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'On a Clear Night' Turns Ordinary Experiences into Something Profound

Wisconsin Historical Society Press

Writer Marnie Mamminga is a Chicago-area native but many of her most touching words are written about her family’s cabin in the northwoods of Wisconsin.

Mamminga’s latest book, On a Clear Night: Essays From the Heartland, is a collection of essays that reminiscences her time in the northwoods as well as other parts of her life.

Now that she has moved towards writing primarily in essay form, Mamminga says her view of life and sources of inspirations are a little bit different.

"When something happens...usually ordinary experiences that just by their simplicity turn into something profound. And they seem to call to me...and so I am compelled to kind of write it down. So you are kind of on the alert (if) something has meaning, and if so maybe I'll start writing it and see where it leads," she explains.

Mamminga will chat about the book and her writing Wednesday evening at Books and Company in Oconomowoc.

Essay: 'Owner's Manual' by Marnie Mamminga

"When we had to change a tire on these new cars...it was quite an adventure and a frustrating one. I'm very experienced with changing a tire the old fashioned way with a jack and a wrench...and we did it for years as teenagers...and thankfully the new tires don't go flat often, but when they do it's a nightmare. So that is how this story came to be."

It was a dark and stormy night. Or at least in my nightmares it seems that way. Actually, it was a bright and sunny day when our tire blew out. If it had been a dark and stormy night, we would really have been in trouble.

It was difficult enough trying to figure out how to assemble the jack, locate the spare, and find the axle in broad daylight. Cur¬rent car commercials make one think that the technical engineer¬ing of our automobiles would put them right up there with the Mars spacecraft. Alas, somewhere along this high-tech pursuit, someone forgot about keeping the jack and spare tire instructions simple. After our recent experience, I’d put changing a tire right up there with solving a Rubik’s Cube.

Setting off on a twenty-mile trip to town from our cabin on a beautiful fall day in northern Wisconsin, my husband and I heard a weird noise coming from the right side of our car, as if we were dragging a big stick. For once in our lives, we decided not to ignore a car sound we could not identify and stopped to take a look.

To our surprise, the back right tire was flatter than a run-over penny on a train track. Turning the car around, we slowly drove the half mile back to the cabin where we would be able to change the tire on the garage floor’s hard surface. At least we knew that much.

Like a swat team, the two of us searched the car for the jack and spare tire to no avail. Finally, my husband discovered the jack. Located in a cleverly camouflaged compartment behind the second row seat, it consisted of four skinny pipes that looked like Tinker Bell’s wand had been in a fight and lost.

My husband and I looked at each other in dismay. How the heck did this contraption fit together and where in the world did it jack up the car?

It was time to pull out the owner’s manual.

Oh the shame of it, the shame! What dignified, self-respect¬ing person ever reads the owner’s manual? And while I am at it, whatever happened to the good old days when a jack was a jack?

In our defense, we are not tire-changing neophytes. We changed our first tire together as dating teenagers on another deserted Wisconsin road in the middle of a forest with only the starlight to guide us. We found the escapade hilarious; my parents understandably did not.

In addition, I am a veteran witness to tire-changing, having grown up in the 1950s when my family of seven experienced a tire blowout on virtually every annual summer vacation to the Northwoods and back that I can remember.

Sooner or later on our 450-mile odyssey, the familiar thumpity-thump-thump would resound through the open windows of our packed-to-the-brim station wagon with a canoe on top. With a few swears under his breath, my father would deftly pull the car to the side of an empty country road where a cluster of cows served as our only company.

But we didn’t panic. We had this tire-changing nailed, so to speak. Our biggest challenge was to untie the canoe from the top of the car and unload all the luggage and vacation paraphernalia from the back end of the station wagon in order to retrieve the jack and spare.

Back then, even kids knew the spare tire’s location; all jacks basically looked the same and always fit next to the wheel well; and no one needed an owner’s manual to assemble them, nor was there one even if you’d wanted it.

With a few good cranks of the jack, that car rose up faster than a phoenix out of the ashes. A couple good twists of the wrench and the bolts came flying off. On went the spare, back went the bolts, back went the belongings and the canoe, and we were back on the road in a matter of hours. Child’s play.

Unfortunately, the old adage “Don’t fix what ain’t broken” got overlooked in the computer-age tire tune-up department.

And so I have to admit, we opened the owner’s manual to the index and looked up “jack,” page 342. In a flat and halting voice that sounded like Frankenstein’s, I slowly read the instructions out loud to my husband.

“Assemble the jack and jacking tools as shown. Connect jack handle driver (A) to two extensions (B), then to the lug wrench (C).”

Now, ours is not a fancy car. It is a basic American-made model, a medium-sized SUV, but I’ll be danged if we couldn’t identify the axle where we were instructed to fit the jack because there was so much metal hanging beneath the carriage of the car. Before long, we two grandparents, college educated with mas¬ter’s degrees, were slithering under the car on the sandy garage floor like a couple of snakes.

“I think I’ve found it!” I shouted. “Look at this picture on page 344. It matches!”

We were so happy, you’d think we’d won the lottery.

Luckily, in our search beneath the car, we also discovered the spare tire. What genius decided to hide it down there is beyond me because our next quandary was how to disengage it. Back to the owner’s manual, page 340.

“The spare tire is stowed under the rear of the vehicle by means of a cable winch mechanism. To remove or stow the spare, use the jack handle to rotate the ‘spare tire drive’ nut. The nut is located under a plastic cover at the center-rear of the cargo floor area, just inside the lift gate opening.”

There you have it. Easy as pie.

As a bonus, there were enough CAUTION! warnings surrounding every direction that I felt I was entering Bill O’Reilly’s No Spin Zone.

Somehow we figured it out, and slowly, slowly the spare tire floated down beneath the car like a spaceship twirling in an outer galaxy. Our sense of being in the twilight zone was complete.

Eventually, we accomplished our task. The manual’s parting note was to stow the tire “beauty” side up. This must have been an inside joke, because, believe me, if there was a beauty side to that tire, I failed to recognize it.

Gratefully, we were soon back on the road to town where the nice tire man informed us that our flat tire was ruined. When he replaced the spare a few days later, I watched in wonder as he whipped that tire off and put on the new one in a matter of minutes.

Of course, he was using a power jack that could have shot our two-ton car to the moon. I’ve put one on my Christmas list.

Yet, like all good nightmares, mine was not over. Recently, I bought a car seat for my two infant granddaughters. After a few mind-boggling attempts to connect it properly, I was beginning to think tire changing looked easy.

As frustrated as a two-year-old and in fear of going ballistic, I once again succumbed to the instruction manual. Imagine my horror when I read:

“Check vehicle owner’s manual for the vehicle top tether an¬chor locations. They may be identified using one of the anchor’s symbols (Fig. b or Fig. c).”

Pass the Tylenol.