I never wrote an obituary for my friend and neighbour Morrie who died back at the end of June but here is one better than anything I could have written. It is by Morrie's friend of 40 years Murray Horton and appeared in Foreign Control Watchdog 118
August 2008 issue.
It is on hot days like we've been having recently that i most miss Morrie. I'd often take him over a couple of cold beers in the late afternoon and converse for a couple of hours. i always really enjoyed talking with Morrie as he full of knowledge & wisdom and was just enjoyable to be around. I learned a lot from Morrie and although he has moved on the wisdom gained will remain with me for life. Thank you Morrie! Keep surfing!
Obituary by Murray Horton
To use the hoary old rugby cliché (which he would have considered totally inappropriate), the life of Morry Gardner really was one of two halves. There were the first 24 years, until 1977, and then there were the remaining 31 years. In that year, at that dreadfully young age, Morry had a catastrophic hang gliding accident in Christchurch (he was into extreme aeronautical sports long before they became fashionable) which left him a quadriplegic for the rest of his short life. I knew both halves of his life and the contrast between the two was stark and irreparable. His paralysis (from the neck down, with limited movement in one arm and hand) left him permanently wheelchair bound, although in the final decade he was able to live alone and independent with the assistance of caregivers who stayed overnight to perform the multitude of vital daily physical functions (like turning over in bed and getting up) that the rest of us don’t even have to think about. Even laughing, which he did a lot whenever we were talking, was a real effort. The very last time that I saw Morry, in early 2007, made me realise with a jolt just how much we able bodied people take for granted. Becky and I visited him unannounced at his North Beach house. He asked me if I’d do him a favour. I said yes, so he asked us to come outside with him. There, somewhat to our consternation, he asked me to hose him down with the garden hose. Now, believe it or not, it actually goes against the grain for me to give a bloke in a wheelchair a good blast of cold water but he was insistent that he needed it to cool down on hot days (the inability to control his body temperature was just one of the things that was now beyond his control) and that unannounced visitors had their uses. Fair enough, so I let him have it. He was very grateful.
And the terrible damage (internal as well as external) wrought by that paralysis buggered up his health in a myriad of ways, drastically shortened his life expectancy and eventually killed him. Cold weather really knocked him around, he basically went into hibernation during Christchurch’s winters and he rarely went out at night at any time of the year. A simple cold could rapidly lead to pneumonia or a life threatening infection. In recent years his kidneys had packed up and it was congestion of the lungs that finally finished him off in June 2008 (winter, not coincidentally, and a cold one) aged 55. As far as was possible he controlled his own death, declining medication which would have prolonged his life, and dying peacefully at home with his family and friends. For his funeral he was driven in his bus (which, complete with a roster of friends as drivers, had been his magic carpet to being a part of the community), accompanied by family and friends, to be buried in the plot that he’d bought cheap years ago in Banks Peninsula’s remote and peaceful Pigeon Bay cemetery.
But there was nothing wrong with his brain (his head was one of the few parts of him not injured in the crash) and Morry lived a very full and active life of the mind during those long decades of paralysis. Visiting him was always intellectually stimulating, because he was keen to discuss ideas, theories and information. Which is not to say that he had wished for or initially accepted his situation. When I first visited him after the accident, in Christchurch Hospital, he was flat on his back and very, very angry. He was particularly angry that “I can’t even kill myself, Murray, I’m dependent on other people to do that for me” (as far as I know, none of his family or friends were ever put to that test). But as the years went by – 20 in an institution and the final decade in his own home - he achieved a Zen-like state of calm and even saw advantages in his situation. I was particularly struck by him telling me, in recent years, that he was happy that he no longer had desire (considering how much of our lives is ruled by that elemental emotion, Morry may have had a point).
Political Activist : From PYM To CAFCA
William Maurice Gardner was so much more than a “cripple” and he sure as hell didn’t want to be pitied (this was a man who, in 1997, hosted a grand Lyttelton party to “celebrate” 20 years of quadriplegia). He ironically dubbed himself Chairman Morry (a nod to our old mate, Chairman Mao and to the fact that Morry really was a man in a chair for more than half of his life). Morry had been very much alive before his accident and, as far as his limitations would allow, that continued for the 31 years after it. From 1987-2003 inclusive he was a CAFCA member. His situation meant that he could never attend any of the meetings or activities that we held during those years but he was a keen Watchdog reader and he was also a generous donor, both to CAFCA and to the CAFCA/ABC Organiser Account which provides my income. From 1992-2001 he donated a grand total of $2,735 to the latter (in amounts ranging from $250-$500 at a time), which is staggering generosity from a quadriplegic whose only income was a benefit. He resigned from CAFCA and stopped the donations because of the need to prioritise his mortgage. But he remained a keen CAFCA supporter in the final five years of his life.
