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Napoleon Epps took 240 volts and lived to tell about it. But not everyone believes what he has to say.

Photographs by Charles Steck

Napoleon Epps stands before me, modeling the white satin robes decorated with a blue V on the back that mark him as an advanced soul of the fifth level, one of the ancient Masters of Atlantis, more recently from the planet Arton. On his head, Epps wears a copper crown. Special arm- and ankle bands, a belt, and a round medallion—all handmade from copper sheets, he says, according to special instructions telepathically transmitted by other Masters—complete the outfit. Epps also made the copper staff he holds, an 8-foot-long, 1-inch-diameter pipe with two branching arms that make it a triton, with each point topped by a crystal.

“As far as I know, the staff has unlimited power,” Epps says softly.

I’ve come to suburban Forest Heights, Md., to talk to Epps, a public-works electrician by day, about his second life as the messenger of the Masters. Having agreed to an interview, he has welcomed me into his home and obligingly changed into his Atlantean clothes. Contrary to my expectation, the robes are not Salvation Army-issue choir castoffs but a carefully crafted two-piece ensemble.

Outside in the back yard are five homemade devices made from copper pipe and sheet metal that Epps calls his antennas. Four of the structures stand about 7 feet tall, and one of them is a shorter cone stuck point-down in the ground. A couple of them, spindly mock machine guns made from copper tubing, are placed together under a tree; one of them has a small motor that turns unceasingly. They look like undernourished versions of the cloudbusters that Freudian-disciple-turned-orgone-guru Wilhelm Reich built to dissipate “deadly orgone radiation” from stormy skies. Another has three legs, which support a copper globe orbited by seven pieces of copper macaroni. A little spire comes out of the globe at the top, and the whole thing looks like a set piece from a ’50s sci-fi movie.

These homemade devices perform a valuable function, Epps claims: They are intended to receive transmissions from the Masters—representatives of the supreme life force, known in some circles as angels—and keep the array of other Atlantean tools inside the house in tune. These antennas must be powerful, Epps suggests, because the Masters are both “higher up” and far, far away.

“The Masters work different dimensions,” he says. “It’s like the chain of command in the military. If you put God at the head—and what is God? Just a force, but still, we’re all connected with the Godhead. The Masters work in different dimensions, different universes, ’cause they got different chain of command out there. My Masters get their orders from other Master Masters, or angels, or whatever you want to call it. My Master works with me; he also works with other Masters.”

Epps continues: “I’m like an ambassador where I came from. They sent me down to Earth because they see that the people down here need to wake up. But instead of them coming in spaceships and just landing and showing everybody—they can’t do that, because you got negative forces down here that want to maintain control over the people.”

Call Epps what you will: a prophet, a crackpot, a New Age casualty, that guy from Powder come to life. But certain of Epps’ characteristics—his belief in guidance from above, his reclusive production of intricate works that support his faith—suggest another label: visionary artist. It’s readily apparent that Epps is sincere. As his claims spiral up to ever greater heights of woo-woo, his soft-spoken directness and calm demeanor erase any suspicion of hucksterism. And his way of speaking—distinguished by curious pronunciations (“soul exchange” becomes “soulus change” and “walk-in” becomes “welkian”) that help create an Atlantis-by-way-of-PG County Ebonics—never deviates from an even-tempered seriousness, both mystifying and reassuring in its down-to-earth humility.

What the people of the Earth need to wake up to, apparently, is the fact that “the Masters are with you all the time”—Epps likens their presence to the voice of the conscience. “When you ready to move forward, they communicate with you,” he explains. “You got to open your heart up and open them chakras up,” he says, referring to the centers of the body considered sources of spiritual power. “Once you open up, it’s like a Geiger counter. If you put some lead over the Geiger counter, you can’t tell if the uranium is there. Take the lead from over it and you’ll see it. Well, the Masters are always there. Take the lead from the spiritual part, they there.”

It sounds simple. But how do you take the lead away?

Enter the Atlantean One Meditation Helmet, a wearable device shaped like a pyramid and, like the rest of Epps’ output, handcrafted from copper sheets and tubing. Six quartz crystals are positioned at key head points—two each at the frontal lobes, temples and optic nerves, and crown chakras. “It is a communicator. It enhances your psychic abilities,” Epps explains. “You have to learn to meditate. The helmet is a tool to enhance what’s already there. If you don’t believe in meditation and you don’t understand the principles, it’s not gonna help you. The helmet’s for someone who already know who they are and know about meditation.”

Last year, Epps founded his N-N Co. to promote the helmet, his sole public offering. The company’s Web site (www.n-ncompany.com) uses exalted language to describe the helmet’s purpose:

The ATLANTEAN ONE MEDITATION HELMET is the most innovative meditation tool available. When properly used, this tool can help you achieve higher levels of consciousness by stimulating the senses beyond those of sight, sound, taste, touch and scent. This helmet can enhance your clairvoyant and telepathic capabilities, even if you have never knowingly experienced anything beyond the accepted five senses.

Epps himself uses the helmet every morning. For him, it’s a multipurpose tool that keeps his third eye open, strengthens his spiritual energy, and helps him communicate with the Masters. Sometimes, he uses the helmet in conjunction with a supplementary “communicator,” when he needs extra power to go “deep into the universe.”

