Reid Dice was a 24-year-old railroad switchman in Pine Bluff, Ark., lying in bed after having six teeth pulled when the summons came, ordering him to play a defining role in American history.
It was September 1957, and Dice's National Guard unit had just been federalized in a dramatic desegregation move by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
So Dice got up, got into military gear and he and his unit were transported 35 miles to Central High School in Little Rock. They set up tents on the football field and blocked off a perimeter around campus.
And for that academic year they helped protect the civil rights of nine black children who'd dared cross the color barrier for the first time and enroll in the all-white school.
"That's one of the few things I was fortunate enough to be in on," Dice said last week. "I call it making history."
Dice is 78 now, long retired from an Army career, and in the final stages of a terminal lung condition. He resides in Newport News. When his caregivers at Odyssey Hospice asked what he'd most like to be remembered for, his memory roved back six decades to the Little Rock Nine.
So he sat in a recliner with a plaid blanket across his lap, clear oxygen tubes strapped to his head, to tell his story in gasping, animated, bright-eyed breaths.
Just three weeks before Dice deployed, other Arkansas Guardsmen had already been sent to Central High by segregationist Gov. Orval Faubus — but they were under orders to keep black students out.
News photos of uniformed soldiers and a jeering, spitting mob of whites blocking black children from the school jarred the nation, and the world.
After more attempts were repelled by violence, the mayor of Little Rock appealed to Eisenhower to send in federal troops. So on Sept. 24 the president deployed 1,200 paratroopers of the 101st Airborne out of Kentucky, then issued an executive order removing 10,000 Arkansas National Guardsmen from Faubus' command.
The next day, the nine black students were escorted past enraged white protestors and into the school by Screaming Eagles with fixed bayonets.
It was unprecedented — sending in regular Army troops to desegregate a public school. Some feared it would spark a second civil war.
By November, the paratroopers were sent back to Kentucky, leaving the guardsmen, then restationed to nearby Camp Robinson, to secure the campus for the rest of the school year.
"Our mission," Dice says, "was to keep the peace."
They set up guards on surrounding streets, at every school entrance and hallway. They made regular roving Jeep patrols. Unlike the paratroopers, they didn't escort each black student to and from school or between classes.
Only once did Dice feel a real threat. On Jeep patrol one night, he said, a group of "really large guys" climbed into a car and began to follow him "like they were trying to get us cornered off somewhere." He radioed fellow guardsmen stationed in the nearby school gymnasium.
The vehicles stopped and the large guys approached the Jeep on foot. Just then a column of guardsmen rounded the corner from the direction of the school, double-time, bayonets fixed. The large guys got back in their car and left.
Dice says he doesn't recall much "unrest" inside the school itself, but certainly the Nine did. In reports over the years, they recollected harassment, threats, attacks from fellow students.
One black student, Melba Pattillo, had acid sprayed in her face. Another, Minnijean Brown, endured such chronic abuse that, of all the students, it's her name Dice remembers best.
"She was always in some amount of trouble with other students," Dice says. "Always."
Once, Minnijean had to be rescued from the girls' bathroom, where white students were dunking her head in a toilet.
"I don't know if they were trying to drown her or just scare her," Dice says.
Minnijean was feisty. In December, a white student blocked her path in the school cafeteria, so she dumped a bowl of chili on him. She was suspended for that.
In February, a white girl slugged her with a purse weighted with six combination locks, so Minnijean called the girl "white trash." For that, Minnijean was expelled.
"I was scared to death," Minnijean Brown-Trickey, now 69, told The Washington Post in 2008. "We didn't cry. Not a single one of us cried. Publicly."
In May 1958, Ernest Green became the first black student to graduate from Central High. Martin Luther King Jr. attended the commencement.
The National Guard's role at Central High was over, but not the mission to desegregate.
That September, the Arkansas legislature granted Faubus the authority to close public schools to avoid integration and lease the buildings to private school corporations. And Arkansans voted overwhelmingly to oppose integration — 129,470 to 7,561. So Little Rock closed its public high schools for the year.
In 1959, a federal court forced the schools to reopen, and two of the Little Rock Nine returned to Central High for their senior year.
By then, Dice had found he loved military life, and joined the regular Army. He retired in the late 1960s, returned to Pine Bluff and rejoined the National Guard. In 1979 he relocated to Hampton Roads, where he worked for 20 years in hotel maintenance.
Just before Eisenhower federalized him, Dice says, a longtime friend in Pine Bluff invited him to join the Ku Klux Klan.
"And he declined," said Brenda Cobb of Odyssey Hospice. "He said, 'I'm gonna go into the schools. You need not ask me again.'"
Dice had grown up playing marbles with black and white kids in his front yard in Pine Bluff. In the Guard, he served with black soldiers. Integration wasn't an alien or threatening concept.
It took some whites in the South a little longer to get there, he says. To overcome behaviors and prejudices "they had been taught all of their life."
Little Rock in 1957 was a pivot point for Dice. For others, a lesson learned.
Contact Dietrich at email@example.com or 757-247-7892.