Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Spirits and other fun people

Spiritualism, the belief that the spirits of the dead return to earth to commune with the living, was a big flapper-era fad. It popularized Ouija boards, and mediums--those who claimed to act as go-betweens who could facilitate communication with "the other side"--found a ready market among the great unwashed (and not so unwashed) American public. Most of these were debunked during the '20s by those who made it their mission to do so, thus saving the gullible from themselves; this exposure of frauds became the mission of the great magician Harry Houdini towards the end of his life, among others.

We don't hear much about it now, but a resurgence of interest in spiritualism was one of the things about the 1960s that made the decade so interesting and so much fun. Psychics once again held sway: Jeane Dixon, from right here in DC, wrote an auobiography, The Gift of Prophesy, in which she claimed accurate predicition of world events; she became a fairly regular presence on the talk shows of the time and the go-to girl for predicitions on everything from hurricane seasons to presidential elections. Jane Roberts produced a collection of books called the "Seth Series," which she claimed was dictated to her via automatic writing by an ancient spirit named Seth, who wanted to impart the wisdom of the ages to the enlightened generation of the time (read: Boomers). Ruth Montgomery, who remained active until her death in 2001, also channeled ancient spirits and wrote many popular books of predicitions of events to come and explanations of those past.

I ate all this up when I was in was in college. To me these phenomena were, and still are, not so much beliefs as tantalizing possibilities. No matter where this wisdom comes from, much of it makes sense in a down-to-earth, Ann Landers sort of way, and I can't help thinking that if people would just pay attention we might start treating each other better. I am too much of a skeptic to be snagged hook, line, and sinker on any such belief, but I love contemplating the possibilities, and I made explorations while I lived in Kentucky.

Kentucky, with its deep religious and spiritual traditions, is fertile ground for this kind of activity. Lou Spencer, my singing partner, told me about a woman in Lexington, a Mrs. Fightmaster, who did free readings. Many of Lou's friends swore by her, were regular visitors who designed their lives according to Mrs. Fightmaster's advice and predictions. I was as skeptical then as I am now, but I was also terribly curious, so I made an appointment.

A well-dressed, matronly and pleasant lady greeted me at her suburban neighborhood door. Once I got inside, the first thing I noticed was that her living room was filled with photographs that looked like a series showing the growth of a little girl into a woman. Mrs. Fightmaster told me both the girl and the woman were her daughter, who had died as a little girl many years before and made herself visible as she aged on the other side via these pictures. She demonstrated how she held photographic paper against her solar plexus and said that when the time was right, the pictures simply appeared. This was obviously her way of coping with an unfathomable loss; my heart went out to her and I said nothing to challenge her belief.

I am completely open to the proposition that anything is possible; that there is more to this existence than meets the average human eye, and that some people may have gifts that others of us do not. But when I sat down for my reading, I sensed that Mrs. Fightmaster knew she was dealing with a sightseer rather than a true believer. She tried very hard to impress me with her powers, but I was probably too much in a "testing" mode, unwilling to give her any clues about myself from which she may be able gain knowledge and present it as out of the ether. I do remember her telling me that I would have my parents with me for a very long time, and that did come true, but at the time it felt generic. She could say that to any young person and make them feel good. I was left respecting Mrs. Fightmaster's beliefs and the help she was able to give others, but not won over.

My boyfriend Ron was deeply into these phenomena--the hollers of Eastern Kentucky, with traditions of speaking in tongues and "getting the spirit," are open to them. He and his younger sister consulted the Ouija board regularly; they showed me the notes they took from their sessions. What at first appeared to be gobbledygook could actually be broken down into recongnizable words, which then coalesced into messages written in a biblical style but not necessarily from the bible. They seemed to be parables, from which it was left up to the reader to draw lessons. Ron's sister said she was psychic, and at a time when I was still a total stranger to her, I sat with her to see what she knew about me. I sat across from her at a table and she extended her right little finger, palm up. I touched the tip of her finger with my own. She concentrated very hard; I remember she described my father's red hair and the kind of car they had just bought. Then I asked her a question--I forget what--that made her think very, very hard, and she gave a little "mmph" in her effort. At the exact time of that "mmph," the lightbulb next to us exploded. I was impressed! This pretty little redheaded girl, still in high school, and not anything like a weirdo in her day-to-day life, could make lightbulbs explode with her sheer mental energy. If this was a gift, she seemed unimpressed by it. It was just something that happened sometimes.

Ron and I bought a Ouija board and started asking it questions. In the course of time, I had learned that Ouija spirits did not always have the best interests of their flesh-and-blood interlocutors at heart. Some were spirits in limbo, peeved that they hadn't yet been released to the next world, and got even by playing tricks on people, so my skepticism remained. Still, I loved the explorations into the unknown and was an eager participant, especially since Ron had such excellent "connections." Once we took the board to a cemetery and found a mausoleum with some dirt coming away from it, creating an opening--we could, if we'd had a flashlight, have looked into it. We sat next to the opening and summoned the spirit of the departed inside. His name spelled itself out on the board; then he said he would prove his existence by visiting us some night in our apartment. We laughed nervously to each other at that, and left. A few nights later Ron, scared out of his wits, swore he saw a mysterious light in the bedroom. I can't say I saw it.

I decided that the Ouija spirits had my number as a doubter the next time Ron and I sat down with the board. We positioned ourselves next to a window to allow easy entry to whomever we summoned. By this time I was worried about my life after college--would I be drafted? Would the Peace Corps come through? I asked Ouija this question of all questions, and the response spelled itself out: D-R-A-G-Q-U-E-E-N-I-N-C-I-N-C-I-N-N-A-T-I. Ron and I looked up from the board at each other. The horror in my face must have mirrored what I saw in his. This thing was talking to us and was not making nice! We threw the board away and never went to it again.

And I was never a drag queen. Anywhere.


Anonymous said...

That's an interesting story. Better stick with old blue eyes, one of my favorite songs!

Ralph said...

Glad you like the song, Z&M. I do too, but I expect to be blasted for it. So far so good.

Cuidado said...

I've had some pretty convincing moments and had some very true predictions from readers who, each time were strangers to me.

Ralph said...

Cuidado, I'm sure these powers exist and I'm just too grounded in the here and now to pursue them. Buffy Sainte Marie's line "Life's for the living and death's for them dead" always comes back to me. I figure there's time for hte next phase, whatever that turns out to be.

Anonymous said...

great story. peace corps' gain. cinncinati's loss.
greg mpls
and lounge is cool now , so frankie's ok

Ralph said...

Yeah, Greg, Cincinnati doesn't know what it missed. But when I thought "showbiz career," that wasn't what I had in mind....

Jenny said...

My comment earlier didn't seem to make it through, so I'll try again. I enjoyed hearing your Ouija board story. I lived in Cincinnati for a short time and I think you would find many other cities much more accepting of a drag queen--had you become one, of course. :-)

I enjoy Frank Sinatra, although his personality in later life often rubbed me the wrong way. My Dad was a big fan and when I was about 9 or 10 he had me listen to his LPs and transcribe the lyrics so he could sing them--there was no googling Sinatra lyrics back then--had to put a kid to work jotting them down!


Ralph said...

Hi, Jenny. Yes, Cincinnati isn't the most hospitable place these days--don't know what the climate was like back in the 60s when this happened. Probably the same as everywhere back then....

I guess you got a "complete" Sinatra education! Heavy duty for a 9 year old. Amazing you came away still liking him. I was about that age when a cousin introduced my sister to "The Voice." That's my first memory of a record of his entering the house.