Martha's Jaw

Ron Karpinski  2000


Aunt Martha, my mother's oldest sister, seemed a bit gruff at first glance, but a more unselfish woman would be hard to find.  She grew up in an era when kids left school at the age of thirteen and went to work, in order to help support the family.  If Martha had two dollars to her name, and you needed it, she would hand it over.

In the spring of 1952, Martha and her son, Archie, arrived for a visit.  She and my mother decided to run some errands, so we all piled into the family car for a spin through the streets of Long Beach, California.  The car, a green 1947 Chevrolet "Woody" station wagon, had steel fenders, a canvas top, and wood side panels.

Mom drove while Aunt Martha, a large rawboned woman, sat in the front passenger seat holding my two-year-old brother, Ritchie.  I occupied the middle seat while cousin Archie sat in the third row with his head hanging out the left rear window.

Several times, Mom warned Archie to pull his head back inside the car, but he ignored her.  Now he has a jagged scar on his right cheek, a souvenir of that fateful day.

Archie's scar came courtesy of a forty-passenger school bus loaded to capacity with screaming kids.  The bus driver fell asleep at the wheel and drove through a red light.  Our "Woody" happened to be crossing the intersection at the time.

The bus hit our car on the right side, where Aunt Martha sat with Ritchie in her lap.  Wood splintered in all directions, and the canvas top peeled open like a can of sardines.  Seat belts were not yet standard equipment, so we all went flying.

All except Archie, that is.  His head remained firmly pinned in the sliding rear window.  I woke up in a vacant lot across the street, my left arm and collar bone broken.  Mom landed nearby with a fractured back.

Meanwhile, Aunt Martha flew off in a different direction.  The impact hurled her through the gaping hole in the roof, toward a wooden telephone pole twenty yards away.  Maternal instinct tightened her grip on baby Ritchie.

Clutching Ritchie to her bosom, Martha rose fifteen feet in the air and hit the pole near the top - with her jaw.  Bouncing off the pole, she tumbled back to earth, depositing Ritchie in the soft sod of a recently plowed field.  Ritchie, for all his screaming, suffered only a small scar on his thigh, about the size of a quarter.

Rescuers at first gave Aunt Martha up for dead; and the bus driver ran off, thinking that he had killed her.  She survived, though, after five weeks in the hospital.

Martha rejected all claims of heroism.  Any responsible adult would have done the same, she said.  She didn't like it when people made a fuss over her.


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