He introduced himself as Buck when he and Mr. Pettit met at the University of South Carolina almost 39 years ago.
You may have noticed that I'm careful not to use real names in these columns in order to shield family and friends from any blog-related repercussions. But Buck wasn't his real name, a fact I didn't learn until much later.
And today he passed away.
Mr. Pettit and I had been dating for a couple of years when he transferred to USC in his junior year. I had just started school at a women's college across town so I quickly became acquainted with Buck and the other guys who lived in the dormitory, although "dormitory" makes it sound like a sprawling, up-to-date university facility, which it most definitely was not. It looked like a small mom-and-pop motel on the verge of bankruptcy; only the roaches found it well-appointed. I heard the building was scheduled to be condemned but the school managed to return it to serviceable condition when it needed the space. The dorm was named "International House" because it had once been used to house foreign students, but Mr. Pettit and friends just called it the IHOP.
Buck hailed from Connecticut and I think he may have been the first Yankee I ever met. I still don't know what possessed him to travel south for college but apparently when he crossed the Mason-Dixon line he got it into his head that he needed a new name for his new, if temporary, home; a kind of nom de Rebel, if you will. And so "Buck" was born. He and the rest of the IHOP crew welcomed me into their circle readily and became the big brothers I never had.
The beauty of it is, they still are.
Because this column isn't about wistful recall of college friendships. The guys of the IHOP graduated and got jobs and married and had children and the circle kept expanding, never breaking, until today.
Mr. Pettit and I traveled on the outskirts of that circle during his military years, when his service took us far away from our Palmetto roots. But we stayed in touch with the gang, and when we finally moved back to the East Coast we were welcomed back into the fold.
We attended Carolina football games together and went to Buck's 50th birthday party in Connecticut. No doubt some of his guests questioned the decorations on his cake: A giant garnet and black bird (USC's mascot, the gamecock) alongside the Confederate battle flag. But Buck liked it and everyone, Rebel and Yankee alike, had a grand time.
Buck seemed to carry grand times with him. He had a kind of Santa Claus twinkle to his eyes when he smiled. It was Buck who flagged down some random vehicle---I'm not even sure it was a cab---and insisted that the eight of us should pile in when the heat became oppressive as we toured Washington, D.C. When we reached our destination we tumbled out like clowns at a circus.
Later on we let him pick the restaurant for dinner, something we quickly regretted when we realized a meal at the steakhouse would equal the cost of a week's worth of groceries. Buck brushed aside our whining and talked about how great his steak was.
Buck had a run-in with cancer years ago, back when Mr. Pettit and I were on the edge of the circle. We didn't realize how sick he had been until we moved back East. Maybe that brush with mortality accounted for his incredible joy, his wonderment at the life he had been given.
Buck loved his work and spent long hours building a successful business. He loved his Gamecocks and at our last reunion, two years ago, he was trying to figure out how the IHOP group could buy a condo overlooking the football stadium.
Our Connecticut Yankee loved his state and refused to back down from his belief that native son Gustave Whitehead beat the Wright brothers to the air by two years.
Buck loved his wife and three daughters most of all. They are the ones I'm thinking of tonight. Our friend fell ill again last fall and this time he didn't get a reprieve.
The IHOP circle has been emailing and texting for almost a month, exchanging messages about his condition. We knew hospice had been called and we've all been waiting for today, praying for Buck and for his dear family.
So now the circle is broken, at least on this side of eternity. When Buck was getting wound up about something his voice would spiral higher and higher and his words would start sliding together. We all teased him about that. I like to think that when we come together for his memorial service next week I'll almost hear his excited voice calling out, "Look at this! Look at this! You've gotta see this!"
Grace and peace, my friend.