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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Road to Riches is Paved with Nova Scotian License Plates

The License Plate Game. You ever play it? During those long car rides to the beach or other vacation spot, you must have been treated to it, right? If anything, as a parent, you must have used it as a diversionary tactic for the kids. No? Come on, what kind of Griswolds are ya?

Because of the configuration of our Family Truckster…that being a Chevy Custom Deluxe truck with a cap on the back, we didn’t play this little game on the trips to the beach when I was a kid. My parents sat up front and the three of us, prodigal children, sat in the back, secluded, with only a sliding window as a portal to our parents. It was smaller than a drive through window but it was sufficient. Sometimes, there was some excitement as we passed an object over the break between the cab and the bed of the truck. There was always that fear that our snack would somehow fall to its doom onto the pavement rushing underneath us.

I hadn't played the License Plate game until I was 10 years old. It was on a school trip to Canada. Somehow, although I’m not sure of the particulars of this back room deal where someone might cry out, "Leave the gun. Grab the cannoli.", the tour group managed to get away with funding such a venture on a bus with about 40 kids. Normally, group activities were beneath my attention span, but I was instantly enthralled and took the bait without question when the mention of money was involved. We were going to be playing this particular version for money instead of just points.

For those of you still scratching your head on this, let me give you a brief rundown of the rules. Now, be aware that my memory and my grasp of the rules are subject to interpretation. This is by no way a listing of official rules put forth by any governing body. This was simply a variation on a classic. Just like anything else in this world, your experience may vary.

The rules went as follows:

  1. During our trip we were told to look for a list of license plates by state.
  2. For each one on the list, we were given a monetary amount directly proportional to the rarity of that plate’s appearance in the region we happened to be in at the time. In other words, you got zero points for a Pennsylvania State License Plate, if you were in Pennsylvania whereas a plate from Canada was valuable. The same went for the opposite when we reached Canada. Ontario and Toronto were pretty much worthless while PA was valuable.
  3. You must have a visual confirmation by an adult chaperon on the trip.
  4. Our bus' plate didn’t count. I tried that one out as soon as we hit maximum distance from PA.
We became feverish as our eyes were glued to the windows of the bus checking out each and every passing car that went by. I formed an alliance with one of my roommates on the trip. In shifts, we would keep vigilant watch over the window in case the other got distracted or had to go the bathroom.

As we crossed the dotted lined border into New York, which was pink if I recall correctly from Social Studies, I heard the cry of one of my classmates. He yelled out, as if he was in a smoky fire hall playing bingo, “OHIO!” That was worth $0.50. We were infuriated. Where was that little rat bastard? That came from the other side of the bus. We didn’t cover that flank. We decided to double our efforts and shift seats to either side of the aisle. “VIRGINIA!” Another kid cried out. There was another $0.50. Frustration set in as we saw our potential riches vanish to our peers.

When we arrived into Niagara Falls for lunch our hopes of wealth seemed dashed. Of course, they were going to extend the game for the return trip home, but valuable time was already lost. Still, we were pretty confident we could spend a significant amount of our walking around money and win it all back with a more concentrated effort on the bus ride home. At this point, no one had spotted the elusive Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia plates. That was a crisp, clean $10 bill. Hope reigned as we envisioned seeing Alexander Hamilton come across our palms. Of course, we agreed to split the pot 50/50.

The trip itself was fun, from what I remember. We went to the top of the CN Tower and my ears popped. We went to a kick ass pizza place in Toronto called The Organ Grinder. I believe it’s closed, now, but it was pretty fantastic. A huge church organ sat on one end and played continuously while various sights and sounds were seen and heard throughout the restaurant. It was the kind of place made for an A.D.D. addled kid on a sugar rush.

Over the next couple of days we went to the Ontario Science Center and also Ontario Place. Ontario Science Center held more enjoyment for me as the colder March weather did not allow us to enjoy a lot of the attractions at Ontario Place. The exhibits played on my more curious nature while standing outside in 40 degree weather with a wind breaker didn't offer me a lot of incentive to move around much.

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As the trip came to a close, we strategically laid out our plans to recoup our costs. Stopping back at Niagara Falls, we broke for lunch. After eating quickly, my roommate and I decided to use the extra time to scour the parking lot for the ever elusive big game. It was a touristy place. What better environment to spot high valued license plates? We checked in with our chaperon and informed her of our intentions to go out into the parking lot for the hunt. She gave us approval and off we went.

We started at one end of the parking lot and moved towards the other, checking every car throughout. After several minutes with no luck, we continued towards the fringe of the parking lot and followed a line of cars, parked along the curb. We called them out aloud, checking against our mental list. “New York, New York, Ontario…” These were nothing. At this point, New York was bound to get us a nickel but it wasn’t worth it. We wanted the big prize. The buses were still in our view so we continued to move just a little bit further, like a prospector checking one more pan. We approached a sedan that sat at the end of the row. The trepidation sat in as we realized that this would be our last shot. There was no going further as we would be out the “parking lot” and on our own in the wilds of Canada. We peered around the edge of the car and saw the plate, “Nova Scotia! Holy Crap! We did it!” Our blood, sweat and tears paid off in spades. We had found a Nova Scotia plate. That was ten dollars split between us. For two ten year olds it might as well been a $1000.

We had to get an adult to verify it. If we both went back to the restaurant, the car might leave. I told my friend to go get an adult while I stayed behind to keep an eye on the car. I was not going to let the guy leave. In movies and television shows, I had seen people remove distributor caps from vehicles to keep someone from leaving. Without an advanced understanding of automotive mechanics I would just have to plead with the owner to stick around or lay under the wheels like a protester in a rain forest about to be cleared.

A few minutes went by and my friend appeared with our chaperon. “We found Nova Scotia!” I yelled out. Her furrowed brow did not convey the same excitement. “Where the hell have you two been? The buses have been waiting for ten minutes.” I explained that she had given us permission to go into the parking lot to look for license plates. I’m not a geography expert, but I was pretty sure that where we stood was still considered as part of the parking lot. “Come on, you guys are big trouble.” I felt the need to tug at her sleeve towards the back of the car, pointing out our discovery. Somehow, I think I should refrain as her mood worsened with every step back to the bus. As we boarded the bus, all eyes shifted forward, simultaneously towards our presence. Apparently, this was a big deal.

The trip home was quiet. Every once in awhile the random call of a plate came out from someone, but we never looked up. In fact, our gaze never neared the window. We were out. We had our one shot at glory and we blew it. In my mind, I wondered where we went wrong. For a ten year old, logic is skewed towards the infallible nature of following rules that are left open for interpretation. We need to be instructed with the same specific nature as a computer manual. You cannot leave anything to chance as we will exploit any and every loophole as an opportunity for gain.

Nearly 25 years later, I still keep an eye for that Nova Scotia plate. I haven’t seen one since but I know it exists. It’s like my White Whale, constantly just out of the peripheral. Road trips give some nostalgic solace as I hope to one day spot it out my window or in a parking lot. I will persist as it does, ever vigilant in the pursuit of a ten dollar plate from Canada. Someday, I will pass on this game to my kids during one of our trips in the hopes that maybe they can find success in my failure. I will sit them down and tell them the tale. A long time ago, I found a Nova Scotia plate and it was like a dream. It was shiny and new and it meant everything to me in that moment. One day, you may find it too. If that day comes, have your cell phone or a digital camera ready and get your asses back to bus.

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