In the telling of Buddy Pitman’s life story, my name hardly warrants mention. Conversely, in the telling of my life story, Buddy Pitman’s name weaves tightly.
I have known Earl Gray Pitman, Junior (Buddy), since before I was born. Buddy graduated Dothan High School in 1950. My daddy and Buddy’s wife, Delayne Riley, were two years behind him. I don’t think they were friends at that point. Acquaintances, perhaps. They became friends in the Young Married Sunday School class at First Baptist Church. They gathered at each other’s homes many, many Saturday nights. They shooed their children to “go play,” as parents used to do, and battled fierce card and ping pong games for bragging rights, whooping and hollering louder than the kids. Daddy shucked oysters. Mama and Johnny Oppert tore up the other teams at Rook and Canasta.
My first memory of Buddy Pitman is his 1960s buzz cut. I was a little afraid of him. My daddy was bald-headed. Four-year-old Celeste wondered if his hair was that way on purpose.
At some point, the Sunday School party was held at the Pitman’s new house. The lot next door was for sale. It was cheap, because a ditch sliced through the middle. My daddy was a craftsman, itching to build a house. So, he bought the lot, built the house on top of the hole, and made a basement out of the gully, designating the 1,000 square feet for decades of loud Sunday School-party laughter.
That’s really where my life converges with Buddy’s. We were neighbors, back when “neighbor” meant more than “the person whose house is next to mine,” back when “neighbor” meant “my people.”
On December 2, 1972, my Daddy, Phil King, and his neighbor, Buddy Pitman, were working in their respective backyards, listening to the Iron Bowl broadcast from their respective radio stations. By fourth quarter, Phil, whose blood ran orange and blue, was disgusted with his Tigers. He conceded Roll Tide to Buddy and asked for help loading something in his truck and unloading at his shop. Gloating, Buddy turned on the radio in Phil’s truck to listen to the remainder of the game. Bama punted. Then punted again. Phil’s cheering rocked his truck all the way to Napier Field and back. There was no finer Bama fan fit to suffer the indignities hurled by his friend. Auburn didn’t give Phil much to cheer for after that, so he ran with “Punt Bama, Punt” as long as he could.
On April 7, 1978, Buddy Pitman and Betty Kelly sang, “I Come to the Garden Alone” at Phil’s funeral.
My sisters and I had always called him “Uncle Buddy,” because that’s what ‘60s and ‘70s kids called their parents’ friends. But then, to 12-year-old Celeste, he had to live up to his title. (Phil’s brother was also called Buddy. The King Girls had an “Uncle Buddy” and an “Uncle Buddy Pitman.” Most of the world called him Buddy Pitman anyway.)
My husband Chuck called him The Information Super Highway for his ability to know everything about everybody in the Wiregrass, gleaned from daily trips to the post office.
My two-year-old son Phillip called him Pippin. My family moved into the house Phil built for Lanell when Mama became unable to live alone. Thus, the second King generation grew up eating banana popsicles in the shade of their dogwood and hunting plastic eggs every Easter.
About 15 years ago, I spied Buddy cleaning off his roof. I hollered, “Get down from there! Don’t you know you’re an old man?!?!”
A couple years after that, he fell off a ladder, landed on his backside, and broke his back. As he laid there, calling for Delayne, he told me later that he heard my voice on replay, “Get down from there! Don’t you know you’re an old man?!?!”
I told him, for my whole life, I’ve wanted the last word, a feat hard to win against quick-witted Buddy Pitman.
He recovered from the broken back, but it spurred the search away from their split-level house. And sadly, away from our family. Not literally, but physically. And physically leads to literally.
My sister Angie came for a visit last summer. She said, “I just want to look at them.” We went to their “new” house and sat in the car, while they stood in the driveway repeating, “Won’t y’all come in?!”
“No,” we said, from behind our masks, wishing for banana popsicles. His words were a little slow, but his mind was not.
I can see him now, already holding court at the Pearly Gates Post Office.
I don’t want to live in a world without Buddy Pitman. But I got the last word.
Rest in peace, Pippin.
Celeste King Conner cherishes her people. Tell her about your people at email@example.com.