words and image of Van Buren: Marla Cantrell
Rodney Inman, now in his mid-fifties, is a preacher’s kid. He works at a manufacturing plant in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and has done so for most of his adult life. A decade ago, his shoulder gave out, and he had a series of surgeries to correct it. He wears wire-rimmed glasses, a red ball cap, a red t-shirt, work boots. He looks like a guy who might have played football in high school. His nickname is Hot Rod.
Right now, Rodney is sitting at his desk in his office across from the Boom-a-Rang Diner on Main Street in Van Buren, Arkansas. When he speaks, his voice is soft enough that I worry my recorder won’t pick it up well. I slide the recorder across the desktop with my fingertips.
He is explaining ghosts to me, and hauntings big and small. As the head of Arkansas Ghost Hunters of Crawford County, he believes the earth houses an otherworldly dimension certain people, such as himself, can detect and navigate.
It is not without danger.
A few years ago, he answered the call of a family in rural Crawford County. They’d moved into a wicked old house. A passel of young spirits lived there, but they were not the problem. The owners could hear the young ones sometimes, milling about, their childlike voices barely audible. The owners would find things moved from where they’d left them. Harmless pranks. But they could feel another spirit as well, a dastardly phantom that frightened them to no end.
Rodney and his crew went to investigate. In the days before, they had searched historical records to see what might have happened there, if someone had been murdered, or if the land was marked with sorrow. They believe there was a battle fought in that area back in the 1800s. They had little else to go on.
It was a scratch-your-head situation until Rodney was told that the former tenants had turned their backs on God, seeking instead all the darkness they could find. Found on the property, in a wooded area, was a pentagram carved into the ground with a circle of trees around it.
When the ghost hunters arrived, Rodney did what he always does; he asked God to protect him from evil. Inside, the air was heavy, a force that pushed against his limbs that felt leaden as he walked. The crew took out their instruments, special recorders, and cameras designed to pick up an orb of ghostly light unseen by the naked eye, or a sound not typically heard.
Rodney says one of the women in that group could communicate with ghosts. She talked to the youngsters who reported something ominous had happened to their mother. The apparitions were looking out the window calling to her. They seemed to be from an earlier time, again, from the 1800s. Whatever had befallen their mother, whether at the hands of man or a wild beast, her spirit had moved on.
Rodney’s team regrouped and came up with a plan. They would return (in the light of day) to cleanse and bless the house, a ritual that should chase the evil spirit away and free the young ones to move on.
Included in the group was an ordained minister.
Once they returned, Rodney used salt, thought to have purifying properties, on the doorways, window frames, the edges of rooms. He did this cautiously, leaving a corner in the back bedroom, effectively trapping the menacing spirit in a corner. A boom came next, breaking the quiet of the day, slamming like a rock that rocketed against the side of the house.
At the same time, one of the team members said she saw the spirit, a dark form like a man, fly to the doghouse outside.
Part of the process to cleanse the house used sage and cedar incense, and Rodney, his heart now a drum that beat too fast, asked those with him to bring their tools. They met at the doghouse, circled the structure, and continued their work.
Soon, there was a whooshing sound from the entrance of the doghouse, as if something were slicing through the opening and taking flight. Above, in the trees that stood sentry from the house to the woods, Rodney says a murder of crows had landed, forming a row of ebony witnesses. As the spirit sailed by, one crow after another called out, not in a typical “caw” sound. Instead, they squawked, one after another in their scratchy bird voices, “There he goes. There he goes.” When the evil was finally past the tree line, the crows grew silent.
Inside the house, all that cloying weight had been lifted. The air moved easily through the open door. It felt as if the property had been covered by a raging storm system that dissipated in an instant.
The woman who’d been communicating with the children said, “They’ve gone out the door.” Flying away in the exact opposite direction of the evil spirit.
A week later, the homeowners reported no additional sightings. Peace had been restored. No more reason to dread the hours when darkness fell.
While that house was frightening, Rodney says he’s not typically afraid of what lies in the ether around us. Ghosts, like people, are often more good than bad. He says that mostly they are earthbound by a tragic death, by a message they still have to deliver, by an unwillingness to move on.
Rodney says he and the other Arkansas Ghost Hunters of Crawford County were able to help, just as they do each time they’re asked, never charging for a service they see as crucial.
They also do tours of places with mysterious circumstances. On October 13 and 27, beginning at 9pm, Rodney and his team will lead a tour of the Van Buren building where the Boom-a-Rang Diner operates on the first floor. He says the building, circa late 1800s, was built by the Anheuser-Busch company. He suspects a seedier history, saying he was told by a source he finds credible that the second floor once housed a brothel. There is even a spot remaining in the diner where Rodney says the men used to deposit coins to alert the women upstairs of their presence. My calls to a well-known historian, and a member of a local genealogical society did not confirm Rodney’s information, although, the person from the genealogical society said she’d long heard the story of a brothel on that spot.
I also spoke with Krystal Cruise, a server at the Boom-a-Rang, who, after being asked if she thought the upstairs was haunted, said, “I think the whole building is haunted.” She went on to tell of hair-raising experiences, the most frightening being a moment when she was alone in the dining area and a picture “flew off the wall.” She also mentioned a photo she’d seen of a possibly Victorian-era woman dressed in red peering out the window where the kitchen/serving area is now. Rodney had showed me the exact photo just days before.
As for what Rodney has encountered on the second floor, he says their equipment has picked up spirits screaming in the hallway, a young woman letting them know she died by hanging, and another snippet of a sentence: “shot with a gun.”
None of the ghosts seem to want to move on, or the team would gladly help them do so. Instead, they listen, letting them say as much as they can. Sometimes, he thinks, that’s all they want.
In other spots along this historic avenue, ghost stories abound, and Rodney knows most of them. Some are bone-chilling. Others simple tales that could be shared around a campfire.
He sees the world not as air and ground, water and fire. It is as thinly veiled as an overcast day in October. From time to time the clouds dissipate enough to see what is beyond, as clearly as you can see the car beside you. The hand held up as a greeting. The flash of the traffic light telling you to move on.