Trying to find David
"We started to realize something's not right that night. We put his dog down in the basement because normally Kody would walk with him out to the tree house and sleep in the tree house with him," said Donny Nuessle.
"And the next morning I called Marvin Smith, who was probably David Riemens' best friend. 'Marvin, do you have any idea where David's at? Have you seen David?' He told me, 'Well, no, I haven't seen David, but I know where his truck's at.' His truck was parked at the Dollar General out towards the road against the grass."
That afternoon around 5:30, Donny called the Wilson County Sheriffs' Office to report that his best friend was missing. Police met with him that night beside David's locked truck, where they spied his sketchpad on the seat. The lawmen decided not to break in and search the vehicle at that point in time as they were optimistic that David would be showing up sooner or later.
"That his truck was locked was unusual. Normally he would never lock his truck, but it turned out that his skill saw was in the floorboard of the passenger side. That's why it was locked," said Donny.
While no witnesses observed Riemens getting into another vehicle, many who knew him wonder if he may ridden to the work site with the elderly man seeking the estimate.
"David thought the man's name was Earl or Carl," Laura Nuessle remembers.
Had cash and bags packed for trip
What the Nuessles are sure of is that David had withdrawn several hundred dollars from the bank, packed some clothes and planned to drive north to visit family for a week.
"He had a bag that was packed... It was still in our garage," said Donny. "He was planning 'if I can meet with this contractor before one o'clock, I'm heading up to Michigan.' I heard him say it a couple of times."
What does Donny think might have happened to his friend?
"I still believe what I first believed, and it's based on being in the ER position here in Tennessee, working with the Wilson County medical examiner's office. I'm a deputy medical examiner. I've been called out to scenes where vehicles have been off road for three months and nobody's noticed, and, lo and behold, there's a corpse in it.
"And so my first impression is that he parked it out there. He got a ride from somebody to meet up with his contractor. It must have been far enough away for David not to have said, 'Well, you go, I'll follow,' because normally that would have been his inclination."
"Because he hated to ride with anybody else," said Laura. "For him to get in another car with somebody he doesn't know, that would have been a real big stretch."
"And to give up his freedom. If he had his truck he could always say, 'Hey, I'm outta here.' And he could leave. The only explanation I can come up with is that it was a far enough destination that it didn't make sense to take two vehicles," Donny hypothesized.
"So he parked there, locked his truck, and they went off road, either into a ditch or into water and have yet to be discovered... The flaw in that theory is that no one else has been reported missing, and my answer to that is that somebody has to want to find you to be reported missing."
"My initial thought was also that he had gotten into a wreck and just the feeling of helplessness," said Laura.
Lawmen did what they could
"I would hate to be in their shoes," Donny said of the Wilson County Sheriff's Office. "You know they interview somebody, they're trying to determine is this person lying, do they know more. There's a limit to how many thumbscrews they can apply to get the truth.
"My only frustration with the police was that I was hoping that they'd become more involved earlier. Obviously I think they wait a certain period of time to rule out the 'no disappearance, willful departure' for whatever reason.
"When friends called that weekend to say, 'What can we do to help?' what finally dawned upon me, was, 'Call the Wilson County Sheriff's Office and raise a question about what's the latest on David.' Let them hear how many people are missing him, let them hear that this is not just somebody that Laura and I haven't been able to account for. That he's really a community member that's missing.
"So far it's been a puzzle that nobody's been able to solve. I think they've done what they could."
Riemens may simply have decided to leave without an explanation. He often told friends of his affinity for hobos and riding the rails, something he did in his youth. Several of his oil paintings depict a young man camped along a stream beside a railroad track, usually with a dog nearby, and a campfire and a tent or shelter at hand.
Artwork reflected his fantasies
For a man who could work with rock, concrete and wood, his work with a paintbrush seemed to be his first love.
"He was always frustrated as a younger man because he really couldn't draw, and one of the stories that he told was of a hobo in Kalamazoo," recounted Laura. "He was very young, and this hobo could really draw these fabulous sketches. David would go down and talk to him and say, 'I wish I could draw. How do you learn how to draw?' And the hobo told him just keep at it. And David just kept at it.
"He did a lot of water colors and sketches, and he was real big into colored pencils for a lot of years when I first met him, and he gradually worked into the oils. He would never read a book about how to paint or take instructions about how to paint. What came from him was what was.
"But I think towards the end his painting all of sudden got just incredibly much better. I think part of this probably because Donna (Delmas) at Sun Graphics had been talking with him a little bit about mixing painting oil. His perspective was always perfect as far as his drawings. Something to be realistic frustrated him. He just kept at it and kept at it."
Among repetitive objects in his paintings, Riemens drew trains, hobos, mythical Indian coyote dancers and sprites.
