Aunt Sparky’s 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air

by dm gillis

I was seven years old when this happened, so you can imagine my pride and my shame.

* * * * *

My Aunt Sparky, whose real name was Ophelia Florence Iglehart, but who everyone called Sparky for obvious reasons, never made a left hand turn in her life.

Okay, that’s not quite true. She made two. One when her father, Great Uncle Regis Philip Iglehart tried to teach her how to drive, which he later described as ‘…the most frightening experience of my life, and I was in the Korean War’, and once for her driver’s test which she would have failed if the tester hadn’t passed her in exchange for her promise never to return.

So, driving with Aunt Sparky was always an adventure of right hand turns. She was aware that, where appropriate, a left hand turn would get her there faster, but the thought of willingly driving into oncoming traffic terrified her. And that was fine in the end, on account of Aunt Sparky having been left a large inheritance by her dead boyfriend, Spike Willburley, who was really named Felix, but who everyone called Spike for obvious reasons, and since she was therefore set for life, if she didn’t spend her dough like a sailor, she had the time to travel via right hand turns wherever she went.

It was all good until the summer of 1968, when she bought a 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air with over 150,000 miles on the odometer. It was a flat pale green that may have been in style at some point in automotive history, but was dreary in comparison to the day-glow colours flowering round us that year. It had no hubcaps, the interior was in tatters and the windshield was cracked. But she called it a classic rather than second hand, and no one bothered correcting her.

I had time on my hands that summer. Both of my parents worked and I was on vacation. So, I went everywhere with Aunt Sparky. She’d pick me up in the morning, and we’d go on a right hand turn mystery tour round the city. To make it sound like even more of an adventure, she’d say that she was kidnapping me, with a wink and a secret smile. We’d go to Whitespot for lunch, and I’d have a cheese burger with fries, and she’d have cheese cake, coffee and a cigarette. It was a weirdly blissful arrangement for a seven year old kid. No one ever interfered, saying I should be playing baseball or be at camp. It was just me, Aunt Sparky and the Bel Air, and I loved it.

So, I’ve mentioned the overall less than showroom condition of my Aunt Sparky’s 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air. But there was one more feature peculiar to its state of disrepair, the one that caused all the trouble that year: the car horn sounded every time the steering wheel was turned to the right. This was annoying, of course, considering the sheer number of times Aunt Sparky turned the wheel to the right. And it wasn’t long before she brought the car into Rufus’ Service Station on Nanaimo Street. Rufus assessed the problem himself, because he was sweet on her, said Aunt Sparky. He examined the wiring in the steering column for a full ten minutes. Then stepped out of the car, sucked his teeth and announced with profundity and severity, that it was a fuse.

Replacing the fuse would cost five dollars, including labour. Apparently Rufus wasn’t as sweet on Aunt Sparky as she thought. She gave it deliberate consideration, then and there. Five dollars in 1968 was a lot of money. Gasoline, all by itself, was thirty-five cents a gallon! Never mind the cost of groceries, shopping out of the Sears catalogue and Whitespot meals. What was a girl to do in such hyperinflationary circumstances?

She finally said no to Rufus’ terms, and we drove away, making a horn-tooting right hand turn out of the station and back onto Nanaimo Street. The Beatles were on the radio, and all remained well with the world.

In fact, the sounding of the horn while turning right became a sort of friend, something familiar, something I could trust. It never failed us; it was always there.

And the horn was there, one sunny morning in July, as we drove through downtown Vancouver on our way to Stanley Park. Aunt Sparky had brought along a large bag of thin chocolate coated cookies, and we feasted, while listening to the Doors and Otis Redding on CKLG. At the corner of Granville and Georgia Streets, Aunt Sparky turned right. The horn sounded as usual, and we found ourselves in a traffic jam.

“Jumper on the damn bridge again,” Aunt Sparky grumbled.

Now, once upon a time in Vancouver, there was a cop on nearly every street corner. They’d stand there twiddling their thumbs and looking officious, torn between dreams of heroic deeds and hoping their shifts went off without having to give sweaty chase. And on that sunny July morning, a cop stood at the corner of Granville and Georgia Streets. We’d just passed him by as we turned right, immediately getting stuck in the traffic jam. The Bel Air’s horn had sounded, and the cop thought he was being beckoned. He stepped off the curb and went round to Aunt Sparky’s window.

“Yes, ma’am?” he said, touching his thumb and index finger to the peak of his cap. “How may I help?

