It was late afternoon in Nacogdoches, Texas. I had been on a three day trip associated with my supervisory duties as a recruiting supervisor for the Texas Army National Guard. As I approached the armory where my office was located, I noticed Steve and Ernest, two sergeants who ran the armory, standing outside having a smoke. The three of us were the sole occupants of the facility, and I generally was never there. I waved to both and joined their conversation.
Steve told me that they were planning to leave the following morning before daybreak to attend a battalion staff meeting in Houston. Houston was 140 miles away. Courteously, I asked about their wives and children. Everybody was fine they said. Then Ernest said something to me that I would remember the rest of my life.
"Master Sergeant Thomson, have you ever had the feeling that something bad is going to happen?"
Ernest was junior to me in rank and frequently asked a variety of questions that covered the gamut from how to get promoted to advice on car loans. This kind of question was not unusual.
I replied to him, jokingly, that if he was a recruiting supervisor like I was, that he could expect something bad to happen every day! He gave me a sour look indicating that he was being serious. I asked him what he thought bad was going to happen. He replied that he felt a ”heaviness" on him, a gloomy type of feeling that had been with him all day. At that point Steve, his partner, started nodding his head as if he had the same feeling. I agreed that a few times in my life I'm sure that I had those kinds of feelings, but I couldn't precisely remember when. I went into my office leaving the two to their previous discussion.
I checked some phone messages in my office and said goodbye to Steve and Ernest who were still in serious conversation at the entrance to the armory.
The next morning was Friday. This was the day when I made my weekly report to the major on the recruiting accessions of the eleven recruiters I supervised in my East Texas territory. I called the major and opened with something humorous...then there was a long silence at the other end of the line.
"You haven't heard?" he asked.
"Haven't heard what?" I replied.
"The two guys who work there with you are dead." he said.
It was such a beautiful Friday morning that what the major continued to tell me was surreal. Steve and Ernest had been thirty miles away from Houston in their canvas topped jeep when they were rear-ended by a southbound tractor-trailer rig. The impact bent the jeep in half trapping Steve and Ernest and exploding a jerry can of gasoline, attached to the back of the vehicle. They burned to death. The driver of the rig tried to pull them out of the jeep but the flames were too intense. He could hear their last screams as they died.
After the major's call I sat at my desk for what must have been two hours doing nothing but staring at the wall. I was in shock. The phone rang again, this time it was the colonel. He informed me that since I was the senior ranking person on active duty in the Guard in Nacogdoches County that I would be the one who would be the casualty officer for Steve and Ernest's families. The next of kin notification was being handled by the Army. My duties for the next several weeks would be to help the families wade through Army bureaucracy and help them obtain the benefits that they were entitled to as active duty personnel. My immediate duty was planning the funerals...
Steve and Ernest grew up on the same dirt road in a small community outside of Jasper, Texas. Steve's family was Protestant and Ernest's family was Roman Catholic. Because of their long time friendship with each other, the families asked if the Army would mind conducting a joint burial service. It was a little complicated, but it was workable. I made the arrangements.
On Monday, the day prior to the funeral, I went by the armory to pick up my dress blue uniform which I had in my locker. Given the circumstances and seeing the reminders of Steve and Ernest all around me, I felt a little weird in the empty armory. Before leaving the armory I heard a noise in the drill hall, a spacious concrete floored room where military training assemblies were conducted. Looking up at the top of the twenty foot ceiling I spotted the source of the noise. It was a crow. It sat on a girder and looked at me momentarily and then flew towards the massive vehicle entrance in the rear. I opened the vertical sliding door and the bird flew out. I wondered how it got there. Probably through some small opening near the eaves I thought.
All during the weekend I had suffered a case of the nerves. The youth of the two sergeants and their young families was what struck me the hardest. I called an unflappable retired Air Force colonel friend of mine in San Antonio and asked if he would attend the funeral with me. One of the recruiters I supervised said that he would be there as well.
Through the splendid coordination of the Fort Polk Casualty Office with the funeral home in Jasper, Texas, the double funeral went as well as funerals go except for one hitch. Due to two families being involved, and due to the popularity of Steve and Ernest in Jasper, Texas, there was a tremendous crowd. The crowd was so large that I chose to stand outside with my recruiter who had driven down from Mineola, Texas. I wished later I had gone inside...
