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The Jaws of Life

by Laura K. Curtis

The first time I picked up the Jaws of Life I almost fell on my ass, which no doubt would have given my fellow firefighters-in-training a good laugh. I’m in pretty fair shape—hauling axes and Halligans or oxygen tanks and hoses up flights of stairs isn’t for pussies, after all—but the thing about the combination Hurst tool commonly called the Jaws of Life is that it’s only about three feet long but weighs close to forty pounds. I don’t care who you are, that’s a hell of a lot of weight to pick up and maneuver into an exact position. And I do mean exact, because extrication is like surgery: do it right, you save a life; do it wrong, someone dies. Or is paralyzed for life, which, to my way of thinking, is worse.

But I figured out the technique and graduated extrication top of my class, which you pretty much have to do as a woman if you want to be accepted, even in a volly department like the Roaring Brook VFD. And even if you’re a third-generation volunteer in the same damned company.

My first actual extrication occurred only two weeks later. It had been raining—not much, but it doesn’t take much before the calls start coming in around here. Some kid driving his daddy’s sports car ignored both the no-right-on-red sign at the main intersection downtown and the old guy in his ’70s-era Buick making a left, and got hit hard. Buick vs. BMW: no contest. The old guy’s front end had some damage, sure, but the kid’s door had crumpled like newspaper.

Still, I was more worried about the old man. The kid was shouting, cursing and fighting the half-dozen airbags that had gone off on impact, but the old guy just sat there, pale and shaking.

“How’re you doing?” I asked, leaning through his window for a quick visual inspection. He was safely belted in and I couldn’t see any obvious damage, but I was going to be certain he went with the EMTs.

“Oh, I’ll be fine,” he said, but his voice trembled.

“Of course you will,” I said in my most reassuring tone (which I’ve been told isn’t actually very reassuring, but what the hell). “But I want you to stay in the car until the ambulance arrives, okay? Just relax.”

“The boys… I didn’t know they were going to turn.”

“The boys are going to be fine, too. And it’s not your fault. We have a no right on red there for a reason. So I don’t want you to worry about them.”

“Hey, Kate!” My chief was waving me toward the BMW.

“You hold tight, Mr…?”

“Simmons. Don Simmons.”

“You hang on for just a few minutes more, Mr. Simmons. I’ll be back as soon as I can, okay?”

“Okay.”

I jogged over to Chief Millikan, who was holding the Hurst tool in one hand and leaning on it like a cane. Leo ran a good two-forty and most of it was muscle. I’d seen him pop a car door flat back against the front panel by just putting his shoulder into it. He didn’t need my help handling the Hurst tool, but this was an easy extrication and he wanted me to have the practice.

He’d gotten the generator running already, so I hefted the tool and jammed it into place, doing my best to get it into the crack of the door. You can’t, not at first. A well-made vehicle—and despite its inability to stand up in a fight, the BMW is finely crafted—won’t have a crack big enough for a crowbar, let alone an extrication tool. So you kind of slam it into place, get the jaws opening so they crunch up the metal until the crack widens. Then you do the same thing again and again until you have enough room to actually insert the thing and pry the door open.

It only took about five minutes to get the kid out. I didn’t even have to use the cutter to snip the hinges because once the door was open, he could get out by himself.

The EMTs gave the kid a brief exam, but he was fine. The old man, Mr. Simmons, they loaded up and took away.

“House is running low on vodka,” Leo said as I got back onto the truck. That’s tradition. Every time you do something new, you have to bring a bottle of booze for the upstairs bar at the firehouse. It gives the old hands a reason to let the newbies practice, not to mention keeping the social aspect of the department afloat. It also eases the reminder of what Leo calls the unfortunate law of firsts: every attorney has a first client, every doctor a first patient, every firefighter a first burning building. No one wants to be the test case, but life’s a series of them. You can train and study and practice, but sooner or later you’re on your own and have to act. And when that happens, no matter what’s come before, you can’t be one hundred percent sure how you’ll react.

