An Inspiring Life

Yesterday was the funeral of my best friend from high school, Albert S. “Pat” Murdoch (the nickname — which was what everyone called him — was due to his birthday on St. Patrick’s Day), former District Court justice. One of the most significant things about him is that he was a victim of childhood polio.

So all his life, Pat was a stumpy little guy who could never walk except with crutches and steel cages around both legs and his waist. As a result, Pat had the strongest arms of anybody I’ve ever met. I’ve seen him beat the entire Del Norte High football team in arm-wrestling and barely break a sweat.

But the extraordinary thing about Pat was how polio had shaped his life in other ways. Aside from the crippling disability and pain he fought from infancy on, he also had to struggle against first, the legitimate fear of polio as a kid and later, the prejudice that lingered long after the Salk vaccine , invented a year or so after his infection, prevented it in other kids like me. As the very first disabled child placed in public schools in this town, Pat’s dad taught him to repay cruelty with education. And that’s what Pat did all his life, with patience and grace.

I didn’t know much of this until yesterday, because by the time I met him in high school, Pat was just one cool guy who was getting by fine despite the bad break who happened to sit in front of me in home room. He didn’t have to educate me because by then I was a complete outcast who accepted him on his own terms, but he did save me once or twice.

The most important time happened at a graduation party up in Cedar Crest, a town on the other side of the mountains from Albuquerque. One reason I hung out with Pat is because he was very popular with the prettiest girls in class. But some jocks didn’t like that, so at this party given by the one I had the biggest crush on (ah, the beauteous Ronelle of the flowing golden red hair), they dragged me through a cactus patch. Naturally, I stormed off down the road cursing, intending to walk 20 miles around the Sandias if I had to do so in order to get home. Who immediately left the party to rescue me? Pat.

I heard story after story like that at the funeral. His bailiff, for instance, told how he had saved numerous criminals who had “NMC” — “no more chances” written on their file. And that those who he so saved generally stayed straight after that, and were proud of surviving that designation. (He would reassure people who only spoke Spanish in their own language that everything would be all right, much to the consternation of their court-appointed lawyers.)

The place was packed; not just SRO but overflowing, filling the outer vestibule and spilling out into the parking lot. Guys he had mentored from the champion wheelchair basketball team he ran filled the center aisle.

As the only long-hair present, I sensed a whole bench of judges there. I have no doubt that a bomb would have taken out half the state judiciary. As an old-time sinner, I snagged the last bit of wall space in the back, next to the door. I needed it; it was a very long memorial service. The only person at the reception afterwards that I recognized from Del Norte high days was Pete Dinelli, our high school class president, still working the crowd. Some things never change…

Nobody there, it seemed, blamed Pat for the scandal where he had been secretly video-taped negotiating with a hooker which tragically ended his career any more than I had. (It was a blackmail scheme that backfired; all charges were dropped, but not in time to save his job.)

Maybe the others there all realized in some way, just as I had many years before, that no matter how much the cute girls liked him, Pat had no chance whatsoever with any of them. Like his physical pain, Pat hid the loneliness well with constant friendliness, helpfulness, and good humor, but I knew.

Anyway, I found out from his brother there that Pat became a hermit after that shaming, only communicating with family members, who all still adored him. Well, that eases my guilt for not contacting him slightly as I’ve been there myself but not much… but holy Christ, talk about an inspiring life! Or rather not Christ. Because Pat and the event were both totally irreligious.

The memorial was completely secular and there was no minister, blessing or any mention of God. The closest thing to religious sentiments displayed were irreverent quotes from Irish blessings that he loved. But I’ve never known anyone with higher ideals than Pat, who lived them as best he could. Just goes to show you, it can be done. Genuine goodness doesn’t need religion nearly as much as religion needs goodness.

While there’s no way I could earn anywhere near the affection and respect shown Pat in the time I got left, that’s sure a helluva high mark that we should all aim for.

Go in peace, my friend; may we meet again in fields of bliss upon the other side.

Here endeth the lesson.