Murdock was an impressive boy. As I mentioned, I was in 3rd grade, so keep in mind my view on Murdock was from that point of view. He was in 5th or 6th grade, I don't remember. He had shown up a year before, but not until the end of 2nd grade did I recall ever meeting this growing legend of a barbarian. He was huge, nearly a head and a half taller than I was, with massive Popeye-like arms and a head of white hair. He wore cutoff shorts and paint-stained tee-shirts, even in the winter, and his small squint always seemed to be on the lookout for weak people. Like me. Like most bullies, he always prefaced a beating or humiliation with a question of some kind, the classic being, "What did you say?" or "What did you call me?" right out of the blue.
But until the late spring of 3rd grade, I had learned to avoid Murdock. His interactions with me were limited to the cafeteria. His usual hangouts were the east side of the schoolyard, and the end of the baseball diamond or soccer field where the ground sloped sharpy and gave way to a small valley of trees and a stream. I stayed far away from those places where he conducted his business. I recall observing at the time he was a "professional bully," but I did not mean that he got paid for his actions, but rather, he style was refined and targeted. Most bullies in my life were random hyenas, attacking weak members that strayed too far from the herd. Murdock would actually try and single you out. He had a pack of goons, about 2-3 people who he'd send to drag people back to him when the teachers weren't watching. If trouble occurred, it was the goons who were always caught, but not Murdock, who wasn't usually present again until lineup to go back to class. His goons probably didn't rat on him for obvious reasons. Murdock also had very specific tortures for the kids he ensnared. Unlike most bullies were did a lot of verbal threats and random attacks, Murdock would trap you, often with his goons holing you down, and he'd do all sorts of weird things to you. Like he'd talk to you in a patronizing manner, threatening to kill your parents, put out matches on your skin, or punch you in the balls repeatedly.
And it always ended with a threat like, "If you tell anyone, I will kill your pet/parents/little sibling and it will be your fault." I am lucky to say that these stories were mostly second hand, because as I said, I avoided him successfully by staying near teachers or public areas. He used to hang out at the exit near Evers Drive and so I took the front exit at Great Falls Road if I wasn't riding the bus, which was almost all the time back then.
This ended abruptly in the spring of that year when the semi-vacant lot next to the school, which only had a few farm houses and small abandoned barns back then, grew a patch of poison ivy. Murdock realized that he could use this to his advantage. He started with wear long pants, and would drag kids to this lot through a hole in the fence, and then toss the poor kid in the poison ivy. And he would end it with, "When the nurse asks, say you don't know where you got it. If you tell on me..." and then would make some long scary threat that seems foolish to an adult, but when you're nine? You'll believe he'd get bigfoot from "The Six Million Dollar Man" TV show to kill you in your sleep (back then that hairy ape was shit scary to kids). This patch of ivy made him get very bold indeed, and he just started snagging kids left and right to toss in the patch. Even girls and handicapped kids... dang!!! The end result was a lot of kids got poison ivy, but were unable to determine where they kids picked it up. They scoured the school ground, but never outside the grounds.
One day, he got me. A teacher, mistakenly convinced I was one of those kids who was throwing the school's playground balls to the east side of the schoolyard in the stream, sent me to go collect all the balls from the areas around the schoolyard. I was so upset I was accused of a crime I would have never committed, I didn't even think about Murdock as I fetched a variety of the semi-deflated dark red rubber balls used in dodge ball, kick ball, smear the queer, and four square. Two of Murdock's goons grabbed me from behind, and despite my protests that I was on an errand by a teacher, I was faced with Murdock quite alone.
Murdock eyed me over. I recall thinking how small his eyes were compared to his huge head and slightly longish white hair that feathered to the side as was customary back in the late 1970s. My chest was clenched in fear. Nearby was the famous hole in the fence, which was now quite wide as the hurricane fencing had been rolled back like a diagonal curtain. Right behind it was a patch of woods with the famous poison ivy. I think I might have pleaded and begged him not to throw me there. It seemed for a while he wouldn't, he just wanted me to say I was gay, and a faggot, and my mom and dad were faggots, and so on. I figured I'd say anything he wanted me too, I had no pride when faced with the burning itching my friends Ben, FJ, and Ike had gone though. But I was a fool. and learned early on that if you make a deal with the devil, there's no restitution if the devil does not hold up their end of the bargain.
I howled and cried not to be thrown in the patch, but him and his goons actually had me suspended in the arm by my own clothing. I called out to the teachers, but no one heard me. I was tossed in the patch, which was full of broken vines and sticks. Murdock pressed my face into the leaves with his foot, and repeated back to me that I admitted I was a gay faggot. His goons also rolled my bare arms around, and I felt the ivy burn into my skin.
Or at least I thought I did.