But I didn’t really consider that extrication my first. It was too easy, and there were too many people around who could have handled it if I lost my shit. No, my real first came the middle of winter that year. Our first call had come in at seven in the morning: wires down and burning. It’s a typical winter call, almost inevitably followed by more snow-related incidents. So when eight of us showed up at the house, Johnny, our captain, split us into two teams. Four went out to put out the fire and wait for Con Ed to show up to deal with the electrical lines, the other four waited for whatever would come next. I was sitting there, half dozing on the upstairs couch while wondering whether I should go next door to the deli and get some breakfast, when the second call came in: single car wreck with injuries on the Parkway.

You never know what you’ll find at a scene. Half the time, dispatch gets it wrong (it’s not always their fault; people freak out on the phone), so it was entirely possible that when we arrived there would be nothing but a fender-bender.

And then, even if someone did turn out to be hurt, injuries don’t always mean extrication. Still, you have to plan ahead, so as I bundled into the doghouse—the back seat of the engine—I evaluated my teammates. Johnny was driving and he was the only officer aboard, which left Pete, who’d been with the department about twenty years, in the officer’s seat even though he wasn’t an officer and hardly ever went on calls. Carlos, who sat with me, hadn’t even finished training yet. If extrication was required, I was up.

It only took us a couple of minutes to get to the scene and we were first: the fire police, who are responsible for directing traffic and clearing debris, hadn’t arrived, nor had the paramedics. Luckily, it was early enough on a Sunday morning that the parkway wasn’t crowded.

The silver SUV had spun out, bounced off the concrete divider, slid back across the highway, crashed through the guardrail, and rolled down the embankment. I could hear crying kids even before I got out. The only way it could have been worse, I thought, was if the damned thing was on fire.

And then I checked through the driver’s side window.

Oh, shit. “Johnny! Where the fuck are the EMTs?”

“Six minutes out. Why?”

“Driver’s unconscious and about nine months pregnant.”

At least the kids in the back seat had shut up. They didn’t appear hurt, just shaken up—both figuratively and literally. There were two of them. Twins, about three years old, strapped into carseats, and they were watching me with big, curious eyes. Luckily, the bloody SUV was fully tricked out with every safety option known to man. Also luckily, it had landed right side up.

I could hear Johnny back at the truck starting up the generator and a couple of seconds later Pete brought down both a Halligan and the Hurst tool.

“I’m gonna pop the passenger window,” he said, holding up the Halligan. “I’ll cover the kid while you work the door. We’ll bring both of them out this way before we go after mom.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

I heard the sirens of the fire police—late, as usual, which is a constant gripe in the department—just as Pete shattered the window. The kids started crying again, but Pete was leaning in the window talking to them and pretty soon they calmed down. I had no idea what he was saying, but better him than me. He shrugged out of his jacket and placed it over the kid closest to the passenger window, then leaned through the front window and popped the back from the inside out. That may seem like overkill, but it’s better to get the glass out of the way while you’re in control. If it shatters while you’re opening the door, you may have needless injuries.

Pete kept leaning through the front passenger window, talking to the kids while I got to work with the Hurst tool. Not that they could probably hear anything, but they could see him, which kept their attention off their mother.

I got the door cracked and Pete and I pulled it open. I let him and Carlos start lifting the kids out. I knew how to unstrap all those booster seats in theory, but Pete had four kids of his own. He’d be quicker.

I hustled back around to the driver’s side, where the woman was still unconscious. Her window had imploded on impact, so we didn’t have to worry about that, at least. Her breathing seemed regular but shallow. The sooner we could get her out, the happier I’d be, but I wasn’t going to touch her until the EMTs gave me the OK.

Luckily, the ambulance had pulled up right at the same time as the fire police. Anna-Maria D’Arcangelo and Frankie Falcone hustled over to join me by the window. They took over for a couple minutes, their discussion in a foreign language to me—and I don’t mean Italian. They poked her, prodded her, listened to her belly, then backed off and told me to do what I needed to do.

