North Carolina was smack-dab in the middle.
In 1959, driving from our home in Indianapolis, Indiana, down to my grandparents' house in Miami, Florida, when I was eleven, we veered east into the Tar Heel state to drive on its newly opened first leg of Interstate 95 from Kenly in the north to Fayetteville in the south. To my annoying hourly backseat question of "Are we there yet?" my mom could finally respond: "No, but we're exactly half-way."
North Carolina had held a soft spot in my elementary-school heart ever since third grade when I'd ordered my first joke book from Weekly Reader Press entitled SCHOOL DAZE and had read this joke dialogue:
Bill: I know what the capital is of North Carolina!
Bill: No, Raleigh!
It was my introduction to the excruciating pun, and anyone who has ever heard me give a speech will tell you it had a devastatingly long lasting effect on me.
And now here we were in the state that had formerly been a bad joke to me but was currently my first experience with President Eisenhower's triumphant Interstate system. Part of the triumph, I was about to discover, was its clean modern rest-stops complete with gas stations and restaurants which allowed us to eat and gas up without ever having to drive through an actual town with all its time-robbing stoplights.
But that day near Fayetteville it wasn't the interstate restaurant that I'll never forget: it was the restroom.
Dad and I excused ourselves before lunch to go wash our hands. As we entered the men's room, I heard a tremendous whirring noise, as if the space doubled as a regional airport from which the 12:10 to Atlanta was just taking off. And I noticed there were no paper towel dispensers on the walls. No, instead, there was an elderly gentleman standing next to the rather deafening machine, placing his wet hands under the nozzle and drying them with the hot air that was blasting out.
I couldn't wait to try it. Dad and I stood side by side after washing our hands at the two machines nearby. On the machine was written in bold letters its brand name -- THE SANI DRI-- which had the same misspelled allure for me as SCHOOL DAZE.
As we were enjoying the caressing hot air stream while we wrung and re-wrung our hands beneath, Dad said, "And look, Elliot, no need for paper towels nor trash cans that always end up overflowing--and think how much more sanitary this is. It's practically germ-free. This, my boy, is space-age technology!" I wasn't exactly sure what 'technology' meant, but I was pretty sure it was my friend.
I was so caught up in the novel experience that I didn't notice how long it actually took for the machine to dry my hands, given the fact that the SANI DRI shut itself off at least three times prematurely and had to be restarted with a punch from my elbow before my germ-free fingers were completely dried.
My family would return often to drive through North Carolina as Interstate 95 began metastasizing in North Carolina from Roanoke Rapids down through Lumberton. The next year in that same restroom we noticed a short line of men and boys impatiently waiting to use those two SANI DRIs, with a few giving up and waving their dripping hands in the air as they exited with irritation.
I believe it was just a few years later, when I was old enough to do some of the driving to my grandparents' Florida house, that I discovered in those same Interstate bathrooms the numerous damp tissues on the floor, clearly indicating that many hurried patrons must have rushed into the stalls to grab the only paper available and then had no place to deposit it since the trash containers had been made obsolete by the blowers.
And it wasn't that many years later when I entered the same bathrooms to discover that the paper towel dispensers were back on the walls, the trash can was back by the exit door, and the SANI DRIs were sent back to wherever they'd blown in from in the first place. I still wasn't completely sure what technology meant, but I was pretty sure it wasn't always my friend.
At about the same time, our family began looking forward on occasion to leaving the speedy but monotonous interstate for slower but more interesting side roads. We would now take that exit near Kenly, North Carolina, and meander down a pretty country road to the Charles B. Aycock Birthplace and then, as a snub to all those soulless Stuckey's and McDonalds on I-95, we'd eagerly pull into the spanking new Wilber's Barbeque in Goldsboro, beginning in 1962, for a unique taste of the state we were passing through. My first time there, I ordered iced tea, which as a Hoosier I assumed was unsweetened, and teaspooned it up with mounds of sugar before tasting it--only to discover for the first time that all thirty-two of my teeth could ache at the same moment --and not in a bad way, either.
As with the now defunct SANI DRIs, I began to understand that for all the technological advancement of our nation's interstate system, what was forsaken was the human element. With the restroom machines, it was relinquishing the ease of quickly drying your hands with the tactilely pleasing towel; with the interstate, it was relinquishing the delight of slowly driving through the visually pleasing towns and cities and discovering their uniqueness.
And so in 1975 when I moved from UCLA to North Carolina State University, I hopped on Interstate 40 in Barstow, California, drove 2,355 mind-numbing miles to Greensboro where the interstate ended, and then enjoyed discovering again rural North Carolina when I headed east on U.S. 70 to my new home.
As in the SCHOOL DAZE joke book, I not only know but live in the capital of North Carolina:
Elliot: Yes, Raleigh!