“The helmet will help you go to a higher level,” Epps offers. “It’s like, I could teach you how to drive a car, right, and all of a sudden you want to drive a racing car. Suppose I give you the racing car. Could you drive a racing car off the bat if you never got in a car? You gotta gradual work you way up to it. If you meditate, I’m bringing you like a racing car that’s gonna take you to a higher level of understanding who you are, and what the universe is. It’s just a tool that’s going to enhance what’s already there.”

Epps sees my skepticism. “Yes, it works,” he says, moving on to his next analogy. “That’s like saying: I give you book on love. Have you ever experienced love? Well, the man says this is how love feels. Everybody got their opinion about how love feels. That’s normal. At the same time, can you imagine this love? No, you can’t imagine love. Only each person that feels love can imagine it.

“Well, does the helmet work? Well, each person that’s at a certain spiritual level is going to feel the energy from the helmet. Each person is going to go to a higher spiritual level according to the level they’re at already. It’s like getting into 12th grade and you want to go to college. Can you skip all grades to go to 12th grade? No. Same with the helmet. The helmet is only going to enhance where you’re already at. The stage of spirituality within you is what’s going to make you move to a higher level.”

Born in North Carolina and raised in the Washington area since age 3, Epps went to Ballou High School, where his penchant for “building stuff” rather than hanging out inspired his peers to dub him “Mad Scientist,” “Genius Boy,” and “Professor.”

“I used to do a lot of reading all the time to learn how to do things,” Epps recalls, “and I was trying to make an iridium type of laser out of glass, but I didn’t have the equipment to do what that is. So I used to write companies and find out how much their rods would cost, like ruby rods for lasers. Those things were expensive. I was trying my own idea of making it out of glass. I used to try to put different dyes in the tube with the glass tubes. But it didn’t do what I wanted it to do.”

Then there was the giant model hydroplane he built from fiberglass and wood. The plane was so large he had to cut it up to get it out of the apartment. “I gave it to this Spanish guy when I got ready to go into the Army,” Epps says ruefully, “and he took it out and messed it up.”

Now 46, Epps joined the Army in 1978 because he needed a job. “I was going to school to be an aircraft and power-plant mechanic,” he says. “I was going there to learn how to build airplanes. But I failed the test. The recruiter was talking to me—he said he could give me the same benefits, training, and everything. He lied. He didn’t do nothing what he said. I couldn’t wait ’til I got out of the military. They tricked me to get my butt in the military.” Epps left the service trained as a helicopter mechanic. He took up flying as a hobby and holds a private pilot license.

While still in the military, Epps formed an R&B band, for which he was lead singer. The band worked area Army bases, and after it broke up, Epps resorted to open-mike nights to keep up his performance chops. A small area of his basement is still set up with microphones, keyboards, and drum machines, now gathering dust. Epps plays me a minute of a tape remaining in the PortaStudio—a slice of competent early-’80s funk highlighted by punchy vocals.

“During that time, I was trying to imitate music like Rick James, Cameo, Prince—pop-type stuff,” Epps says, laughing a little. “I used to sing like Delfonics—that’s a old group. Just like now I listen to Madonna a lot. I get like that for some reason—I just want to listen to one type of singing. Also the Gap Band, the Time. I used to sing the Time in the clubs, and I used to have my little suits and all that kind of stuff. I used to dress like Rick James; I had my little high boots and my skintight pants and all that kind of stuff.”

“The guy had one of the most beautiful voices,” declares Bob Parks, a longtime friend who met Epps in the early ’80s, when they worked together chauffeuring officers to the Pentagon for military traffic command. They often went out together, Parks recalls: “We used to go fly planes, play music.” Epps had one of those keyboards that strapped over the shoulder like a guitar, and he loved Con Funk Shun.

“He used to go out all the time. He used to hang out in the clubs,” Parks declares. “He always loved music; he always been where music was. The only thing he was into was music. It was music and females, music and females. Music.”

Then, in 1989, an on-the-job electrical accident changed Epps’ life forever.

“I was working in a water tank, where sewage water came into,” Epps recalls. “I was working on a ventilating fan, like you see on a big building, and it had went to ground and I didn’t know it. When I touched the pipe, it was hot. So I had the full jump.”

Epps took 240 volts and had what he calls a near-death experience. “It’s like your heart feel like it be beating real fast, and you can’t breathe. It’s like—the way it is, the moment you get ready to die, you see a light, right? And that light talks to you. I said ‘God, I’m in your hands. Be ready for me.’ And I was gone.”

“The doctors said the voltage he took, no man could survive that,” Parks remembers. “He was out for a while, what I understood. He was really gone.”

As Epps tells it, he asked his work partner to call an ambulance but then refused to get into it. He was initially off work for only a couple of days, but he later complained of memory problems and blurry vision. He went on disability for about a year. A battery of tests—psychological, neurological, MRI, spinal tap—turned up nothing more serious than a short-term memory loss, which Epps says is an ongoing problem that keeps him from flying planes and riding horses.

And his music became a thing of the past. “Have you ever sung in front of people?” Epps asks. “You know how it feel your first time when you get up and play in front of people? You be kind of nervous, right? There’s a certain amount of energy you gotta have to get up and play that instrument in front of people. You see, I lost that kind of stuff. Plus, me not being able to memorize, retain things like I’m supposed to—thataway, I don’t try to sing anymore.”

Epps also reports being plagued by an ongoing electrical sensitivity. “It’s like when power lines mess up radio reception,” Epps says of this problem. “It’s like my body—my nervous system is more in tune and sensitive now. When I be around power lines or an MCC—that’s a Motor Control Center, these things we have at work—or if it’s raining and the energy in that sky is heavy, it throws me off balance and I have to rest a while until the rain moves out of the area.”