If she hadn’t been unconscious, or hadn’t been pregnant, we could probably have gotten her out without the Hurst. But we didn’t want to move her any more than absolutely necessary, especially since she couldn’t tell us how she was feeling. So I set the tool in place, leaned all my weight behind it, and let it do its thing. Pete helped me force the door back, then I snapped the hinges to get it totally out of the way. We dismantled the steering wheel, too, and cut her free of the seatbelts, then got out of the way so Anna-Maria and Frankie could take over.

They got her into the ambulance with a minimum of fuss and took off. That left us with the kids. We took ’em back to the firehouse with us. No, it’s not strictly legal, but we weren’t going to leave them out there, either. Pete volunteered to drive them to the hospital and wait with them until someone showed to claim them, so once we got back to the house and got them warmed up a little, he put them back into their booster seats in the back of his car and headed out to the hospital in Mount Kisco, one town over.

The other engine made it back before us—a minor miracle, since they’d had to wait for Con Ed, which usually means an hour at least—so everyone was trading stories. I had the jitters, though, felt too big for my skin. How was the woman? Why had she been driving her kids in such terrible weather? Did she have a husband? Would someone take care of the children if she had to be hospitalized for a long time?

Even though caffeine was probably the very last thing I needed, I walked the two blocks from the house to Cuppa Joe’s. I opted for hot chocolate, thinking it might be easier on my stomach, where the knots simply wouldn’t loosen, and took it over to a seat by the window that looked out over the park.

“Kate?” said an unfamiliar voice.

I looked up at the man with the newspaper open to the crossword puzzle sitting at the other window table. After a minute, recognition sank in. “Mr. Simmons! How nice to see you. How are you feeling?’

“Oh, you know.” He gestured for me to join him, so I did. “What brings you out in this terrible weather?”

“Wreck on the parkway.”

“Oh, dear. Was anyone hurt?”

I found myself telling him about it, about the kids and the unconscious woman, about how I wanted to go to the hospital but couldn’t bring myself to do so in case things didn’t turn out well.

“I don’t even know her name,” I said.

“She’ll know yours,” he replied. “When she wakes up, she’ll want to know how her kids are, and the next thing she’ll want is to thank you for getting her out.”

“I sure hope so. I just hope, for those kids’ sakes, that she does.”

“Oh, she will. She has a lot to live for.” He shook the paper. “Do you know a five-letter word for beg?”

“Hmmm… maybe ‘cadge’?”

He scribbled it down into the crossword. “Oh, yes, That will work. That makes this…” He wrote a couple more things, then looked back up at me.

“My wife and I used to do these together. It’s too hard for one person. At least, for me. She let me get some so I could feel okay about it, I think.”

He concentrated on his puzzle for a bit and I sipped my chocolate.

“What does this even mean? ‘They sang about One, but their number was 3’?”

“Does ‘Three Dog Night’ fit? They had a song called ‘One.’ Or maybe ‘One is the Loneliest Number.’ I don’t remember the title, but it was definitely about One.”

“It does!” He wrote in a bunch more information.

Without me even realizing it, a couple of hours went by. We finished the crossword. I finished my chocolate. My skin grew or my body shrank, but either way the jitters, the pinched and freaked out feeling dissipated and my brain stopped chasing itself around in mad circles.

“We make a good team,” said Mr. Simmons as we cleaned up our table. “You should come back next Sunday and we can do it again.”

The next week, as I worked my day job doing landscaping for the parks department, I thought about whether I would show up at Cuppa Joe’s. Did I really need a standing date with a guy older than my father?

Of course, my father wasn’t any prize. He’d drunk himself to death, going out in a blaze of glory by driving off the side of a mountain in the Adirondacks while on vacation when I was away at college. So, maybe, yeah, it might be nice to spend some time with Mr. Simmons.

Which is how I found myself the following Sunday ensconced in a chair by the window at Cuppa Joe’s watching the flakes lightly dust the grass in the park across the street.

We had some problems with the puzzle that week, neither of us quite understanding what the author meant with the long, punning answers. And the historical clues confounded me; I’d always been ghastly at American history, so the ones that asked about which president was in office when various things happened were completely outside the realm of my knowledge.

