My recent visit to my old friend Fred Zdeb inspired me to recycle this piece, which originally appeared in the now defunct online magazine Word Catalyst (JAN. 2010). The photo is of Fred and Mary Body, Director of Parish Services at Holy Spirit parish in New Castle, Delaware. Fred and I were members of the first graduating class at Holy Spirit Elementary School (which closed six years ago). We took a sentimental journey back there on Saturday, June 25. Ms. Body was kind enough to open up the school and to show us around. As shown here, Fred is still his old charming self--a trait that features prominently in this essay. --EFP
I confess it: I was never a good Catholic. When I was growing up, my idea of the mystery of the Trinity was how South Philadelphia could ever have produced the likes of Frankie Avalon, Fabian, and Bobby Rydell. But the fact of the matter is you just can’t beat the comic relief of a Catholic school education.
The all-male Catholic high school I went to, the Salesianum School for Boys, was widely known and respected throughout northern Delaware for three things: a no-holds barred approach to discipline, a winning football team, and its Saturday night dances. Public- and private-school kids of all creeds used to flock to those dances. (I would say of all races and colors too, except that I would be lying. Delaware was still largely segregated in those days.) “Sallie’s” dances were especially popular among the girls of Ursuline and Padua Academies, the principal all-girls Catholic school in the area. Like us, after a long week of being harangued about the dangers of entertaining impure thoughts, they were eager to engage in some coeducational imitations of immorality.
I say “imitations” because Billy Joel’s lyric is only half right: It wasn’t just the Catholic girls who started “much too late” in those days. It was still an age of “nice girls” and “tramps” (and for all the hype, the tramps seemed to be in short supply). This was before the pill was widely available, abortions were illegal, and the social stigma of unwed pregnancy helped to keep us in check. Girls didn’t just give it away. You had to lay siege to it. But that made it all the more special when the walls finally came tumbling down. Frankly, I don’t know whether to envy or feel sorry for today’s kids, so many of whom are already jaded by the age of 16.
Sadly, a good friend and classmate of mine, Fred Zdeb, was barred from the dances. His was the good fortune or misfortune—depending on your point of view—of having devoutly Catholic parents intent on keeping Fred from the “occasions of sin.” As I understood it, they had already had one child go wrong, Fred’s older sister—a “sadder but wiser girl” who had gotten pregnant out of wedlock at age 14. Fred’s parents were bound and determined that Fred would not bring further disgrace to the family. Hence, he was forbidden to attend the dances.
Compared to the rest of our gang, Fred had been sheltered, and he could seem painfully naïve and irredeemably square. I remember that, when we first met, Fred was seriously trying to be a good Catholic. One of his heroes was St. Ignatius. I suppose I bear much of the responsibility for corrupting or liberating him—again depending on your point of view.
Fred’s most notable characteristic was a nearly constant smile and an irrepressibly cheerful tone of voice. Nothing seemed to get him down. He was also tall and a bit gangly in those days. Among guys at least, all this made for an unfortunate first impression. In talking to and interacting with Fred, you couldn’t help but think of probably the most popular cartoon character in those days, Bullwinkle J. Moose, of “Rocky and His Friends.” Underneath that seemingly slow and unassuming exterior, however, lay an unusually imaginative and resourceful mind perceptive enough to exploit his parents’ one blind spot—their devotion to the Church.
A word about Fred’s parents may be in order: Fred’s father was an imposing figure. A former seminarian, he had enlisted in the Marine Corps at the outbreak of World War II and saw combat in the Pacific. Fred maintained that his father had risen to the rank of sergeant major before the end of the war. I could believe it. There was an intensity about him. He never said a cross word to or in front of me, but I could tell that he was clearly not a man to be trifled with. His one interest in life seemed to be the life of his parish. Church suppers, bazaars, bingo, whatever—he was always there, helping.
Fred’s mother always impressed me as kind and gentle and much more affable than her husband. But she too was committed to the church. This was an age when other Catholics were beginning to question Papal authority and to think for themselves. But not Fred’s parents. They were not ones to half-step; they really tried to live their faith.
As for Fred—not so much, at least not once he fell in with bad company.
The truth of the matter is that I always underestimated Fred. Bound and determined to court and enjoy the occasions of sin, Fred told his parents that he had joined the Rosary Society, a club whose mission it was to repair old Rosaries to send to the missions. (The missions can’t ever get enough Rosaries, I suppose.) Fred further told his parents that the Rosary Society was meant to be a devotional alternative to the dances and that it met at the same time—from 8:00 to 11:00 p.m. on Saturday nights. While the dances were being held in the gym, this mythical Rosary Society allegedly met in a classroom at the other end of the school building.
