We left my youngest brother Tommy behind so often at highway rest stops that we have often wondered if he spent more time patiently sitting on benches there, munching on candy bars, than he did in the house or car; we concluded that probably rest stops won by a hair over his first 10 years, when Mom couldn’t remember his name and called him Eight or Hey or Child, until the rest of us started launching one by one to college, and eventually he was the only child left in the house, at which point Mom got a better grip on his identity. And yet, as our sister says, Tom may also have not spent as much time being left behind at rest stops because Mom and Dad just didn’t travel as much as they got older, so they didn’t have as many chances at it as they used to.
It wasn’t just highway rest stops, I should point out. Here and there, as we took our summer vacations or traveled through the teeming wilderness of Connecticut to visit cousins, we would be sentenced to rural roads, and more than once Tom was left behind at bus stops and gravel pits—they were rest stops of a sort, despite the lack of neon glitter and bright plastic food. According to Tom, he was once left behind for four days at a sand quarry where state public works vehicles came to load up for winter road-sanding, but we are not sure this is a wholly true story, and anyway it was high summer, when living in a sand quarry for a few days would be pleasant, all things considered.
Tom says he was left behind mostly at rest stops in New York and New England, and he could, after a while, distinguish what state he was in by the volume and pattern of the highway traffic, and though this sounds far-fetched, we later discovered through experimentation that he actually could do this, and while blindfolded, too, which is no mean feat. Tommy says he could also figure out where he was by such subtle things as the speed that people entered and exited the rest stop—Mainers drove the fastest, he says, and sometimes left their engines running while they were busy elsewhere—and the nature of bumper stickers on vehicles, the percentage of pickup trucks, the percentage of smokers, and even the percentage and breed of dogs in and around vehicles; the smaller and yappier the dog, the further south you were.
You would think a kid who had been left behind at rest stops several times a year by his loving family would be bitter or scarred by the experience in some way, but refreshingly this is not so, and you never met a guy who has studied the cultural implications and semiotics of highway rest stops as thoroughly and cheerfully as my brother Tom. He is just fascinated by what they say about our dependence on cars, our state and federal highway system, our capacity for meticulous analysis of urination patterns and subsequent geographical planning, and our national urge for shrines and memorial and commemoration; his favorite state for rest stops now, he says, is Indiana, where you can spend a whole day, as he has, at the Ernie Pyle Rest Stop, and not only relax from the rigors of the road, but be reminded of one of the finest writers in American history, who is not read as much as he should be. Tom likes to say that though Indiana has a Booth Tarkington Rest Stop, which honors a writer who ought to be obscure except for Penrod, it does have the Ernie Pyle Rest Stop, and no other state can say that.
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