Morgana, a beautiful golden retriever with starry brown eyes and a recklessly wagging tail, belongs to a psychic healer. Maybe she's wondering, as she bites herself obsessively, why her owner won't heal these damn fleas right off her. This night, when she isn't whipping her head around to attack the nefarious bugs gnawing at her hindquarters, she's looking lovingly at the Rev. Edward "Red" Duke.
"Get your butt out of here!" he shouts, shooing her away. Tail and tongue flopping and flapping, Morgana heads over to one of Duke's guests. "Aw, go ahead and pet her now," Duke says.
Inside the dimly lighted Florida room of his rustic home off Davie Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, the Rev. Red Duke is holding one of his Sunday-night sessions. For almost 30 years, Duke has been hosting gatherings at the Haven for Spiritual Travelers, his home transformed into a metaphysical meeting point marked by twin beacon-bulbs mounted on 30-foot poles. Nowadays, his 77-year-old frame is wracked with pain, he's going deaf in one ear, and his forays into psychic phenomena, he reports, often leave him drained.
During his once-a-week readings, patrons deposit a donation ("Five or ten dollars, the cost of a movie") in an envelope and write their names and a question on the front.
Duke opens the tackle box, takes out one of these envelopes, and starts.
"OK, so the first one we come to is Michelle." Michelle is a pretty, young black woman with wide-set eyes and long straight hair.
"I'm gonna ask you a question," Duke continues. "Would there be a James around you? James or Jane? Could be either one."
"No," Michelle answers.
"Not yet," Duke corrects. "Write it down. 'Cause everything we say is gonna happen within three months, OK? Ninety days."
He closes his eyes for several long seconds. "I'm getting a vibration from the west coast of Florida -- I don't know why. But I feel some kind of connection over in that area. West Coast?" he asks Michelle. "OK?"
She shakes her head.
Duke again shuts his eyes.
"You asked something about school. Right now, we don't see anything happening at school. It may come later. But the second thing, the financial? We see that increasing, if you understand what I'm saying. OK? But at this moment, the school doesn't have a vibration. It can change."
"You're going on a trip shortly too -- did you know that?"
"No," says Michelle, confident.
"Well, you're gonna find out!" Duke says with a hearty knee-slap. "So don't worry about school, at least not this time. That's all I can say, alrighty?"
If the Rev. Duke is floundering more than usual today, no one lets on. The ancient tricks of his trade (isn't everybody going on a trip or going to meet somebody named James or Jane in the next three months?) evoke no discernible skepticism. In three decades as a psychic and soothsayer, Duke has honed a homey, easygoing style that makes up in familial warmth what it lacks in visionary precision. An evening of riding spiritual waves seems more of a social activity than anything to do with mysterious forces and predictions of the future.
Still, when challenged, Duke concedes nothing in the psychic-powers department. He has stories to tell. He's a psychic of the old school, a kind of Jeane Dixon for the local crowd, employing all the staples of his often-maligned profession. He tells tales of sightings of "ectoplasm" (the alleged substance of spirits and ghosts), of channeling people from beyond the grave, and of moving solid objects with mind waves.
Duke, who has led an exceedingly eventful life, has even had his moments of stunning triumph -- notably when he correctly predicted, in the presence of a Sun-Sentinel columnist, the choice of a very dark horse Dan Quayle to be George Bush Sr.'s running mate in 1992. But witnesses to true miracles are few and far between, and Duke is careful not to make too many claims he can't back up.
Asked if he can demonstrate his powers using only psychic energy to move a piece of furniture or push a coffee cup off a table, Duke shakes his head impatiently.
"We stopped doing parlor tricks a long time ago," he says scornfully.
Over the course of several weeks, this New Times writer detected no cracks in the hillbilly nobleman's façade of assurance in the face of invisible forces; Duke is an engaging performer. Even so, a once-loyal flock of believers and acolytes has largely scattered, leaving the reverend questioning whether he'll remain in business at the Haven for long. How long can an old séance-leading sharpie like Duke hold out in the face of mass-marketed spiritualists like Tony Robbins and of excoriating skepticism on demand from the Internet?
For now, Duke is perched atop a stool wearing a checked shirt and a Kokopelli pendant, drawing an envelope from the tackle box. The wrinkles in his face crinkle and crease as he squints to make out the name.
