The Caprice Classic and The Tickle

Published on March 18, 2014
Ice covers the waters of The Tickle. — File photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

When your children borrow the family car, do you know where they’re going? Do you really want to know?
The text came in at 2:52.

“Is the van taken tonight?” No 2 looking for the Flanavan. In our house, three of the five children are licensed drivers.

No. 1 has his own car so it’s only Nos. 2 and 3 who ask for the van. I gladly give it to them whenever I don’t need it. I know the thrill of having a vehicle to call your own.

Twenty-eight years ago this week, my parents went on a business trip to Halifax. I dropped them at the airport at 6:30 that morning, excited because when they were away I had unlimited access to The Tank.

The Tank is what we, meaning me and those I drove around, called my father’s Caprice Classic station wagon. Burgundy. Or maybe it was blue. Dad had two tanks in a row. Nine seaters. V-8 engines, veritable work horses.

Dad said those wagons were the best for driving in ice and snow.

On a day similar to any number of days this winter — blustery, slippery, poor visibility — Dad took The Tank up behind the Delta and while other cars were forced to turn around due to ice, The Tank dug in and showed what it could do.

“I went all the way up Springdale Street in that car,” Dad said. “I had the widows aboard. (Dad often transported Mom’s widowed friends around town.

Having them aboard gave The Tank extra traction.) I never spun out once.”

Anyway, back to March 13, 1986. I was a studious responsible

19-year-old MUN student.

Except that my parents were away and I was free to go wherever I wanted in The Tank. Plus St. Paddy’s Day weekend was only one day away, so I felt it fitting to skip a couple of classes to celebrate our Irish roots with a road trip. It didn’t take much to convince my boyfriend to be my accomplice.

“Where do you want to go?” he said.

“Bell Island,” I answered. Where else would you go on a fine sunny March day?

It was cold when we left MUN and drove east on the parkway. When we reached Portugal Cove Road, I pointed The Tank north and didn’t look back.

We just made it before the ferry closed the gate. I could feel the Luck o’ the Irish upon me as Dad’s Tank rumbled up the ramp.

Out on the Tickle it was cold enough to freeze St. Patrick himself, but nothing could dampen our spirits.

We were as free as the black-backed gulls on the horizon.

Once on the island, we drove the circumference checking out the sites. We did the lighthouse, the airstrip, the college, Lance Cove. (I didn’t know about the Grebe’s Nest beach at that point. It wasn’t until years later that an RCMP officer stationed over there told me I had to go see the beach only accessible by tunnel blasted through the cliff).

We were like jackrabbits jumping in and out of The Tank so as not to freeze.  

After our gallivanting, we went back to the beach where we enjoyed scrumptious fish and chips at Dicks’ Snack Bar, now Dicks’ Seaview Lounge and Restaurant. The fee and chee was as good back then as it is today.

Mary Noseworthy (nee Durdle), who’s been working at Dicks’ since 1974, probably served us.

Did you know Dicks’ has been operating in the same location for almost 65 years?

Mary’s father Reg Durdle began running the place in the early ‘50s after owner Walter Dicks decided to go back to doing what he loved best — fishing full time.

So, while Walter Dicks went out and caught the cod that has made Dicks’ famous, he left the managing of the snack bar to Reg Durdle and it’s still the Durdles who run the place today.

Anyway, back to my story.

After warming ourselves with the fresh cod, I pulled The Tank in to the ferry lineup expecting to get the three of us, my boyfriend,  The Tank and me, back home by early evening.

That’s when we got the news.

The Tickle was frozen solid.

No ferry could pass.

Uh oh. We had just spent the last of our meager money at Dicks’ and we had nowhere to stay.

If it was cold enough to freeze the water in the Tickle, it was definitely too cold to spend the night in The Tank. At least we knew enough not to try and sleep with the engine running.

I asked the ferry employee if he had any suggestions about where we could spend the night. Get thee to the nunnery, he advised.

Following his directions, I nosed The Tank back up the hill (thank God we had gas) and pulled in at St. Edward’s, the convent established on Bell Island when the Mercy Sisters crossed the Tickle in 1917 to provide education for the members of St. Michael’s Parish.

The Sister of Mercy who opened the door only needed to take one look at us before announcing there was definitely no room at the inn for two adventurous teenagers (Note: St. Edward’s did become a bed and breakfast in later years and is currently for sale).

Next we tried the school. Not sure what we were thinking but as you can imagine we had no luck. Then we put our heads together and thought about who can help you when you go searching for a pot of gold only to find ice.

So we went the RCMP detachment.

“Try the hospital,” the officer told us.

So off we went to the Dr. Walter Templeman Health Centre in Wabana and explained our plight. Luckily, the staff there opened their arms to the wayward teenagers and allowed us to spend the night in their waiting room.

They also let us make phone calls home — no BlackBerrys back in the day. I called my brother to tell him The Tank was iced in overseas but otherwise safe and sound and would hopefully be returned no worse for wear the next morning. He did not forward this news to our parents, who were sharing  The Lord Nelson in Halifax with a pack of Girl Guides who turned out to be rowdier than a pee wee hockey team.

My boyfriend, however, had to call his mother to explain why he wouldn’t be appearing at home that evening.

“What were you thinking,” she asked, “going over to Bell Island in March?”

“It was Susan’s idea,” he stressed. Luckily she liked me and didn’t freak out. Thank you, Mrs. Hearty.

I don’t remember much about the night itself.

I know we were warm in the waiting room, but not particularly comfortable trying to sleep on emergency room stretchers.

I do remember being happy to see dawn and a potential return across the ocean where food and a comfortable house awaited.

The first ferry was set to sail at 6:45, so we hopped off our stretchers, said our thank-yous and warmed up The Trusty Tank.

We were down the hill and safe on board in record time. We probably bumped fists or high fived —proudly recounting how we survived our night on Bell Island.

Little did we know, though, that we had more the luck of Murphy. The ice in the Tickle was so thick the devil himself would have trouble navigating through it.

The 20-minute ferry ride stretched into an hour. Our little ferry (I wonder what one it was back in 1986) would reverse and then ram the ice head on making slow but constant progress across the Tickle.

Foot by foot we battled Mother Nature.

Two hours later, we were still on the boat.

Four hours later, we were still on the boat.

Six hours and 15 minutes after we set out from Bell Island, the ferry backed up and gave the ice a last little nudge, allowing us to dock in Portugal Cove.

I don’t remember what we did when we got back to St. John’s, but I assume I dropped my boyfriend to his understanding mother and went home myself.

I know I was happy to pull Dad’s Tank into the driveway in one piece. I’m sure Dad was too when he got back from his trip.

I thought of this adventure this March when I saw pictures of the ferry stuck in the Tickle.

When I recounted the story to my mother, she seemed quite happy to be only hearing it now, 28 years later.

It got me to thinking when one of my children borrows the Flanavan, especially during bad weather in March, do I really want to ask where he is headed?

Do I really want to know?

Susan Flanagan had many adventures in the Caprice Classic and many adventures on Bell Island. She is happy her father did not hear all of them. She can be reached at