first digit in the steep price would have to come down a bit to help me overcome a psychological barrier. That 3 changing to a 2 can seem like a world of difference to a hesitant buyer. I made a last-ditch offer of $290, and Scotty accepted.
I found some really cheap New Brunswick passenger plates from the 1950s and picked them up with the intent of flipping them for a higher price. This hobby, for me, has to be self-funding for the most part. I don’t mind doing the occasional markup, because it allows me to get new, neat stuff for my collection without dipping into my paycheque (much).
I found some old Newsletters at Chuck Sakryd’s table, so I picked a few up. I enjoy reading the old articles, seeing the older pictures, and remarking over how cheaply some plates would sell for circa 1978. Later on, as I was taking my display apart, Chuck stopped by to chat and helped me disassemble the frame and bag up the plates. Chuck always has a story to tell. He’s a howl! If you’ve never met him, make a trade with him sometime and introduce yourself.
My final act before leaving the hall and driving away was to shake hands with Rich Dragon and offer two simple words: “Thank you.” Providence was a beautiful place to hold the Convention. Most of us will never know the many hours he personally spent to make it happen, and all while editing the ALPCA Register and having it printed on time with such high quality. Providence was a perfect compromise: I’d gladly pay a little extra and lose one day to go back there for a future Convention.
To get home, I headed north out of Providence and then took I-90 west through Massachusetts. It wasn't the most direct route, but I decided to make a detour in upstate New York, near the city of Hudson. I stopped by Twin Green Traffic Signals to pick up some hanging hardware for the signal head that I was planning to display in my new house. I got there in the late afternoon... very pretty area. The fella was expecting me and was happy to make an easy sale for hangers that I wouldn't find back home.
I was running a little late, but I didn’t get stopped for speeding. The drive back across the border was uneventful, and Canadian Customs only wanted to know if I had any booze or tobacco in the trunk. I finally arrived home in Ottawa at about 11 pm, after ten hours and two Massachusetts traffic jams. ALPCA Conventions are always a great time. There's nothing like 'em.