"Jay?" he asks a stocky, goateed young man of about 25.
"I like what you have here," says Duke, reading the card. "I see you reconstructing yourself and rebuilding yourself. That's in your vibration. They say there's something here -- be yourself; you don't have to make yourself something other than what you are, OK?'
With Jay's permission, Duke reads his question: "He'd like to know, 'How are my spiritual awakening and enlightenment going by way of the Holy Spirit?'"
He turns to Jay. "Let's get away from that, from the Holy Spirit."
Jay scowls slightly.
"No," Duke continues, "the Holy Spirit has nothing to do with you, do you understand that? So we can use all kinds of words and terms; it may make us better, but now we know a lot of people who think like that but they've got shiny seats from sitting!"
Jay has another question. "Do I have any Native American guides at this point?" he asks.
"Well, I'll tell you something," Duke begins. "Every one of us has one, and that's usually the messenger -- the one who tells us what's gonna happen before it does. Pay attention to your messenger. She's going to appear as a little girl."
"A girl?" asks Jay, who wears denim overalls and a silver pentagram ring on one finger. He's fascinated by the Bermuda Triangle and Edgar Cayce.
"Yeah, all the Indian messengers are girls," Duke says. "If you ever have an out-of-body experience, these little girls know wherever you're going."
That seems to bring Jay some comfort.
"OK, well!" Duke barks. "I hope we helped with that!"
No jaw-dropping revelations tonight. No one seems concerned, let alone skeptical.
A high point of the evening is channeling. After a break for some popcorn and brownies laid out on a ceramic plate, it's time to talk to spirits. "Are you ready, babe?" Duke asks the Rev. Lori "Loretta" Rohr, who has been an associate of the Haven since 2000.
Duke tells the group, "Go ahead, sit down and she'll channel for you."
After a nervous cough and a hard swallow, Rohr's eyes close. She seems to suffer a short spasm, and little high-pitched moans escape her throat. The moans lower in pitch, and her eyes flutter. She becomes catatonic, head pivoting on her wobbly neck as if she's drunk. When she opens her eyes briefly, she looks queasy. Her eyes shut again, roll back in her head, and wobble, lolling around behind her closed lids like marbles on a pillow.
"You ready to go?" Duke asks. "We're gonna energize a little bit so she can get started."
He stares at her as if he's trying to set her on fire with his eyes. Five more minutes pass as Rohr twitches and groans. Finally, she opens her eyes.
"Good evening, everyone," she says in a stilted British accent.
"How are you?" Duke inquires.
"I... am... fine," she says, haltingly. "How... is... everyone?"
"You're not quite complete, hon," Duke says gently, like a man telling his wife her bra strap is showing. "Take your time."
"Hmm, yes," Rohr agrees. She rolls her head some more, and her eyes open and shut.
"Good evening again," Rohr begins with her stiff upper lip. "I am so glad you are here this evening. I welcome you to this haven of serenity. And what have you all been doing lately that has brought you to this place of peace?"
It's a familiar personage for Duke and his regulars -- Blanche, a long-dead Englishwoman with a puckish sense of humor and a tendency to make pronouncements about the state of the contemporary world.
Linda raises her hand. It's the big question: "I would like to know, how do you view our world?"
"There are some evil elements in the world," "Blanche" says through Rohr. "That needs to be corrected. Our atmosphere has... poison gases in it that are not good. We need to take care of the Earth. Help each other to understand that we must cleanse the Earth with a positive vibration; otherwise, y'all aren't going to be here after a while."
Whether the appearance of y'all is a slip of Rohr's tongue or a character lapse, the rapt gathering takes no notice.
"I would like to know if ET is going to intervene on man's behalf before the planet is destroyed," a man named Jody says.
"Uh, mmm, well," says Rohr, fading in and out. She closes her eyes, then opens them. "Oh, they're already here!"
Rohr smiles beatifically. "Thank you. It's time for me to fly away. You make me feel so -- I feel wonderful!"
"Goodbye, Blanche," Linda says. "Thank you for coming!"
Rohr's eyes shut, and she twitches back to normal. Several minutes pass. Rohr opens her eyes and looks around as if she's awakened from a nap, confused and disoriented. Laughter all around the room.