“Help?” said Aunt Sparky. I watched, ate more cookies, and sipped a Coke. I was a great fan of the sugar rush.

“Yes, ma’am,” said the cop, “you honked your horn as you passed me by.”

“I never did,” said Aunt Sparky, by which she meant that she hadn’t intentionally honked her horn.

“But you did,” said the cop.

“Look,” said Aunt Sparky, remembering the Detroit Riots from the year before. “I’ll report any police brutality to my Member of Parliament.”

The traffic was now moving ahead of us. The driver in a car behind us honked his horn.

“But you sounded your horn as though you wanted my attention,” said the cop.

“Again I say, I never did.”

The cop looked past Aunt Sparky to me, sitting there with a chocolate stained face and sugar crazed eyes.

“This your boy?” he said.

“Certainly not,” said Aunt Sparky.

“Whose, then?”

“Alright, mister,” said Aunt Sparky, who’d never responded well to authority, “the traffic’s moving ahead of me, and I’m holding up the traffic behind. It’s time I moved on.”

“Pull it over,” said the cop, “and step out of the car.”

“I will not. I’m a citizen and a tax payer, going to Stanley Park for a picnic. We’re having fish and chips.”

This was the first I’d heard about fish and chips. This was getting exciting.

“Is that why you kidnapped me this morning?” I said, hungrily.

“That’s right,” said Aunt Sparky.

“Kidnapped?” said the cop.

“Oh just shoo,” Aunt Sparky said, “you tiresome little man.” And then she drove away.

I looked back, over the seat. The cop stood there for a moment, fists clenched, and then ran into the crowd on the sidewalk. He disappeared there, and I was glad. He was boring for a cop. Mod Squad was better.

It didn’t take long before a big black Ford began tailing Aunt Sparky. The traffic on Georgia was increasing in speed. Aunt Sparky said the black Ford was tailgating. I looked over the back of the seat again and saw a man in the passenger seat waving madly, as if he wanted us to pull over. Aunt Sparky accelerated instead. The Ford spat out a brief siren sound.

“Why don’t they pass, if they want by?” she said.

“It’s the police,” I said. “Maybe they want us to pull over.”

“Don’t be silly.” She accelerated again. She was now going forty miles an hour, and the needle on the speedometer was moving up on the dial. “We’ll just put some distance between us and them, so they can pursue whoever they’re after without hindrance.”

The Ford was catching up. Its siren was on full now, and there was a red light flashing on the dashboard.

“Fiddle sticks,” Aunt Sparky said. “We’ll just have to get out of their way to let them pass.” She turned a hard right onto Cardero Street. The horn honked and the police Ford followed. “Oh darn, looks like we’re headed in the same direction as them.”

She turned right onto Bayshore Drive, and then right onto Nicola Street, honk! honk! The police Ford followed, but now there were some black and white police cars following it.

“Maybe they really do want us,” I said, despondent, coming down from my sugar high.

“They’re after criminals, honey. Just sit down and think of what a good story you’ll have to tell tonight when you get home.”

“But there’re three of them now.”

“Well we’ll have to turn on Robson to get out of their way.” She did, honk!

We were approaching Cardero Street again, and there were police cars there, blocking the road.

“Oh now what?” she said. “Something really big must be happening.”

She assessed the approaching roadblock and decided she could just make it. Turning right onto Cardero again, honk!, she went up onto the corner and squeezed past a black and white cruiser. Then it was right onto Alberni, honk!; right onto Jervis, honk!; right onto Haro, honk!; right onto Broughton, honk!

Disappointingly, we never did have the fish and chip picnic in the park. Some smart cop realised Aunt Sparky was going in a circle, making only right hand turns, and set up another roadblock in the middle of Nicola. They stopped us with guns drawn. Aunt Sparky protested that it was all too much as they cuffed her, and I was handed over to a Social Worker named Gladys, who had big ears and smelled like bug spray.

Aunt Sparky appeared in court the next day, and was fined $250 for reckless driving and failure to stop for the police. When the judge said she was indifferent and disregardful of consequence, she attempted to stand and defend herself. Her lawyer pulled her back into her seat by the back of her dress.

That September, she appeared with me at show and tell. Everyone said it was the best one that year. At recess, they all got to see Aunt Sparky’s 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air. Regretfully, though, by then Aunt Sparky had shelled out, and Rufus had replaced the fuse.

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