- Associated Press - Sunday, September 20, 2015

HURRICANE, W.Va. (AP) - Point to a license plate on Andrew Braun’s bedroom wall and he can pick up the globe on top of his dresser and point out where it’s from.

One plate, numbered J07129, is from the U.S. forces in Iceland. Another is from the former East Germany. Another is from Tristan da Cunha.

“It’s in the South Atlantic,” said the 18-year-old West Virginia University sophomore, slowly rotating the globe, tracing his finger along the blue of the ocean until he finds a tiny speck.

Tristan da Cunha is one of the most remote islands on the planet. It has no airport, unreliable Internet, and services to the mainland of Africa come in the form of fishing boats who visit maybe a dozen times a year.

The Hurricane resident also has license plates from Europe, Asia, South America - from all over, really, nailed up on neat rows on his bedroom walls.

“Not everywhere,” he said. “There are a lot of places that it’s very hard to get plates from.”

The nations of Africa and the Middle East have been spotty. He’s written, but they don’t always write back. Central America is also kind of tricky. Braun has plates from Mexico, but nothing from El Salvador and Nicaragua.

“Some of the countries don’t want you to have their plates,” he said. “They’re worried that you’ll take their plate, put it on your car and go commit a crime.”

Braun understands there are diplomatic considerations, but feels it’s a bit unfair to assume that everyone is up to no good.

Braun is just a passionate collector - he also has a small collection of rocks and minerals, as well as stamps. He’s an honor student, an Eagle Scout and a Geography Bee Champion.

Braun won the state title in 2010 as an eighth grader and placed ninth in the National Geographic Bee.

He got started with license plates not because he was interested in where the plates came from initially, but because he was a precocious toddler, fascinated by numbers and letters.

One evening, Braun’s father, Michael, brought a couple of license plates from his job to the family home in Southern California.

“My dad worked for a rental car company,” Braun explained.

His father added, “They were just some old plates I got that I thought I’d just hang up in the garage - you know, just for decoration?”

“I just went crazy over them,” Braun said, smiling.

The first couple of license plates spurred an interest. He collected a few here and there. After Braun learned to read, his parents encouraged him to write to the governors of the individual states to request plates.

“I had all 50 states before I was 10,” he said proudly.

Braun has several binders documenting his correspondence.

Along with the collecting came some studying. As he picked up plates, he learned a little about the states.

In 2007, the family moved to West Virginia and Braun continued acquiring license plates. He contacted the provincial governments of Canada and then wrote letters to foreign nations, explaining who he was and what he was doing.

Sometimes that worked. Often, it didn’t.

Braun sighed, “I’d say about 60 percent of my collection is through Ebay.”

A few others have come from dealers.

Many of Braun’s 230 plates were free, but it’s not unusual for him to pay $20 for a license plate or considerably more for a hard-to-get plate.

“I should probably get the collection insured,” Braun’s father said.

His mother, Christine, said his collection has been a good thing. It’s helped him in school, she thought.

“But he’s used his knowledge to help other people,” she said. “He used his collection to put on a geography program for his Eagle Scout. The kids really seemed to like it. I’d love to see him do that again.”

There is no actual end to Braun’s quest. New plates with new designs are minted around the world every year. Braun would like some of those, along with license plates for countries that no longer exist - and quite frankly, some license plates are just nigh impossible to get.

Braun’s “dream plate” would be from the island of Nauru.

Nauru is a Micronesian island country in the Central Pacific that was once home to a huge phosphate mining operation.

“Foreigners kind of took advantage of them,” he said.

To the natives of the island, Braun said, the phosphate was just rocks and the people living there didn’t care all that much if Europeans and then Australians wanted them. Eventually, however, the strip mining began to take its toll on the land, creating environmental problems, and the phosphate ran out.

Braun added, “It’s become a very poor place, with only a little contact to the outside world.”

And it’s gradually sinking into the ocean. Unless a way can be found to stave off the tides, the 10,000 people who live on Nauru will have to move, probably to Fiji, which is the closest country that could take them.

“Resources are very limited there,” Braun said. “They have cars, but they make license plates out of anything they can get their hands on - rubber tires, scrap cardboard, plastic plates.”

The trick to actually having a license plate from Nauru is to also have documentation.

“It would be pretty easy to fake, otherwise,” Braun said.

The 18-year-old said documented license plates from Nauru are hard to come by, but among collectors they’re widely sought out. Braun said he had a connection, an ex-Peace Corps volunteer who married a woman from the island.

“They go back every four or five years to visit her family,” he said. “He brings back a few plates to sell online.”

They go fast, Braun added.

If that doesn’t work out, he hoped that he might eventually go to the island one day.

Braun is studying geology at WVU, with a minor in geography.

“You can’t really do anything with that unless you have at least a Masters degree,” he said.

His plan is to eventually get a doctorate and thought that he might like to study Nauru’s minerals, while he still could.

Picking up a license plate should be pretty easy then.

Braun’s father said he was amazed at how his son has stuck with the collection.

“I’m impressed with his persistence,” he said. “But I told him when he finally moves out, he’s going to have to fill in all of those nail holes in his room.”

Braun agreed that might take a day or two.


Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, https://wvgazettemail.com.

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