Turner West saw the land first, but my father was rich and bought most of it. Unlike other stories about land, this is not about farming or crops or man taming the wilderness. The land of this story was one square mile of Florida real estate halfway between Jacksonville and St. Augustine. A mile of beachfront and a mile deep into the scrubby interior, cut along the eastern edge by Highway A1A as it went south toward the Keys.
West saw the land in 1950 and knew it was where he wanted to build his funeral home. His father had been a mortician before him, and his brothers had gone into the same business in Georgia. In 1950, West had been driving down A1A and saw the sun rise over the Atlantic. He told his father, but the elder West was skeptical that a funeral home so far from a major city would ever be successful.
"The future," West had said to his father, "you have to think about the future, even in the funeral business."
West borrowed from his father and brothers and was able to buy two acres on the west side of A1A. The land sloped up and there was a clear view of the ocean, so the West Funeral Home opened its doors in 1951 on Easter morning. My father thought that was a nice touch, especially after he found out that Turner West was an atheist.
West may have been an atheist, but he was also an American Puritan. His work ethic was impeccable, and his funeral business prospered. He had no paid employees. His wife and six children worked with him. He personally trained his three oldest sons in mortuary science—a fact my father particularly admired about Turner West. In his own case, until he was ordered by the Duval County courts to obey the law, my father had educated me and my sister at home. I was twelve years old before I saw the inside of a classroom.
As an atheist, Turner West belonged to five churches and a synagogue. On Sunday morning he was up at dawn and attended services first at the downtown Jacksonville Baptist Church, then at the First Church of Christ at 9:30, followed by the Methodists at 11:00, the Episcopalians at 1:00, a late lunch at home, and finally 5:30 Mass at the Cathedral in St. Augustine. He was in temple on Saturday. He absorbed hours of religion every week, but he never volunteered for any committee work at any of the churches and always insisted that his name not appear in any printed material, except for the regular ad in each church's bulletin. His priest, pastor, and rabbi friends appreciated his humility. I know this because Grace West later explained to me why her father went to church.
"Contacts," she had said. "Everyone wants a friend in a time of need. Daddy is there for them because he has always been there. When the moment comes, Daddy says, they are lost. The living, that is, and they want someone who can understand their grief. Daddy has always been part of their congregation. Who else would they choose?"
My father understood perfectly how West's mind operated. My father, the agnostic.
"Abraham, he is a worthy opponent," my father would say. "He understands the power of symbols, even though he does not realize that he is the ultimate symbol himself."
On his two acres, West built his business and his home. The funeral home was styled after a southern plantation house, white columns and Jeffersonian arches. The West family lived in the back: Turner and his wife in a large bedroom over the garage full of hearses and limousines, their six sons sharing three small rooms on the ground floor next to the embalming room.
For my father, Turner West was an adversary. He was Death personified. My father was Life. If you think my father was crazy, you would find many people who agree with you.My father saw the sun rise over the Atlantic a year after Turner West did, and my father also saw the West Funeral Home and Chapel.
"This is the spot for my Great White Wall," he had told my mother, pointing to a large half-moon-shaped indentation that pushed A1A in a long arcing curve away from the ocean. Another visionary might have seen a perfect spot for a tourist hotel fronting a hard beach that could accommodate pale and flabby easterners and their two-ton cars. My father saw a drive-in theatre. It is a story my mother loved to tell. My father looked at the rising sun, turned 180 degrees, and faced the West Funeral Home. With both arms spread wide, he had said, "I will blot your sun out with a Wall of Life. I will put you in the dark."
"I told your father that he was crazy"—my mother would laugh"—but that I loved him anyway."
It was not really a personal vendetta against Turner West. That came later. But on that first day, my father had simply had a vision about what to do with his money, the ample and undeserved money handed down to him as the last of the Lee family from Winston-Salem.
I give you these details to make sure you do not fall into the easy interpretation that others have. Too many people have told me that the war made my father crazy. But that's not true. My father was disjointed even before going to Korea a week after seeing his land in Florida. My mother told me all the stories about his family, the death of his parents in a murder-suicide, how he found them the summer before his senior year in high school.
"He was different after that, the rest of his family told me," she would say. "Not as quiet, not the shy child they had known before then, just not the same. And he went to Korea knowing that he would not die, that he had to come back here to build his dream. He sent me drawings every month, gave me specific instructions for the contractors, and even made me go to California to buy those giant redwoods. He also told me that you and Louise were going to be our children, described you exactly as you were, even before I saw you." She told me all this, and then she would smile that smile my father must have loved the first time he saw her.
Turner West married his high school sweetheart. They were virgins in both body and heart. I have seen their wedding pictures. Imagine a handsome version of Abraham Lincoln, literally, and you have Turner West. Tall, angular, sad eyes, coal-black hair, long arms, but with a movie-star quality. His wife was short and a bit plump. They had kissed at seventeen, pledged their love at eighteen, married at twenty-two, and deflowered themselves on their Atlanta honeymoon. He had told her that he was going to be a mortician like his father and grandfather, and she had still agreed to be his wife.
Her name was Grace, and she was a natural consoler. It was she who had early contact with the next of kin in those brutal first moments on the phone when the living start the dead on their last journey. West could never believe his luck in finding her. She was his wife, lover, mother, friend, and partner. In the first ten years of marriage, they had their six sons. By the time the West Funeral Home was opened, the three oldest were trained to be their father's assistants, and the younger three were destined for the same career. The youngest was old enough to drive one of the limousines in the daily processions that began under Turner West's bedroom.
On the day two barges landed on the beach—two barges each supporting one end of the first of those hundred-foot redwoods that had been shipped from California down the Pacific coast, through the Panama Canal, up past Cuba to float offshore of the land my father had bought—on that day, Turner West's wife died.
They had been foolish, they told themselves. She was too old to have another child. It had not been planned. It could have been terminated. Even in those unenlightened days, there were ways. But then they had looked at each other and knew that things would be all right.
In the waiting room, however, Turner West had been told there was something wrong, and his long legs had outraced the doctor back to the delivery room. His wife was dead, but his daughter was alive.
When the nurse asked what her name was, West had thought she meant his wife. "Grace. Her name is Grace," he had said, and that was the name they put on the birth certificate.
If you had asked Turner West what he remembered about the next three months he could not tell you, because he remembered nothing. Then, sitting in his bedroom one dark morning, he heard a baby cry. Grace was in a crib in the room in which she had been conceived, in the room where she was to sleep in a bed next to her father's bed for the next five years. Turner West had rocked his daughter back to sleep, and then he walked to the front of his funeral home to look out the window. At that particular moment he saw the Flamingo Drive-In Theatre blocking his view of the morning sun.