Let Me Kill Myself

Before he dies of Lou Gehrig's disease, Phil Snaith wants to accomplish one final goal: force the state to allow assisted suicides

Snaith has considered all the options, from "sucking the steel lollipop," to ramming his Mercury into a bridge abutment on I-95, to eating Drano. ("I understand that would be particularly unpleasant," he notes.) Such methods would accomplish nothing beyond the obvious: He'd be just another suicide. That ain't his style.

Instead Snaith is determined to go out fighting. That's what he's trained to do, and he happens to be good at it.

"If I got to put up with this miserable, wretched shit, OK. But how about in the process letting the idiots up in Tallahassee into an aspect of reality they are not familiar with?"

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Snaith was born in Sebring, Florida, the oldest of five children. His father was an executive for Goodyear International, so the family moved a lot -- Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia when Phil was young, then England, Australia, and Ohio after he was out on his own. He spent most of his childhood on the move before settling in Atlanta, where he eventually graduated from Emory University with a degree in political science and attended classes at the law school.

He married his first wife, Judy, in 1964 as a junior in college. "She was a cute little thing," he recalls. "Five feet tall by courtesy, maybe 100 pounds. She used to get into drive-ins free until we were married." But he was "young and stupid" and divorced her four years later. "I got bored. I didn't know then that sometimes boredom is the best you are going to get."

It was bad timing. Snaith's number was up in the draft lottery, and divorced men obviously didn't qualify for the marriage exception. Uncle Sam wanted him. The desire was not mutual. "I think it is painfully obvious that one doesn't get to the age of 25 years, 9 months, 10 days as a civilian if one has a hankering for the military life."

By 1970 Snaith was working as a legal clerk in Fort Hood, Texas. It wasn't a bad posting, he says, once he figured out how things really worked. "You either kiss ass to lifers or run the tightest boat in the army." One of his primary duties, at least as he recalls it now, was to remind superior officers that they couldn't court-martial soldiers for petty offenses like growing a nonregulation mustache or smoking a joint behind the barracks.

He lived off base with Judy, whom he'd remarried in 1969. Home was an 8-by-40-foot trailer, which became the unofficial refuge from army life for Snaith's buddies in the barracks. He and Judy had a young daughter, Sunny, who was born while he was in basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey. He drove a 1958 Oldsmobile that he bought for $100. Life was about as good as it gets in the U.S. Army for a Spec 4.

Snaith left the army in 1971, having completed a three-year enlistment in 18 months thanks to early-out options. In 1973 he split with Judy for the second and final time. ("I've always said the two biggest mistakes of my life were divorcing my first wife the first time and marrying her the second.")

He got a job as an insurance adjuster in Atlanta and accepted a transfer to Miami in 1974. He planned to attend night school at the University of Miami and finish his law degree, but that fizzled because night school was being phased out as he arrived.

In those days he played guitar and banjo, singing folk songs into a microphone strung from a light fixture and attached to a reel-to-reel tape recorder. He'd lay down one track, then switch instruments and lay down another so he could accompany himself. His voice is deep and twangy and lends itself nicely to his cover of Johnny Cash's "I've Been Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart." When he got a computer, Snaith burned a disc of his old reel-to-reel recordings, which he calls Irish Goodies. It's a folksy compilation of everything from Neil Diamond to sea chanteys. Overall, the songs have the scratchy, found quality of Alan Lomax's field recordings of Delta blues greats.

Snaith moved to Broward in 1979, where he met his second wife, Jean, at a Mensa party. Both were members. They were married in 1981. He finally made it back to law school, at Nova Southeastern University, in 1984. "I was staring 40 square in the face and decided it was time to do it or get off the pot," he says.

In law school he was the kind of student who often knew more than the professor and wasn't afraid to say so. "Everybody used to loathe having Phil in the class," says classmate and friend Mike Lukasievich, with a smile. "He got the book award every time. He'd sit in the front row every day. I'd sit in the back and stare at the back of his head."

Jean died in 1987. Her death is still a painful topic for him, one of the few that leaves him at a loss for words. Shortly after her death, Snaith bought his Sunrise townhouse, where he's lived ever since. It's a consummate bachelor pad, with a large-screen TV tuned to CNN so frequently the station's logo is burned into the screen, a well-stocked bar, an easy chair, and a collection of medieval armaments. Books and videotapes are stacked in the corners, and a small Union Jack flies from the stairs. Above the TV is a photo of the Falcon's Head III framed in an antique life preserver from the H.M.S. British Wisdom.

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