I can recall the day we sat around the family dining table mulling over the options, rated one to ten in order of preference. It seemed a terribly important decision at the time, picking the six letters that would stare back at every car, truck, semi and motorcycle we overtook on our voyages. Dad sure seemed confident his top choice would get selected by whatever deciding authority prevailed over such bureaucratic importance in Jefferson City. Six letters that would define who we were as a family – it seemed almost impossible to capture such adventure and spontaneity without using a corny pop culture reference like ‘TOP GUN.’
It seemed fitting that we would have personalized plates for our new Chevy Suburban. This would have been 1989, before the new body style adulterated a classic and just about the time trucks were getting a serious makeover to eventually rival some luxury sedans. Our new Suburban was white with maroon body stripes and a plush ‘conversion’ interior that was similar to luxury vans of the era. It was truly one of a kind, replacing our first Suburban, a mud-brown late 70’s vintage that had a 4″ suspension lift kit, monster tires and manually locking hubs. Dad bought that beast up in Minnesota one fall and drove it back to our farm in Missouri – we were thrilled to have a close replica to Big Foot in our driveway. It dwarfed the ’85 Cadillac Seville that migrated to our farm from our former residence in Kansas City – which was fine with us because that car didn’t really belong in the country anyhow.
So now we were replacing Big Foot with this luxury liner and it needed a name. I don’t know when ‘vanity plates’ became popular, but I sure don’t recall seeing too many back in the late 80’s, which means there were lots of available options, and Dad got his first pick: WE-BGON. Damn if that didn’t sum it all up. The man was constantly on the move and falling behind wasn’t an option. There was never a dull moment in my childhood, which usually meant we were in some other state or possibly in Canada, exploring mountains and lakes and rivers and all the highways and flyways that took us there. The drive from our home and farm in Missouri to our lake home in northern Minnesota was a cool twelve hours, but I’m pretty sure we covered that distance in about ten. There weren’t many stops unless requested by Barb or declared absolute emergencies – and I don’t recall wearing a seat belt since Nick and I were usually lounging in far back of the rig with the dog(s). The early morning departures were the best – Dad would load us into what Barb called ‘Eagles’ nests’ and we’d hit the road under complete darkness for several hours. When we finally woke up it was in Iowa or Kansas or Nebraska, depending on which direction we were fleeing, although we never, ever went east or south – always west or north. Dad and Barb would be sitting comfortably in their respective thrones in the front while the sound of the highway and rear axle droned on beneath our heads. We had yellow Sony Walkman players that chewed through AA batteries and worn out tapes of Bon Jovi, Def Leppard and Skid Row. We were inseparable in the back of that rig because we didn’t have a choice – but it was an ideal incubator to foster what would become a lifetime of needing each other close by.
The predecessor to this road warrior, besides Big Foot, was our red ’87 Chevy Scottsdale pickup. It was our farm truck but it also carried us great distances into northern Manitoba and Ontario and Minnesota – all four of us plus sometimes my Dad’s best friend, Crazy Pony. It was a single cab truck with a bench seat and a little 305, but it was automatic and four wheel drive and dependable like all Chevy’s were back then. Dad put a white camper shell on it for these trips and built a plywood bench/bed system that would serve as our riding quarters for hundreds of miles, rolling around with no safety restraints precariously above fuel cans, outboard motors and all of our camping gear. Nick and I loved to moon the passing traffic, especially when the heat in that camper started creeping into near lethal temperatures. We’d slide the glass windows open, roll over and press our butt cheeks to the mesh, laughing hysterically at the shock on the passing faces. All that separated our bare asses from the scorching asphalt and speeding traffic was a flimsy screen. Dad and Barb and Crazy Pony would be wedged into the cab having a great time, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer, oblivious to what antics we were committing. I’m sure they got a few hard stares as north and southbound traffic tried desperately to escape the pre-pubescent skin show.
It’s funny now to recall the manufactured years of these vehicles, realizing that they were not so far apart in age but they spanned such epic times of my childhood. What happens in the course of one year for a ten or eleven year old plays out as what feels like decades during post-recollection. I was recently back home in Minnesota, browsing through my Dad’s tool bench and I came across the old license plates. Dingy black with stark yellow letters: WE-BGON. Below that in much smaller letters: SHOW ME STATE. (I always loved seeing that phrase, because it baffled me as a kid but was so memorable. People would repeat that quirky phrase when they discovered our origin, but I had no idea what it meant until I moved away as a young adult.) I picked up the plates and turned them over in my hands, inspecting the damage from years of abuse while being helplessly bolted to the chrome bumpers of that Suburban. How do license plates get so many dents? Well I guess I know how that front one got dented – but why the back plate? Thankfully it was not too warped and the final registration sticker was still in place: ’96. The significance was not lost on me since I graduated from high school that year and promptly fled home for the west coast, trying like hell to forge my own way. Twenty five years later I had so much to look back on, a life that never slowed down. I knew I had to have one of those plates, so I took the one with the registration sticker and left the front plate sitting where I found it.
The plate now hangs above my home office window – symbolically staring me down every time I cross the threshold to provide means to the end. WE-BGON – it’s always calling me out to a new adventure, trying like hell to do it as well as my Dad did. I haven’t come close to his level of success in business but I think my kid will look back and remember a hectic pace growing up, and that is an accomplishment worth striving for.