I’m going to confess. I played hooky in seventh grade and refused to “squeal” on the kid I stayed out of class with that day.
I never talked, even when Sister St. Clare, a real penguin of a Catholic nun, backed me up to a metal stairway, finger-pointing accusingly on my chest, forcing me to take a step backwards where I fell the entire length of the stairs, surviving with nary a broken bone, or a broken spirit.
I refused to name names even when the nun summoned one of the big guns, Father Sherf, a Catholic priest serving as the assistant pastor who took no further action against me and actually admired my chutzpah for protecting someone I felt I could not betray.
The culprit was Franny O. The skinny kid who had a retort for everything. The only real “certified” juvenile delinquent I knew growing up in Brewerytown, a tough, working-class section of North Philadelphia.
Franny “influenced” me — the wrong way. The “bad” way, if you want to know the truth. He smoked cigarets, cursed using the “F” word, and had no respect for religion or those in authority. I wanted to be just like him. He had charisma. A good-looking kid, with a swagger about himself, like a young James Cagney, if you remember the old gangster movies. Cagney was short. Under 5′ 8.” I identified with him. And with Franny.
Don’t know much of Franny’s background. Came from what we called a “broken” home, one where a divorce can shatter the integrity of a family. You can say all you want about how bad a fractured, “dysfunctional” family is, one where mother and father simply stay together for the sake of the kids. But, at least it is a family. It’s intact and if there’s no abuse, I think kids have a better chance of reaching their full potential, whatever one later deems that to be.
I went to the city dump with Franny. Had never been there before. Snow covered the ground. Got tired of our little “adventure” in less than an hour of nosing around junk and smelly odds and ends. We ran off when we spotted a police officer. Couldn’t wait to get out of the cold and to go home, where I snuck into the basement and hid on a shelf in a built-in closet. It took forever for noon to arrive, when I got out, went outside, and entered the front door, pretending I just came from school for lunch.
Damn it! I misplaced my book bag. Mom had gotten me one of those with a handle and imitation leather, like I was some miniature lawyer going to the office. Got to remember where I left it . . . (Got caught when the police found it. They called my mother and the school, where a sadistic nun took it as a sign to beat the living daylights out of me. My fall down the steps actually helped save me.)
Franny O “did time” at St. Gabriel’s Home for Boys outside Philadelphia. It was what was called a “reform school” for kids the legal profession termed “incorrigible.” Taken out of his residence, he roomed with dozens of others in his age group, where he could either learn to follow society’s rules or hone a craft outside the rules.
Franny’s appeal took a hit, and he lost a little of my respect when he was “disciplined” by one of the nuns in a classroom at St. Ludwig’s Catholic School. Not sure what infraction he committed, but the black-robed sister smacked him repeatedly across his butt, as Franny yelled and kept placing his hands behind him to ward off the assaults of a wooden pointer. He cursed. That only made things worse, as the roomful of kids sat and watched the beating. Our teacher broke the thick pointer on his rear end. He should have taken the punishment “like a man,” I thought. Instead, Franny cried, showing he was no stronger than the rest of us at such a tender age.
Had not seen Franny for years, until bumping into him at the “T & B” bar at Taney and Browns streets, in Fairmount. He worked there as a bartender. I was in the Army on my way to being commissioned a Second Lieutenant. Hardly recognized Franny. We had nothing to say, having both gone in different directions by then. Saw him again nearly 20 years later. He was in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court. No, not a defendant, but a citizen bringing a private criminal complaint against a neighbor. I was a young lawyer and tried to tell Franny the little I learned about the Judge and the system. But, he refused all advice. Same old Franny. He’ll do things his way. Learn by getting hit upside the head. Or some other spot.
Heard this week that Franny O had died several years ago. Jack P, a retired police officer, told me when I had visited that old neighborhood. We exchanged stories about Franny, and had nothing but praise for Theresa C, the girl who married Franny and possibly provided some of the better things in life for him.
Hope Franny doesn’t mind that I’ve “dropped the dime” on him all of these years later.
I didn’t think it would come to any harm after all of these years.
Franny O, we hardly knew you. May you rest in peace.