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See it now: the center of the world

Times Staff Writer

A stiff wind blows grit across Jacques-Andre Istel’s latest and greatest undertaking, a History of Humanity etched on hundreds of granite panels a few turns of a tumbleweed from the Arizona border.

He understands if you don’t immediately understand.

“You might ask: What qualifications do I have to write a history of humanity?” says Istel, 79, who is French by birth but American in his individualism. “Well, I would ask: What were my qualifications to design parachutes when I was a banker?”

Good point. Istel has always zigged where others zagged. He is a tireless wayfarer with an insatiable curiosity and no tolerance for boredom, who has pingponged through life like a character in a picaresque novel.

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He fled Paris with his family in advance of the Nazis. He hitchhiked across the U.S. when he was 14. After a stint in the Marine Corps, he chucked a career on Wall Street to take up parachuting -- which he learned by leaping from a plane with virtually no instruction. He eventually fathered the sport of sky diving in America. Later, having grown antsy running a business, he circumnavigated the globe in a twin-engine airplane, at times not certain he’d make it.

In the mid-1980s, he founded the town of Felicity on about 2,800 acres of California desert. He built a marble-and-glass pyramid the size of a large garage and proclaimed it the Official Center of the World; thousands have paid a couple of bucks each to step inside, even though it’s not even the center of Imperial County. More recently, Istel moved 150,000 tons of dirt to create the nearby Hill of Prayer on which he built the Church on the Hill -- even though he’s not particularly religious.

“You’ve got to admit, that’s interesting,” Istel says.

He doesn’t mean himself. Istel is talking about his History of Humanity, eight horizontal monuments spread out like spokes of a wheel between the church and the pyramid. When completed, it will serve as a Cliffs Notes of life on Earth: 416 kitchen-counter-size granite panels etched with words, timelines and drawings.

“How do you treat our galaxy?” Istel asks, pointing to a panel describing the Milky Way. He doesn’t wait for an answer. “This one’s interesting. . . .” And he is off to the next panel, another subject meticulously researched and condensed.

The Greek philosophers. Early music. Buddhism. The Han Dynasty. Early timekeeping. Ireland’s golden age of scholarship. The evolution of math. Our sun. The night.

“Isn’t that amazing?”

Nomadic tribes and barbarian invasions. Volcanic eruptions. Early concepts of law. Early India. Metallurgy. Sages from China. The development of bread and cheese.

“Isn’t that neat stuff?”

The rise and fall of the world’s empires over 5,000 years required five panels. An etching based on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, the hand of God giving life to Adam, stretches over three panels. The Renaissance will fill at least 110 panels, Istel estimates. The 20th century will need a bunch as well.

“I struggled with putting Plato, Aristotle and Socrates on one panel,” he says. “How do you reduce the life of Alexander the Great so it fits on one panel?”

The same might be said about the serendipitous life of Istel.

Three panels might do it.

Panel No. 1: Highlights of a childhood of wealth and adventure.

Two men influenced Istel. His father, a French diplomat and banker, instilled a work ethic and respect for money by not giving Istel much of it -- although he did provide a first-class education at the private Stony Brook School on Long Island and at Princeton University.

His uncle, a French aviator and World War I hero, regaled him with swashbuckling stories. “He was a man with only three interests in life: horses, women and war,” Istel says. “He was the sort of guy who really appealed to the imagination of a young boy.”

Panel No. 2: His uncle’s influence prevailed.

Istel’s father wasn’t keen about his son abandoning finance for parachuting. In the 1950s, parachutists in the United States fell into two camps: military men and civilian crackpots. Istel understood both and was driven to fill the gap.

“He has the unabashed drive of a young adult gorilla in especially fine condition,” the New Yorker magazine described him in 1959.

Istel invented parachute designs. He prodded the U.S. military to embrace free-fall parachuting. He formed the nation’s first competitive sky-diving team. He turned parachuting into a recreational sport for the masses at training centers in New Jersey, Massachusetts and Southern California. His company, Parachutes Inc., lured 5,000 people a year to try it with this straightforward come-on: “I invite you to jump out of an airplane.”

Panel No. 3: Felicity and Istel’s menagerie of monuments.

Istel first glimpsed the hard country in the shadow of the Chocolate Mountains west of Yuma as a young Marine driving to Camp Pendleton in the early 1950s. A few years later, he was among a group of investors seeking land with long-term potential.

Istel introduced them to one of California’s bleakest corners, where the U.S. Census predicted the population would one day bloom -- a prediction that’s proving to be wildly optimistic. One by one the partners sold out to Istel.

“I had absolutely no idea what we were going to do out here. None,” he says. “All I knew was that there were possibilities of having all this land.”

He named the place after his wife, Felicia, to both honor and amuse her -- the latter a key to any successful relationship, Istel says. (He amused himself by getting on the crowded ballot for California’s 2003 gubernatorial recall election.)