“Maria would have known,” Don said, shaking his head. “She was an immigrant—came over when she was two with her parents—but she wanted to know everything about her adopted country.”

“Where did you two meet?” I asked.

“Her father was a merchant. He came to work with her his uncle, who knew fruit, both growing it and selling it. They wanted to bring wine as well, and they had cousins involved in that business in California, so for the first ten years in the United States, Maria’s family stayed on the West Coast.

“But then they moved. Wine was good out there, but they wanted to try other things. New York had a large Italian population and even though most of them were down in the city, they were beginning to spread out. Fausto and his wife opened a little shop right here in town, hoping to attract customers who couldn’t find specialty Italian foods elsewhere.

“The first time I saw her, I know she would be my wife, and she felt the same.

“Of course, our families were not so easily convinced. My parents did not like her because she was Italian and Catholic. Her parents didn’t like me because I was neither.”

“But you married anyway.”

“Oh, yes.” His smile tilted up the corners of his rheumy eyes.

. . .

As winter passed into spring, and we became comfortable in our Sunday crossword routine, I told Don Simmons things about my own life I’d never mentioned to anyone. He heard about my father’s death, about my older brother who’d gone off to Afghanistan and never bothered to come home, not even on leave. He knew I liked my job because I was dealing with trees and plants and even critters and garbage rather than people.

“One day,” he said as we watched a group of kids playing stickball in the park, “you will find someone to share you life with. Someone like my Maria.”

I didn’t believe him, but I let it go. Also, great as his relationship with Maria had been, I couldn’t see how it was doing him any favors now. He’d told me that she’d died of a massive heart attack two years earlier and frequently he mentioned feeling lost without her. Who needed that?

His two kids, Charlie and Alma, had moved out of state even before Maria’s death. Charlie off to California to be a star, Alma to North Carolina with her husband.

“They’re too busy to be parents,” he told me sadly. “If they had children, I would see them more often. But they never come home. Alma wants me to move down with her, where the winters are warmer, but what would I do there? All my friends are here.”

“But she’s your daughter. She misses you.”

For the first time I heard bitterness in his voice. “Maria and I spoiled them. They think of themselves first, everyone else second. She’s already making noise about how worried she is about me—if I went down there, I’d be in some home in no time flat. At least here, I can prove my own competence.”

“Of course you’re competent,” I teased, determined to get him out of his funk, “I couldn’t manage this crossword puzzle without you!”

He huffed, but I could tell he was pleased. I, on the other hand, went home all pissed off on his behalf. What kind of kids didn’t keep in touch with their father when their mother had died and they knew he was living alone?

So, yeah, I was pissed. And I resolved to spend a little more time with Don, since despite his claim to have friends in town, I rarely saw him with anyone. People stopped by our table to chat on Sundays, but were they really close to him? Could he talk to them if he needed help? I just didn’t know.

. . .

The weather went from warm to stifling in an instant, and our calls went from flooded basements to brush fires. I missed several Sundays in a row with Don. I didn’t bother to let him know where I was—the air horns that sound in various spots around town whenever a call goes out would alert him. It’s the nature of the beast. We get about 350 calls a year, and they go in spurts. You relax when you can, because once the sirens start going off, you know they won’t stop for a while.

When I did make it back to Cuppa Joe’s for our Sunday date, Don had held three weeks’ worth of unfinished puzzles for me, which made me laugh. I stopped laughing when I noticed he’d filled in one of the puzzles in a decidedly odd manner. A couple of the spaces just had symbols in them, and one had a number.

“Must have been doodling,” he said when he noticed it. “See what happens when I get distracted?”

My pager blasted, 60 Control announcing that there was a commercial alarm in one of the restaurants down the road. Normally, I’d take it even though commercial alarms are dog calls—there’s no actual problem, just a short in the system, faulty head, water on a wire, rats… you name it, anything but an actual fire—but I’d missed three Sundays, and I was worried.

“You don’t have to get that?” he asked.

