Chapter 47: Surviving the Sub Debs

I briefly mentioned the Sub Debs in one of my previous posts and said I was not even going to try to explain them. I am, probably foolishly, going to retract that statement and give it  shot.

I remember once trying to explain Sub Debs to a Hollins girl, and soon to be New Orleans Debutante, during a fraternity party when I was at Washington and Lee.  Once I finished the convoluted explanation I am about to attempt again, she looked at me and said:  “That’s the silliest thing I ever heard of.  Either you are a Debutante or you’re not.  There is no in-between.”

Like most folks, she just didn’t get Danville, Virginia.

As far as I can tell, Sub Deb Clubs are exclusive to Danville, Virginia.  The Danville Debutante Ball had died out several years before I got to High School.  My suspicion is that, in a town of less than 50,000 people where everyone knew everyone’s secrets and carried grudges for generations, it became impossible for the committee to agree on 12 or more girls they could unanimously recommend as the Debutantes of the season.  And, less face it, in a town that small, it was just plan silly.

Sub Debs are basically High School sororities and were the center of social activity for many of us.  They always had a Christmas Dance and a Spring or Fall Dance.  As I recall, there were five of these clubs and I’ll try to summarize them below.

I will also say, I expect to be verbally tarred and feathered by some of these girls who will disagree with my assessment.  Even after 35 years, these girls, now women, are very loyal to their Clubs and will, I’m sure, call me to task.  I will admit I am only speaking as an outside observer.

I will now fearfully list the clubs in order of their social prominence as I saw it then…

1.  The Sub Debs: Most of the clubs, as you will see shortly, had initials or names.  Not THE Sub Debs.  These were the goddesses who walked among we mere mortals.  These girls, as a rule, were smart, beautiful, well-dressed, wealthy and from the best families.  If there had been true Debutantes in Danville at that time, these girls would have been them.  You just knew these girls were going to either going to marry captains of industry or become one themselves.

2. The SBV Sub Debs: These girls were also generally smart, pretty and from good families.  However, the initials say it all.  SBV stood for “Southern Belles of Virginia.”  A lot of these girls ended up at Mary Baldwin College.  It was possible for someone who was not a goddess, as I will reveal shortly, to be an SBV.  I had a lot of friends in this club.

3.  The BFB Sub Debs: I would say the SBV’s and BFB’s were tied as to their social prominence.  I know some of my friends will not agree.  The BFB’s, or Bare Foot Babes, tended to be smart, more down to earth and the daughters of the professional class in Danville.  They were more egalitarian and less likely to be enamoured with the Olde South BS than the SBV’s.  These were good, smart girls, who had fun and generally did well in their careers. They were not as focused on husband hunting as the some of the SBV’s were…

4.  The JSJ Sub Debs:  These were mainly North Danville girls and it was more a true sorority than the Big 3.  These girls actually liked each other, were down to earth and didn’t take any of the Sub Deb crap seriously.  They didn’t play some of the games that went on in the other clubs. I had a lot of friends in this club also.  I think JSJ stood for “Junior Senior Jivers”, but I never quite got that…

5. The AMC Sub Debs: These were the Party Girls, the Good Ole Girls and the girls who liked to drink and have a good time.  I think this club folded not long after I left for College.  The initials allegedly stood for “All American Male Chasers.”  That says it all….

All of these Clubs had semi-formal dances at various places.  The Big Three tended have their dances at the Danville Golf Club, if possible.  Otherwise, the dances were held at various VFW posts or the Country Club Inn.  I don’t remember them being at the other two Country Clubs.

But I don’t remember a lot about those dances.  I will tell what I do remember.

My last two years of High School, I went to a lot of their dances.  One memorable season, I went to all five dances held by all five clubs.  The girls always chose which escort to ask to the dances and sometimes allowed non-member girls to attend.

