Steven V. idolized his father, John. After five daughters, Steven was the first boy in his family. Steven spent as much time as possible with his father, following him to John’s workplace, Baca Auto on S. Main St. in Belen.
Even when Steven got in trouble and his mother told John the boy needed a whipping, John would take Steven into a room, “whip” him with a handkerchief, and tell the boy to “scream” as if he was really in pain.
But then things went horribly wrong. By the time Steven was 16, he had gotten into so much trouble that he was sent to New Mexico Boys School in Springer, a statewide correctional facility for at-risk boys.
What had happened to cause this sudden change in Steven’s life? What happened to Springer? And what impact did his year and a half of detention have on the rest of Steven’s life?
Join the savages
After working long hours at Baca Auto, John worked as a security guard at Tabet Hall, Belen’s favorite dance hall in the 1950s and early 1960s.
On October 7, 1961, he came home tired, went to bed and never woke up. He had died of a serious heart attack at the age of 47. Steven was only 13 years old.
Lacking his father’s love and attention, Steven got into more and more trouble at home, at school, and on the streets of Belen. As a teenager, he joined the Wild Ones, a tough gang that fought rival gangs, especially the Los Lunas gangs.
Gang fights and individual skirmishes resulted in serious injuries. Steven was hit in the head with a tire iron. Steven resorted to stabbing another boy on a girl, leaving an “H” shaped scar on the boy’s side which remained visible for the rest of his life.
By the time he was in eighth grade, Steven skipped school almost every day. He regularly wrote apologies and had them signed by an older sister.
Steven was sent to Home “D” (offender) for 90 days in 1963. Once back home, he continued to skip class until a truant officer caught him near the railway. The officer brought Steven into his office and was about to lecture the boy when Steven slapped the man in the face and ran away.
Alerted to the incident, the Belen police quickly picked up Steven. He apologized for his misbehavior but was sent to court and sentenced to New Mexico Boys School in Springer. He was to remain in Springer until he turned 21 or until he was released by court order.
Arrival in Springer
Founded in 1909, the New Mexico Boys School, better known simply as “Springer”, had earned a reputation as a brutal institution where only the most incorrigible minors were sent. Unfortunately, Springer was a busy place in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Belen and many other communities across the United States have suffered from a wave of juvenile delinquency, identified, along with polio and the threat of nuclear war, as one of the greatest concerns for most Americans.
Steven arrived in Springer and, like all new boys, was detained for 90 days. This meant that Steven and his fellow inmates were locked up in 8-by-5-foot cells 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with the exception of meals and one hour in a sparse playroom each day.
The conditions were so bad that Steven planned to escape. He went so far as to bundle up his clothes and lay them outside through the bars of his cell. He only changed his mind because he didn’t want to be sent to solitary if caught.
After serving his 90 days, he was moved to a dorm with other boys his age. He cooperated enough to be given the choice of being moved to a camp near Eagle Nest or staying in the dorms for the duration of his sentence. Steven chose the side.
Steven’s new facility was an honor camp about 50 miles northwest of Springer. With no cells or fences, it was reminiscent of the honor farm for adults north of Belen in Los Lunas.
The boys were to follow camp rules and not try to escape, lest they be sent back to Springer. Run much like a military camp, the boys were responsible for making their beds, washing their clothes, and standing up for inspection every day except Sunday, when they could attend a Catholic mass.
The boys’ days started at 6 a.m. After breakfast and inspection, they would scout Cimarron Canyon for trash or work on local farms or ranches each morning. They attended classes taught by local teachers each afternoon. Steven has made progress in graduating from high school.
Meals were ok except for a few items on the menu, especially the lima beans. Steven learned to store hated lima beans in his pockets and empty them into a fish pond after meals. The lights went out at 10 p.m. sharp.
The boys from Camp Eagle Nest were brought to Cimarron once a month to watch a movie in the small town theater. Steven could have visitors once a month. His mother and the daughter he fought for in Belen often came to visit, sitting at picnic tables or taking short walks on forest trails. His mother and girlfriend often brought much-appreciated care packages to last him the whole month.