CAFCA membership is not something that Morry took up as a hobby after his accident. It was a logical progression from his life as a political activist before his accident. Morry and I go back together to the “good old days” of the Christchurch Progressive Youth Movement (PYM) of the late 1960s and early 70s. He was a couple of years younger than me which means that when I was starting out in PYM as a brash 18 year old, he was still at high school. In the course of researching this obituary, I contacted his 92 year old father Jim Gardner (a well known historian and one of my History lecturers at the University of Canterbury in the 70s. He retired in 1977, the same year as Morry’s accident).
Jim wrote a short eulogy of his son especially for Watchdog : “Though a gentle child, he was a free spirit and no conformer. He was sent to Christ’s College, but he was soon at odds with the school’s rules. He ended up as representative of the progressive Youth Movement. When told to cut his overlength hair, Morry expelled himself to Papanui High School. His College mates told him he was a fool to jeopardise his studies. But he upstaged them by getting an A grade at Papanui”. Morry hated Christ’s, the snobbiest private boy’s school in Christchurch, so much so that he told me that he went back some years after he’d left and firebombed the sports equipment shed (mind you, that might have been an apocryphal story).
As a schoolboy Morry was swept up in the ferment of the youth revolution which swept the world in the 1960s and into the 70s. He was active in the splendidly acronymed CUSS (Christchurch Union of Secondary Students). In those days secondary schoolkids had their own very lively groups which were an integral part of the wider protest movement against the big issues of the days, such as the Vietnam War and NZ’s sporting links with apartheid South Africa. A fellow CUSSer (and PYMer) e-mailed me : “… at its peak (CUSS) had at a representative member (or more than one) from 17 of the 21 high schools in Christchurch in that period”.
Morry was a PYM member although not one of the inner core who came to meetings (too boring for him, I imagine). He came to all the demos, of which there were plenty – they were held weekly for a period. And it’s important to remember that involvement in the counter-culture (doesn’t that historic term sound quaint now?) was a whole lifestyle, not simply one of political involvement. Morry was an enthusiastic participant of that lifestyle, he jumped in, boots and all, to a world of big communal flats, and the much ballyhooed but very real world of sex and drugs and rock and roll (no, it wasn’t invented by the scriptwriters of “Absolutely Fabulous”). It was a great, chaotic, time to be young.
A Lifelong Lifestyle
Now I don’t know about the sex but Morry was definitely a fan of the drugs and rock and roll, quite often in combination. After his death a mutual friend (and fellow PYMer and CAFCA founder) e-mailed me : “…We pieced together memories ... the time we had all gone to the most amazing concert in our memories - Santana, with some of Morry's hash cookies. That was one of his specialties. We had seats overlooking the stage, and had Carlos Santana just a few feet below us...” (I was also one of those who attended one of Santana’s two back to back concerts in one night in the Christchurch Town Hall in the early 70s and it remains the best concert I’ve ever been to. And, no, my appreciation of it wasn’t enhanced by hash cookies or anything else. I was a prude when it came to drugs of any kind). Morry remained a dope smoker for the rest of his life, he found it therapeutic. Hilariously, the reason he got expelled from his institutional home of 20 years was because the staff discovered his dope stash hidden in the frame of his wheelchair (he’d had previous warnings about having dope on the premises, so this was the parting of the ways and he went out to the big wide world of house ownership, where he could do what he liked in the privacy of his own home and be left in peace). And sometimes Morry quite literally combined the drugs with the politics. This is not an apocryphal story : he and another person set out to inject the home delivered milk bottles of Christchurch’s then Police commander with acid (LSD), presumably to “turn him on” (more wonderfully quaint language). I can’t remember if they succeeded or not with the injecting but if so it didn’t make any difference to that particular cop, now long dead. He was a nutter before and he remained a nutter afterwards.
Morry was a hands on activist. Paintups in those pre-spray can days were done with a good old paintbrush and tin. He was greatly taken by a story that I told him of a taxidriver who’d declared (to me) his opposition to the proposed 1973 Springbok tour of NZ solely based on the mass surrender to the Germans by South African soldiers in the World War 2 battle of Tobruk (now Tubruq, in Libya). Morry proceeded to do a paintup on a prominent central city fence proclaiming the mystifying message “No Tour. Remember Tobruk”. Unfortunately, it became even more mystifying because he was disturbed in the act and ran away, leaving the final slogan as “Remember To”, with a line of paint trailing away down the fence. It was there for years (and, yes, the Labour government stopped that tour).