Like many people, Epps believes he has a better understanding of his symptoms than his doctors: “It’s because the body is electrical, anatomy, and chemical. What we call the spiritual is electrical energy. When I use [my] powers to pick up vibrations, that’s the microelectricity that the body produce. I can go into people and see things. We don’t have anything that can detect it. That’s their problem; the doctors only want to see things that are physical. It’s not going to work like that.”

Epps hastens to add that he got something else in the bargain during the accident. He says his soul was exchanged for another, more advanced soul: “Napoleon” left the body, and “Nicodemus” entered. Nicodemus, Epps explains, was a Master in Atlantis thousands of years ago who was reincarnated on the planet Arton (“It’s two light years from your solar system”), when the mythical continent sank.

Epps refers to this new identity as a “walk-in” soul, using a term medium Ruth Montgomery coined in her 1979 best seller about reincarnation, Strangers Among Us. (Among other claims, Montgomery proposed that Ben Franklin, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, and Jesus were walk-ins: higher spirits that took unwanted physical bodies to do a great work.)

After the accident, Epps claims, “I developed psychic-type powers. I could sense things. I could see spirits. I know how people are feeling.” He began to meditate, and during his meditations, he received visits from other Masters, who sent him transmissions—instructions to read certain books, to make certain tools.

“When he first called me after the accident, what he’d tell me, I thought he was joking,” Parks says. “He was telling me this stuff like he died when he had the accident and he remembered this stuff like he’s a step-in. I used to hate when he called, ’cause I was halfway scared of him, you know?”

Parks insists that Epps never used to talk about UFOs or Atlantis or even the Bible before the accident, and he says he’s mystified by Epps’ new interest—let alone his facility—in metalworking.

“He say he don’t know how to play music anymore,” Parks says, still bemused after all these years. “Now we talk, it’s like a totally different person. That’s weird. He’s a brilliant guy when you sit down and talk with him. He’s very sincere what he’s telling you. He’s not a phony; he’s never been a phony.”

“I don’t think he’s the same person, man. I’m serious,” Parks says. “I’m not exaggeratin’.”

There have always been strangers among us, people who believed they were guided by a power outside themselves. Some have been declared mad. Some have been acknowledged as prophets or saints. Some, like Joan of Arc, have endured the former outcome and not lived to see the latter. But almost all have persisted. The Rev. Howard Finster, self-proclaimed “Father of Folk Art,” claims that his own index finger spoke to him and told him to paint sacred art.

So Finster, a bike repairman and evangelist, gave up preaching in 1976 to paint his New Testament message onto pieces of wood and anything else he got hold of. For Finster, now in his 80s and still one of the world’s most prolific artists, this work remains competition for Billy Graham and Jimmy Swaggart.

To others, such work falls into an amorphous aesthetic category called “outsider art”—a rough-and-ready folk art often produced later in life by people such as steelworker Paul Darmafall, the “Baltimore Glassman”; farmhands Bill Traylor and Mose Tolliver; and logger Clyde Jones. And then there’s D.C.’s own James Hampton, a janitor whose large religious sculpture, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly, is owned by the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM). Usually, these artists are self-taught, and they strive not to produce art but just to keep themselves busy or to follow an obsession.

“A typical pattern for a lot of self-taught or outsider artists,” notes critic and curator Roger Manley, “is they’re people who had jobs where they worked with their hands and they were used to seeing the results of their day’s work. Often what happens is something like an industrial accident or a disease, some sort of personal catastrophe; they’re laid up, they’re injured, or they go into a period of depression. Suddenly, that way of seeing themselves, of looking at their day’s work, is taken away from them. They kind of disappear to themselves. They no longer think of themselves as having self-worth. There’s a small percentage of people who for some reason start making stuff. Usually they’re using things from their previous life, materials they’re used to handling.”

Cue art critic Michael Bonesteel, who explored the role of wartime trauma as a precipitant for creativity while curating an upcoming show for Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM), “The Art of War and Peace,” which opens Oct. 5: “Often the beginning and initial years of an artist’s development, especially if it’s later in life, it’s often the first stuff that’s the most interesting. It’s almost like they’ve been waiting 50 years to get this out, and it just comes pouring out in one big gush. They might spend the next 10 to 20 years working off the same vision.

“For me, one of the really defining characteristics [of outsider art] is psychological strangeness,” Bonesteel adds. The author of Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings, on the Chicago janitor who hid thousands of drawings and manuscript pages detailing violent wars between small girls with penises and hulking, uniformed men, Bonesteel should know from strange. “That can happen with people who are mentally ill, but it can also come from people who are simply eccentric and strange and just edgy themselves. There are a number of artists who I don’t really think have personality disorders, but emanating from a place within them, just probe areas of the psyche that most people don’t want to go.”

“The big thing you face as a curator is telling people [outsider artists are] not crazy,” Manley says. “You find yourself arguing the opposite, that it’s a completely sane way of coping. When people come upon some unexpected thing in their lives, you fall back on the thing you’ve already learned that helps make the most sense out of it. They’re relying on a belief system shared with other people to deal with a real experience they had no explanation for: Why me? It sort of gets you off the hook if you can find something that makes sense.”

