The Personalized Plate

(NOTE: The following is a work of historical fiction.)

Bill Farrell was not a car guy, and he knew it. He was painfully aware of it because his father, Thomas P. (Tommy) Farrell II, had been a car guy, and never let Bill, his only child, forget it.

Tommy came of age in the early days of hotrodding: shoehorning worked-over flatheads into chopped Deuce coupes was all he and his Army buddies wanted to do once the war ended. Laying rubber and chasing girls (not necessarily in that order) helped them forget the horrors of World War Two. They were just happy they survived.

Tommy wasn’t really one for much chasing. His high school squeeze, Helen, was waiting for him at the end of the war. But Helen was done waiting; she told Tommy in no uncertain terms that if he wanted her, he needed to get down on one knee “and be a man about it”. And so he did, and so they did: by the summer of ’46, the knot was tied, and it wasn’t long after that Helen was “with child”.

Tommy secretly hoped for a boy. Helen claimed she didn’t care, but growing up as the only girl in a family of five children, she dreamed of a daughter. On the 7th of July 1947, a son was born to Thomas and Helen Farrell. Tommy knew all along that if he had a son, he’d be named “Thomas P. Farrell III”. (The P stood for Patrick, and his Irish grandparents told him the name came from St. Patrick, even if he didn’t himself believe it.)

Helen had a secret she never told her husband: before Helen’s mother passed away, while Tommy was at war, Helen promised her mother that if she ever had a son, he would be named William, after Helen’s father, who succumbed to cancer when Helen was just 12.

In a way that only wives can do, Helen gently but firmly informed her husband that she wanted their son named after her dad. Tommy actually fought it for a day, then gave in, knowing he would never win. As something of a consolation prize, their son was given his dad’s name as a middle name.

For reasons which remained unspoken, and which were eventually taken to their graves, Tommy and Helen stopped trying to have another offspring. Bill was an only child.

He was a typical boy, playing with the typical toys of the time. Yet any attempt by Bill’s dad to coerce the youngster into joining him in the garage fell on deaf ears. Bill (“William” in school, and never “Billy” at home) would rather watch that new-fangled TV, for which Tommy had no use. So Tommy continued to fiddle with his Deuce in the garage, while Bill played with Lincoln Logs and watched Saturday morning cartoons.

Fast-forward to 1963: Bill, at the age of 16, was eligible for his driver’s license, and succeeded in passing his driver’s test on the first try. His mom’s car, a ’62 Dodge Dart 440 station wagon with automatic, was what he preferred to drive. His dad’s daily driver, a ’59 Chevy Biscayne 2-door post with 3-on-the-tree, would have been first choice for most teenage boys, but Bill didn’t know how to shift with a clutch, and showed zero interest in learning.

Always meticulous, the boy did enjoy the wash-and-wax ritual, and treated his mother’s wagon to a fresh coat of Simonize at least twice a year. He may not have been the consummate car guy, but he wanted his ride to be clean while he was behind the wheel.

There was one way he was very much like his dad: Bill met a girl, Sally, in high school, and it wasn’t long before they were going steady. By the time each of them was 20, they knew they wanted to spend their lives together. In the autumn of 1967, Bill and Sally married.

The newlyweds stayed in town, and took advantage of both sets of parents living nearby, very handy when Andrew (1969) and Eileen (1971) were born. Their house, at 7 Hemlock Court, in their leafy New Jersey suburb, had a two-car garage, of which Bill’s dad was unendingly jealous. Although Tommy could always afford to provide a vehicle for both Helen and him, he never managed to own property with more than a one-car garage. He burned up a bit more when he saw his son and daughter-in-law use the garage for bicycles and lawn furniture rather than automobiles.

Bill’s automotive choices were always practical. He liked full-size Fords as family cars, and had a series of them throughout the decade of the ‘70s, usually in brown or green. But between two gas crises and diminishing vehicular quality, Bill began to sour on cars from the Blue Oval. One day a new dealership opened in town, selling these nice-looking Japanese front-wheel-drive sedans. By 1978, Bill bought one of the first Honda Accords in his neighborhood, and he never looked back.

Before the decade of the ‘80s arrived, both of Bill’s parents passed away from natural causes.

Bill never so much as changed his own oil (“that’s what dealer service departments are for”), but it still haunted him that he never lived up to his dad’s image as a “car guy”. One day, he noticed a car in the parking lot at work with 3 letters, followed by a number. That’s it! He told himself that he’d honor his father in his own way by getting a personalized plate, featuring his initials and his lucky number “7” (he was born on 7/7/47, and his house number was 7).

In New Jersey, car owners are allowed to transfer plates from one vehicle to the next, and that’s just what Bill did. His home state eventually redesigned their license plates, moving from the non-reflectorized “straw & black” to reflectorized plates in different shades. Still, Bill held onto his cherished tag, moving it from Accord to Accord. (He occasionally selected a different exterior color, but stayed with the same model.)

Both Andrew and Eileen grew up to be polite young adults, and like their parents and grandparents before them, each of them married young. Andrew and his bride Sandy moved to Indiana for her job. They also decided, for reasons kept to themselves, to remain childless. Eileen married Robb, and they moved two towns away from her folks. Bill and Sally became convinced they would never become grandparents, but Robb and Eileen were only postponing things until they got settled in their careers. They had two boys in quick succession, Tyler (2002) and Jordan (2005).

By the second decade of the 21st century, Bill Farrell wasn’t old by any stretch of the imagination, but he did feel himself slowing down. He drove less, mainly because he realized his eyesight wasn’t what it used to be. One day, approaching his car in the mall parking lot, he thought his eyes deceived him. A group of young boys was running away from his car, giggling. He thought he might have been imagining it. Then a few months later, some high school girls were using their phones (“how does a phone have a camera in it anyway?”) to take their pictures next to his car. “What could be interesting about an old Honda?” he asked himself.

Because his car was more than a few years old, and because Sally drove a newer Acura, they tended to use her car whenever they visited Eileen, Robb, and the boys. One day, since the Accord had just come back from the car wash and was blocking her car, they decided to hop into his car for the ride to visit their grandkids.

As soon as they arrived, Bill was heard to exclaim “gosh darned if these kids can’t get their noses unglued from their phones!” His daughter just shrugged her shoulders as he implored the boys to join him for a game of catch. Finally, Jordan, who had just turned 10, said, “sure Grandpa, let’s go outside”. Gramps replied, “OK, but no fastballs! And don’t hit my car with any wild pitches!”

Everyone else stayed in the air conditioning. Bill and his grandson got no further than 10 feet from the driveway when Jordan, catching his first-ever glimpse of his grandfather’s car, could not stop the hysterical laughing. Bill was equally stunned and annoyed. What in hell could be so funny? When the belly laughs finally subsided enough for Jordan to speak, he felt that he had to whisper the truth to his grandfather.

All that Bill could manage to muster in response was “texting?? Is that like email on the phone?” Beyond that, Jordan’s grandfather was speechless. And so it came to pass that William Thomas Farrell, who was so proud of the manner in which he honored his father’s memory, learned the irony of his personalized plate from his own young grandson.


This is a real photo, taken of a real car, with a real license plate (no Photoshop usage here). While driving in Flemington NJ during July of 2017, I saw this plate and fired off a shot with my phone before the car was out of my sight. The story almost wrote itself around this obviously-old NJ plate on the Accord.

All photographs copyright © 2017 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.