I was a relatively popular second tier escort as I was reasonably attractive, could dress well, dance, generally hold my liquor and they knew I would not try to attack them in the back seat of the car during or after the dance.  In other words, I was a safety escort.  There will always be a need for guys like me…

For all the pretense, the dances usually ended up being drunken revelries.  House bands of the era played some Beach Music, but also a lot of covers of the more popular music of the era:  Arrowsmith, Boston, etc.  Not my cup of tea, but I loved going to dances anyway.

I generally hoped that some day they would wise up and book an orchestra that would play Cole Porter tunes.  I didn’t get that until College.  As I have said before, I just didn’t quite fit in to Danville…

Anyway, I did have some great times at these dances.  Remember, this was 35 years ago before Mother’s Against Drunk Driving and when the legal drinking age was 18.

It was a time and place with a lot of rules-spoken and unspoken- and not many chances to break free.  We saw these dances as an excuse to lose control.

Looking back, we were very stupid and very lucky.  We always kept our booze in the car and drank in the parking lot.  Most nights, we spent more time in the parking lot than on the dance floor…

I can’t count the number of people who passed out cold or got sick in the parking lot at these dances.  More than once, young ladies had to go home- or to a friends home- without their dresses because they or someone else had gotten sick from too much cheap liquor.

Such was the time and the place.

I’ll never forget one particularly entertaining night when I agreed to escort a young lady after all my friends had warned me not to do so.

At this particular dance, my date proceeded to drink me under the table and throw me in the back seat of the car and attack me.  I was not prepared for this and somehow managed to escape.  To get even, she went after one of my friends to see if he would be more accommodating- not realizing I couldn’t care less.

He had also had quite a bit to drink.  When he basically called her a drunken slut, she physically attacked him and tried to stalk and terrorize him for the remainder of the night.

In the meantime, I ended up in the back of the Band’s truck with his date who taught me that some bras actually unhook in the front.  We quickly realized we were just being silly and rejoined the dance while my original date continued to stalk my friend and yell profanity at him until she had to be physically restrained.

It was rather like a low-rent French farce or a Southern Pedro Almodovar film.

But she was from a good family and it was a Sub Deb Dance, so it was all forgiven the next day.

My Mother was fascinated by these clubs and determined that my sister would be an SBV, mainly because some of her chief rivals had daughters in that club.  She also thought since I knew so many girls in that club, I could help make it happen.

It didn’t happen.  She was blackballed.

I don’t think my sister gave a damn.  She always marched to her own drummer and had her own friends.  She just wasn’t the Sub Deb Type.  She didn’t need an artificial social position through a sorority like some of those girls did.

And she knew our Mother was crazy.  I think she also knew this wasn’t about her as much as it was about the mothers.

But my Mother was livid and decided it was all my fault.  So she launched  a campaign of terror against me leveraging her usual weapon:  The Telephone.

I was away at school for my Freshman year at Washington and Lee.  Remember, this was before cell phones and answering machines.  We had a pay phone if the hall of my dorm and that’s the number my Mother had.  Whenever she called, people knew to say I was out.

She didn’t know several of my friends and I had a private phone we shared in the dorm.  I never gave her that number.  If I was smart enough to get into W&L, I was smart enough to generally avoid the Telephone Terrorist.

But she is and was a very persistent woman.  When she finally got me, the conversation went something like this:

“Why didn’t your sister get into the SBV’s?  You know all those girls and I know you said or did something to hurt her chances.  If you were so popular, I don’t understand why you didn’t help her get in.  This is your fault.  I know it.  I know you did or said something about her that killed her chances.  What did you do?  I want to know.  If my friend XXXX’s daughter can get in there, there is no reason she shouldn’t have.”

And so she kept going for about 15 minutes.

I assured her I had nothing to do with it and that she greatly exaggerated my influence, but I did promise to make a few calls.  She still didn’t believe it wasn’t my fault.  I think she still doesn’t…

Believe me, I had already left all this behind and moved on.  I really didn’t want to get mixed up in these Peyton Place shenanigans, but I knew I would know no peace until I could get her some answers- and hopefully deflect her energy in another direction.