"The dragons were a little different. He sold quite a few paintings of dragons," said Laura. "And the coyote theme, that went back to his middle 20s when he was out West and experimenting with peyote (a hallucinogen from cactus) and the Coyote dancers.
"He wanted to travel some more, and he was feeling frustrated because his hands were starting to hurt and he couldn't do rock work. He was going color blind," she says, noting that when he was in his early 20s he worked for a laboratory in Michigan that gave him massive doses of Vitamin A.
"One of the effects that happened, he went colorblind. He wasn't born colorblind, and it gradually went away so he could see quite a few colors, but probably nearly a year before he disappeared, all he could see were the colors of tan, sepia and blue. So that was part of his frustration with painting. He had gotten much better at painting, and then it was like he was painting by just what color the tube said."
Laura reveals an intriguing anecdote from David's teen years.
"When he was in high school, he was supposed to write a paper about what he aspired to be after he got out of high school. He went into depth about how he wanted to be a hobo, handed in his paper, and the teacher didn't accept it. She made him write another paper, and he wouldn't do it. So he just got an 'F.' He was very stubborn. If he had made up his mind about something, he wasn't going to change it," she said.
Riemens gave and sold some of his oil paintings to friends and acquaintances in Watertown, and several local businesses in the village display his work, most notably Lulu's Coffee House. He signed some paintings with his initials, DMR (David Martin Riemens), with an oval around the letters. On others he signed off with Capricorn Travel Company.
Mailed homemade postcards to all
Another friendly habit of the artist was to craft homemade postcards. Over the years, he mailed them to family and friends by the thousands.
Donny remembers that David would take pictures of his artwork, dogs, people and the farm and have the photos printed at Wal-Mart. He would then past an index card to the back of the print, write a personal message and put it in the mail.
"He'd send out 30 or 40 postcards a month," said Donny.
Some of Riemens' friends have collected his postcards in notebooks and shoeboxes and have met at gatherings to show and tell with their remembrances.
Laura says that what she misses most about his presence is "the hug that I would occasionally get from him was pretty good, but just having him here and appreciating the farm. He and I would go for walks and think about making paths. He loved the farm as much as I do."
Where is he now?
What is her theory as to what may have happened?
"I personally think that he just decided he had lived here long enough and it was time to go do something else, and I think he left. I think he had enough money saved that he could take care of himself quite well. He might have hooked up with his old friend Joshua who was in Chile. He might have just gone out West. I still think that he just took off."
Said Donny, "I would like to think that he's still alive and just took off. I have a hard time imagining that he would leave without at least letting us know it was time for him to move on. And he was getting older. I mean his back was hurting him, he couldn't do a lot of the heavy lifting. His hands were much more painful, so clearly he was faced with some kind of life realization. Chaco Canyon (a shallow, 10-mile canyon in the northwest corner of New Mexico accessible only by washboard dirt roads) had always been a location that we imagined he would like to go back to."
Noted Laura, "And it's one of my biggest regrets of all that I didn't send anything to the rangers in Chaco Canyon to put posters up that he was missing here."
"We were talking about how he had taken $300 out of the bank," said Donny. "There was a little bit of money left in the account, but when he'd do jobs he often would be paid in cash, although occasionally he'd get checks, but it was always our impression that if he has any money, he's probably buried it. He didn't believe in banks. I think he would have more quickly put it into an ammo can and buried it with some kind of a reminder where it was."
In his desire to discover what happened to his friend, Donny went on five aerial searches with pilots hoping to find the location of where David had been getting the bricks.
"We figured if we could find where he was getting the bricks, we could find where the house site was. We could connect the dots at least to find out what direction he might have headed to meet up with his contractor. With my belief that he's gone off the road and has disappeared because of an automobile accident, I wasn't so much looking for a vehicle, I was looking for this residence that was within an hour to back-and-forth distance from the farm," said Donny.
"None of us can exclude the possibility of foul play. Who were these people that were being so evasive around the job site that were mumbling and didn't really want to give him the name? David was a pretty good judge of character in the sense that if he found himself being someplace that he didn't want to be, I can hear him saying, 'Well, I'm outta here, just turn around and leave.' He had a pretty good savvy sense of people, I think."
Donny elaborates a bit more on the possibility that David may have left to pursue the life of a hobo.
"He really championed the hobo. A lot of his oil paintings are of a man sitting by a fire with a dog and a trestle in the background. A common belief espoused among friends in Watertown is that he jumped a freight train. That is a comforting idea. Laura and I cannot imagine that he would have done that without having told us."
Says Laura, "If David showed up tomorrow and we raised all kinds of hell on him for disappearing, he'd just say, 'I didn't tell you to worry.'"
"I'd forgive him in a heartbeat," said Donny.
"After I kicked his butt," Laura adds, smiling at the thought of a reunion with the man they loved like a brother.
Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.