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Major Murdock
by Robert McCandless

Featured Article

    Short and mean. That's how I had him sized up. That does not take away his wings though. This man wore the oak leaves of a Major on his Texas Department of Corrections uniform and was definitely a man to contend with. I had known Majors on two other farms, and they too were similar in demeanor but not as short. It must have been in their job description. This guy was constantly yelling at some inmate for something and when you saw him standing on the recreation yard you kept him in your peripheral vision just as some do a cop in traffic. He stood about five-seven. 

    Major Murdock ran a tight ship at the elite Walls Unit. This unit held the comfy jobs and provided inmates with more privileges than any other unit in TDC. Often called the Huntsville Hilton, it was designed by the well-known Texas architect Abner Cook and located in the center of town. At the Walls, we were allowed, if we had money in our accounts, to buy fried chicken, hamburgers, fresh fruit, and many other things through organizations such as the Inmate Welfare Club and the Jaycees that the system had allowed to form as a way of challenging inmates to serve society and one another. As with the rest of the prison system in those days, the more you behaved, the more privilege you had. The less you behaved the more cases you got until you were sent back to a work farm to do field labor.

    My contacts with the Major were few. After coming to the Walls Unit, I was put in a cell that was high up on the fourth tier and overlooked the street downtown and the parking lot where visitors came on weekends. I had no visits and soon realized that this would drive me nuts before long, and I had some time to do. I went to his office after the first weekend to see about relocation. An inmate at the half door that led into his office greeted me. The top part was always open in seasonable weather so he could keep an eye on things. The inmate asked "Whatcha want?" I could see Major Murdock sitting at his desk behind the inmate in the doorway. I asked to speak to him. The inmate sort of stepped back and the Major with a slight physical acknowledgement of a glance asked again what I wanted. I proceeded to tell him that I was doing a 25-year sentence and that looking out the window at the street seeing the families of others visit was not going to be easy. I asked if I could please be moved. He looked directly at me with a flat facial expression and told the inmate clerk to put me in a cell overlooking the rec yard. I thanked him and left.

    As time at the Walls progressed, I was moved to better and better cells within the unit until I was in one of the eight most sought-after cells in the unit where I could hang out with my college buddies and study. 

    I remember writing a money withdrawal shortly after I had received a GI Bill check. The check had not cleared, and I was in trouble. When you made a draw on funds you didn't have, it resulted in a case and loss of privileges. For me this meant my right to have art supplies in my cell and even attend school. I was scared to death. After telling the Major what happened, he was mad as a wet hen and began screaming at the top of his lungs telling me that if it happened again, I would find myself in solitary. Then he told me to go and tell no one that he let me off the hook. This was the same man whose greatest sport was to act mean.

    I finally came up for my first parole and having no family I decided to see if I could get some help from an outside source. I knew an attorney, turned preacher, in Dallas who was at one time, in the past, my landlord. He seemed nice enough. He told me he would try to help me but that he was no longer an attorney and would need five hundred dollars to renew his license. I made a withdrawal from my inmate account that was flush from my military benefit checks. Before the withdrawal of funds were processed, Major Murdock called me out to his office and asked me why I was sending this man money. I told him. He informed me that the man was not an attorney and that he had no connections to organizations that could help me. Obviously, he had done research on his own to see if I was getting flimflammed. I told him I wanted to do it, even though he advised me against it. He said he didn't want one of his "old thangs" being taken advantage of.

    I will never forget the feeling of respect I had for Major Murdock after that event. It turned out that the lawyer/preacher did run with my money after sending me a pamphlet from the Salvation Army. I never told the Major. I guess out of embarrassment. This man in all his ranting and ravings, all his overt disciplining of inmates, and smart aleck comments, was a true angel who was just as quick to defend the prisoners, as he was to punish them. I celled with his bookkeeper for a while and learned more of this man who could be equated with the Tasmanian Devil of Warner Brothers fame. I learned about several of his gracious acts toward the inmates. As prisoners, we were expected to dislike him as the authoritative figure. I knew him as quite a different person. 


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