"Everyone's looking at me!" Rohr complains.
"Welcome back," Jay says.
Rohr, a short, timid woman with long brown hair, tells newcomers to the group that she started channeling a year after she first came to the Haven.
"It took that long to find out who you are," Duke remarks.
A skeptic at first, Rohr was blown away after attending a service. "I didn't know anything about spiritualism," she says, "but when I went home, I couldn't sleep. The next thing you know, I'm volunteering to do stuff around here, clean the refrigerator, whatever."
Duke encouraged her in her spiritual forays. "I didn't know what I was talking about," Rohr says, "but he told me to continue. From that point on, I was kind of like a guinea pig."
Duke says that different spirits inhabit him, switching personalities like surfing through television programs. He himself has ten channels, and he claims to have no control over which entity transmits through him or when.
"We give 'em permission to use mind, body, and spirit as long as they don't embarrass us," he says. "You ever put on a nice, warm sock? That's how the spirit feels when it enters the body, nice and comfortable. And when the spirit's inside, it's in charge." A big yawn usually signifies that Duke is changing channels. His voice lowers by an octave, and he says, "just focusing on a different frequency vibration now."
When that happens, "Even if the house was on fire, I couldn't raise my voice," Duke explains.
Professional debunkers, naturally, have a field day with Duke and others who claim intimate knowledge of the spirit world. After taking a glance at the reverend's web page, James Randi -- whose James Randi Educational Foundation office is about a mile east of the Haven on Davie Boulevard -- invites Duke to participate in his "James Randi Paranormal Challenge." It offers a chance to win "a one-million-dollar prize to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power."
He peruses the reverend's literature. "The Amazing Randi," who has used scientific methods to discount paranormal claims for more than 40 years, pronounces himself unafraid of losing his money. There's nothing new with Duke. "If this miracle worker wants to earn a million dollars to spend in Las Vegas, buy replacement chakras for old folks, or donate to the Home for the Terminally Gullible, all he has to do is apply for the JREF prize -- and win it," he says. "That, he can easily do -- if any of his claims are legitimate. I won't sit by the phone waiting for his call, though."
As a young boy, Duke became quickly aware just how different he was. Born November 28, 1927, Edward Duke was the oldest son of a Scots-Irishman and his Cherokee Indian wife. "All my life, I saw weird shadows and heard weird voices," he says. "I thought it was normal." By the time he learned he could move objects with his mind and so forth, he was already thought of as an odd duck.
Over soup and sandwiches served atop a wobbly table in a corner booth of an old diner on State Road 7 in Plantation, Duke still stands out as odd -- teeteringly tall and no-butt skinny, with jeans, sneakers, flannel shirt, and oversized shades making him look like a retired crop-dusting pilot. His once-brick-red, shoulder-length mane is dulling to gray, but the waitresses flock to him. They darken his iced tea with refills, and he supplies good-natured taunts.
"I was the weird one, considered different," he recounts. "My father mistreated me so badly and loved my younger brother so much, 'cause they were alike. I took after my mother."
The family lived in Fort Myers, on poverty-stricken streets in the black neighborhoods where his dad -- a part-time barber and full-time alcoholic -- would beat his mom. When he went to school, while other kids would spend lunchtime eating and socializing, Duke would slink off to sit alone among the carcasses of cars in the junkyard of a nearby Chevy dealership.
"I didn't have no food, and I didn't want no one to know it," he drawls. At some point, this asceticism pointed to a spiritual awakening: "I loved religions, but I didn't know what I was," he says with a smile.
And what he saw was curious enough. Tables and chairs that moved of their own accord. Once, he says, as a boy he was walking back home from a day in the orchards and farms outside Fort Myers. Spotting a single coal car on a railroad track, he wished -- or willed -- it to move. "And it did!" Duke says, with a shocked expression that sends his bushy eyebrows northward. "It scared me so much, I run like the devil to get away from there." (Such powers are unveiled rarely these days, since it saps his energy, Duke says. In fact, this morning, he took a nasty spill in his backyard, scraping his arm and cutting his hand.)
By the time he was a young teenager, Duke wanted to join the armed forces. The Navy seemed the most obvious choice. "I could swim by the time I was old enough to walk," he says. "All my life, I'd been on the water."