Sometimes, mental illness precipitates—or fails to subdue—the artistic impulse. There’s documentation dating to the 16th century of people producing art out of what was considered madness. In the 20th century, Germany’s Hans Prinzhorn, who studied the therapeutic artworks created by his patients at the Heidelberg psychiatric clinic, labeled such pieces “art brut.” Prinzhorn’s 1922 book, Artistry of the Mentally Ill, landed in the cultural waters with a tremendous impact, sending ripples through European avant-garde movements such as Dada, surrealism, and cubism. André Breton, Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso, and Jean Dubuffet all appropriated the powerful imagery and stylistic innovations of their unschooled brothers in art.

Eventually, the outsider influence touched mainstream pop culture, such as in Finster’s cover art for mid-’80s albums by R.E.M. and Talking Heads, and via numerous collections, museums, and touring shows dedicated to the genre. And, of course, “outsider art” caught on in the gallery world, where trading works by outsider “stars” and self-taught newcomers can bring big profits. Today, the “art of the insane” is in the minority, and the proliferation of outsider subgenres—”visionary,” “contemporary folk,” “self-taught,” “naive”—is one indication of the increased critical scrutiny given the larger aesthetic category.

And “there are new people being discovered still,” Bonesteel notes happily. “That always surprises me, because I always think, Gee, there aren’t any more Dargers left—they’ve all been discovered. But people keep coming out of the woodwork. Like Grant Wallace, who I immediately thought of when you were describing Napoleon [Epps].”

Wallace was unknown until 1997, when his grandson was spotted at a Bay Area party with some old drawings in his guitar case. With the help of the friend who first saw them, Manley literally brought Wallace’s work out of a cabin in the woods near Big Sur and made it the star of a 1997 AVAM show, “The End Is Near: Visions of Apocalypse, Millennium, and Utopia.”

The grandson led Manley and his friend to his grandfather’s cache of hundreds of pictures, diagrams, and diary pages. After Wallace’s return from the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War, where he had worked as a news illustrator, he began to hear voices. He came to believe he was visited by the Pleiedians, spirit beings from another planet. He produced alphabets, solar-system maps, and diagrams of human psychic structure to document his experience. Several portraits show Gibson girls in long flowing gowns with great manes of red hair and illuminating beams spreading out from diamond-shaped third eyes.

“I really do believe that he believed he heard something,” Manley says. “The amount of work he did is incredible. There’s just notebook after notebook of tables and charts, none of which he ever showed to anyone. Not the kind of thing you would do if you’re just doing an art project or amusing yourself. There’s way too much work involved.”

Bonesteel notes: “With a lot of outsider artists, you have one’s life and art merging together, where there’s not a separation; one’s life becomes one’s art.”

Hampton worked for years in secret to create his oeuvre, a huge altar focused on his vision of the Second Coming of Christ comprising a collection of furniture and found objects wrapped in foil and construction paper. The grouping of 180 pieces was found upon his death in 1964 in a Northwest garage Hampton rented. (The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly is currently on loan to the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg, Va., and will return to D.C. in time for SAAM’s reopening, in the fall of 2004.) Hampton left copious notes in a new language of his own invention and apparently considered himself a prophet, calling himself “Saint James.” It’s known that Hampton was born in South Carolina and moved to D.C. at age 19, but not much else is clear.

Linda Hartigan, chief curator at SAAM and the world’s foremost Hampton expert, can only speculate on the details of his biography and inspiration, but she can define what makes The Throne one of the masterpieces of outsider art: “its absolutely remarkable cohesiveness….I mean, it’s primitive craftsmanship, but it is the extraordinarily imaginative use of found materials and the cohesiveness with which he assembled them that speak to a wide range of people, across cultures, across places, across arenas.”

Wallace was a subscriber to Helena Blavatsky’s 19th-century Theosophical movement, with its mythos of reincarnation, spiritual visitation, and a lost continent as the home of a higher civilization; Hampton came from a Baptist and Dispensationalist background. But their spiritual inspiration had much in common with that of the earliest practitioners of art, who perhaps felt the need for an acceptable source, Bonesteel reasons. “The entire creative process is really a spiritual process, anyway,” he continues. “These people are just nailing it on the head a little bit harder and emphasizing that aspect, instead of trying to take credit for it themselves.”

As for Epps, “I like people who think fresh thoughts, because they’re very rare,” muses AVAM’s founder and director, Rebecca Hoffberger. “I like being around the energy of inventors, [like] a Howard Finster, who I consider very much an inventor. If you ask Finster, he describes his UFO encounters when he was young. Here’s this Fundamentalist Christian preacher who has this whole complex UFO/other-world cosmology that he speaks openly about. And he certainly was not the type of guy who would be reading the New Age press.”

Hoffberger begins riffing through associations with similar phenomena. She mentions Faraday cages, Hindu sages meditating with the aid of copper bowls, the scientific documentation for dowsing, “living water” theories, and the supposed ability of a copper Moebius strip to nullify ambient magnetism when placed near a computer. And she recalls that Nikola Tesla—who gave us neon lights and alternating current, whose list of inventions rivals Edison’s—”believed he was from another planet and wrote privately about that. People don’t realize [Tesla and Mark Twain] were best friends and they both wrote privately about not being from this earth.”

“We’re in very interesting times,” Hoffberger continues. “Is there a lot more to discover out there? Surely. Will it sometimes come from backyard tinkerers? Absolutely. Will sometimes those backyard tinkerers have complex cosmologies behind them? Absolutely!”

