If you hear a more disturbing, more distressing designation than this one, please keep it to yourself; I don’t want to hear it: “Unclaimed WWII veteran.”
That jarring word combination was in an announcement in my email inbox this week: “Unclaimed WWII veteran to receive funeral services.”
“Funeral services for Eddie Houston, 96, of Austin are set for 10:00 AM Wednesday May 9, 2018 at the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery with Military Honors,” it said. “Mr. Houston was a U.S. Army Veteran and served in World War II. He died on April 13, 2018 in a local hospice.”
He had no known family to claim his body and to arrange for a funeral and burial. But he had Darlene Crawford.
Everybody should have a Darlene Crawford, especially folks whose life might otherwise end with a horrible word like “unclaimed” near their name. Perhaps even more especially, folks who served our nation.
The story of how these two lives crossed is a story about neighbors. Houston lived three houses down from Crawford’s family on East Austin’s Deloney Street when she was growing up.
“We used to pass by there going to school,” she said of the house in which Houston lived.
Crawford, now 61, grew up, moved near LBJ High School and eventually retired after a 30-year career at Austin State Hospital.
“But I would come back there,” she said of Deloney Street. “You know how you just go back through your neighborhood.”
About eight years ago, she noticed a for-sale sign on the Deloney Street house that Houston long had rented.
“Then I passed by again and I saw the sign was off. I stopped by there and read a paper that the city of Austin left there, that they were going to condemn that house that he was in,” Crawford said.
Doing nothing was not an option.
“I just couldn’t leave him outside, so I brought him here,” she said as we sat in the living room of her home.
He stayed with her and her granddaughter for about a week while Crawford found him an apartment near Webberville Road.
Why? I asked. Why did you feel responsibility for this long-ago neighbor?
“I don’t know,” she said in her low-key way. “I’m a God-fearing woman. I said I was going to take him as a mission. And that’s what I did. I just said I’m going to get this man a home because, like I said, we knew him growing up and he was kind of like a little stubborn.”
When he moved to that apartment she had found for him, Crawford recalled thinking, “My mission was over with because I got him a place.”
But her mission wasn’t over. Houston, living on Veterans Affairs and Social Security benefits, didn’t have enough income to qualify for the apartment. So, Crawford said, “I had to sign a paper that he’d have $300 extra.”
And the mission continued when Crawford realized Houston was beyond the paperwork of paying his bills and handling daily tasks like that.
“I knew he wouldn’t get it taken care of,” she said.
Crawford said Houston told her that he never married and had no children. He once gave her contact info for some nieces, but they couldn’t be found. She said he talked with pride about his 1942-46 service in the Army.
“He liked watching TV a lot,” Crawford said, noting that auto racing was his favorite. “He knew the Bible. But I tried to get him to church, but, you know, he didn’t go to church.”
Houston, who had worked as a custodian for about 20 years at a downtown hotel, battled prostate cancer over the years. Crawford said she visited or spoke with him almost every day.
Back in April, on Easter, she called to say hello. “I said, ‘How you doing?’ He said, ‘I had to crawl to the phone.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I couldn’t walk.’”
“Saturday, he was OK,” Crawford said. “But Sunday when I went over there, he was sitting on the chair. I called the ambulance. He never came back.”
Houston went to St. David’s Medical Center. Knowing the end was near, Crawford met with a hospital chaplain who put her in touch with Robert Falcon, owner of Affordable Burial and Cremation Service.
Falcon provides no-cost services, including a casket, for homeless and unclaimed people who otherwise might wind up buried as an indigent. “That’s not something for anybody who served our country,” he said, “especially during World War II.”
The VA was contacted and a burial at the Killeen cemetery was arranged. Meanwhile, Crawford continued her mission.
“I went and bought him a suit and took it to the hospice,” she said. “The next day he passed.”
Eddie William Houston will be buried in that suit on Wednesday with military honors after an Austin-Killeen procession that will include a Patriot Guard escort.
“I told him I would take care of him,” Crawford quietly told me. “I told him you don’t have nothing to worry about.”
I asked if she had any photos of Houston. She did, but first she wanted to show me something. She laughed warmly while she scrolled her phone to look for it.
“Look at this here,” she said. “This is Eddie. Watch this. You can hear what I’m asking him. It made me feel good.”
It was a brief video recorded three days before he died. Houston was weak, down to about 78 pounds.
“Wink your eye if you can hear me,” she said to her fading friend on the now-treasured video.
And he did.
“Close your eyes if you love me,” she said.
And he did, firmly and affirmatively.
Unclaimed? No way. Proclaimed. Acclaimed. But, thanks to a woman who cared, not unclaimed.
“That’s what I promised him, that I would take care of him,” Crawford said. “Like I said, when Wednesday comes, then my mission is over with him.”
Wednesday came, bright and sunny as the Patriot Guard motorcycle escort followed the white 1956 Cadillac hearse that took Houston to his final resting place in Section Four of the vets’ cemetery in Killeen.
It was sad that there was no family at the brief service. But it was uplifting that some people who never knew him showed up.
The military funeral included handing Crawford the American flag that had draped her friend’s casket. After the service, folded flag in her left arm, she stood by herself at that simple casket for a moment.
“Mission accomplished,” she acknowledged.
World War II veteran Eddie Houston’s funeral is set for 10 a.m. Wednesday at the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery in Killeen. The funeral procession will begin at 8:40 a.m. at High Pointe Baptist Church, 12030 Dessau Road in Northeast Austin.