Travel Tales: Road games

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(HOST)June marks the start of the summer travel season and all this week VPR commentators are recalling trips to destinations near and far. Car trips with children can be especially challenging and commentator Vic Henningsen has the story of a car game that lasted almost twenty years.

(HENNNINGSEN) In the days before Ipods, families on long car trips played elaborate games to keep from killing one another. Cemetery, Twenty Questions, Botticelli all held families together on vacation drives.

From the mid 1950’s until a fateful morning in the 70’s my younger brother and I competed ferociously at the license plate game, trying to be the first to identify plates from other states from the backseat of the family Ford as we rattled over the roads of New England.

Today it’s a full-time job just keeping track of one state’s options. Although Vermont and New Hampshire don’t have many choices beyond conservation plates, in many states you can get plates identifying you as a veteran, a friend of animals, a Red Sox fan, a Duke alum, you name it.

Not so in the golden age of the license plate game, when most states had one plate, and only one, whose features rarely changed. Americans were more local in those days, when interstates were under construction and only rich people flew. A license from a far-distant place was a memorable event, bringing a touch of the exotic to our drab lives. Seeing “Louisiana/Bayou State” evoked humidity, Spanish moss, the echo of a saxophone on a lonely street.

Local plates didn’t count, nor did special purpose plates, though we made an exception for “Repair Connecticut.” Distance and rarity mattered most. A California plate was a big deal, but there was real prestige in identifying more obscure plates like “North Dakota/Peace Garden State” or “Arkansas/Land of Opportunity.”

Some were really special, like Tennessee’s parallelogram in the shape of the state itself or Wyoming’s image of a bucking bronco. We also valued commodities: “Kansas/The Wheat State,” “Iowa/The Corn State,” and Nebraska which, before it put Cornhusker on the plate, was “The Beef State.” One day we discovered that “Ten Thousand Lakes/Minnesota” had been one-upped by “Hundred Thousand Lakes/Manitoba,” but we weren’t counting Canadian plates.

By the early 1970’s things were changing. States that had been contentedly plain added slogans, more vivid color schemes, even pictures. Others got chummy. Pennsylvania went from “Keystone State” to “You’ve Got a Friend in Pennsylvania.” Some tried to monitor behavior, like “Ohio/Seat Belts Fastened?”

Now in college, my brother and I were changing too. We rarely spent time together, but when we did, we still gave the old game a shot. I was narrowly ahead, having picked up “Hawaii/Aloha State” after months of humiliation over his grabbing “North to the Future/Alaska.” And suddenly, it was over.

One summer day, as we passed two gray-haired ladies driving an old station wagon, I spotted their muddy brown and green “Funnel for World Commerce/Canal Zone” and crowed with glee. Ten minutes later a Corvette zoomed by. With a wordless gesture, ending much more than a childhood rivalry, my brother indicated the rapidly receding yellow on green “America’s Day Begins in Guam.”

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.

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