I've been blessed to have a handful of what you might call best friends. I call them foxhole friends, those who have your back through thick or thin, up or down, in hell or high water.

But if ever there were a “best” foxhole friend, Bernie Witte might be at the top of the list. I call him Witt — the whole gang back in Frederick, S.D., did — and he calls me Bones. You know, Tony, Boney, Bones, the natural evolution of nicknames.

Even then I knew our gang was special, but over the years I've become even more certain of it. You can have friends, sure, but loyalty is another category, and that's what made our gang special.

When I was 18, back from college for Thanksgiving, Witt, along with Gare Bare, Al Cat and Bulowski were riding with me at a very ill-advised rate of speed through the fog on an unfamiliar road. We'd all been drinking. I hit a railroad embankment at 85 mph. No seatbelts.

We all lived — a miracle — but I had one of those out-of-body experiences and a choice, an ethereal voice told me, to leave this existence or go back. “I have to help my friends,” I told the disembodied voice, and in that instant, I un-slumped myself from behind the wheel, oddly at peace. But it was bedlam. Lots of blood, and we scrambled out of my 1967 Pontiac Catalina before it exploded as all wrecked cars did on television back then.

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Bulowski, bleeding from his lip, hatched a plan to tell the cops that some stranger, now on the run, had been driving. Witt, however, leaped behind the wheel to drive us all away so I wouldn't get into trouble. Witt had hit his head pretty hard. That car wasn't going anywhere.

But that's when you understand loyalty.

You can imagine how we all felt when we learned that Witt had bladder cancer, something most commonly related to smoking. Just one time, I saw him clowning with a cigarette in his mouth, and it was that night. When Gare Bare and I went to look at the car after I got out of the hospital, Witt's cigarette was pasted to the windshield with his blood. Gare retrieved the five teeth I'd lost, planning to make some kind of voodoo necklace out of it, he claimed, but for all I know they remained in his dresser drawer until he died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 2019.

I can't tell you that it hasn't been tough. Witt's endured a massive load of chemotherapy to knock the cancer back before surgery, but he's one of the toughest guys I've ever known. A 165-pound all-conference guard in football, coach of a state championship football team in Wyoming, someone who would have excelled at other sports had he not been dedicated to the family farm.

We've been texting back and forth. Having just recovered from esophageal cancer, I'm intimately familiar with the process. The waiting rooms filled with slow-walking, frail zombies, and the fear that soon enough that may be you. But, I made it to the other side, cancer-free, and I told him that he's always been tougher than me and that if anyone can beat this thing, it's him. I understand his motivations, too, because mine are the same; you want to be around for your kids, and you'll fight like hell to do that.

I believe in prayers or good vibes or positive thinking or whatever you want to call it, because many were sent my way, so do one thing when you're done reading this: Say one for my foxhole friend.

In the emergency room, it looked pretty bad with a team of doctors and nurses hovering, trying to put my head back together. You may rightfully judge whether they entirely succeeded. As I was lying there, the doors burst open. It was Witt.

Instantly, two orderlies grabbed him as he shouted, “I've got to see Bones before he dies!” They dragged him out. Minutes later the door burst open again. This time Witt dragged four people into the room. I pushed the doctors away and sat up, clamps hanging from my face, and mumbled toothlessly, “Hey, Witt, I'm going to be OK.”

He slumped happily, still bleeding profusely from his split forehead, and they dragged him out. That's loyalty. That's love. And if that counts for anything, and you know it does, Witt's going to be OK, too. But pray.

Tony Bender is a columnist in North Dakota. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of this publication, nor Forum Communications ownership.