The Rev. Fred Bowermaster closed his eyes, rubbed thumbs slowly against index fingers to summon up the spirit guides and, breathing deeply, took my hand in his own.
"Immediately I was impressed by your family tree ... I feel as though you were searching for information about your family ... I am not seeing an easy way around this ... I see a wall ... The information you will find not by records, but through friends ... I see an old black man who has the information ... I also see a faint name, Alma, someone who helped around the house, like a maid. She has a lot of notes written in her diary ... It is in an old leather thing, like a briefcase, with a big metal clasp, two handles, like a carpetbagger's bag."
"Her name is Alberta," I said. As for a satchel stuffed with illuminating jottings, she has, as they say here at the Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Campmeeting Association north of Orlando, "gone over to the other side." In other words, she's dead.
Nevertheless, this former D.C. cop, Army marksman and party boat operator urged me to go to her home and ask to see her papers. I didn't have the heart to tell him Alberta wasn't much of a recreational scribe, or that the fog enshrouding my family tree was probably the Holocaust. Just keep charting my psychic map, I thought.
Welcome to Cassadaga, a sleepy little village of narrow lanes and ancient trees hung with Spanish moss, of a simple church with Sunday "message services" transmitted by psychics to worshipers, of a Spirit Pond and modest bookstore, and a small hexagonal edifice, complete with wheelchair ramp, where hands-on healing is conducted several times a week.
For almost a century, the Campmeeting, which occupies only part of this quaint hamlet, has been home to a wondrous assortment of spiritualists: dowsers, palmists, channelers, faith healers, tarot readers, clairvoyants, clairaudients, astrologers, table levitators and past life retrogressors, men and women who will, for a fee, look backward or forward in time and across spirit planes to re-create the past or forecast the future.
Just 35 miles northeast of Orlando on I-4, Cassadaga (rhymes with Pass a Vega) is light years from the high-tech and high-tack of Disney World, Sea World, Hubcap World, Piano World, Parrot World and all the other Worlds that keep central Florida just a zoning variance away from Mondo Gonzo.
Cassadaga also may just be the area's best-kept secret, though not for long. Hundreds of New Age seekers and Harmonic Convergers from around the world are beginning to discover the part of town that still looks as if Norman Rockwell, not Shirley MacLaine, slept here. Do not expect dusky ladies with gold teeth, flowered babushkas and Transylvanian accents, or wizened old men with crystal balls and flowing robes. Today's practitioners of yesterday's arts look just like us, even if they are frequent flyers on the astral plane. But while this may look like Main Street U.S.A., its chief draw is its otherworldliness.
"Your work is completely covering up your personal life ... There are times you don't have a personal life and that excludes men, friends, everyone ... You would climb a rope ladder through a waterfall for information ... The ladder turns over but you stay right on it ... When you get onto something, you are like a pit bull ... It wouldn't matter if Burt Reynolds walked in. You probably wouldn't notice," the Rev. Bowermaster continued.
I stopped him right there, anxious to know if Burt or some other hunk might be lurking about my solo life.
"No, but there is someone who symbolically is walking along the edge of your pathway, close enough for you to slow down. You know this person but they are going to hold their position until they feel it is the right time, or they are invited in," Bowermaster said.
So it went for almost an hour, with Bowermaster suggesting I search for a locket containing a woman's picture, that I finish whatever opus was keeping romance at bay, that a project I'm currently contemplating is so inventive it is symbolized by an eight-foot-long fluorescent tube rather than your garden variety light bulb and, lastly, that my aura, that multicolored manifestation of spirit and self, was a trifle "mushed" between red and orange, indicating possible allergies.
In 1875, George P. Colby left the Cassadaga Lakes region of upstate New York and came south in search of better health. Camping out one night with more than 200 northerners in a primitive, unsettled part of the state, Colby dreamed that an Indian named Seneca told him the area would one day be the center of spiritualism, a subject in which the ailing mystic already had a strong interest.
Twenty years later, Colby, by then a successful lumberman, deeded 35 acres of land around what today is the town of Lake Helen to a nonprofit association called the Southern Cassadaga Campmeeting Association.
The first major gathering of mediums (media?) was held in 1894 and drew spiritualists from all over the country. By the 1920s and 1930s -- when physical mediumship that included table tipping and summoning of voices from the dead had given way to mental mediumship that included glimpses into the past and future -- the tents had been replaced by frame homes, a church and even a hotel, though this latter structure was recently converted into a nursing home.
Thus the faithful could live, practice and study spiritualism year-round. Today, 80 resident psychics live within the campgrounds in houses ranging from immaculate to dilapidated, on grounds pristine to trashy.
