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See it now: the center of the world

The History of Humanity is being etched in stone in the California desert. The real story is the builder.

April 16, 2008|Mike Anton | Times Staff Writer

FELICITY, CALIF. — 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.

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.

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