Underage but tall and big enough to look the part, he still got turned down the first time he applied. "No hair under my arms," he laughs, blaming his mother's Native American ancestry. Duke was finally accepted as a Navy seaman at the height of World War II. In place of his father's domestic cruelty, Duke got the firm discipline of military training. In July 1946, his fleet ended up in the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific, where a secret series of atomic bomb tests -- "Operation Crossroads" -- centered on tiny Bikini atoll.
"I had no idea what we were gettin' into," he says. "They needed volunteers, and I was standin' around looking ugly, so they picked me."
Aboard his sturdy ship -- one of 16 LCTs (the military abbreviation for "Landing Craft, Tank") -- scientists and observers gathered to witness the explosion.
"We anchored up just beyond the horizon," Duke recalls, with the atoll used as ground zero about 20 miles away, barely out of sight. The bomb missed its target by about 800 yards, spreading radiation over most of the fleet.
"I could feel the pressure and the heat," Duke remembers.
The fireball and mushroom cloud was mixed with seawater, debris from the atoll, and ship debris that turned to steam and vapor as it was drawn upward by the explosion. Down below, the blast wave expanded horizontally, coursing through the anchored fleet at the bottom of the cloud, engulfing it in a wave of radioactive steam.
The cap of the mushroom cloud hovered above the ships and islands of the atoll until the wind sheared it apart.
Two-hundred sixty-four people were accidentally exposed to radiation because the explosion and fallout had been more than twice the size expected, according to Navy information. Along with the rest of those witnesses, Duke absorbed a huge dose of roentgens courtesy of Uncle Sam, including a nasty burn on his shin that left a scar. Eventually, the target ships moved away from the blast zone and were decontaminated. But, Duke says, the exposure he received that day has plagued him ever since.
"By 1948, I'd lost all my teeth," he says, showing off his slightly skewed smile. "They just got loose and dropped out. I ended up losing a kidney. Three discs in my back deteriorated. And I'm sterile."
He remembers being issued a film-badge radiation meter that registered the dose he'd been hit with and a ship physician telling his crewmates, "Hope you married guys already had children." When he sought recompense for his injuries from the Navy, he notes, more injustice followed.
"We were guinea pigs," he says of his shipmates. "Then they use you, abuse you, and lose you." He says he's appealed to three Navy medical boards who have heard his case again and again only to decide his symptoms aren't related to radiation exposure.
On October 13, 1947, documents show, the sailor left the Navy. "My father was never home, and I had younger brothers and sisters, so I got a hard-luck discharge to get out and help take care of 'em," he explains. He returned to Fort Myers that year and later to Hallandale. In 1952, he married Betty Jo Smith and, since they couldn't have children of their own, adopted a pair of twins. "Preemies," Duke calls them. "The doctors said they would never live, but they're in their 40s today."
Duke found solace and good wages aboard shrimp boats that worked the Gulf of Mexico. A spiritual maturation followed, and a lot of his anger toward his abusive father dissipated. He taught himself plumbing, electrical, and mechanical skills, eventually becoming a licensed finish carpenter. His wife rarely joined him at sea. "It was just too hard for a woman on a shrimp boat," he says. Duke spent almost ten years shrimping, occasionally returning to his family.
When he moved to Hallandale a few years later, he made a living in construction. He found work at the new airport south of Fort Lauderdale and moved his family into a small Quonset hut near the airport's under-construction site. One summer day in 1968, he and another airport carpenter, a Seminole Indian named Harry Oster, were cleaning out an old building. Duke was removing a rotten door jamb when, he recalls, his hammer suddenly flew out of his hands, landed on the floor, and skittered away from him.
"And when I reached it for it, it moved away from my hand," Duke says. "That kind of bothered me."
Then all the metal tools and the nails on his belt did the same. Astonished, he walked to the front door.
"There was a metal trellis with honeysuckle on it," he says, "and it fell off against me like it wanted to cling to me. I walked across in front of the yard, and the plants in the yard seemed magnetized to me."
Back inside, he asked Oster, "What's going on, Harry?"
Oster, sitting on a sawhorse, said he didn't know what was going on. That's when Duke says he saw Oster's shirt open and his chest open up. "I saw a -- I didn't know what it was called at the time, but it turns out it was a hiatal hernia," Duke says. "And it just closed up as I looked at it."
