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Why Memorial Day matters

At Grandview Memorial Park, Lloyd "L.C." Rice, 87, heads straight to the circle near the back. The circle is surrounded by military flags of service branches.

His legs are bowed but strong. His walk is sure. He is one tough customer.

Rice was both Navy and Army, 32 years total. He survived Pearl Harbor on board the USS Pennsylvania - among the first ships to return fire after the Japanese attack. He helped bury the dead from his and other ships.

He survived again when his ship was hit later in the war off Okinawa, Japan; 56 sailors he knew died. He helped bury the dead again.

Then Rice turned to the Army, two combat tours in Korea. He was a sergeant, a noncommissioned officer, in charge of a platoon. In wars, sergeants fight and kill. Sergeants send men to fight and kill, to live or die. That is what sergeants do.

Rice, as Memorial Day approaches Monday, looked at that grave inside the circle of honor at Grandview because it has his name on a bronze plaque. The birth year, 1923. The death year, no number.

"I sure hope it stays that way a long time," said Rice. "Not quite ready for that last number. No sir, that can wait."

Rice knows enough about death to be able to, years ago, buy his own grave and get the marker just right. Death has been a part of his life since he was 18 years old and he buried the Pearl Harbor dead.

"I got two wives here in this cemetery," Rice said. "Second one, she's right there in the same plot where I will go. Keep her company."

Rice makes it clear Memorial Day is about all those soldiers and sailors and marines he knew who died in wars. The number is in the hundreds.

"One fella in Korea, it was cold as it can get on this here earth, and he was gut shot right next to me," Rice recalled. "He calls out, 'Sarge, lookit. Got it right in the belly. What did you get for Christmas?'

"Then he dies right next to me as I am lookin' at him."

Rice talks so matter-of-factly of death as if he were ordering a cold beer. Which he did plenty in his life, and earned. His forearms have tattoos that are not the kid stuff of America in 2010.

His are tattoos he suffered through on R & R in harsh parlors, during wars after he had killed other men. Where he had seen his friends killed right next to him for the right, the freedom, of young guys who think they are tough in 2010 to get tattoos to impress ladies.

"There was another fella, the explosion from the rocket was so bad and so fast, he took three steps after his head was blowed clear off his body," Rice said. "They said it was nerves make the body keep runnin'."

Rice looked at all the names in that circle at the cemetery. All veterans or spouses. He said "artillery" when he saw the picture of cannons on a bronze marker.

He pushed tiny flags in at the grave for each one, about 20 in all.

Rice pulled out his wallet.

"Keep the picture, though it is so blurry and old you can hardly see it is a person," Rice said.

On the back of the blurry picture are words written in ink, "Little Willy 1952 Killed in Korea."

"I was his platoon sergeant," said Rice. "Anything I asked, he said, 'Can do, sergeant!' So I called us the 'can-do platoon.' One night, there is a reconnaissance mission. They were supposed to get information and come back."

Rice paused a minute at his own grave as he thought of 1952 in Korea, 58 years ago.

"Little Willy begged to go. He begged and I sent him. There was eight of them who went out. They got ambushed. One got wounded. Little Willy got killed. I sent him."

Rice is not even sure of Little Willy's last name. But for 58 years, he has carried around that picture of Little Willy. Rice will carry it as he lays the wreath upon the war dead monument in York today, at York County's Memorial Day service.

"'Round Memorial Day, I look at it," Rice said of the picture. "This day is for Little Willy."

It sure seems like Memorial Day, at a grave with L.C. Rice's name on it and no death date, is for L.C. Rice, too.

Want to go?

Two opportunities today to honor those who gave all:

2 p.m. - Unity Cemetery, 303 Tom Hall St., Fort Mill

4 p.m. - Lakeview Memory Gardens, 1774 U.S. 321, York