Morry remained proud of his years as a PYM member and made a great effort to attend the 1989 20 th anniversary reunion dinner which I organised in a central city upstairs restaurant, with no lift. This involved him in the terrifying process of being carried up those stairs, chair and all, and even more terrifying, back down them again by people who’d had a few drinks in the interim. That PYM reunion became the setting for Russell Campbell’s documentary “Rebels In Retrospect” and, for me, the most poignant footage in it is a fleeting appearance of an able bodied Morry in a home movie that Russell incorporated into his film. Morry valued the old days and only a few years ago, earlier this decade, organised a reunion for a central city house where he (and umpteen others) had lived in the early 70s, a famous party house complete with its own resident disco ball. The house is long gone and is now a private car park, so that’s where the reunion was held – in the empty car park on a weekend afternoon (before we all retired to a nearby club for the night). This is only the second time that I’ve had to write the obituary of a PYM comrade (the other one being for Murray Shaw in Watchdog 56, June 1987 – he was killed, aged 35, in a railway shunting yard accident) and it simultaneously saddens me greatly and also reawakens a whole lot of scarcely believable memories. By coincidence the photo of Morry which accompanies this was taken at Murray’s 1987 funeral.
Morry was a child of his times. He was a university dropout (as was I, albeit a graduate one). “At university, Morry was turned off by the monotony of lectures and exams, and opted out of the ‘gravy train’. He needed to find a place where he could live the life he wanted. Morry went ‘over the hill’ and became a Coaster” (Jim Gardner). Like countless others who saw the movie “Easy Rider”, he got a chopper motorbike. He was one of those who moved to the West Coast (I was going to say one of those hippies who moved to the Coast but Morry was never a hippie and would not appreciate being posthumously labelled as one). He worked in a forestry gang on the Coast and this is the only job that anyone could tell me that he ever had. The early 70s were days of full employment (and by that I really do mean full employment, not “an acceptable level of unemployment” as we have today), living was cheap and the lifestyle that our crowd lived meant that you could survive on the smell of an oily rag. Particularly on the Coast – the Blackball house that Morry and countless others lived in (or used as a crashpad – more 70s language) cost $300 to buy! Plus Morry inherited money from a relative which meant that he’d didn’t need to worry about working. He was in a relationship for several years, and they lived in various parts of the Coast, finishing up in the high altitude Buller coalmining ghost town of Denniston. The relationship finished decades ago but they remained very close friends right up until Morry’s death – indeed, beyond it, because he made her the executor and beneficiary of his estate.
Love Of Flying Machines
He pursued his love of flying machines, which dated back to his childhood days as a champion model aeroplane builder and flyer. He set out to build a microlight powered by a chainsaw motor. A mutual friend e-mailed me after Morry’s death : “I lived in Blackball for a couple of years in the mid to late 70's and remember Morry calling in unexpectedly to stash a chainsaw that he'd snatched from a Greymouth hardware store while the assistant was out the back. He had temporarily hidden it outside of town and gone back only to be picked up by the cops and questioned. No evidence, no charges, so they had to let him go. He hid it at my place for a few weeks because he was sure his local cop would pay him a visit. He said he needed it for his flying machine”. The 1977 hang gliding accident and resultant quadriplegia meant that he never got to fly his homemade plane. But that didn’t stop his interest in flying machines. The same friend continued in that e-mail : “In the early 80's (the late Murray Shaw) and I would visit him when he was living at St John of God Hospital. We would be the bodies that could climb fences and retrieve the powered model aeroplanes that he and (another paraplegic resident and friend) designed, built, flew and crash-landed. As they got better at powered takeoffs and landings our legs became redundant…”.
Morry lived for 20 years in that strangely Gothic Catholic institution on the outskirts of Christchurch (the hospital has since closed, to make way for a housing subdivision, so Morry would have to have moved out anyway). It always felt rather creepy to visit him there and now I know why, with the media full of the historic child sex abuse trials of former teaching brothers based there. He was much better off (except financially) living in his own home for the final decade of his life. And as I’ve already said, during his three decades as a quadriplegic, Morry lived a full life of the mind. The university dropout returned to serious study and picked up a couple of degrees (he developed a strong interest in criminology and psychology).
“It (quadriplegia) was a brutal test for him, but in a remarkable transformation he turned restricted existence into overflowing life. Am amazing feat was his graduation (MSc with Hons) in 1992. He retained and gained a wide group of friends who looked to him as their guru. His cheerful sharing of his wide knowledge and interests became a delightful experience for his visitors. Morry kept up his connection with CAFCA and other good causes. He was a key witness in a compensation case” (Jim Gardner).
He enjoyed as active a social life as possible. In the days when there were regular parties at our place (particularly the legendary Chairman Mao’s Birthday Parties, held on Boxing Day – which was the Chairman’s birthday) Morry would turn up, driven by a mate in his one man party bus, equipped with customised ramps to enable his wheelchair to get into and out of unmodified houses, with his very long hair plaited down his back in a ponytail (he cut it in his final years). He was a fixture at social events at our place and those of friends.
He enjoyed life and we enjoyed him. He didn’t want pity and he certainly didn’t want to be seen as some sort of a “role model”. He was as tough as nails and as far as possible, he lived life on his terms. He just got on with it and set about overcoming adversity. He always told us that he couldn’t expect to live a long life but that he had come to terms with that. Morry, old mate, old comrade, if there is a “somewhere else”, then I hope you’re running free in it. Even better, if it comes complete with wings, enjoy the flying.