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    Illustration by Kendall Regan

    “Who can tell me what a veteran is?” says the teacher, Denisa Johnson. She perches on a stool in the middle of the classroom, looking down with wide wise-owl eyes at the 16 kids, all about four years old, sitting in a fidgety wreath around her on a rug. “Someone who’s in the mil…the milmil…”

    “Military!” shrieks a patriotic little sparrow. That’s right, Johnson tells the class, conducting their shrill chorus of birdsong with questions. 

    What do veterans do?

    “They protect us.” 

    “They protect the country.”

    “They keep us safe.”

     “Grandpa,” Johnson says, “is a veteran.” Thirty-two little eyes turn to the man standing just outside the circle, over by a cubby full of building blocks. A gray goatee frames the smile he gives them, his glasses — grandfatherly, flecked but too dark to call tortoiseshell — inching up his nose. Michael Williams could walk onto a Hallmark movie set right now and play a grandfather without even stopping by wardrobe. He wears a chocolate Kangol golf hat the same color as the sprinkling of freckles on his face, and an argyle sweater three shades of coffee. The words “Foster Grandparent” — his role here at the George Unseld Early Childhood Center in West Buechel — are stitched in white on the breast of his vest that’s the color of cinnamon hard candy. He’s one of some 130 participants in the Louisville Metro Foster Grandparent Program, which for more than 40 years has sent “Granny” and “Grandpa” mentors to schools, community centers, Boys & Girls Clubs and after-school programs.

    “Thank you for protecting our country!” a little one says to Williams, voice like a dentist’s drill.

    “You’re welcome,” the 63-year-old says, his deep, low voice such a stark contrast it’s almost funny. 

    “Does anyone know what branch of the military Grandpa was in?” Johnson asks. Williams answers before the children can guess. “I was in the Marines,” he says, but the kids don’t pick up on his pianissimo baritone. 

    “The Army?” a kid asks.

    “The Marines?” another says. 

    Williams almost laughs. “That’s right.”

    After a round of applause for Grandpa, Johnson sends the kids off to the various stations in the classroom — there’s a table with plastic food, a basin full of white sand and plastic bugs, the cubby full of building blocks. “If you think you’d want to be in the Army, go to a station,” Johnson says. “If you think you’d like to be in the Navy” — but it’s too late. Half the class has already giggled and swarmed up like a murmuration of starlings, only not so organized. “I guess everybody wants to be in the Army,” Johnson says before running through the other branches, just in case. Two teachers float through the room to help the kids glue strips of construction paper to tongue depressors, making American flags. Pretty soon, everyone’s waving them around. It’s a mini Fourth of July. 

    Williams joined the Marines as a young man, and he left them as a young man too. During a training exercise in boot camp, he says, he fell on a piece of shrapnel that cut through his ACL. “You might have noticed I walk with a slight limp,” the 63-year-old says. After a decades-long stint in Cincinnati, Williams moved back to Louisville in 2013 after getting laid off from a job with a company that made store displays. Struggle led to depression led to drinking led to drugs. He ended up “economy homeless,” as he says, living at Wayside Christian Mission, finding footing in the 12 Steps. “I wasn’t going to let the drugs and alcohol bore me down till I was nobody,” he says. Through a VA program, he got an apartment that happened to be only about four miles from the George Unseld center. 

    On his first day of Foster Grandparent orientation, his first thought was, “Where are all the men?!” He recalls about six of them among a garrison of grandmothers. “I would like to see more of us older men get in it,” he says.

    “If I didn’t do this, I’d be watching TV. It makes me feel useful.”

    In the classroom, a little boy and girl show him the flags they’ve made, bouncing on the balls of their feet. “Thank you, Grandpa,” they both tell him. “Thank you.”

    This originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Dylon Jones's picture

    About Dylon Jones

    Dylon Jones is a poet, essayist and journalist based in Louisville, Kentucky, where he serves as web editor of Louisville Magazine. His narrative journalism has earned him first-place awards in feature writing and profile reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2015, Sarabande Books awarded him the Flo Gault Poetry Prize. His poems appear in Tinderbox Poetry Journal and The Collagist.

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