So, what I found out was that her friend’s daughter was actually the one who blackballed my sister.

This particular young lady had been a Baby Beauty Queen, our Honey Boo Boo Chile,  when she was about five years old.  There is nothing more dangerous than a Southern Belle who peaks too soon.

We were all greatly amused when she got drunk one night, and drove across the greens at the Golf Club, and got arrested.

But we all survived the drama of the Sub Debs.  Looking back, it was a fun time, a silly time and way too much cheap drama about things that just weren’t important.

But then, that’s generally was how life went in my little town as I knew it….

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26 Responses to Chapter 47: Surviving the Sub Debs

  1. Van says:

    Interesting take on the sub deb clubs! I agree with all of it!

  2. gail says:

    I am sure everyone has a sub-deb story to tell from those days. Sub-debs are not unique to Danville. However, I think that Danville girls put their own twist on the clubs to make them what they were.

  3. Clare says:

    I am currently a member of the sub-deb group you referred to as THE Sub-Debs in Danville. This little article on all the clubs is hilarious and i guess for the most part still true in some ways. The BFBs died out a couple years ago, but the SBVs and us are still alive and well. My mom was an SBV, so i’ve heard similar descriptions of the groups and stories of their parties and beach trips from her. Thankfully with the passing of time our club has become more involved in the community and civic work, but we still have our own initiations and such things which I’m sure you remember (just not NEARLY as extreme). Times have changed, we don’t have as many freedoms as you all did, especially since parents these days must be involved in every aspect of their child’s life… We do still have parties and our annual formal at the Danville Golf Club. Every year brings a different set of girls but i do have to say we generally are all very close and look to each other for support and sense of sisterhood. Just thought i’d comment and say i enjoyed reading this little article about the clubs past!

  4. Holland says:

    So Very true. I was president (chief bitch) of the sub debs. I think Van (commenter) was my date. My grandmother started the sub debs. So girls who hadn’t debuted could go to chaperoned events. I actually avoided sororities at UVA for a year b/c of the Sub deb experience. Of course every Sub Deb who went to UVA was a KD as was I. In fairness, all my lifetime friends are sub debs. But many memories of drunken dance debacles…

  5. Freshman says:

    Im interested in being a sub-deb but I don’t really know how you get invited??

  6. Cara says:

    Extremely interesting article. I’m actually a now called “rat” of the Sub Debs! Meaning i’m currently trying to get in. I love it so far,and I can not wait to be in the club with all the wonderful girls who are already members. Its lovely in my eyes! Hell week should be soon,so wish me luck! God bless you,and may things go your way. xoxo

  7. Kristen says:

    I was a bfb and i would say that those yrs in the sorority were the best yrs in highschool…. Yes sub debs we did die out but that was because of the carelessness of the other members who only cared about themselves kicking everyone else out after i graduated in 2008……….. ps… coming from the offical b****

  8. JOAnn says:

    I was one of those who dared to say no to Sub Deb in a small town. It was basically a club that used its invitations or lack of to bully those they did not like. After being passed over in my sophomore year, I was invited the next year, but turned them down. I was congratulated by people all over town because I had the nerve to say NO. The club faded into the sunset the next year.

  9. Bob Kidd says:

    Actually there are several Sub Deb clubs across the southeast. They existed in several cities in North Alabama when I was growing up, and there is at least on chapter in Georgia.

