"That's Miss Izzy," John said. "She's a pretty girl. Talk back to me, Izzy."
Izzy is one of the 100-plus tigers that call Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge home. Flip is a coatimundi, a South American version of raccoon, and Goober is a monkey.
Turpentine Creek also home to lions, panthers, bears, cougars and other animals that were adopted as pets and abandoned. They are fed and cared for by Tanya and Scott Smith and their staff with the help of a cadre of interns who consider John part of their extended family.
"They all call me Grandpa," he said.
John is actually an uncle by marriage to Scott Smith, who is the nephew of John's first wife. A former truck driver, he has worked at Turpentine Creek for a couple of years, driving the trolley for the habitat tours. It's a job John continues to do despite being diagnosed with bone cancer last year.
"I feel like I've got to keep going," he said.
Born in 1935, he grew up on a small farm in the upper Midwest where "life was all work," he said. He and his older sister walked to school in winter even when the plows had piled the snow so high, the power lines along their road were buried.
"I can hear my mother saying "Watch out for the power lines,'" he said.
In 1952, he enlisted in the Navy Reserves. His mother went to the recruiting office to sign for him because he was only 16. Attached to a reserve unit near his home, John remembers going every other week for training, then to Fort Leonard Wood for basic training. He was told when he finished that the unit would be going to the Far East Command, but John and a handful of others didn't get to go to Korea. So he put in his three years in the states, he said, receiving his discharge papers in the mail.
He put the discharge papers on a shelf of the cabin he built on 40 acres in Michigan. In the early 60s, he had a job picking up newspapers off the train and delivering them to towns along Lake Michigan. He returned home one morning to find the cabin had burned down along with everything in it, including the discharge.
"That's the last I saw of it," he said. "I probably should have done something about it at the time, but I didn't."
When he went to get a copy, he found out that a fire in St. Louis had destroyed thousands of military records, including his own. Efforts by people at the Veterans Administration to get a copy have failed, he said, as did an attempt by his older daughter in Michigan. He remembers the promises the recruiting officer made when he enlisted.
"I doesn't need a loan to build a house," he said. "I'd like to get some help from the V.A. for this cancer that I've got, but it doesn't look like that will ever happen."
In the meantime, he is losing weight. The interns take him out to dinner several times a week, but nothing tastes good, John said, and he has to force himself to eat.
"I know I'm sick, but I can't do anything about it," he said. "I can't afford it."
Coming to Turpentine Creek and helping any way he can helps, he said. Part of his job is to talk with visitors, making sure they have a good time. So he gets up in the morning, puts on his uniform and drives from his home in Berryville to the refuge, where he greets Flip and Goober, Thor the lion, Miss Izzy and the other tigers. A source of joy is seeing the animals released from enclosures with concrete floors into large, natural habitats with room to roam. For animals raised in cages, it's the first time they have walked on dirt or grass.
"It's something to watch," he said.
Only Miss Goldie, sitting under a picnic table with her head ducked under her wing, doesn't respond to John's greeting. But he doesn't care.
"I've got to speak to everyone every morning," he said. "It may sound silly, but sometimes they seem like your best friends."