“Nah. It’s Sunday. Plenty of people around. During the week they need me more because so many people have jobs they can’t get away from. If it were a major event, I’d go, but I’m bushed.”

We worked our way through the puzzles, oldest first, and by the time we finished the current one, I was convinced Don had been right about doodling. He knew more about geography and history than I ever would and put my crossword skills to shame. I left Cuppa Joe’s more concerned about the state of my own brain than his.

When the pager went off at three in the morning on Wednesday, I almost skipped again. It was mutual aid: the next town over had a structure fire, all engines out. We had to go sit in their house in case another call came in while they were busy. There is nothing more tedious.

But I wasn’t going back to sleep, anyway, so I called in to our response system saying I was on the way and headed over. Four of us had hauled our sorry asses out of bed: Me, Leo, FNG Carlos, and B.B.. Leo drove the engine, B.B.—Bobby Becker, our second engineer—took the officer’s seat, and once again I was in the doghouse with Carlos.

The page went off as we were pulling out of our house. Single car wreck with injuries.

Fuck me sideways. I hadn’t done an extrication since the pregnant lady, and I wasn’t looking forward to another. My hands started shaking, so I sat on them.

And when we got to the scene, things only got worse. There, smashed headlong into the cement base of the lamppost was a distinctive, otherwise well-maintained 1970s Buick. I was out of the doghouse before Leo even stopped the truck and though he was shouting at me, I didn’t hear the words.

“Mr. Simmons?”

His body slumped forward, held in by his seatbelt. His head shifted slightly to the side as I spoke, and he frowned up at me.

“Y’re not s’posed to be here. Not y’r department.”

Jesus. He’d driven out here deliberately, out of Roaring Brook VFD’s district.

I pulled on the door handle, but it wasn’t about to come loose, crunched as it was.

“Get me the Hurst,” I called to B.B.. He jogged over with it and I could hear Leo starting the generator.

“Don’t,” said Don. “I’m almost there…”

I ignored him. “How far out is the ambulance?”

B.B. shrugged and shouted back to Leo.

“Three minutes! Get moving!”

I braced the front of the Hurst tool against the door crack and leaned into it.

“Don’t,” Don said again. “I can see her.”

I dropped the damned tool out of position, almost hitting myself in the foot. Fuck. I slapped it back up, focusing on the crack between door and frame. If I looked at the metal instead of the man, I might make it through this. Putting my weight behind the tool, I pushed the control with my thumb.

The ambulance pulled up behind the car and the crunching metal began to give.

Don raised his head a bit and looked at me. He didn’t say anything, but I heard him just fine. I backed a bit of weight off, and the tool torqued, as I knew it would, practically breaking my grip. B.B. was walking the perimeter of the car, checking for sparks or any spilling liquid, while Carlos had taken up a position behind me. He didn’t know what an extrication was supposed to look like, so I wasted a little more time repositioning the jaws and then started again.

Don’s eyes closed and he smiled.

I leaned into the tool and encouraged Carlos to put his weight behind mine. The metal began to separate. When the gap was big enough, Carlos, B.B. and I all grabbed hold and pulled, forcing the door back and away. The hinges hadn’t been too badly damaged, so it was quick.

For a moment, as the car rocked and Don shifted, I thought it might have been too quick. But the paramedics were grim as they got him onto the stretcher; the movement hadn’t been voluntary.

Leo bitched me out pretty good for such a sloppy extrication, but in the long run there wasn’t any proof I hadn’t done my best. “That’s on your head,” he said to me when we got back to the house and found out Don had died. “Only you know whether you did everything you could. It’s between you and God.”

No, I figured it was between me and Don. He’d never asked me for anything until that night, and I figured he had his reasons. If I’d gotten him out sooner, he might have lived, but what kind of life? I’d seen the crumpled mess of his lower body, and something, some desperation I hope I never understand, had sent him out to the highway that night. So, yeah, as far as I was concerned, I’d done the right thing.

But I haven’t picked up the Jaws of Life since. The Hurst tool only weighs thirty-five pounds, but the weight of a life on your back, that’s a lot heavier.