For as long as there have been motor vehicles and license plates upon them, Iowans have had this thing about knowing exactly where the occupants of the next vehicle over are from. I’m not sure of all the implications of this, but it is a handy way to start a conversation in parking lots when you’re standing around waiting for someone else to finish shopping, in other states and so forth --- and at the dump.
My “Cerro Gordo” plates started a friendly exchange yesterday at the dump during the great leaf sweep. The neighbor had fired up that beast of his that in summer mows the lawn, in fall sweeps up fallen leaves and in winter blows snow. He sold his pickup a couple of years ago, figuring two were one vehicle too many. So he offered to sweep my lawn, too, if I’d haul the results (two overflowing truck loads) to the dump. We now share the cleanest quarter block in Chariton.
Now the dump is not exactly a dump, although it used to be before landfills were mandated. After that, it was tidied up and is now where we haul downed trees, limbs, branches and lawn and garden debris so that city workers can burn the accumulation periodically. The logic of this escapes me. I’d think it would make more sense to let us burn our own leaves rather than starting a huge fire every couple of weeks that covers the whole town with a pall of smoke. And I know I should mulch or compost instead --- don’t bother to tell me that. This is just the way it is.
Anyhow, two of us were backed up to the pile unloading leaves when the other guy suggested, based on my Cerro Gordo plates, that I’d driven an awful long way with those leaves. Actually, it was less than a quarter mile, I told him, but I’ve never bothered to order new “Lucas” plates (It doesn’t make any difference in Iowa where your plates say you’re from so long as your vehicle is registered in the right place). We use the same plates for years, moving them from vehicle to vehicle, updating them annually with stickers.
Turns out he was a veteran over-the-road trucker who had amused himself as the years passed by keeping track of license plate designations. Since there are 99 Iowa counties, most of us are challenged when it comes to remembering exactly where they’re all at and have to rely on the handy Department of Transportation map in the glove compartment when we really want to know. He knew the locations of them all, including Cerro Gordo, way up north in the arctic (or attic) of Iowa.
Then we got to talking about the way license plates used to be in the good old days.
A couple of examples of current Iowa plates are up top here, although these are specialty plates --- one bearing an eagle and the other Iowa’s state bird (goldfinch) and flower (wild rose). Pay a little extra for one of these and the Department of Natural Resources benefits. The basic plates like mine are that same plain cloudy sky blue with a combination of letters and numbers in the foreground, a vague design intended to suggest this is a state of both farms and cities in the background and the name of the county we’re from --- more or less --- at the bottom.
Back in those good old days we were talking about at the dump, the plates were simpler --- just numbers stamped onto a plain background. The big excitement used to be figuring out what color the background was going to be. And figuring out where folks were from was a little more complicated. That’s where “59, 93 and 77” come in.
At some point, a state official had alphabetized Iowa’s counties and assigned each a number in that sequence. Lucas was “59,” Wayne County, “93,” and Polk (where Des Moines is located), “77.” These numbers were always first --- over to the left --- in the numerical sequence on our license plates. If you saw “59” or “93,” you knew you were dealing with homefolks. If you saw “77,” well watch out! If you saw numbers you couldn’t quite place, they were listed on those DOT maps, too, and you could look them up.
When it became clear that there were getting to be too many of us for this numbering system to work, a combination of letters and numbers was introduced and the state tried to get away with dropping the county designation entirely. Well, you’d have thought the world was about to end.
So after a lot of fussing and yelling, the state agreed to print the county designation in small letters across the bottoms of the plates and it’s been that way since. So now, come the Rapture, we’ll all have useful plates to grab before we’re swept up to heaven to remind us of where, specifically, we came from.