Manley more specifically links Epps to “a number of quasi-outsider artists who have made helmets for various reasons.” Writing via e-mail on his way back from Europe, where he was making a film for French TV on the role of objects like the Shroud of Turin and the American flag to represent belief, Manley continues: “I’m thinking of Also Aswell, who made the Cosmic Ray Deflection Helmet; L-15 (an artist named for his map coordinates), who made the Wuxtra Helmet; Andre Robillard’s Sputnik Helmets, etc. There’s a long history of scientistic headgear (note: I don’t mean scientific!) among outsiders.”

Like Wallace and Hampton’s work, all of these visionary works seem akin to Epps’ own, not just because they’re singular explorations of the spiritual, but because of the intense personal histories behind them.

I tell Epps that his helmet and antennae and other tools would fit neatly into a show at AVAM.

Like any good outsider artist, Epps dodges the classification with an understanding smile: “I am a craftsman. I am a master teacher. Well, where do I get my knowledge from? I get my knowledge from the force that you call God; it’s the energy of the universe.”

There’s another possible context for his creations: Is Epps part of the science-fiction community?

“I don’t have time for that,” he says, dismissive for the first (and only) time during our many conversations. “I’m too busy with what’s real.”

First the Atlantean Masters assigned Epps to make circular copper medallions for the “Chosen Ones,” those whom the Masters have elected to “be near” their spaceship when they eventually land on Earth. Each medallion has its own special symbol, a pattern of bars and squiggles.

“It’s your rank in the universe of who you are when they choose you,” Epps explains. “The medallion’s like a tuning fork that’s gonna help the Masters focus into you,” he continues. “I used to drop people off at the Pentagon; they got a thumbprint ID card—it’s only keyed for one person. The same thing with the medallion. It’s a key way for the Masters to work through you. Everybody who got the medallion are people that speak or help other people come aware, and they earned their right to get that medallion.”

The medallions hang on black insulated electrical wire—because, Epps notes, the metal disc would eventually cut through anything else. He made a point to use insulated wire because he didn’t want the energy of the Master’s transmissions leaving the copper. Epps wears his own medallion all the time, even at work.

Then the Masters guided him to buy metalworking equipment. So Epps packed his basement with cutting machines, two drill presses, three sanders, and other large industrial tools. He claims he had no prior instruction or experience as a metalworker, and indeed, all the training for his other vocational and avocational interests would seem to have left him with little time to pick up such skills. Just knowing which machines to buy implies more than a casual level of knowledge.

And Epps manages to give his Atlantean “tools” a professional appearance—the seams are neatly soldered, the edges smooth, the surfaces burnished, the designs economical, and the construction sturdy.

Is there a difference between the stuff he made in high school and what he’s making now, post-soul exchange? For one thing, Epps tells me, his earlier efforts showed a facility that the Masters noted when they chose his body to occupy. “The difference is the things I’m making now are spiritual tools,” he explains. “The things I made then are Earth tools. I wasn’t into no UFO, and I wasn’t into building no pyramids. I was into modern stuff, like airplanes and lasers. When I did this, I started doing more advanced things. ‘Cause these are advanced tools, and they work with spiritual energy.”

And the Masters didn’t stop there—one corner of the basement is set up as a small chemistry lab, with metal frames holding glass tubes and a cabinet with a large selection of glass bottles, beakers, and other instruments. “I don’t know what this is for,” Epps confides, sounding apologetic rather than boastful. “They tell me the time isn’t right for me to know why this is here. I think it has to do with the work I’m supposed to do on anti-gravity.”

Epps takes his obedience to this new calling as a matter of course, a logical consequence of awareness of the Other Side. “When it’s revealed to you, then you want to go,” he says matter-of-factly. “You don’t want to stay here, and you do go.”

“A lot of times in my mind, I just said, ‘Forget it, I’m tired,’” Epps reveals. “But then, at the same time, I look at it as a mission that I took. If somebody don’t try to wake people up…Masters [like me] come to teach and help people. I’m sacrificing my inner self to help these people. Instead of giving blood, I’m giving my soul to the people, ’cause I’m trying to help bring them to a higher level.”

This still doesn’t entirely explain his motivation, I press. When he saw how much that metalworking equipment was going to cost, why didn’t he just go home empty-handed?

“The problem is, I couldn’t walk away from it, ’cause it’s my job,” he says. “I was assigned this mission; I was chosen by God.”

But, I tell him, I get the idea this is more than just a job for you.

“Oh yeah. This is who I am,” he says with certainty. “I am like an ambassador for my planet that came down here, and they choose certain people that they want to do the job.”

Among the tools Epps has made in the course of this job are the antennae, the helmet, and “range finders, energy generators, a levitation device.” Epps explains that they’re reconstructions of tools he would have known in his earlier life in Atlantis. Many are handheld devices, laid out neatly on the floor in a spare bedroom. All are made out of copper, which is significant as a conductor of “etheric energy” and—appropriately enough for Epps’ professional life—electricity, with crystals and New Age symbols (stars, pyramids, towers) prominently worked into their designs. A few have moving parts—little motors that constantly turn, like the one in the backyard antenna.

Out in the hallway by Epps’ front door rests the prototype “dimensional machine.” About 2 feet tall, 1 foot wide, and a yard long, the machine has a thick base—a box made from copper sheets—on which rests a framework of copper strips that looks like a diamond pierced by an arrow; at the head of the arrow, in the middle of the diamond, is a kind of gyroscope with a pyramid. Of the “dimensional machine,” Epps asserts, without explaining how, “It will take you to different dimensions.”