The funeral home was located on the main highway leading into town. It was built on the rise of a hill. Further up the hill was a small local radio station. Behind it was a 100 foot radio tower supported by tension wires that angled from all sides to the ground.
Through the open doors of the funeral chapel-that's how big the crowd was-my recruiter and I could hear the first strains of the hymn Amazing Grace. No sooner had the music started when we both witnessed a spectacular, but highly unusual, natural (?) occurrence outside of the building. A flock of black buzzards began circling the funeral home. There were several dozen of them. They flew in circles during the music, the funeral oration, and the benediction. Only when the double doors of the building were opened and the caskets were escorted out by a uniformed funeral detail of soldiers from Ft. Polk did the buzzards cease their flying. What happened next was even more unusual...
They began perching on the wires supporting the large radio tower until all the wires were covered. It looked like a buzzard's version of a Christmas tree, except for the star. That was coming. As the caskets were loaded into the hearses leading the cortege, a huge black buzzard, bigger than the rest, took the position of honor at the top of the radio tower. The buzzards remained there perfectly still with their wings spread until all the vehicles finally moved in procession towards the cemetery. It gets stranger still...
My friend Marvin, the retired colonel from San Antonio, was at the cemetery before me. He was standing with three older gentlemen who were speaking alternatively between English and Cajun French. You see southeast Texas is in the heart of Cajun country. Being busy, I waved as I went past Marvin. He jerked his thumb towards one of the headstones. On the stone was engraved the image of a deer. On another stone was an image of two hunting dogs. It was not a pet cemetery, but there seemed to be a definite passion towards engraving a likeness of one's favorite animal on the headstones.
There were two military honor guard contingents due to the fact that there were two deceased members. After the Twenty-One Gun salute and the playing of Taps, the officer in charge of both details presented burial flags to the wives and mothers of Ernest and Steve. This military ritual is slow and silent. During the silence, a crow lighted on one of the stones near the burial tent and began cawing. Just as quickly it flew away.
As everyone was leaving, the brother of Ernest who was also a member of the Nacogdoches Army National Guard unit thanked me for assisting the family. I suppose I was awkward in my response. I remembered that I just mumbled something in reply, but I certainly didn't forget his next comments.
"Did you hear him?" the brother asked.
"Who?" I replied.
"Ernest." he said.
I didn't know quite what to say so I just stood there silently.
"That crow was Ernest letting us know that everything was all right. He told a bunch of us out at the hunting camp this year that if he ever died that he would come back as a crow and let us know he was okay. It sure made us all feel better when we heard that crow today." he said. The brother turned and went back with his mother.
As Marvin and I drove the eighty miles north to Nacogdoches, Marvin turned to me and asked if I had noticed anything strange about the funeral. I told him that I had, but that my impressions might be exaggerated by a case of nerves. Marvin agreed that might be true and then went on to tell me his story.
He said that as the funeral ended, one of the old Cajun gentlemen turned to him and asked what Marvin was going to do now? Marvin replied that he was going to Nacogdoches to spend the night, then was returning to San Antonio the next morning. As quickly as Marvin spoke the words of his destination, the old gentleman reached into his bib overalls and pulled out the large claw of some type of bird and quickly scratched Marvin on the back with it. Marvin who had lived side by side with a variety of different cultures in the Far East just nodded his head towards the gentleman, as if this were normal, and then came to join me. He was as puzzled as I was about what the gesture meant.
Later, a University of Texas professor of Marvin's acquaintance said that according to some animist belief systems that Marvin had inadvertently telegraphed his future location to certain evil spirits lingering in the cemetery. The old gentleman with the claw had just counteracted the opening the incautious Marvin had given the spirits to follow him.
The deaths and funerals of Ernest and Steve occurred nearly twenty years ago. I suppose there are logical explanations to everything I have related in this story, but many times as I camp or walk in the woods of south Alabama or north Florida and happen to hear the cawing of a crow...I stop... and, I wonder... is that Ernest just letting me know ... that everything is all right?
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