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How would one describe the jaws of life? When I first saw this device demonstrated at the fire station, I thought it was a handy dandy all-purpose tool, the super-achieving version of something you’d see advertised on late night TV by Ronco. A hydraulic set of jacks that can slip into a small space or crevice and move in just about any direction to open it up, spread it apart, or even to cut and tear it apart, or simply to ram or bust it. A small robotic dinosaur on steroids, akin to one of those velociraptors portrayed in Jurassic Park.

The point being, that if you were trapped in something like a crushed steel container, then the jaws of life could get you out. I looked forward  to rescuing people from vehicle wrecks when the doors were jammed and they needed a jaws of life to let them walk free again.

Unfortunately, in that era between 1973 and 1978, when I had an opportunity to put this marvelous instrument of liberation to work, the use of safety devices in vehicles was just emerging. Seat belts were the only standard equipment on new cars, and many of the cars or trucks on the road did not have them, and people generally were exercising their right to be stupid and not use them, “taking their chances,” as people put it. The chances were not good in vehicles made of heavy gauge steel.

Our town was designed to lie, like a hot dog bun, along a very busy curve of an Interstate highway, where traffic from factories, long-distance truckers, eager local drivers, and speedsters miles away from home, regularly collided with each other. Though not so many people lived in our town, fifty times as many drove through it daily on their way to somewhere else they wanted to reach in a hurry.

In every accident when I was called, the people had already been ejected from the vehicle quite forcefully and awkwardly through the windshield or some other torn-apart portion of a vehicle, or they had been encased coffin-like in a steel cocoon with no regard for their functioning organs. The jaws of life were necessary, but they were more appropriately called the jaws of death.

It didn’t have to be that way; it just happened to be. Having a wonderful life-saving tool does not mean that you get to use it to save lives. Sometimes you just get to extricate bodies or portions of bodies.

As a minister I had the opportunity to be with many people when they died. Usually it was a quiet drawn-out process at the end, even if along the way there had been more pain or struggle than anyone wanted to experience. These prepared me in no way to face sudden, catastrophic, bloody death. The jaws were always useful, and the work had to be done, for someone else’s benefit, but the images did not erase from one’s mind or dreams, ever.

Still, when you have the right equipment, you can always hope for a chance to use it, when it really does help a person survive and live. We do like our toys.

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