An “energy generator” sits near the dimensional machine; it’s less than 3 feet tall and looks like a pyramid resting on a square box with a halo made from copper tubing around its apex. “It runs all the time,” Epps says, as if surprised. “I think that has something to do with that antenna on the roof. I don’t know. They give it to me. All these tools come just for me.”

Nevertheless, there’s a catch, Epps explains: “Even though they’re my tools I had before, in Atlantis, they not gonna let me operate them until it’s time. I wish they would, because I wanna show the people things, but [the Masters] got their own way and time period when they want to do this stuff.”

Most of these tools, then, are not for release to the public. Epps will not even let me photograph them. Ditto his “chakra-alignment table,” a low platform made from a 6-foot copper sheet with crystals positioned around the edges and a ring of copper tubing studded with crystals at the head, which he lies on to receive electro-spiritual maintenance. He interprets discolorations on the copper bed as evidence that his aura has marked the table “like the Shroud of Turin.”

The tool-storage bedroom connects to an addition on the back of the house, which Epps has dubbed “the Chamber.” From the back yard, I can see that the room is raised about 3 feet; centered under the structure, Epps has constructed an Indian medicine wheel from river rocks. The interior doorway is lined with copper panels decorated with ancient Egyptian motifs, and Epps warns me that a force field and invisible guardians protect the room from intruders. The view is clear, however, of “the Mothership”: a frame of copper tubes outlining the shape of a pyramid that fills the room. The apex is inverted into the body of the pyramid, forming a structure that supports a hanging meditation helmet. A plastic lawn chair, spray-painted gold, its legs amputated so that its seat lies flat on the floor, waits for a passenger.

Epps demonstrates how he sits in the chair on the floor with his head in the helmet. Here, he receives transmissions from the Masters, picked up and amplified by a sixth antenna, on the roof. And, sometimes, he “travels”: In the form of his “real self,” a pure energy being, Epps has been allowed to visit his extraterrestrial home twice. He explains how it’s done: “That dimensional machine, that Mothership, allows me to separate my spirit body and travel. When I travel, it’s like I become one with the Mothership, with that energy you call Holy Spirit, or etheric energy. The Masters are a part of the energy, and they communicate with me.”

Written evidence of Epps’ Mothership excursions exists in the form of the rough pencil sketches and primitive diagrams he makes afterward to guide his toolmaking. He begins flipping through a large, jumbled stack of papers in various sizes. Each sheet is dated. There’s no technical information, merely outlines, geometric shapes joined to suggest a mental image, much as a dream diary abstracts the cinematic experience during sleep. He’s made a chart of the medallion diagrams; each is a different arrangement of criss-crossing lines, a shorthand ID, one for each Chosen person. More interesting are the samples of strange “writing,” but Epps can’t offer much explanation for the letters: “Each one of these means something, but I don’t know what yet.”

In some ways, Epps seems to know only a little more about the mystery that surrounds him than his fellow beings sharing this planet. He finds himself in the middle of an ongoing archaeology of the soul, a discovery process that reaches deep into the cosmos or the imagination—take your pick. What’s clear is that Epps is going beyond the normal limits of identity construction.

Mention a story like Epps’ to a local clinical neuropsychologist and he immediately remarks, “Sounds like a well-developed, well-compensated paranoid delusion.” Although the neuropsychologist, who asks that his name not be used, can cite no cases of electric shock leading to either paranoia or spiritual experience, he does recall the case of a television repairman who developed a startling new history of war experiences after a severe head injury sustained in a car accident. The man had done military service during World War II, but it was stateside. Nevertheless, the man claimed to have been a secret operative who had met Gens. Bradley and Eisenhower, as well as important senators, governors, and scientists. “When you pressed him for details,” the neuropsychologist continues, “he said, ‘Well, that’s still secret. I can’t reveal that.’ He was unable to run his business any longer, and this all dated, as far as anyone knew, from the accident.”

If it represents a delusion, Epps’ story is remarkably well-constructed. It appears to draw on influences going back to Blavatsky’s Theosophical movement. And alongside Montgomery’s walk-in idea, Epps seems to have absorbed heavy doses of her ’70s best sellers A World Beyond and The World Before—as dictated to her by her “Spirit Guides”—which involve “Creation, the advent of man on earth and the hierarchy of angels, not to mention life in the lost worlds of Mu and Atlantis and interplanetary wandering between lives.” Epps says he hasn’t read her work, although he allows that he did see her on TV once.

Epps admits that when he was tested after his accident, he never told his examining psychologist about his new history. But he’s unruffled by the possibility of psychiatric diagnosis, saying, “He don’t understand. Doctors conform to the physical world. You gotta be in tune for that type of knowledge to be accepted. That doctor ain’t ready for me, anyway. We’d just be battling back and forth, and once I talk the way I talk and he talk his talk, we wouldn’t get anywhere, because he believes what he learned, and I believe what I learned and what I know by traveling and going out into the universe and coming back. The knowledge I have, he could never attain unless he leave that physical world alone.”

Epps is well-aware of the public’s suspicion toward stories like his. “That’s something I’m gonna face all the time,” he says. “A lot of people gonna be scared. They gonna say, ‘That a nut.’ It don’t make a difference. I can accept that.”

