We planned to drive all night in our new 1979 Dodge van to get our sons back in school after I ran the Boston Marathon. The van, not as fancy as today’s luxury RVs, had rear bench seats mounted on steel legs. The two older boys each claimed one of the back seats as their bed, while Brian, the seven-year-old, crawled under the second seat, where he slept near the rear floor heater, out of sight, out of mind.
When we reached the New Jersey interstate, three hours from Boston, I pulled off the highway at the Delaware Water Gap to fill the gas tank. “Okay, boys,” I said, “last chance for a bathroom for a while.” And off they scampered.
After gassing up, I could hear my sons arguing for seat positions, but they soon quieted down. Despite my physical fatigue, I was still pumped up emotionally from the excitement of the race and drove off with the miles disappearing behind us.
Five hours later, with the fuel gauge demanding another feeding, I pulled into a station in Ohio and again announced, “Okay boys, everybody out. Go use the restroom.” And out went Eric … and Christopher … and … and …where’s Brian? Brian wasn’t in the car! My God! We must have left him back in New Jersey!
Mom became frantic. “In New Jersey? Oh no! What are we going to do? Didn’t you see he wasn’t in the car? Oh, my poor little boy!”
We spent several panicky moments looking for someone to blame: me, his brothers, the darkness, the big van. What to do? Who to call?
The good news was our minds were quickly put at ease. Using the station’s telephone, I called the Ohio State Police. “Hello, my name is Jim Stark. I’m in Blaine, Ohio, and it appears …”
“Yeah, yeah. You left your kid in New Jersey, right? The New Jersey State Police have him, and he’s fine.”
After receiving directions to the state police barracks in the Delaware Water Gap—a five-hour return—I brought my tearful wife up to speed. Even during such a traumatic moment, my devious mind silently wondered what mom would say if I suggested we have Brian shipped home via United Parcel Service … but kept that sick joke to myself.
Brian had gone to a farm owned by one of the troopers when his shift ended. When we arrived, Brian was playing with some ducks. He didn’t react with excitement upon seeing us, despite being smothered in hugs and kisses by his mother. “Brian are you alright? We’re so sorry. What happened? We were so worried.”
“But what happened?”
“You left me. I tried to catch you, and this man and lady saw me, and the police came, they were nice, and I came here. He has goats, and sheep, and ducks.”
Once we pieced it all together, we learned Brian walked out of the gas station as we were leaving. He called out and ran a short distance until we disappeared. A couple pulling in at that moment witnessed the incident unfold and went to Brian. They didn’t give chase because they couldn’t tell if we had gone east or west on the highway. Within the next minute or two, a New Jersey State policeman drove into the gas station. The couple explained to the officer what had happened.
“They’ll probably return shortly when they realize he’s missing,” the trooper said and began quizzing Brian. We had prepared our boys for just such a situation and Brian was well rehearsed.
“What’s your name, son?”
“Brian R. Stark.”
“Where do you live?”
“4320 North Washington Street, Columbus.”
“Is that Columbus, Ohio?”
“No just Columbus.” Apparently, we had not explained to Brian that he lived in Columbus, Indiana. I later recalled that after leaving the Jersey gas station, police cars had slowed down behind us, then zoomed by in their search for a white van with Ohio license plates.
Brian was back in school the day after we returned home and his story soon became known by the entire school. That night, with all of us at the dinner table, my wife asked, “Brian, now that you’re home and talked about your experience, how do you feel about it?”
Brian thought a minute, then said, “I’m proud.”
And I thought that’s good. For a seven-year-old to experience such a potentially terrifying situation but discover that strangers are kind, policemen are friendly, and even the most frightening event can have a happy ending, is a good thing.
Many years later, Brian, in addition to becoming a teacher, had become a long-distance runner, as in running across the United States in 1998! In 2011 he was asked by the director of the Nevada State Parks to set a record by running five-hundred-miles across its state on trails, climbing fifteen mountain ranges, and to try to do it in ten days. His mother and I traveled to Nevada to see him finish. Near Reno, we were standing behind him when he was interviewed by a TV reporter.
“Just what makes a person want to run such incredible distances?” the reporter asked.
“Well, I’m not sure. My parents drove off and left me in New Jersey when I was little, and I’ve been running ever since.”
Mom’s off-camera moan was clearly heard by the TV viewers that day.