Oster looked shocked, took a look at Duke, and exclaimed, "Red, what's that white stuff coming from your chest!?"
"It was ectoplasm," Duke says, slicing his liverwurst sandwich with a grizzly bear's grace. "And that was the beginning of hell and high water for over a year."
Duke's tales are hard to verify. He says he has no idea if Oster is even alive. "I never worried about documenting anything, 'cause I always figured there was a reason it was happening," he says. "There's nothing I would ever say or do in this field that would ever be a falsehood. I know it all sounds far-fetched, but on my mother's memory, what I'm telling you is truth."
Convinced he now had a spiritual gift to hone and perfect, Duke began working by healing ailments in people he knew, eventually aligning himself with the Universal Church of the Master, which ordained him as a minister on Easter Sunday 1970.
"I don't want the title, don't need the title," he says outside his home in west Fort Lauderdale one cool evening in late February. "But at least it was before diploma mills. You can't get what you want by paying for it."
This is the home, flanked by huge old pine trees, that he bought for $12,000 in 1974. He started holding gatherings once a week back at the airport, but his marriage was quickly crumbling. One of his girls was born retarded, one autistic, and his wife's mother put pressure on them to institutionalize the twins. His wife began to concur. "And so eventually, it separated us," Duke says sadly.
The house that now holds his Sunday-night sessions was built in 1940, part of a forgotten Fort Lauderdale tract just west of I-95 and the Tri-Rail tracks. By 1977, he'd incorporated his little enterprise as the Haven for Spiritual Travelers, a refuge for locals interesting in readings, channelings, healings, UFO discussions, and spiritual counseling.
Just inside the front door, in the cluttered foyer, is a large photograph dated April 18, 2000. It shows Duke administering a healing laying-of-hands upon a young man. Some effect has been captured that looks as if some amorphous substance from Duke's hands has traveled upward to the man's throat. (A photography expert explains that something as simple as slow shutter speed could account for the appearance on the negative.)
A caption reads: "Red Duke channeling spiritual energy. This picture was taken with an ordinary camera flash with no additional lighting, during Full Moon Meditation at Red's Medicine Wheel in his backyard." The strange material, Duke contends, is ectoplasm.
The ectoplasm he and Harry Oster saw that day at the Fort Lauderdale airport was the byproduct of the healing of Oster's esophageal hernia, Duke says. By the time Duke began his Sunday-night workshops at the Haven, he'd transformed into a self-styled psychic guru.
"If you can picture a kid going along with training wheels on his tricycle and then all of a sudden you're on a big Harley hog getting onto the turnpike at 90 mph, that's how big the change was," he says today. "I learned everything."
Duke has seen some shrinkage in his own congregation in the past decade due to the rise in reiki, a Japanese energy-healing technique that offers a formalized, ritualized Zen quality that may have appealed to those unaccustomed to the funkiness of the Haven. Swank centers like Fort Lauderdale's Oasis Reiki Institute make Duke's gatherings look unpolished.
The Haven, with its front porch cluttered with crawling vines and unkempt plants, is dark and warm by day. Open windows let a breeze scatter dog hair across the worn wood floors. At night, the lights in the Florida room -- sharing space with a loose, dwindling collection of ceiling tiles -- are notoriously temperamental.
While Duke was turning the two-bedroom bungalow into a welcoming refuge suitable for gatherings of 30 or more, he held his initial Haven gatherings every Sunday night in a room he rented at the Fort Lauderdale Women's Club, downtown at Broward Boulevard and Andrews Avenue. In the 1980s, when economics laid waste the city's core, the intersection wasn't stockings and Starbucks -- it was skid row.
"There was always a lot of crime down there," Duke scowls. "The bums and the hangers-on ruined it for us. People would come down and sit on people's cars, ask for money, or insult the ladies."
So after some sprucing up, the Haven was permanently moved back to Duke's stucco-and-tile-roof abode. The rest of the decade, he reports, he had the biggest, most consistent "congregation" of sorts. On Sunday nights, folks would park their cars at the fruit-and-vegetable stand on the corner and walk, singing and holding hands, down the street.
"They don't do that anymore," he acknowledges glumly.
