LILY DALE, N.Y. -- Shortly after The Rev. Greg Kehn connected with the spirit world, passed along warnings to a young woman about future tire trouble, and reminded the man next to her about the time he misplaced a small wrench, my children and I left The Healing Temple and ran smack into the Lily Dale Volunteer Fire Department.
Here is a town dedicated to improving communications between the living and the dead, a place where mediums pass along messages from The Beyond, and they have their own fire department. I wondered if members wait for an actual alarm, or just show up when the sense of foreboding gets too great.
"Not at all," said Keith Burridge, the fire chief, himself a member of the Spiritualist Church and, from all indications, not terribly amused by my curiosity. The Lily Dale volunteers are reached by dialing 911, something the spirits have yet to manage.
This town, tucked just across the Pennsylvania line in western New York, has been serving up spirits and prophecies for more than a century. In early days, its hotels filled with visitors seeking guidance from spirit guides and seers capable, they say, of floating trumpets in midair, and making written messages appear on blank slates.
Spiritualism seemed less unconventional in those days. Celebrities as diverse as Mae West and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt visited without apology or alibi. Today Lily Dale attracts both the credulous and the skeptical, often as not people lost in grief and looking for one last conversation with friends and family who have ceased to pay taxes legally. To do so, they turn to an assortment of people -- some surprisingly prescient, others patently silly -- who share the common belief that "dead" and "departed" are incompatible ideas.
As a man who believes in an afterlife, but who doubts anyone would bother to return from it, especially in this humidity, I stopped by on a lark. Christine Wicker, a Texas journalist who has, herself, passed over to the next life -- she moved to Wisconsin -- wrote a book about Lily Dale a few years back. It's an engaging read, with richly drawn characters and enough skepticism to put the occasional dead-on spirit message in stark relief against most medium messages which are general enough to apply to everybody.
At Inspiration Stump, a gathering spot in the woods, we listened to a half-dozen mediums and seers ply their trades on an audience of people who seemed eager to believe. Inevitably, the dead communicating had died of heart disease, stroke or cancer. Some seemed surprised at this prescience, although statistically, odds are we know someone who died of a bad heart, stroke or cancer.
One medium reminded me of Gilderoy Lockhart from the Harry Potter books. He looked in my direction and said he was hearing from someone who'd died in an automobile accident.
"Right here!" one man piped. Gilderoy turned 45 degrees to his right.
"He died quickly," the medium said.
"Yep," the man agreed.
"He wants you to know it was his time to go," the medium added.
"All right. I understand," the man replied.
A succession of messages included advice on an auto purchase. One medium told a woman she is surrounded by angels. Another stepped up to inform a lady that her dead grandmother occasionally comes and sits on her lap.
One medium stepped before the crowd and came up with this moment: "I'm getting the names 'Joseph' and 'Martin,' she said.
"That's me," said a woman standing a few rows to my right. "Those were my brothers."
The medium pressed on. Something, she said, about a ladder. She was seeing a ladder, probably used for repair work or painting.
"Not those two," the woman replied.
"No, no," the medium corrected her. "There's a third man. He comes in later."
The medium asked who in the audience was thinking about a hip replacement.
"That's me," said an elderly woman who was standing next to Joseph and Martin's sister. She complained, also, about how badly her feet hurt. The medium advised Epsom salt baths which, insofar as I understand the spirit world, are quite soothing for that sort of thing.
Next up was a visiting medium from Canada. She immediately picked out a woman two rows in front of me and passed along a message from a dead relative named Edward.
"My uncle," the woman said.
The spirit described him as both funny and serious.
"But he says he was only called that at his birth," she added. "He was called Ed or Ted."
At session's end, I asked the woman about the accuracy of the communication.
"They called him Butch," she said of her uncle Edward. And it was her other uncle who was both funny and serious, leaving me to wonder what Butch was like.
Nearby, a woman was struggling up the hill, fulminating at the inaccuracy of her own messages from The Other Side.
"Children. She talked about my children," the woman said. "I don't have 'em. I never wanted children. I have dogs."
It was not that this woman does not believe the dead contact us. She was unhappy with the quality of the connection.
The lines to the next world seemed better at the next event, the one at which Greg Kehn, a fourth-generation spiritualist who originated in Girard, Ohio, and now keeps offices in Lily Dale during the tourist season, passed along his messages about an impending bad tire and a long-ago lost wrench. Kehn is a thin, balding man, with a gentle voice. As a child he tells me he was often teased about things. As an adult, he now astonishes people by telling them things he has no earthly reason to know.
Kehn was preceded at the lectern by Tom Cratsley, assistant director of the School of Spiritual Healing and Prophecy. Cratsley gave a lecture on the link between the spiritual and physical. It might have passed as a Sunday sermon at any mainstream, Protestant church until he got to the part about being insulted by a tree.
Cratsley is in the habit of talking to trees and receiving messages from forces of nature. He once had an interesting conversation with Niagara Falls. On a visit to the Muir Woods in California, he got into a controversy with a giant redwood after paying his respects.
"The message I get back is 'who the heck are you?' " Cratsley said. After contemplating the tree's rudeness, Cratsley concluded he'd been presumptuous. "It's like going up to someone's house, knocking on the door and saying 'what's for dinner?' " Grateful Cratsley had sorted out his dispute without threat of chainsaw, I awaited Kehn's talk. Wicker, in her book, described him as a man with a reputation so good he could tell people which sparkplug was misfiring on their cars. In getting specific, he did not disappoint. He told one woman to repair a headlight. He picked one person out of the audience and asked if he was finding his computer running after having turned it off. He was. A friend from the past was returning in spirit and playing around with it.
Kehn passed along the message about the motorcycle tire to a young woman who said she couldn't figure out what he was referring to. Here, I thought, was a man who'd taken one guess too many. He passed along the message to the man beside her, the one from a spirit who wanted to remind him about the time he misplaced "the small wrench." The young man nodded.
On the way out, I asked him if Kehn was even slightly correct.
The spirit talking, he said, was his father. A few years back, the young man was working on a friend's car and noticed one of his wrenches missing. Days later, he opened the hood and found he'd left it there.
"Yeah, I believe," he said.
I asked the young woman if she, too, believed.
"I had to think about it, but my dad owns a motorcycle."
Doubtless, with freshly inspected tires.
Dennis Roddy s a Post-Gazette columnist, firstname.lastname@example.org , 412-263-1965.