The residents are quick to note that only those on the south side of County Road 4139 are members of the Campmeeting, and quicker to imply that the folks across the street may not be quite up to spiritual snuff. Such is to be expected in the free marketplace, where, if nothing else, the Camp dwellers are better organized. They have, for example, compiled a directory, complete with map, phone numbers, calendars of upcoming events and even ads from mediums and churches in other parts of the country. The book is almost essential for making appointments, because many of the mediums schedule sessions weeks or months in advance, and walk-ins must take their chances with whoever has a free hour. (The booklet is available free by writing to the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp, P.O. Box 319, Cassadaga, Fla. 32706, although association president Phoebe Rose-Bergin suggested a 25-cent donation might be helpful.)
Actually, choosing a medium is considered the first psychic act a person can commit on his or her own path toward enlightenment here, and the uninitiated are urged to rely on whatever spiritual vibes may be guiding them toward a reader. One seeker stopped first at the cemetery outside the Camp to study tombstones, some dating back to the 1820s. The name Myers kept reappearing, and when he entered the camp, he requested time with Lillian Myers, a medium he later said "tightened all my ropes, told me things that were right on target."
Some psychics say they are not interested in "proving" themselves to clients, preferring to help those who seek advice on finances, relationships, careers and health. "This is not Ripley's Believe It or Not," says one, while another says simply, "I'm not here to guess what color your house is, or what you had for breakfast."
If Campmeeting mediums are booked, there are practitioners across the street at the Universal Center of Cassadaga and at the Cassadaga Spiritualist Psychic Therapy Center. These folks also offer the full range of services, from $20 mini-readings that last under half an hour to $75 past-life retrogressions.
Two skeptical German photographer friends and I went to Cassadaga in late September with no appointments and two missions: to write about this quaint corner of the world and to learn a thing or two about my future, having less than no interest in discovering whether I was nobility or scullion in previous incarnations. Neither hard-core skeptic nor true believer, I had first seen a psychic 20 years earlier, and twice since consulted Washington astrologer Caroline Casey, who each time urged me to quit writing and get into television. Are you listening Sam Donaldson? Aaron Spelling?
In Cassadaga I did not know what I wanted to know, only that I wanted to hear astounding things -- names, dates, places, events and prophecies that could only be known to someone of extraordinary powers. Instead, I got generalities, suggestions, admonitions, some close enough to warrant rumination, some so odd as to assure lively dinner-table chatter for months to come. For sure, I got my money's worth.
The first person to see me was the Rev. Alberta Moore, 42, an amiable woman who reads at the non-Camp Psychic Therapy Center. I told her what I told all her colleagues over two days: that I am a Washington writer with an open mind.
Moore said she discovered her spiritual powers as a child, knowing which of her family's farm animals would die and which would live. She now picks up human vibes from visual, aural and sensory signals. Moments into our session, her hands were at her throat. She suggested I take care of my vocal cords and look out for foot trouble. She envisioned me in New York and said she saw TV cameras and much travel in my future.
"Does the name Pat, Patty or Peggy mean anything to you?" she asked, holding a gold bracelet of mine in her hands. My sister-in-law in Denver is a Patty, I told her, and Moore predicted a reunion in the near future.
Twenty dollars and 25 minutes later, having been warned to "stop being so hard on yourself, you are much more successful than you think," I went back into Camp to see the Rev. Lillian (Lollie) Weigl, 72, who, within seconds of settling into an easy chair, told my friends that her spirit guide -- a buckskin-clad, lance-wielding Indian brave -- had, as he always did when men entered the room, taken up his customary protective position in the corner.
Indians, she said, were particularly spiritual people, which is why so many of the mediums used them as "guides" in traversing the psychic world. But Weigl also relied on another unseen chap named "Jerry" to commune with my spirits for the circuitous messages she was receiving.
Eyes closed, hands gripping the arms of her chair, the grandmotherly-looking Weigl noted that by next March or April I would find myself in an "arid area," two words I would not have used initially for the Super Tuesday primaries but increasingly apt if one considered the current political chaos out there.
"Stay away from airlines that start with the letter A," she cautioned, adding quickly that she saw no fiery wreckage. Still, I shall think twice before booking on Aeroflot, American or Alitalia.
Like Moore, Weigl put me in New York, but she also saw me doing investigative work near the Great Wall of China, apologized that there was "no big, blond handsome Norwegian" to sweep me off my feet anytime soon, suggested that someone name Ben or Benjamin was worried I was living beyond my means, that an older gent in my life might be suffering from circulatory or digestive problems and that I was quite fond of a small person named Emily, around whom she saw many little dancing feet.
The only elements that sounded remotely familiar were New York, a place I'd move to the instant someone tripled my current salary, and Emily, my favorite 9-year-old dervish.
