That little farm you see down there is the place where I spent a good many of my formative years after my mother remarried and we moved to Portales, New Mexico. As you can see, we’d had a pretty good year for hay, which dates the picture to 1949, or 1950, before the big drought hit.
When we sat outdoors in the evening the red neon lights blinked “Schumpert Farm Supply” across the top of the long building running diagonally to the railroad tracks until I went to bed. From my limited perspective the Schumperts were ‘rich’. In that small town that railroad running through didn’t identify who was rich but it did identify who wasn’t. That little farm I lived on and no other property that side of the tracks had any rich people.
In the rigidly established social structure in Portales business men generally came down on the side of being ‘rich’, along with professors at Eastern New Mexico University, bankers, physicians, preachers, school teachers and a few elderly ladies who lived in houses big enough to be thought of as mansions. Farmers, ranchers, Mexicans and people who worked in the businesses weren’t ‘rich’.
I doubt the adults paid a lot of attention to the social strata, but school teachers did, and the kids adopted it more firmly than a religion. Rich kids were easy to recognize because they made good grades, weren’t hassled by teachers, got elected to everything, brought cookies to school Christmas, Easter and Halloween, and had the best bicycles early, cars later. For the most part they were insufferable snobs.
But not the Schumpert boys. I was in school with Stephen and Billy, and there was a precocious younger one I don’t recall the name of. Stephen was a year older than me, Billy a year younger, and there wasn’t a breath of snobbery in the entire family. Stephen, particularly, had a knack for getting in just the right amount of just the right kinds of trouble to keep from qualifying as a goody-goody. Good solid boys from a good solid family. I had a lot of respect for all of them.
I left that town early and stayed mostly away for several decades. I lost track of almost everyone I ever knew there.
But after Y2K when I moved into town to Grants, New Mexico, I came across Billy Schumpert being president of a bank there. Naturally we got together and talked about whatever we each knew that might interest the other. Billy’s the one told me what happened to Stephen.
Stephen worked as a bank examiner several years, then became president of a bank in Colorado, maybe Denver. Had a regular family, seemed to be destined to follow a career path and eventually retire. But one morning he didn’t show for work late in the 1980s. Nobody had any idea what became of him. He wasn’t a drinker, didn’t use drugs, didn’t have a ‘secret life’. He just vanished for no apparent reason.
Over time the police and other agencies gave up, assumed he was the victim of some crime, dead. But the family put up a reward for information about Stephen, sent private investigators and others searching for him. Eventually, six, seven years later they located him living under a bridge in Seattle.
Over time everyone who loved Stephen went up there trying to talk him into returning to real life, return home.
“No! I had enough!” That’s all he’d say and he never came back.
I’ve pondered Stephen a lot during the years since I learned what he’d done with his life. In some ways I think I understand, though I’m not sure. My own life has been a long series of reversals in direction. It’s meandered, cutting as wide a swath of human experience as I was able to pack into it. So, from that perspective, I can gnaw at the edges of understanding Stephen’s behavior. But I was a wild kid and I’ve always pushed the envelope, all my life.
Stephen was ‘tame’.
I’d like to see old Stephen again if he’s alive. He’d be 70, 71 years old now and maybe wiser than he was in the 1980s when something told him he’d had enough. I’d like to sit on the porch and talk with him a long time to come to know how he came to make his choice to isolate himself, to impoverish himself.
Simon & Garfunkel – Richard Cory 1966 live