Unlike the man in the psychologist’s case study, Epps has been able to integrate his worlds so far, because he knows the nature of their boundaries. He understands why the guys at work—where five people have been Chosen and one was hand-picked by the Masters to be Epps’ “bodyguard”—rib him endlessly about the Parliament/Funkadelic show he attended at the Capital Centre as a teen, when the group famously landed its own mothership. And he stoically accepts that the few times he’s addressed the neighbors with his ideas, they’ve responded, “That’s just the accident you had.”

As the one tool Epps has been authorized to release to “the people,” the Atlantean One Meditation Helmet is essentially a layperson’s version of the room-sized Mothership. Epps’ story, however imaginary or esoteric it may seem, intersects with the outside world in this device, and he has carefully laid a foundation for protecting and publicizing his invention. In March of this year, he received a patent ( U.S. Patent and Trademark Office No. 6,205,589) for the helmet as a “meditation enhancing article,” in the charmless legal language of the official document. And, although Epps claims to rely on the Masters to guide him to interested parties, he’s hedged no bets and engaged in an advertising campaign that consists of display ads in Pathways, a Washington area New Age quarterly, and personal pitches at UFO conventions.

Epps made his only public appearance to date in full Atlantean garb at the 10th Annual International UFO Convention and Film Festival in Laughlin, Nev., in March. There, the Masters directed him to 17 Chosen, to whom he distributed medallions free of charge, including his first helmet customer, Barbara Snowberger of Los Angeles. (He’s sold just two other helmets since, one through his Web site and one through the print ad.) He had less success at the regional Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) conference in Orange County, Calif., held Aug. 20 through 22, where just five attendees were Chosen—but that number included big fish such as Harvard psychologist and UFOlogist John Mack and nuclear-physicist-turned-UFO-researcher Stanton Friedman, who wrote a well-regarded study of the Roswell incident, Top Secret/Majic.

Epps’ biggest MUFON obstacle was that the Masters wouldn’t let him wear his robes, and being one of only about 10 blacks among 800 attendees at Laughlin didn’t bother him. Otherwise, Epps fit in fine: He claims two UFO experiences so far. The Masters had suggested UFO conferences as reasonable places to find individuals open enough, in terms of psychic ability, spiritual growth, and intellectual belief, to buy helmets and receive enlightenment.

Part of what sold Snowberger on her helmet, she says, was the quality of the craftsmanship, but she was also taken by Epps’ soft-spoken charm. “He’s a very sincere, very humble individual,” she notes. “After I got to know him, just by being there at the conference and talking to him a little bit every day, I realized that he truly and honestly believes what he believes.” Now retired from the University of Southern California, where she worked as an administrative assistant, Snowberger says she has had UFO experiences from a very young age and believes in reincarnation. She hasn’t used the helmet as much as she’d like, but she believes she’s already noticed some effect: “What I feel—there’s a certain tightness, and I think it’s from the crystals. It changes the way my head feels. It does give my head a very unusual feeling, and I notice it’s much easier to meditate when I have it on.”

Friedman, by contrast, is baffled by Epps, who introduced himself at a MUFON buffet table and later mailed Friedman a medallion. “I have no idea what to make of it,” Friedman writes via e-mail. “I have not worn it, but then I can’t remember wearing anything around my neck.” When asked how Epps fits into the UFO scene, Friedman responds, “I put him in my ‘gray basket.’ Not enough data. He obviously takes himself seriously. No evidence so far to substantiate any claims. Absence of evidence is NOT evidence for absence.”

Recently, Epps signed with Home Shop International (www.hsionline.com), an Internet department store of sorts. Founded in 1999 and based in St. Catherines, Ontario, HSI works like the television shopping channels, except it’s open to smaller-run and handcrafted items. The buyers at HSI found the N-N Co. Web site while data mining for aromatherapy products and solicited Epps for a contract after doing “some serious thinking and analysis whether or not there was a sufficient market out there,” says Jim Stevenson, head of product development. Apparently, it wasn’t that tough a decision to add the helmet to the company’s growing list of more than 700 vendors. The market looked good, Stevenson adds, because “so many people in business now are…looking for something different that will help them relax, to become more one with themselves.” Plus, Stevenson says, HSI decided that both aging hippies and youthful Gen Y-ers will be looking to buy spirituality aids via the Internet in the next five to 10 years.

It’s not clear if anyone at HSI gave the helmet a test run, but Stevenson is diplomatic about the obvious question of functionality: “I think that’s up to the individual who uses it. It’s the tarot-card thing. Is David Blaine really a magician? That’s really up to the individual.”

For HSI to keep the helmet on the list, the company needs to sell at least 100 over the next year at $370 each, with the retailer keeping 10 percent. Because Epps is paying a $598 merchant’s fee for the marketing push, HSI wouldn’t seem to be losing money on him, but Stevenson claims that the fee doesn’t cover the costs of producing the 20-second streaming video commercial and other promos his company provides.

Despite these other business concerns, Epps’ main worry is that he won’t be able to manufacture the helmets fast enough if there’s a rush of orders. One fabricator, an Alexandria sheet metal shop, told Epps it could build the helmets for $350 apiece. It takes Epps himself three days to make one helmet, which he offers on his Web site for the price of $387.60—recently raised from an introductory offer of $187.60. Materials for each helmet cost him around $100.

Epps would like to see his helmet-making take off as a business that can support his other work as a Master, so he can make better-quality tools in a bigger workshop, even though turning a profit on the helmets might make him look like a sellout. “Well, you gotta look at it: We’re in a physical world,” he reasons. “Ford do its job, Sears. We live in a world where we have to survive by doing things. Could I make the helmet free for people? Yes. At the same time, could the mortgage people let me stay here free? Would the people give me food free? Could I have gas to go around free? Could I have free electricity? No! Because they not gonna give it to you.”