  10. DMN says:

    Wow. been soooo long ago since I was in SUB DEBS,however I do remember a lot about the high school, I guess you would call sorority. I think some of the purposes were… to set goals, standards, examples, keep good grade point averages in addition to having fun and enjoying High School. I remembered some would call us snobs 🙂 or would use the term “you think you’re better”.that was because we were not allowed to use profanity to dress provocatively, we were encouraged to keep a high grade point average however if it dropped we were assisted. I remember if you became pregnant while pledging or were pregnant before that time you were not allowed to pledge. Basically that was to keep you focused on high school your standards and your goals, not that you thought you were better, but that you had standards. there were also a lot of silly things that we went through like those that had already pledged and made it were called Big Sisters and they sorta like bossed you around hahaha you had appointed Big Sisters that you had to accommodate with certain things that they asked for (pastries,school supplies etc) I thought that was really silly& sometidemanding, however it was part of the pledging and it really helped you to learn discipline and cooperation and that was only if you wanted to, becuz it was a choice. Most of all it was fun you did meet lots of very nice young ladies and became very close to them as sisters and the outcome was a better you a better young lady okay that’s all folks.! It was fun, it was high school & good memories. (just think anyone who didn’t want to be a sub deb didn’t have to be, so the criticism…. ???) Ivoice text all this so please ignore the mistakes oh well have a good day

  11. DMN says:

    comments replies all welcomed:-)

  12. avf08 says:

    I must say this was very interesting to read! I became a subdeb in 2009 after my older brother, who was a senior at the time, and mother convinced me it would be good for me. I was one of those girls who, at the time, could not stand the Sub-Debs…they were everything I didn’t want to be. However, I learned very quickly that I was Judging that group of girls and boy was I wrong.
    In the four years I was participating in the club, we held Womanless Beauty Contests to raise money for breast cancer awareness month, held fall festivals for the Boys and Girls club, threw parties so that we could donate that money to different charities, and SO much more. The Sub-Debs helped teach me the beauty of being a young woman…we were not all wealthy and stuck up as many assumed, we were simply a group of girls that stuck together as a sisterhood to help our community.

    Many parents have gotten a bad taste in their mouth about the Sub-Debs because of the parties and Rat Week…but I don’t think anyone can quite understand how truly impacting it can be to be a part of that sisterhood. The love, support, and friendship that comes from the group is astonishing!

    There are way too many fun and extremely sweet memories made with these girls…I hope one day I have a daughter who can experience that kind if friendship just as I did!

  13. Paula Phillips Mitchell says:

    Are you sure you weren’t in one of the clubs?? You were pretty spot on. I can’t recall the Greek words, but AMC stood for Friendship amongst fellowship… but, American Male Chasers was more catchy! Thank you for a stroll down memory lane.

  14. Rebecca says:

    The AMCs were alive and well in 1999 when I graduated as one. We were told, however, that AMC stood for Amicitia Media Communitas, or firendship in the midst of fellowship.

  15. Rebecca says:

    I would also add that my mom graduated an AMC in 1975. The AMCs of my time were the laid back “regular” girls, and the BFBs were the party girls. There were only The Big 2 (Sub-Debs and BFBs), as the SBVs were relegated to status of regular girls. The JSJs did not exist, and no one I new has heard of them before. There were two black sororities as well, as our sisters of color refused to be left out of the shenanigans. I am trying like heck to remember the names. one was something about diamonds, I think. All I remember that a friend of mine who was also in colorguard with me was one, and her shirt said Brown Sugah on the back. I told her I wanted to be an honorary member just so I could get a shirt that said Dixie Crystal. I would have been fit for the SBVs of old, to be sure. Oh the shirts. Were they not THE most important social tools of the time? Lordy.

  16. Brenda says:

    Scott, you were spot on with your description (from when we were at GW anyway!) I’m sure things have changed over the years. I graduated in ’74 and was a proud member of the BFB’s. This brought back lots of fun memories and a laugh!

  17. Eleanor says:

    I was an SBV. We earned money for the annual Myrtle Beach trips by waitressing at banquets at the King of the Sea restaurant. The owner paid us off the books and broke numerous child labor laws. And we were really snotty about geographic location when selecting rats (pledges). But not as snotty as THE Subdebs. We let a few from the OTHER side of the river in on occasion. Now almost 40 years later I think back on those days and apologize to any rat that I was mean to in high school.

  18. Robert says:

    Sub deb clubs are actually quite widespread in the Deep South. Alabama has several Sub Deb clubs in the northern counties. There are some in Mississippi as well. Same drama, same silliness.

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