Weigl refused payment, saying we had hardly chatted long enough. She explained that while she does not give readings to strangers over the phone, she does conduct long-distance sessions for longtime clients around the country. Like other mediums in the Camp, Weigl had to be approved by a board before she could hang out her shingle. And though she and her husband own their cozy, knickknack-filled home, they only lease the land on which it sits. She showed me through the backyard and pointed to an open gate that would lead to the home of my next medium, the Rev. Phoebe Rose-Bergin.
Seated in her glassed-in porch decorated with such disparate spiritual objects as a red plaster Buddha, a picture of Jesus and a crystal pyramid, she said that would-be psychics study two to four years before obtaining Cassadaga certification. (Classes are given regularly in the Camp by several of the residents.) But that does not guarantee immediate access to the Camp, since there are fewer homes than prospective homeowners willing to pay from $23,000 to $80,000 for shelter. The curriculum includes the history of spiritualism; mediumistic and psychic skills; ethics, to encourage confidentiality and discourage medical diagnoses that could lead to malpractice suits; and public speaking, to maximize effectiveness during the Camp's frequent Medium Nights, Gala Days and Psychic Fairs.
Rose-Bergin, whose staccato New York accent was curiously at odds with the sleepy, southern ambiance here, remembers her mother conducting seances in the living room. "She'd go into trances, but she never did get that trumpet to rise," said Rose-Bergin, referring to the midair floating of a tin horn through which voices of the dead become audible to the living. She is much more interested in the here and now.
Saying I was yearning to find my religious roots, she, too, placed me in New York, in a cathedral. She saw me kneeling in prayer lighting candles, my head covered wih a black lace shawl. Far be it from me to tell her we don't genuflect in synagogue. She also had me studying Italian, going to an old battlefield with low stone walls and going to San Francisco for photography-related work before heading into the wine country on holiday.
"I also see a large letter 'H' from the other side of the spirit world, a Helen or Hilda. She has a hearing problem and you are shouting at her," Rose-Bergin said. My late mother was named Helen, but it was she who usually did the yelling, I thought.
Actually, the most startling revelation I got was about said mother, delivered by Fred Bowermaster, whom I saw twice. The family tree/pit bull/fluorescent light scenario came during the first session, which I cut short for a quick visit to the Rev. Gladys Reid, a faith healer who lays on hands several times a week in a small building not far from Spirit Pond.
At 73, the silver-haired Reid is refreshingly blunt. Though she said she has healed "in the thousands" among the ailing and infirm, she frankly admitted that for some, "when the time comes, regardless of what you do, it's just time for them to make the transition."
Applying cool, smooth hands to my head, which by then was pounding (could it be my "mushed" aura acting up?), Reid progressed down my spine and over hips and kneecaps in under three minutes, as restful music played on a cassette in the sweltering healing center. Alas, there was no relief, probably because faith healing, by definition, requires more faith than I could muster.
The afternoon ended at Chez Bowermaster, where Fred and his wife June are fixing up an old house that, for now, is unlikely to win anyone's landscaping or design award. Tall weeds barely camouflaged the pickup truck, motorboat, dirt bike, camper top, tool shed and rusting table and chairs that littered the lawn.
Our first session took place in a musty room just large enough for a desk, two chairs and a bookcase crammed with old tomes. I declined an offer during the second session to have a past-life retrogression in the cluttered living room, where subjects lie back in a lounge chair facing an electric organ and mantelpiece sporting a pair of murky lava lamps.
Once hypnotized by whisperings about a pine forest and brook, subjects are asked to describe, among other things, their footwear (high button shoes or gladiator sandals, for example) and their bathrooms (outdoor privy, thermal spring) for clues on the era and locale of the previous life. As we chatted about the need for peering into yesteryear as a means of explaining today's phobias and foibles, Bowermaster grew solemn and suggested we repair to the stuffy study.
"The lady who raised you was not your natural mother," he finally blurted out, insisting that the woman I called Mom "loved you very much anyway. She just couldn't have children." His wife concurred in that assessment, based solely on her spirits and the timbre of my voice.
I managed a weak smile and promised to run this news past my 82-year-old father, whose circulatory and digestive systems were already much on my mind. Back in Washington I asked him whether there wasn't something he had been meaning to tell me. When he looked puzzled, I related the Bowermaster revelation.
"I guarantee you that she is your mother. I may not be your father, but she's your mother," he finally said with a burst of uncharacteristic humor. I believe him. But just to be on the safe side, I made him an offer:
"Next time you're in Florida, Daddy, why not go to Cassadaga. Maybe you'll discover you were Louis XIV."
Anne Groer is a Washington correspondent for the Orlando Sentinel.