I got a call yesterday from my step-mother. She was selling my father’s car and wanted to know if I wanted his license plate.
My father was named Harry Potter Trainer Jr., and his license plate was HPT. After the Harry Potter books came out, he got tremendous mileage out of his name, especially with his young grandson. He even had labels printed up, and when he was out and about in his 80s – to the doctor’s office in Boston, at the local barber, in his grandchildren’s bathroom – he would leave behind a sticker announcing “Harry Potter was here.”
HPT was more than an acronym, though, for throughout my father’s life, words and letters (not to mention cars) were an opportunity for play and humor. Every word had the potential to be a pun. Like a catcher at home plate, he’d wait and watch us (or any other unsuspecting pitcher) lob a word. He’d watch the ball head for home plate, then at the last minute he’d crack some pun that sent it out of the park, leaving me groaning, my mother rolling her eyes, and my grandmother tittering delicately. We knew he was about to lob a doozy when he’d sit silently, like a cat, not participating in the conversation. When my uncles were around, the puns could go on for 20 or 30 sentences (especially if fish were mentioned.) But I won’t carp on that.
Cars figured into the mix. When my father married my mother (a 9th generation Yankee) and moved her to Texas for a new job, his father-in-law called him, half-jokingly, “RHB.” (I was told it stood for Red Headed Bum; it wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I learned that my grandfather meant Red Headed Bastard.) My father upped him by making RHB the license plates of his first sports car, a dandy cream-colored Fiat with lipstick red leather upholstery whose road worthiness was so questionable that when he first took me for the first spin at age 4, my passenger door swung open as we took a sharp curve heading to Handy’s Boat Yard for ice cream.
So in the annals of our family, my father became RHB, and he in turn named my mother FOB, which stood for Feisty Old Bitch. My mother was indeed feisty, and he meant it in the most loving way. Dad was restoring an old Model T Ford (he named it Henrietta), and I half thought he’d get FOB for the license plate when he put it on the road. But he was also a swamp Yankee, and one doesn’t stick one’s neck out too far.
When my mother passed away at age 73, though, he had it inscribed on her tombstone amongst the morning glories and ivy. She loved the water, so he also had it put in the corner of a brass plate on a bench in her memory at a small waterfront park. We always thought it was our private joke. When the bench fell apart, the local land trust told me they’d replace the plaque if I’d pay for it. I squired my young children and nephew to the park in kayaks, hoping to make the installation of the plate (my father would have called it a screwing ceremony) a memorable moment. Unfortunately, the wind blew up and I realized we’d never get home, since we’d have to paddle into the teeth of the wind. The elderly gentleman from the land trust who was installing the plaque asked me quietly if I knew what FOB stood for, as he loaded our kayaks into his truck. I could tell my family was of questionable character in his eyes, and to be caught in a momentary lapse of nautical judgment sealed my fate. When dad died, I had RHB inscribed on his tombstone, which was next to mom’s.
Throughout my father’s life, he did keep one license plate number, 7588, and when he passed away I got into a tug-of-war with the Department of Motor Vehicles to keep it. The license plate had been issued to my grandfather (the first Harry Potter Trainer) in 1905, two years after Massachusetts became the first state in the union to issue license plates. My grandfather was 11 years old, 4’ 11” and I know this because my father saved everything, and I have a clipping of the Boston newspaper that ran the 1905 story: Eleven Year Old Boy Runs Big Auto.
“He can be seen guiding his big machine through the streets of Brookline,” wrote the reporter, calling him a ‘lad’ and including a photograph of my diminutive grandfather next to his father’s outsized Stevens-Duryea. My father inherited the plate, and as we moved around a lot (we lived in three states by the time I was seven) he’d let a cousin use it until he returned to his beloved Massachusetts.
By the 1970s, low license plates were a sign of political favoritism and patronage (my father was offered $1000 for the plate in 1972) but Massachusetts license plates remained uncluttered by icons or slogans until Democratic Governor Dukakis succumbed to the slogan craze while governor in 1986. Lighthouses, the Red Sox, and Cape Cod decorated plates as the Massachusetts Miracle went bust (remember Taxachusetts?) and one Republican pundit proposed a new license slogan: Stay and Pay. Dukakis initiated a lucrative lottery system for low number plates in 1987, and began reeling them in, making it impossible for the political patronage to continue. Last year I spent the better part of a day at the Department of Motor Vehicles in New Bedford with my step-mother, trying to explain the plate’s history and that we’d like to transfer it. The attendant was clearly bored and suspicious. She looked at her computer records. “An Elinor Trainer owned it in 1972,” she noted. “That’s my mother!” I exclaimed, unaware of the lottery system. She was nonplussed. We went through all the hoops she threw at us – 3 notarized forms, a letter from my lawyer, a letter from my step-mother’s lawyer, two copies of the title. Four hours later she gave up trying to wrestle the plate away from us.
The Fiat came and went, though other cars would take its place, including a ’57 Austin Healey that my father spent several years puttering over and meticulously restoring in his garage when he retired. In his later years, as congestive heart failure took its toll, he had a hard time shifting and clutching. So at age 80, he sold it. Two days later he bought a BMW convertible, and put on the HPT plate. After he died my 89 year old step-mother kept it, even though she needed a pillow to see over the wheel; last November she got pulled over for speeding while heading home from her son’s after Thanksgiving dinner. When the cop peered into the window with his flashlight, he exclaimed, “It’s a little old lady driving the beemer!”
And now she was calling, telling me it was time to sell the beemer and did I want the HPT plate. We laughed about the tussle we’d had at the DMV over the last plate. I thought about it, and declined, explaining that it didn’t make sense for me – JTT – to have HPT plates, since that was his name.
“Oh, didn’t you know?” she said. “Your father called it his High Priced Toy.”
I told my 15 year old son the story this morning, and he asked if we could transfer the plate. I asked why. “Because I may want to use it someday,” he replied. And so it goes.