Sept. 5 started with a routine patrol in the village of Udkheyl, snug to the skinny ribs of Kabul, Afghanistan.
Tim Sweatt, a Rock Hill banker until he was thrust into active duty in the Army National Guard, left the plywood hut that is home, strapped on his helmet, and grabbed his machine gun. He remembered to stash a camera, and the young enlisted men who depend on this staff sergeant to stay alive followed him.
From the shadows slipped Afghan kids. A tiny boy, maybe 3 or 4, barefoot, whose name nobody knows, followed the soldiers from South Carolina's 218th brigade. The clack of metal and the cadence of boots on the sandy alley was the only sound.
Without asking, silently, that little boy's left hand found Sweatt's 42-year-old gloved right hand. He grabbed the pinkie finger of a soldier who has 22 years in the military. The finger that 4-year-old Callie Sweatt and Raleigh Sweatt, who just turned 2, tugged so many times.
Sweatt walked on. The boy would not let go.
Kids shaking hands with soldiers, reaching out for candy or reassurance, isn't that rare in Afghanistan. But this kid was different. Sweatt gave the camera to one of his soldiers, told the enlisted man to shoot pictures.
"It must have been two blocks, more, and he just held on," Sweatt said of the little boy.
In his few months in Afghanistan, Sweatt has learned enough of the Afghan language to get by in a pinch, but he didn't understand what the boy finally said in rapid-fire words. Finally, the boy looked up at him and smiled.
"I didn't need any words to know the meaning of that smile," said Sweatt the father.
The patrol ended, and the little boy melted back into the shadows of war.
The picture remains.
Sweatt has that picture on his laptop computer, near the pictures of his own children and wife. Callie tells people her father is "at Army work."
The day Sweatt and more than 100 other local soldiers left the Rock Hill armory for Afghanistan, April 19, Callie climbed aboard a bus filled with soldiers and demanded one last hug from her father. It was beautiful, and awful, and I will never forget it.
I wrote a story about it, every detail, so that I wouldn't cry about what I saw that day.
Raleigh was there that day, too, watching his father leave.
"The picture reminds me of a picture of me and Raleigh, walking on the sand at Myrtle Beach last summer," Sweatt said.
Myrtle Beach or Kabul, little boys grab a man's pinkie and know that they are protected. That man is their father, or not.
Melia Sweatt takes care of her two children and works, and waits. Tim Sweatt takes care of young men and little kids and thinks of grass.
His Rock Hill front yard. In shadow.
"Walking barefoot, with Callie and Raleigh," Sweatt said.
The daughter holding the left pinkie, the son holding the right. Melia the wife will take the picture.
Sweatt will be the protector. Just like he was for somebody else's son, in a place where every little kid whose name will never be known should find a grown man's pinkie that means everything will be all right.