One sunny fall afternoon -- Sept. 23, 1985 --39-year-old John Howard Rogers II walked out into his back yard in St. Petersburg, Fla., and shot himself in the head with a 45 caliber pistol. The local radio station, 107.3 FM, had recently played Money for Nothing by Dire Straits; the local weather report called for a high that day of 88 degrees with blue skies; and the owner of a missing Lhasa Apso placed an ad in the newspaper offering a reward for the return of his "beloved" pet which, he added, "required immediate surgery." It was last seen near Fifth Avenue North, just a few blocks from the home of John Howard Rogers II.
On the day after John Howard Rogers II died, Ann Landers advised in The St Petersburg Times that early detection of depression could prevent teenage suicides, telling readers that "every 90 minutes a teen-ager commits suicide." A month earlier, police had found 32-year-old Dene Peachneck clinging to a sandbar after surviving a 100-foot plunge off the Sunshine Skyway Bridge over Tampa Bay. She told police she had been depressed. They average 12 suicides a year from that span.
What I know for certain about John Howard Rogers II is that he was born in St. Petersburg on Aug. 8, 1946; he played tackle on the high school football team; had a degree in psychology; that he liked to drink Tab cola; loved to talk about military history such as the campaigns of Caesar or Napoleon; and enjoyed hunting and target shooting. He was an avid reader, enjoying history books and the fiction of Erskine Caldwell. He was curious, reflective and had read every single Ian Fleming book in the James Bond series. He also suffered chronic back pain, was addicted to pain medication and drank regularly to excess. He was also my only cousin on my mother's side, and I looked up to him.
St. Petersburg's motto is The Sunshine City, and on average it has 248 days classified as sunny. The local government website declares it the "city of opportunity where the sun shines on all who come to live, work and play." Unfortunately, suicides can happen no matter what the season or weather. In the past five years, there have been 137 people take their lives by handgun in that city. In the United States, 45,000 people killed themselves in 2016. In Arkansas it's the 10th leading cause of death. According to the Centers for Disease Control, over half of all suicides are undiagnosed mental issues that typically involve relationship problems or loss, substance misuse, health problems and job, money, legal or housing stress. You're more likely to kill yourself if you own a handgun. More if you are white. More if you are male. More in the hours between noon and 6 p.m.
Nobody likes to talk about suicide. It's considered shameful. It's considered sinful. It's considered cowardly. The Catholic Church used to teach that it was a mortal sin. The Talmud forbids mourning its victims. The Koran declares it is much worse than homicide. Hindus condemn it, and the Buddha said that "it was an action that was difficult to overcome."
On that early Monday afternoon, John Howard Rogers II had recently lost his job as a therapist. His marriage of five years was in tatters. His back pain from an earlier car accident was excruciating. He felt hopeless. His wife was at work when he awoke. Hungry, he dressed and then could not find his car keys to get something to eat. That was the tipping point. He walked outside that beautiful day and sat under a tree, his pistol in his right hand. He could see only the darkness.
Earnest Hemingway wrote: "The world breaks everyone, and afterwards many are strong at the broken places, but those that will not break, it kills." Being broken is an inevitability of life, but we don't have to stay broken. We can at least learn to bend. We can let the sunshine in. It was inside you all along cousin. Fare-thee-well, my friend.
NAN Our Town on 02/07/2019
Print Headline: Seeing only darkness