|J. Walter Christie and his front wheel drive racer, 1906.|
There are three kinds of history buffs. There are those geeks that developed a passion for the subject even though it was often taught in a manner that was as dry as burnt toast and as exciting as watching paint dry. There are those that were slowly lured into a fascination with it through stories of lost treasure, cars with tail fins, or that have simply lived long enough to remember a youth that is now taught as history.
The third kind are special. They are the ones who have yet to discover the fact that history is an addiction. These are the folks that blissfully sail through life severed from the past and as a result suffer dramatic mood swings when ever a case is made for this being the worst of times or the best of times.
In my world there is a reassurance in history that allows me to look to the future with a degree of excitement and enthusiasm. It is an ever developing understanding of the world as it was before I arrived that enables me to know with certainty that these are the best of times and the worst of times.
The precise moment when I discovered that time travel was possible and that portals to the past were all around me is difficult to pinpoint. In fact, I often find myself reflecting on one of my mother’s favorite admonitions, “Jay (her nickname for me), I swear you were born ninety and never seemed to grow older.”
Through my Uncle Max, blinded and gassed in the Great War, I had a window into the world of the teens, a time when this nation strode proudly onto the center stage of world history. Our neighbor, also a veteran of the war to end all wars, added depth, dimension, and color to that lost world which these men opened to me through sepia toned photographs and stories told in that voice reserved for old men who have passed through Hell and lived to tell the tale.
The first portal into the lost world of the Native Americans that hunted the forests of Michigan in a time when the French and English were interlopers came to me in the form of an arrowhead. Our neighbor, the World War I veteran who had lost his innocence and two fingers on his right hand at the age of 19, gave me that arrowhead and for a brief moment was again a child scampering through the forest as he regaled me with the tale of how he had found that chipped piece of flint.
The American Civil War became more than dates to be remembered for a test when I discovered a tin type photo, a letter, some pressed flowers, and a crumbling newspaper notice in my grandmothers attic. I still remember the humid heat as I sat under that bare bulb, looked into the face of a proud young soldier whose children’s children were now forgotten historic footnotes, unfolded the water stained pages, saw the dried flowers fall onto my footprints in the dust on that rough pine floor, and began to read.
It was a letter of reassurance from a frightened young man to his wife so far away. With the reading of each carefully chosen word, his longing to smell the fresh mown hay, to again stare into the deep blue eyes of his loving wife, and the hunger to hear his children’s laughter around the fire were tangible and sorrowful.
Then I slowly read the crumbling clipping that told of this young mans funeral and his bravery at a place named Antietam. One day, 24 very short hours were all that separated this mans last note from his passage into eternity and less than 120 years stood between the young boy filled with doubts, worries and fears, reading those words, and the man who wrote them that knew those feelings so well.
I learned of sorrow for a well fought lost cause and the strength that comes from looking toward the future with hope in a small hole with a million dollar view. The sorrow was made manifest in a stained and creased Confederate States of America ten dollar bill left in a tin can on a shelf carved in the wall of that little cave. The hope was made evident in that someone had left what was once their treasure behind as they pursued a new dream.
Many of the men and women who wrote what we now label as history may be dust but in the lessons they learned and the challenges they overcame are the answers to the tests we face. The portals to their world and their times are all around us in a watch, a faded photograph, a highway signed with two sixes, an old Ford, or a weathered face.
http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=1968adventurer&o=1&p=8&l=bpl&asins=0760319650&fc1=000000&IS2=1<1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifrOne of the great passions I derive from writing is the ability to provide a bridge from the past to the present. Another is to know that something I wrote was enjoyed. So, I take great pleasure in notes received from readers, especially those that open new portals for me.
A few days ago I received this note pertaining to The Big Book of Car Culture, the subject of a forthcoming interview with Jay Leno that will be posted on his website.
I thoroughly enjoyed the informative Big Book of Car Culture–kudos on a job well done!! If I may, however, point out a few corrections to your License Plates story on page 284. I am the editor of PLATES Magazine, the official publication of the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association (ALPCA), the world’s oldest and largest license plate collectors organization since 1954.
After West Virginia and Pennsylvania issued the first dated state-wide plates in 1906, Massachusetts added a date in 1908, New Jersey had dated 1908 state plates and Minnesota issued a dated plate in 1909–all before Maryland in 1910.
Several cities issued dated plates earlier than this too–1903 Philadelphia is the first dated automobile plates in the USA. Cincinnati, Chicago, and St. Louis all started issuing dated plates before 1910.
Arizona’s plates in the 1930s were not commemorative, but rather regular state issues.
While the 1921 Alaska is still regarded as the most sought after plate, a 1913 Mississippi is rarer than a 1912 Mississippi.
Your caption about 1929 as the year all plates had evolved into a modern standardized form–I’m not sure I understand that reference. American and Canadian plates became standardized size in 1957 due to Federal Highway Act of Eisenhower administration. 6″x12″ has been used by all 50 dates and most territories since 1957 (American Samoa not until 1977). License plates are unique in that their appearance, design, and composition has been roughly the same across three centuries now–from the first motor vehicle plates in the 1890s right through today. In fact, a 1911 Massachusetts plate is not that much different really than a 2011 plate.
Also long before the automobile, numbered registrations were required by several jurisdictions for carriages, mostly livery (hackney) and royal mail. We know of dated carriage plates from 1860s St.Petersburg, Russia and St. Tamany Parish, Louisiana and Toledo, Ohio both had dated registration plates for carriages in the 1890s.
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