Felicia Lee, then a reporter for Sports Illustrated, met Istel as he prepared for the 1962 world parachuting championships in Massachusetts. He was dashing -- jet-black hair, a square jaw and a powerful build. He was also well-mannered. To this day, Istel doesn’t believe men should wear hats indoors, especially when women are present.

“Well, of course, he was totally charming,” says Lee, a delicate bird of unrevealed age who was born in London, where her father was an executive with the Bank of China. “And he was French. I’m partial to the French.”

Istel is partial to this woman who embraced his free-spiritedness. When they hopscotched around the world in his two-seat plane -- landing near war zones, circling Mt. Everest and flying over the open ocean for hours at a time -- Istel took comfort knowing that his wife was calmly sitting behind him doing needlepoint.

“I have the kind of wife who, if I said, ‘We’re going to the planet Mars,’ she’d say, ‘What do I pack?’ ”

Mars could be a stand-in for the tortured landscape where Istel dreamed up Felicity, which is less a town than a work of performance art.

The idea is rooted in a children’s book Istel wrote, “Coe: The Good Dragon at the Center of the World” -- a.k.a. Felicity. That inspired him to build the pyramid, and visitors pay $2 to stand on the bronze plaque inside that marks the spot.

“Don’t describe me as a good businessman. My brother” -- who followed their father into investment banking -- “would laugh for the next hundred years. We’re very different people,” Istel says.

Still, his brother did visit Felicity once to see what it was all about. “I made him pay the $2 to go into the pyramid,” Istel says.

Modesty aside, Istel concedes he made shrewd real estate investments through the years that allowed him to indulge his muses. Among the latter: paying $100,000 for a 25-foot-high section of the original winding stairway of the Eiffel Tower and plunking it down in Felicity in front of the couple’s home.

“It serves no practical purpose, but is part of the spirit of Felicity,” explains the town’s website, www.felicityusa.com.

About a decade ago, Istel turned his attention to building monuments. As always, his goal was lofty: hundreds of monuments that would preserve the collective memory of humanity in an open-air time capsule. He called it the Museum of History in Granite and registered it as a nonprofit organization.

He started with the Wall for the Ages, which lists the names of people who have paid $200 to be immortalized in Felicity. Next came monuments to the Marine Corps in the Korean War, the French Foreign Legion and the history of French aviation.

“Some people see this and they think, ‘The Wright brothers did it!’ ” -- invented aviation. “But look!” Istel says, playfully slapping a visitor’s shoulder with the back of his hand. “The first balloon -- French!” The first airport -- in France. The first successful seaplane -- French.

“Isn’t that interesting?”

The History of Humanity, the centerpiece of the Museum of History in Granite, is the result of countless hours of research by Istel and his wife and the work of artisans from South Carolina and Georgia.

“In trust that this summary of human achievement and failure will encourage study of the past, thought for the future and resolve for virtue,” Istel’s title panel reads. “In hope that the human race will endure far longer than this stone.”

After 2 1/2 years of work, it is 20% complete, but Istel is already on to his next projects: monuments outlining the histories of the United States, California and Arizona.

He stops and visits with Jerry Zambrano Jr., 26, and his father, who are attaching granite panels to a monument. When they’re not pouring concrete or installing counter tops in Yuma, they’re out here. They’ve built all but one of Felicity’s monuments and are proud that their craftsmanship is intended to be admired by people thousands of years from now.

“I tell my friends I’m working at the Center of the World,” Zambrano says, but Istel has already walked off.

“What he is doing out there is a remarkable undertaking,” says the Rev. Monsignor Richard O’Keeffe of Yuma’s Immaculate Conception Parish, who has watched Felicity’s evolution with interest.

“Only a man of great faith, great vision and great perseverance could have accomplished what he has,” O’Keeffe says. “He has left a heck of a legacy in the barren desert. The history of man’s salvation -- man’s history -- will be written on those walls.”

The gregarious Istel won’t say how much he has spent on all of this. “I think it’s nobody’s business.” Money is ephemeral. His monuments have been engineered to last 4,000 years, he says. “But there are no guarantees.”

And there is still so much to do and so little time. Istel hasn’t decided what to put in the center of the History of Humanity’s monuments. Maybe a fountain. An eternal flame might be nice.

In his office is a Felicity site plan depicting other far-larger projects, scores of monuments surrounding his church that have yet to be built.

What stories will they tell? The possibilities are as infinite as Istel’s restless curiosity. “I may get 20 done before I drop dead,” he says.

The sun is setting now, and two women from Northern California who pulled off Interstate 8 on their way to Tucson are wandering around the world according to Istel.

“I’m not sure what the walls are all about,” Lucy D’Mot says as Istel walks out to greet them. “But I’m always intrigued by people who want to do something different.”

“Welcome to Felicity!” Istel announces, and the three chat for a few minutes.

“I’m not sure what the church is about,” D’Mot says as Istel walks away. “But it is interesting.”

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mike.anton@latimes.com


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