So life as an advanced soul is no bed of roses. “I get frustrated, because I don’t have the things I need to do my work,” Epps admits. “I say [to the Masters], ‘Why’d you send me down here if I’m not going to have the equipment I need?’”

“It’s like telling Noah to go out there and build the Ark,” he continues. “How is he going to get the materials? You see, God is not concerned how you get the materials. Maybe what’s happening is the Masters are testing me to see if I’m going to sacrifice and make whatever arrangements I need to build the helmet and all the other tools. Some ways I always get it, sooner or later. It takes time, but I get it.”

And the helmet, he knows, is a hard sell: “Something strange like that helmet, people going to be leery of it, ’cause first of all, they ain’t gonna believe that it comes from Atlantis. They ain’t gonna believe that I’m who I am,” Epps says. “That’s why when I pray, I ask the Masters: ‘It’s like you leavin’ me hangin’. You send me down here to do the mission, but at the same time, you’re not giving me nothing really to show these people.’ Say I took this staff out there and made the water stand straight up in the air in the Potomac. That would be something they can understand. But they’re not going to do something like that.”

Another of Epps’ trials is more down-to-earth: the need for companionship. “I can’t talk to women who aren’t at my level,” he confides. Usually women can go for a certain amount of New Age chat, but give them a glimpse of his spiritual identity as Nicodemus and they’re out the door. It’s tough to be dating while having so much to share, to be sure, although Epps has reassurance from the Masters that there is a “queen” coming, someone chosen to share his work: “someone who can go into the Mothership and help me on the spaceship,” Epps says, with his usual calm seriousness.

More troublesome to Epps is a crisis of trust with his fellow Masters: He can’t figure why some people get Chosen but don’t do “what they supposed to do.” It’s part of the knowledge the other Masters are withholding. “I don’t know the big picture of why it is,” Epps confides. “Maybe thousands of years from now I was like them, where I’ve earned the right to be a teacher now. It’s kind of hard when you’re at a certain level. It’s like Einstein coming and trying to teach nuclear physics to junior-high-school kids. How can they comprehend that when they haven’t went through the stages?”

While Epps goes to bring out one of the helmets for me to try, I look around the living room. A couple of couches are arranged around a low glass table to make an intimate space in front of the fireplace. An impeccable housekeeper, Epps keeps things neat and organized; there’s no clutter and not a speck of dust anywhere. Aside from the three machines on the floor near the doorway, there’s no sign from here of his Mothership connection. Instead, the room is dominated by dozens of framed pictures of his kids—three girls and two boys from his two marriages. They’re in their teens and 20s now, but in the pictures none look older than 12. Epps mentions their occasional visits to the house and reveals that only one daughter, so far, has not been Chosen.

We have only about 10 minutes to test-drive one of the helmets before each of us has to go to another appointment. The headband is a little too large for my head, but it should work fine, Epps assures me. Normally, one has a helmet custom-made. The first thing I notice—and, it turns out, the only thing I experience—is the heaviness of the thing. Weighing in at around 2 pounds, the Atlantean Helmet is the heaviest hat you’ll ever wear.

I’ve meditated before, years ago, so I know that 10 minutes isn’t enough time to fully relax, let alone get into the zone. I give it my best effort anyway, trying to lock in, but it’s a struggle just to keep my head up. It’s difficult to relax while balancing a sculpture on your head. The pressure is especially bad across the top of my scalp, where an inch-wide copper strip supports the weight of the whole pyramid. I’m wondering if this band will restrict circulation in my head enough to make me lightheaded. Wooziness might count as a sign of “communication.”

Disappointingly, there’s no tingling, no opening of the chakras, no epiphanies, and, for better or worse, no voices.

I take a peek around the room. Epps rests on the other couch in a loose lotus position, his eyes closed and breathing regular. He seems to be an experienced meditator, and maybe his practice has paid off in his strongest personality trait: patience.

The clock tells me it’s been 15 minutes. I decide to give up and lift the helmet from my head, making a little noise to signal the end of my experiment. We talk a little about my lack of sensations, agreeing that time constraints were against me. Epps doesn’t seem bothered.

During a phone conversation a week later, after I’ve run dry on an extensive list of questions, Epps gently probes, “Do you believe anything?” He doesn’t seem to expect me to. It’s hard to say, I tell him. As he’s pointed out himself, most of the Atlantean tools don’t do anything yet. The helmet works only for people at a certain spiritual level. And I’m not spiritually advanced enough to sit in the Mothership. There’s no way to verify that the Masters communicate with him. Like most Americans, I give credence on the basis of results: Seeing is believing. Epps just says, “Mm-hmm.”

If he could have, he would have put me in the Mothership, Epps tells me. “Then you would have seen something. But once you seen it, then you write about it, it goes back to the same thing: If people that are not of the spirit read it, they’re not going to believe it. You have to be spiritually in tune in order to communicate.

“I just wish they’d bring something down here in the physical,” Epps continues, noting that he has asked the Masters to manifest something in the near future. “But at the same time, that’s not how God works. ‘Cause God ain’t gonna prove nothing to nobody. The angels ain’t gonna prove nothing. We already know who we are. When the people do see it, and when I do put the robe on and go before the people, around that time, I guess people will be ready to accept what I am.” CP