Fred’s parents were so pleased with this turn of events that they wouldn’t hear of letting Fred take the bus to Rosary Society meetings. His father insisted on driving him. He would drop Fred off at the rectory end of the building at 8:00 and pick him up there promptly at 11:00. Fred, of course, would wait until his father had driven safely off and then walk through the school to the gym.
One of the circumstances that worked greatly to Fred’s advantage was that we were supposedly emulating St. Francis de Sales, the “gentleman saint.” We were all expected to be “Sallies gentlemen,” externally as well as internally. We were required to wear coats and ties, not just for school but for all school events and activities, football games and dances included. Hence, Fred was turned out for dancing as well as for repairing Rosaries on school grounds.
It also helped that Fred was tall (6’3” or 6’4”) and slim with blond hair and blue eyes. He was Sallies’ answer to Troy Donahue, yet he was unassuming and supremely unselfconscious. To say he was well-received at the dances would be an understatement.
One of the great themes of Elizabethan tragedy is that evil inevitably overreaches. Fred got away with his subterfuge for fully three months. But even Shakespeare’s Iago couldn’t think of everything. The one thing Fred didn’t count on, and couldn’t control, was his increasing popularity.
In Fred’s defense, I should remind readers that these were still the days in which nice girls didn’t call boys. They were supposed to wait for boys to call them (although it was permissible for a girl to get a friend to let a boy know that she was interested and would welcome a call). Apparently so smitten that she threw over the rules, one of Fred’s dance partners just had to know if Fred would be at the dance on Saturday, so she called him—at home. (Teenagers having their own cell phones would have been inconceivable to us in that time and place.) The problem was that Fred wasn’t home at the time, and his father answered.
The actual pleasantries that passed between this young lady and Mr. Zdeb are lost to posterity. But as Fred would later learn, much to his chagrin, this girl asked if Fred would be at the dance that Saturday night.
Mr. Zdeb worked as an accountant for DuPont, but he must have had the mind of a lawyer. He knew that direct evidence was superior to circumstantial. He said nothing to Fred about the call. He told only his wife, who initially refused to believe that her good Catholic son would dissemble about a matter of faith and morals. She agreed to set a trap that would either clear or convict Fred.
Come Saturday night, Fred thought nothing of it when his mother decided to ride along with his father in taking him to his Rosary Society meeting. They dropped Fred off as if nothing were wrong. But, instead of heading home, they drove around the corner and waited 15 minutes before heading back the building.
Again, as Fred would later learn, his mother went in first. She was intent on finding the Rosary Society meeting and vindicating her son. After a few minutes of wandering around the deserted halls—with rock and roll music echoing through them from the gym, no doubt—she encountered a priest and asked where the Rosary Society was meeting. This priest must have been perplexed at first, but he reassured Mrs. Zdeb that there was no such meeting that night, nor was there any such society affiliated with Salesianum.
What came next deserves to live on in the annals of adolescent embarrassment. There is a memorable scene in the 1967 John Boorman film Point Blank in which a determined and menacing-looking Lee Marvin (himself a former Marine) walks toward the camera along a seemingly endless corridor, his leather heels clicking rhythmically. His body language and expression both seem to be saying, “I dare anyone to try to stop me.” I like to imagine that Mr. Zdeb looked like that in striding into and through the gym on a mission to find his son.
Picture it: there is Fred, in the zone, slow-dancing and oblivious to everything but the young woman with her head, and forbidden parts of her body, pressed against his chest, even her hips occasionally touching his, when he feels a tap on his shoulder. Expecting it to be one of us, just one of his friends, wanting to cut in, Fred turns around, only to find his father standing there and staring at him.
Rather than try to make himself heard over the din of the music, with the same finger he had used to tap Fred on the shoulder, Mr. Zdeb gestured to follow him, and out they went, with Fred getting some inkling of what it must feel like to walk that fabled “last mile.”
The problem, as I now see it, is that Fred was living under the authority of people with no sense of irony, much less an appreciation for imagination and resourcefulness. We didn’t see much of Fred outside of school after that—not for a long time. But Fred won out in the end. He finished that academic year with two Fs, which meant that he couldn’t continue at Salesianum. He transferred to the local public high school, where I have to believe the girls didn’t start quite so late.
There are a million stories associated with the Rod and God Club of my day. This has been one of them. --EFP