When your car number plate really matters

We were looking forward to our holiday. Along with church ministry in Aberdeen, I’d been part of a team organising a major international conference of thousands. It was time for a break. As soon as the conference was over, Alison and I and our four children were heading out on vacation.

Our holidays were always great fun but, importantly, not great expense. We towed a caravan, pitched it on a camping site, stayed there as long as we wanted and then moved somewhere else. It suited us and our bank balance.

This time we were ambitious. Post-conference, we’d drive with caravan to south-west Scotland, get the ferry to Northern Ireland, tour there and later go south into the Republic of Ireland. It was 1988, and the ‘Troubles’ were still raging in the north, but we’d no reason to think anyone would target us with bombs or bullets.

But there might be one reason: our car registration plates. Along with numbers, the plates on the front and back of our car and on the caravan included the letters UDA. In mainland Britain, that indicated only that our car’s origins were in Birmingham. But UDA carried an altogether other meaning in Northern Ireland. It stood for Ulster Defence Association, a prominent paramilitary group dedicated to defending Protestant loyalist areas and opposing the Provisional Irish Republican Army (the IRA). The UDA and IRA were both considered to be at the forefront of armed conflict. And our car had UDA front and back. Going to Northern Ireland in 1988 with that registration was unthinkable.

While I was off trying to save the world, Alison got on the phone to our local vehicle registration office, explained the issue, and asked if we could get a new number plate for our car. The short answer was ‘no’, not unless we were willing to buy an expensive special number. We couldn’t afford that, and it made no economic sense for just one holiday trip.

But Alison doesn’t give up easily. She phoned the police in Belfast, and was put through to an Inspector. He listened – laughed – and said some crazy person in Northern Ireland would likely pay for that registration. But, more seriously, he said of course there were some risks. Probably no-one would shoot us (good news) but they might torch our caravan because of its number plate (bad news). But what could we do? The Inspector said anyone in N.I. could get a new number for their vehicle if, for example, they believed their existing number was on a ‘hit list’. There was no charge for the change. So, he advised Alison to report this back to our local vehicle registration office, ask for a new number, and if officials were still unwilling get them to phone him in Belfast.

Our local office still wouldn’t budge, but they did phone the Inspector, and after that call they weren’t happy but they did budge. They told Alison they’d agree to a no-cost change, with the condition that we couldn’t choose the lettering on our plate. That was fine with us, and instead of UDA our car soon proudly bore the letters XSA. Whatever XSA might stand for, it would not be a paramilitary organization.

Our vacation trip went ahead. We used campsites near Belfast and Coleraine to admire the cities and beauty spots of the north. Then we headed south, spent time in Dublin, then over to Galway, and back up the west coast. Many people we met in Northern Ireland couldn’t believe we were going to the Republic, and many in the Republic couldn’t believe we’d been in the north. But while we could see many signs of the ‘Troubles’ we were met only with kindness and felt very safe.

What lessons are there from our ‘troubles’ in getting to Ireland?

One lesson is the need to prepare. What if we’d been ignorant of what the letters UDA meant? And how that might be interpreted in Northern Ireland? Very possibly we’d have put our family and our property at risk. Happily, well before the holiday, we realised and tackled the problem. We got prepared.

I was anything but prepared when, on the spur of the moment, I decided to climb Lochnagar, a 1155 metres (3789 ft) mountain within driving distance of our home in Aberdeen. Idiotically I told no-one where I was going. But it was a bright day. I’d be up and down in no time. I wasn’t. I should never have climbed all the way to the summit because the upper third of the mountain was shrouded in mist. I reached the top but didn’t hang around because I was wet and cold, and could see nothing from there through the mist. Visibility was about three metres, sometimes less. I had a map, and knew that on my descent there’d be steep cliffs to my left which plunged down to a small loch – certain death if I fell. To my right were miles of wilderness where I would die of exposure. I had to hold a straight line. But to keep a straight line you need more than a map; you need a compass, and I didn’t have one. After ten minutes I’d no idea where I was going. I climbed back to the summit and started my descent again. After another ten minutes I was once more hopelessly lost. Back to the summit I went. If I’d told anyone that morning where I was going, I could wait to be rescued. But no-one was coming. No-one knew I was there. If I’d had emergency clothing, emergency food, and emergency blanket I might have tried to survive the night. But I’d none of that. I set off a third time, and fell over a large rock, bruising my leg. If I’d fractured my leg, I’d have died. I hobbled on, peering into the mist but seeing only two or three paces ahead. Was I going toward the cliffs or the wilderness? I didn’t know, because I wasn’t prepared. (The obvious ending of this story is that I survived, but did so for reasons that amaze me to this day. What happened will be told another time…)

Lack of preparation leads to problems, to danger, and perhaps to disaster. I should have remembered my Scout motto ‘Be Prepared’. We should all remember that.

The other lesson is the need to persevere. There’s an oft-cited outline of one man’s life that illustrates perseverance very well.

1809    Born in a log cabin on a farm

1816    Family forced out of home, had to work to support them

1818    Mother died

1831    His business failed

1832    Ran for state office – lost

1832    Lost his job – couldn’t get admission to law school

1833    Borrowed money to start another business, went bankrupt

1834    Ran for state office – won

1835    Fiancée died

1836    Nervous breakdown, in bed for six months

1838    Sought to become speaker in state legislature – lost

1840    Sought to become elector – lost

1843    Stood for Congress – lost

1846    Stood for Congress – won

1848    Stood for re-election to Congress – lost

1854    Stood for election to US Senate – lost

1856    Sought Vice-Presidential nomination by his party – lost badly

1858    Stood again for election to US Senate – lost

1860    Elected as President of the United States

His name was Abraham Lincoln, probably the most revered President in the nation’s history.

The story above of Lincoln’s path to the White House comes from several sources, which don’t all have exactly the same details. But, that aside, the point is clear. Here is a man whose beginnings were humble, who failed in business ventures, who faced tragedies which took a deep toll on his health, and whose ambitions for public office were thwarted many times. But also here is a man who didn’t give up. He persevered and became President during the most critical of times, the Civil War. What if Abraham Lincoln had walked away during his early years, abandoned his hopes and dreams, and retreated back to a quiet life in rural Illinois? There’s no happy answer to that question.

Sometimes it seems great things are done only by people who have advantages of family background, education, intellect, good looks, popularity, brilliant leadership skills, and so on. But that’s not how it is. Often it’s the person who tries, tries and tries again who achieves most.

My friend is an excellent amateur golfer who, when younger, played for his county. One of his opponents was Luke Donald (who later became a top-level professional golfer). My friend told me, ‘Luke was a great golfer in his youth, but not especially better than most of us. He just worked harder than any of us at his game.’ Donald did work hard, and in 2011 became World Number One in golf and the first ever to win the Money List titles (most money won) in Europe and the US in the same year. He persevered and it (literally) paid off.

Achievement isn’t about luck or even brilliance. Often it’s a trek down a path of hardship and disappointment, just putting one foot in front of the other until the destination is reached.

This blog post could have been titled ‘Get ready and then keep trekking’. That’s certainly its message. But you might also need to know a senior police officer in Belfast if your car number plate has a paramilitary group’s initials.