Murdock picked me up and tossed me back in the schoolyard. "You tell anyone I did this? And I'll set fire to your house," he said. I was just crying. My face itched and burned, and all I remember was when Richard Crawford got poison ivy, he was told never to scratch it or it would get infected and bleed.
I went to the school nurse. She said I just got scratched up, and it didn't look like I was infected. The usual questions began like, "What are you kids going? How are you getting poison ivy? What makes you think you got it? What are you hiding?" and so on. I said nothing. I left with scratches that healed like light paper cuts.
But I was sure I rolled in poison ivy! "Maybe you just missed it," said Richard, whose face still had residual redness and scars from where he scratched. People held a suspended belief Murdock actually assaulted me at all. I was pretty pissed. had I managed top miss the ivy? What does poison ivy look like, anyway? Cub scouts tells you, "Leaves of three, let it be," but not, "Rhus toxicodendron with berries of white, is really a woody vine on the ground, three leaves identifies its blight, and makes those allergic to urushiol via contact dermatitis itch all around." So I was limbo to what had happened. Maybe Murdock just throws you in a patch without ivy from time to time. Maybe the ivy "ran out of itch juice" from overuse.
I wasn't to find out a second time because a few weeks later, Murdock's great fall happened at the hands of a person I shall call Lance, because again, I don't want to use real names if I am going to insult them, and I don't recall anyway. Lance was not someone you expected to be a hero. He was what we referred to as "a blue blood," or someone who was European and very pale and flimsy. His face was right out of medieval painting; long, drawn, oddly-shaped, and pale. He already had a receding hairline at age 8. He wore clothes that reminded you of an outfit Pinocchio would wear. His voice was soft, his demeanor quiet, and he was most likely to be the first run over in any stampede. He wasn't the only of his kind, but for some reason, his kind never hung around together. They were mostly the European children of ambassadors and their staff in our area. Many had accents and spoke more than one language. Lance was Austrian, I think.
Murdock must have thought Lance an easy target, and while I was not aware of a previous encounter of the two, one would expect that it happened frequently. Yet one day, I was sitting on the new wooden structure in our schoolyard (the first with mulch instead of gravel), and I heard this horrible noise. It sounded like someone screaming, but not just the kind of scream one usually hears. No, this was the kind of scream someone gives when acid is poured on their face. A sort of "ZEE GOGGLES! ZEY DO NOTHEENG!" scream. It was so loud, that the entire playground went quiet. Murdock was running screaming from the east end of the yard. His face was covered in green, and some say his neck and lips were red and swollen, although I couldn't see that from my vantage point. He was running around, tearing a his face, screaming so much, that several teachers had to calm him down. Then he was whisked to the school nurse.
After we went in, an ambulance pulled up to our school. Oooh, that was such a big deal, then. A real ambulance with sirens blazing and everything. We all ran to the window, but Ms. Kuzmuck made us go back to our seats.
Later, we found out that Lance had been tossed into the ivy, but as he was rolled around, he grabbed a fistful of leaves and shoved them in Murdock's open mouth. Kind of bold "if I have to go, you're goin' with me!" move on Lance's part. Sadly, he had a severe reaction to the ivy (go figure), and Murdock also had to go to the hospital because his face and throat had almost swollen shut. A two-for-one pickup for the EMTs.
I wonder what that ride was like? I wonder if, while driving to Fairfax Hospital, if the two made eye contact in the back of the ambulance?
Lance and Murdock, like many kids in our area, didn't return the next year. I am sure Lance's family moved back to Austria or wherever, completely unrelated to the incident. Murdock could have been the son of a lobbyist or congressman, and moved out when the term was up. Or a military brat, and went to Guam. Or juvenile detention. Who knows.
But after that incident, I spent a while wondering about my immunity to poison ivy. Since I wandered around alone a lot on Solomons Island, I tested the theory out the next summer. I rubbed a huge patch on my arm. Nothing. Over the years, even as an adult, I have re-tested my immunity, and really... as of a few years ago, I was still 100% immune. Apparently, 1 in 20 people have this immunity, which is not so much an immunity but a "lack of an allergic reaction."
Yes, I am aware this ability fades with age. I do not poke the fate bear, and roll around in poison ivy. I also know that while I may be immune, the oil sticks to your skin, and you can transmit it to others. Like if I get it on my hand, I can make you itch if I don't wash it off.
Oddly enough, I am allergic to pine oil of all things. If my skin gets scratched by pine needles, even evergreens like juniper bushes and holly, the scratches turn pink and enough scratches will make my whole skin break out in hives and itch like crazy. I discovered this when I was a teenager, helping set up the Christmas tree. Of course, my parents said I was making it up. "Of course you're breaking out," my mother said, "you keep scratching your skin!"
But every super power has to have a super vulnerability, I guess.
 This also led to "Leaves of four, eat some more!"
 If you try and sing this on folk guitar, it will break a string. I swear to God.