Especially in the fall, Putnamville, IN, is an idyllic little spot in the road, typical of many tiny towns along the Old National Highway in west-central Indiana. Basked in golden autumn sunlight and decorated by splendid dying foliage, the little hamlet and surrounding farmland could have been plucked from a Currier and Ives print and pasted onto the Putnam County landscape. Beneath the sheen and warmth, though, there is an undeniable melancholy to this little burg that makes the proliferation of “ghost light” stories neither surprising nor without charm. That I dismissed these yarns with the wave of a hand speaks more to my cynicism than the veracity of the good people relating the tales.
You see, Putnamville is uniquely situated, spatially, historically, and, well, yes, spiritually. Next door to the town proper are a race track, a limestone quarry, a lonely railroad track, and a correctional institution. Directly across U.S. Hiighway 40 is the oldest continually operated church in the state. Just down the road is the county seat’s de facto city cemetery, replete with the grave of the tragically headless Pearl Bryan. All around and in between are the gently rolling hills of Indiana farmland that simultaneously evoke thoughts of “Hoosiers” and “Children of the Corn”. The area was deeply invested in the thoughts and mores of the Civil War era, and those sensibilities are almost palpable as you scan the countryside. My own home, built in 1864, features the macabre “widow’s walk” on the roof that allowed wives to scout for Union officials coming to deliver the news of spousal demise. That the War ended before our lookout could possibly have been used for its intended purpose does little to diminish the prevailing sense of dread that colored the lives of those who settled and nurtured this region.
Upon moving to the area a few years ago, I knew little of this character that I have come to embrace, but my neighbors were soon bombarding my family with stories of mysterious lights that could be seen in various Putnamville locales. A brief, faint glow in the window of an abandoned house, pinpoints of light in the woods, phantom lanterns on paths through surrounding fields: none of them had ever been seen directly by the storytellers, themselves, but uncles and best friends and passing visitors certainly had been alternately intrigued and terrified by the spectral visions for decades. Explanations ranged from UFOs to fairies to derailed ghost trains to good old Pearl searching about by candlelight for her missing cranium. (Why would a headless person need any kind of light source, anyway?). I always listened politely and excused myself from the conversation as quickly as possible, generally indulging in a mild eye roll as I walked away. Let me assure you, dear reader, that my eyes have now been set to permanent agape mode when it comes to such matters.
One balmy September evening, not long after the autumnal equinox, my school-aged son and I decided to set out and explore our property a bit. As so often happens with fathers and sons, we got a bit off course, lost track of time, and generally lost the world for awhile. Because long summer days too soon fade to quick autumn sunsets, though, we presently found ourselves in near blackness. By the last rays of the day, we were able to set ourselves back toward home, confident that we could fumble safely through the impending darkness. Only, as it turns out, a moonless, starless sky didn’t mean total blackness for us that night.
A few moments after starting our journey home in earnest, I briefly glimpsed what I thought to be a pinpoint flash of light directly in front of us, though how far in front I could not say. As usual, I brushed this aside, dismissing it as the remnants of a long day in the office. That the non-existent light continued to flash occasionally as we drew closer to home, and may have even pulsed or undulated a couple of times, unsettled me only slightly more, until my son chimed in: “Daddy, what’s that light up there?”
I tried to persuade my boy that there was no light. Just an overactive imagination, I said, half to my son and half to myself. Soon enough, though, there was no denying that there was some unknown source of illumination in our path, alternating from white to orange in a Morse Code of uncertainty that seemed to be telling us to come closer … or warning us to back away.
As a fearless nine-year-old, my son doesn’t always understand what constitutes a dangerous situation, and so, with a rebel yell, he grabbed a stick and waved it around wildly as he ran headlong toward our destination and an uncertain destiny. “Let’s see what that is!” Before I could object or even speak, I inexplicably stooped to grab a handful of walnuts for weapons (against what, I know not) and was sprinting to keep up with and protect my young seed. I remember thinking during that fateful run that there was probably nothing to be worried about because my wife had probably come home a day early from her trip to see family and, not finding us inside, had grabbed a flashlight and ventured out to find us. That thought quickly faded as my sneaker finally touched the edge of our lawn, and my heart thudded to a stop as my son was suddenly swallowed up in a cascade of blinding, ethereal light, and then so was I. Then darkness.
When my wife clomped up the stairs the next morning, I sat up with a start, astounded to be in bed in my pajamas. Thankfully, the brush with Putnamville lore from the night before had been just a nightmare. I jumped up and ran to the landing to greet her, just in time to find her telling my son not to bring things in from outdoors. He looked at her confusedly, dropping the stick from his hand to the floor. Turning toward me, my wife greeted me with, “And you need to take those walnuts back outside!”. They fell in a pile beside the stick.