A majority of the boys followed the rules, knowing that serving their time at the outdoor camp was far better than the conditions at Springer. But there were boys who seemed unable to stay out of trouble. Some went AWOL. Others were caught with alcohol, ironically left by the side of the road by their parents.
Steven and most of the boys kept their noses clean and adapted to their surroundings. They adapted particularly well under the guidance of efficient adults who lived in the camp, not as guards but as advisers.
Steven was blessed with a Mr. Pompey as his “house parent.” Steven remembers Mr. Pompey talking to him man-to-man about what to expect in life. He taught Steven that he had to respect others before they respected him and, more importantly, he taught the young man to respect the law, first in the camp and then in society.
Assessments were held to discuss each boy’s progress. There were no demerits and no “good times” offered to stay out of trouble. Progress was all that mattered in every boy’s story.
Apparently, Mr. Pompey and other adult supervisors thought Steven had made enough progress to be eligible for early release. After a year and a half, the court released Steven and allowed him to return home to Belen in 1964.
Steven now remembers his time at Camp Eagle Nest as a good learning experience, a place where he first experienced life on his own. where he learned the discipline to complete projects and how to follow instructions and obey rules.
He also learned three other parts as an adult: responsibility, respect and patience.
He learned all of this without undue stress or any signs of post-traumatic stress disorder that other boys experienced in Springer. In fact, after returning home, Steven told his mother that his 18 months away was the best thing that ever happened to him in his young life.
Shortly after Steven’s release from Springer, he was drafted and sent to training camp at Ft. Bonheur. He served his two-year hitch at Ft. Bliss, serving as a baker for new recruits, many of whom were heading to Vietnam at the height of the Southeast Asian war, 1967-69.
Did Steven live happily after his time at Springer? Unfortunately, he didn’t. He went AWOL while in the military, returning home for Christmas without permission. The deputies came for him in two days. Under Article 15 of the Army, it was restricted to Fort. Bliss and received additional tasks for 14 days as punishment.
Steven’s life got better over time, especially when he applied what he learned at Eagle Nest camp. He married the girl he fought over in high school who came to visit him with care packages at his Eagle Nest camp.
Together they raised two handsome boys who never got into serious trouble. Steven got a stable job, became a valued supervisor and retired after more than 29 years of dedicated service. He is a leader in his local church and works part-time just to keep busy in retirement.
Steven is justifiably proud of how he turned his life around. He gives credit to his wife, his good friend, Jose, his church and his employers. He also credits his year and a half at Springer and his Eagle Nest camp, where he learned a lot about growing up and taking responsibility for his actions, good and bad.
There are many stories about the hardships faced by the boys at Springer, but the institution underwent several major changes in the mid-1960s, including the establishment of its Eagle Nest camp with its capable counselors, including Mr. Pompey.
Stephen V. was fortunate to come to Springer at the right time in the school’s long history. He became one of the school’s success stories, surviving to lead a happy and productive life while many of his old friends continued down the wrong path, a path that often led to the state pen and, in some case, to the horrific and deadly Santa Fe. prison riot of 1980.
(La Historia del Rio Abajo is a regular column on the history of the County of Valencia written by members of the Historical Society of the County of Valencia since 1998.
All names in this episode of La Historia are fictitious.
The opinions expressed in this column and in all columns of La Historia del Rio Abajo are those of the author alone and not necessarily those of the Historical Society of the County of Valencia or any other group or individual.)
Richard Melzer, guest columnist
Richard Melzer, Ph.D., is a retired history professor who has taught on the University of New Mexico campus in Valencia for more than 35 years. He served on the board of directors of the Valencia County Historical Society for 30 years; he served as president of the company on several occasions.
He has written many books and articles on the history of New Mexico, including many works on Valencia County, his favorite subject. His latest book, a biography of Casey Luna, will soon be published.
Those interested in joining the Valencia County Historical Society should contact Dr. Melzer at [email protected]