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.
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.