The Thin Flatline
The other day, I was headed into town and found traffic backed up at the entrance to Mount Jeez. Ahead I saw the red glow of road flares on the pavement and a line of sheriff’s cruisers. I turned my car around in a driveway and took the long way into town.
From years of working as reporter at a daily paper, I knew what had happened. Marked sheriff’s cruisers, no detectives milling around, no state troopers, no skid marks or wreckage. It was a suicide.
The Mansfield News Journal confirmed my suspicion. The next day, there was a short article in which the county coroner identified the suicide victim only as “an older gentleman.” That was all the information I needed.
The paper I worked for had a good policy for reporting suicides. We reported them only if they occurred in public spaces or by means that brought a highly visible response from safety forces. In other words, if someone committed suicide at home without killing anyone else, we didn’t report it.
Someone later asked me whether I returned to the scene at Mount Jeez to see if there was any blood. I had no interest in doing that. I’ve seen plenty of that in my lifetime — in 16 years as newspaper reporter and while living in Cleveland.
For some reason, that reminded me of the time in 1975 when I went to the scene of Alex “Shondor” Birns’ murder. For those unfamiliar with Cleveland history, Birns was a prominent businessman. To some, he was less-charitably known as a racketeer. (The words are interchangeable, the difference being that prominent businessmen have politicians in their pockets before they’re elected. That way they can have the laws written so their operations are legitimate.)
I didn’t go to the Birns murder scene out of morbid curiosity; I was working for a restaurant supply company at the time and went to a competitor’s store to pick up a few cases of glassware. It was common practice back then to help each other out if we were short of merchandise. The tittie bar where Birns was last seen alive was on the same block as our competitor’s store. He went out back to start his car and unwittingly ended his life. (According to one report, the explosives were placed under his car and detonated remotely.) I was there the day after it happened and small shreds of flesh were still dangling from a fire escape on the back of the building.
At 68, I suppose he fit the description of an “older gentleman” as described in the recent News Journal article. In a sense, Birns also committed suicide. He did that when he chose his profession. As we used to say about the mob: They pay well, but the retirement plan sucks.
Not that mobsters have cornered the market on suicidal life choices. Journalism is another profession that comes to mind. Especially journalists who canoe in the winter. In other words, I don’t have much room to talk.
Frankly, I hadn’t planned to live past 40. In my 20s and early 30s, I lived what some might call a decadent lifestyle. At the time, someone pointed out that my life could best summed up in the lyrics of “Serious,” an Alice Cooper song:
All of my life was a laugh and a joke
And a drink and a smoke
And then I passed out on the floor
Again and again and again and again and again
Not quite the formula for a long healthy life. However, after a friend died from what amounted to overindulgence, I cleaned up my act. When some people do that, they find Jesus. Or some other route to a more reflective and less nihilistic lifestyle. I found canoeing.
Now that I’ve survived to retirement age, my goal in life is to keep on canoeing for at least another 25 years.
Although I had put myself in a position to die at an early age, I never harbored suicidal thoughts. My take on that would be, “What, and miss a canoe trip?”
However, I have a certain respect for those who are inclined to go that route. Back when I worked at the newspaper, we often resorted to gallows humor to insulate ourselves emotionally from the gore and tragedy we covered on a regular basis. That backfired on me one day when a co-worker admitted to attempting suicide. That person — who I won’t identify — described an overwhelming feeling of reaching a point of no return, a voice inside saying “do it, do it.”
I don’t joke about suicide anymore.