Nebraska is very wide, as I learned when we were passing through it on our way West during the summer of 1976. With the August heat nearing 100 degrees and three children becoming more cantankerous as the miles ticked by, it seemed as if we were crossing the entire continent in one stretch. I was driving my two sons and daughter from Connecticut to Nevada to visit their grandparents. We had left Des Moines that morning, expecting to stop for the night in Wyoming.
It was a lovely Sunday afternoon. There was hardly any traffic on the interstate. We cruised along at top speed, with little to engage our attention except the vast cornfields, the heat, and a giant mountain of manure that announced itself many miles before we actually could see it.
Suddenly I was startled to discover that the needle on the fuel gauge had dropped and was hovering near empty. My son checked the map. There were no towns between our location and Cheyenne, Wyo., which, according to his calculations, was 75 miles away. The idea of running out of gas in what appeared to be a sparsely populated area was scary. The children's bickering escalated until I shouted for them to stop.
I slowed to a more economical speed. After what seemed like an eternity, I spied a hand-painted sign - a rough-hewn board with three carefully stenciled letters: G A S. No indication of how far, which exit, nothing more. We decided to take the next exit.
I pulled off the curved ramp and stopped at the crossroad. There was nothing that resembled a gasoline station, or anything else, for that matter.
Across the intersection, however, was another sign bearing the same message, GAS, with an arrow pointing to the right. We followed.
As we turned onto a country road we saw our salvation in the form of a rambling white farmhouse and barn with two gasoline pumps in front. Greatly relieved, we pulled up beside one of the pumps.
The boys piled out of the car to get some exercise. They began tossing their football around as a gentleman appeared from the barn and began to service the car. Simultaneously, a young lad bounced out of the farmhouse, curious to see the strangers in the station wagon.
I asked whether there was a restroom.
The boy pointed to the house and said, "Yes, ma'am, right up those steps in the side door. And if you'd like to stay awhile and visit, I'll get my mom to fix you something to drink." All of this was said as he rushed over to join my boys in their game of catch.
I remember thinking that was a nice invitation to a total stranger. That young man must love having company. We graciously explained that we had to get going, but made use of the restroom. It was a large family bathroom, immaculately clean with fresh flowers on a small table and fluffy towels on the racks. I waited for several minutes after the tank was filled, and paid the bill while my two sons played with their new friend.
After they finished their game of catch, he took them to the barn to show his horse to his new friends.
As we drove away, I could see in the rearview mirror the young lad reluctantly waving goodbye.
My sons enjoyed the break and were impressed by the little boy.
"Wasn't he nice? I'll bet he hasn't seen any other kids for weeks."
"Yeah, I wouldn't want to live way out here in the sticks."
"He sure has a nice horse, though."
The conversation about the young man continued for a while. From that brief encounter I believe my children gained a stronger sense of gratitude and respect for one another. The remainder of the afternoon was spent in quiet contemplation of what it must be like to live in a remote area with so few opportunities to see friends and neighbors. The bickering ceased for the duration of the trip.
Well, at least for the next 250 miles.