Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Hermit of Deer Island

Biloxi has never been short on colorful characters. The most intriguing of them all may have been John R. Guilhot (or Jean Guillot), known as "The Hermit of Deer Island." While technically not a resident of Point Cadet, Guilhot was well-known to Point residents. For years, local children were fascinated by -- and terrified of -- the grizzled eccentric.

He is such a legend that it is hard to separate myth from reality. It seems he cultivated much of his legend himself.

This much is known. Guilhot, a native of France, moved just off shore to Deer Island in the 1920s. A former barber, he was, according to my uncle and Internet research, at one time a businessman who grew oysters and owned and operated a small oyster plant on the island. After his wife died, and his house was destroyed by the hurricane of '47 he preferred to live alone with his dogs in a small shelter on the island. And thus the legend of "the hermit" was born. *

It is also fact that local tour boat operator Capt. Louis Gorenflo delivered Guilhot's groceries to him on his Sail Fish tour boat and left his mail and newspaper tied to a pine tree "mailbox" out in the water. This mutually beneficial arrangement was a matter of convenience for Guilhot and a promotional opportunity for Gorenflo's tour boat business.

Gorenflo featured "the hermit" as an attraction on his boat tours and even featured Guilhot's hairy, wild-eyed likeness in his advertising. As a bonus, when the ship went by Deer Island, sometimes Guilhot poled his skiff out and serenaded the tourists onboard with French folk songs. Often they threw money down to him. Eventually, Guilhot didn't want to be bothered anymore and rigged up a cup and pulley system to the tree for his mail and newspaper and just waved to the boat from the safe distance of the island.

While the tour spiel -- and the media -- made much of his "Robinson Crusoe" existence, Guilhot, though decidedly eccentric, was not a true hermit. Those who knew him, said that in company he could be gregarious and witty.

My mother recalled that he often came to town. A gaggle of children always followed behind-- giggling and whispering from a safe distance. They screamed and scattered when he so much as looked their way.

That said, Guilhot was fiercely protective of his solitary lifestyle. When the Hurricane of '47 threatened, he refused all attempts to bring him to shelter. He rode out the storm -- and survived it --- high up in a tree on the island.

His crusty, tattered appearance notwithstanding, the hermit was reputed to be a ladies' man with some alleged 4, 6 or 8 wives in his past, depending on which account you choose to believe. My uncle never recalled him having a girlfriend, but my mom said Guilhot was sweet on their older sister Marie who was young enough to be his granddaughter. Who knows if that is true? In her youth, Aunt Marie possessed the curvy figure, beestung lips and big brown eyes that turned lots of heads.

As he grew older, Guilhot often seemed impatient with the attention he received, but there is no denying that he also courted it. He is mentioned in a 1954 radio segment of the show "Down South Magazine of the Air." The show's recently discovered 23 segments were the subject of a two-hour documentary on WKFK Digital TV. You can download the individual segments here. http://www.wkfk.com/. Guilhot was also profiled in this 1955 article in the Milwaukee Journal.

Guilhot passed away in 1959, aged 81. Nearly 10 years later Hurricane Camille destroyed the remaining homes on the island, and the island has not been inhabited since. Over the years, casinos and condo developers have eyed Deer Island for development. However, the State of Mississippi acquired the land in 2002 and now maintains it as a nature preserve.

The hermit would probably like that.

* Part of what makes The Hermit's story so interesting, is you often run into conflicting versions of his history. The conventional story is that the hermit became The Hermit when he lost his house in the hurricane and chose to live in a shack on the island. Other people who knew him say that he had no choice but to stay on the island after his house burned down and his wife left him, taking the insurance money with her.

Hermit Cookies

Finding a recipe for this post was a challenge. According to an interview the garrulous Capt. Gorenflo gave in 1954, the hermit was a vegetarian with a penchant for rye whiskey though my uncle recalls Guilhot raised hogs on the island which tends to make me question the vegetarian part.

In his honor, however, please enjoy this old-fashioned recipe for hermit cookies. These are spicy. If you like gingerbread, you'll probably like these.

