A little information up front is a good thing

Posted: Sunday, April 19, 2009

There is a hammer in my spare tire compartment. I know it's there because I put it there, and I was glad to discover that it was there although it had been completely forgotten. I found it while doing the twice-annual tire swap on the car my wife drives.

Most people might think a hammer is an odd thing to find with the spare tire, but I have long known that it is an essential tool for my vehicle and purposely left the hammer there after the last tire changeover. I simply forgot that I had done so.

I prefer to switch tires myself. The job takes half an hour including an undercarriage inspection, saving me a drive to the auto shop plus the wait time there, and the inspection gives me a heads-up on any other impending maintenance. When I'm done I tighten the lug nuts with the car's spare tire wrench, so I know I can get them off again in case of a flat.

My back tires are difficult to remove and always have been. The rims fit too tightly on the center of the hubs, and about the only way to get them off is a sharp blow to the back of the rim. This trait is apparently not unique to my vehicle.

If I had a rear tire go flat it would be difficult to change without a hammer. I've known this for a long time, which is why I finally left the hammer in the spare tire compartment last fall.

The hammer discovery struck me because it was just that: a discovery. While I immediately understood the hammer's presence and purpose, I realized it would perplex almost anybody else, including my wife, who uses the car for most of her driving and is in fact the person most likely to need it.

Now everybody knows why I keep a hammer with the spare, even my wife.

Once upon a time, in Oregon, the starter went out in our rig. We were towing a travel trailer and had stopped at a scenic overlook high up on a cliff, pointing uphill in a tight turnout. We were stuck. Well, almost.

In a brief walk-around I had noted the slope of the ground, the angle of the trailer and the orientation of the front wheels, plus the distance from the back of the trailer to a rock wall just before the cliff. When I sat back down in the driver's seat I made some mental calculations, turned the steering wheel and, without saying a word, released the brake.

At that moment my wife was sitting between our two very-young children in the back. If you asked her, she might share with you what it feels like to be strapped in, essentially trapped, between her two dearest possessions (also strapped in) rolling backwards in a disabled vehicle towards the edge of a cliff hundreds of feet above rocky, raging surf.

At that moment, I didn't think to ask her that question.

In the same instant as our movement and its horrifying implications were dawning on my wife, I released the clutch. The ignition was on, the rig was in reverse, and the additional weight of the trailer on the back assured enough torque for the engine to turn despite our low speed. Before she could speak (or yell, as she was getting ready to do), I had re-engaged both clutch and brake, our engine was idling, and we were ready to go.

The tone of my wife's cheer wasn't exactly what I expected after my brilliant maneuver. I realized then that a couple of possibly critical rounds of communication had failed to take place, and while she hadn't been scared long enough to get truly upset over it, I still had to apologize for not telling her what I was doing.

So ...

I told my wife about the hammer and what it's there for in case she ever needs it, although she'll probably forget, just like I did. I'm also telling all of you about it, just in case you happen upon a Metro with a flat back tire and a woman with a hammer in her hand.

• Michael Wittig is a stay-at-home parent and long-term Juneau resident.

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