In 1988, Sun-Sentinel columnist Gary Stein interviewed Duke about potential vice-presidential picks, and Duke stated, "I have a strong feeling for Quayle." When the prediction later came true, Stein wrote, "I'm starting to wonder if Duke knows anything about lottery numbers."
Duke has a book full of cards and letters -- testimonials from those who visited and have experienced healing or revelation. There's a collection of recent e-mails and handwritten notes dating back to the '80s, thanking Duke repeatedly for "healing," "understanding," "helping," "love," and "light."
In 1999, a St. Augustine man, Thomas A. Taylor, says he witnessed three incidents in which Duke actually performed healings. "Red is not only an excellent healer, he is an excellent psychic," he claimed in a written and notarized testimonial dated September 24, 2002.
Today, Taylor adds, "Red's got a tremendous gift, and he's helped a lot of people. I have been there to witness it, and I'm incredibly careful about who I endorse, because I'm a psychic and medium as well. Red has my backing 150 percent."
Now that area property values are up and trouble is down, Sunday nights at Duke's house continue modestly. Tonight, a dozen people make the Florida room feel crowded. The group usually represents a decent cross-strata of black/white, straight/gay, male/female, young/old.
Coming to sessions at the Haven for the past 17 years, Linda says she's experienced great healing at Duke's hands, especially the time when just a look from him knocked her across the room.
"I adore him. I think of him as my father," she says, eyes twinkling, huge eyelashes fluttering. "He is my spiritual father."
Duke makes light of her devotion. "Linda's been hanging out since '88, so that shows you she can't be very smart!" he jokes.
She giggles. Duke informs the crowd, "If we channel tonight, you'll know it. And if we don't, you'll know that also," he says, slowly easing his tall, bony frame atop a stool like a country singer about to lay down a love ballad.
Is any of this real? If proof is in the eye of the beholder, Duke can walk on water for this crowd.
Duke's done his share of healing but says it taxes him physically -- he points to widely fluctuating readings on a blood pressure gauge as proof -- and the stories are plentiful.
"I can tell you some things that have happened that you would not believe," he says sternly. "No use in going into that. Either I'm a liar or the truth is stranger than fiction."
"I have a sinus infection," announces Therese.
"So?" says Duke, teasing.
"Can you work on that for me?" she laughs. "Thank you."
Duke stands over her and stares, boring his gray-blue eyes into her like he's trying to burn through her. Therese seems unimpressed.
Jay has driven from South Miami after finding the reverend's web page several months ago while searching for his lost Native American spirit guide.
"For me, it's worth it," he says. "There's a lot of truth; there's nothing hidden."
After ringing a cowbell, Duke starts reading the billets -- envelopes with a cash donation inside and a question written on the front. Jay's is among the first he picks.
Duke reads it over, closes his eyes, scowls for a minute. Then he looks right at Jay and asks him, "May I read this? Because it's really beautiful."
Jay nods, and Duke begins.
"Am I avoiding facing something about myself, and is there someone I must forgive including myself?"
Duke thinks for a second and says, "Your spirit will be forgiven automatically. You don't have to get on your knees; just accept who you are. You've got it made in the shade and you don't know it. How's that feel to you?"
Jay smiles. "It feels great."
Next up is Margaret.
"There's someone who cares deeply for you," Duke tells her, "and you might not even be aware of it."
"I'm not aware of it," confirms Margaret.
"Well, someone's being sneaky then," Duke jokes. His smile fades, and a quick, localized storm of emotions plays out on his face. "We'll go to your question now," he announces, pressing the envelope to his head and closing his eyes. Suddenly, he opens them.
"Have you been to Disney World or the Orlando area?" he asks Margaret. "Ever ridden on the steamboat in the Magic Kingdom?"
She shakes her head.
"Well, it's a lot of fun!"
He changes course.
"Do you know someone called Louise?"
"I used to know someone called Louise," Margaret says.
"Well, she's here," Duke claims. "Do you know someone, last name... Hubbard?" he asks. "Or Howard?"
Margaret does, in fact. "I know a Howard."
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At last, pay dirt.
Triumphant, Duke goes for broke. "Do you know a Julia?"
"No," Margaret answers.
"Well, guess what?" Duke smiles. "You sure will."