1 stick butter
1/4 tsp. salt
1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1 egg
1/2 cup milk
2 1/4 cups flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cream of tartar
1/4 tsp. cloves
1/4 tsp. allspice
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1 cup chopped raisins

Preheat oven to 400, Beat butter until fluffy. Beat in vanilla and salt Beat in sugar gradually.Add egg and beat until mixture is light and creamy.

Sift together flour, soda, cream of tartar and spices. Add alternately with milk into butter mixture. Add raisins and mix well. Drop by spoonfuls onto greased baking sheets. Bake for 10-12 minutes .

Makes 4-5 dozen cookies

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Competition

Photo: My father, Jerry Willis. Don't let the suit and serious demeanor fool you. This man was a practical joker -- and B.S. artist -- of the highest order.
We all have our favorite holidays. Mine is Halloween. My father's was Christmas -- followed closely by April Fool's Day. You see, he was a practical joker.

Daddy hailed from Knoxville, Tenn., but he loved Biloxi, Point Cadet and my mother's family. And those he loved, he teased. A lot.

For practical jokers, the pay-off is all about the victim's big reaction. Aunt Marie, in particular, never failed to disappoint him. She laughed. She screamed. She cried. She wet her pants. Sometimes all at the same time.

Aunt Marie anticipated April Fool's Day (and Valentine's Day and her birthday) with a certain amount of trepidation. So would you if you suddenly starting getting anonymous ribald mash notes signed in a very familiar handwriting. Or if some crazy guy followed you around the grocery story, shouting in pig-Chinese.

Nona was another of Daddy's favorite victims. He called her Umpatilla (after the Alley Oop comic strip character) or Susie. I could never figure out the "Susie" thing, but then, I never understood why he called me Sam, either. He was big on nicknames.

Uncle Steve -- who had been on the receiving end of many of Daddy's jokes -- devised a clever plan that he believed would not only would turn some well-deserved tables, but better position him in a friendly ongoing competition between them.

Daddy and Uncle Steve each wanted to be Nona's second favorite son-in-law. They had no designs on the No. 1 position. Uncle Russ, who cut her grass, ran her errands and fixed stuff around the house, clearly had that position sewn up. They didn't want to work that hard.

On April Fool's Day Uncle Steve borrowed (on credit) an expensive and naughty, baby doll PJ set from a boutique downtown -- the perfect gift for a sweetheart, wildly inappropriate for a mother-in-law. He had it gift wrapped and delivered to my grandmother. Enclosed was a gift card signed "Guess Who, Susie?" in what appeared to my father's distinctive small handwriting and signature green ink. Uncle Steve spent weeks getting that handwriting just right.

Then he sat back and waited for the fireworks to begin.

He obviously had underestimated Nona's sang froid. No mention was made of the gift. It was never seen again. Uncle Steve had to pay for the set since he obviously couldn't blow his cover. Years later, my mom found that baby doll set, tags still attached, in Nona's cedar chest. Uncle Steve finally 'fessed up.

I love it. While Uncle Steve tried to punk Daddy, Nona, and by extension, Daddy managed to punk him. Daddy considered it his crowning achievement.

Besides pulling off the ultimate punk and becoming No. 2 son-in-law, Daddy's other lifelong quests included replicating the fountain drink Orange Julius. His version came pretty close to the real thing. As with all things he undertook, the quest was half the fun. And being around Daddy was always a whole lot of fun -- even if you were one of his victims.

Orange Julius

Daddy made several versions of this popular fountain drink -- all of them good -- but this one is closest to the real thing. I've seen similar versions that use powdered milk and vanilla instead of the vanilla pudding mix.

6 ounces of orange juice
6 ounces of water
3 ounces of simple syrup *
8 ounces, crushed ice
1 T instant vanilla pudding powder

Mix all in a blender and enjoy.

* 2 parts granulated sugar to 1 part water. Dissolve sugar in boiling water. When dissolved remove from heat and let cool.