A Handful of Fleeing Angels

And a Memory That Defines Me

Recently my aunt sent me a link to a show she watches, “This Old House” and asked me if I knew this home which is trying to be saved in Greenwood, Mississippi.  The link informed me that it was on Riverside Drive.  I’m sure my aunt was expecting only a simple yes or no answer…but there was no small response to describe what happened that night when I was sixteen years old…just a week before Christmas.

Carlton was my old sidekick in this small southern town.  Being that we often were seen on the postcard size stage of the local Theater playing numerous characters, nothing compared to the actual residences that were authentically molded due to their personal experiences.  One in particular was a man named John Gillette.  John was clinically slow and disconnected from his own reality.  There were many rumors surrounding this guy who dressed up in a fake police uniform and “helped” direct traffic after Sunday morning church services.  He would carry a walkie-talkie and was often seen talking into it…informing his own personal headquarters about the happenings of Grand Blvd’s pedestrian whereabouts.  If one looked closely, the back battery door was missing and so were the double AA’s.

There was the rumor that he had his own radio show down in his basement.  It was created with plastic milk crates stacked upon each other supporting an old wired antennae radio with a large turning dial.  He believed he was was enriching the air waves of Jackson, Mississippi with his insight commentary.

There was also the rumor that he was a descendant of the wealthy Gillette razor family and he and his brother were placed in the above Riverside home so not to disgrace the family.  His brother was rumored to frequent liquor stores who were warned by actual police officers to not even sale him a jigger of any sort of grain.  I recall also pocketing the hearsay that both brother’s teeth were fully pulled and hair closely shaved due to sanitary upkeep.

Carlton was always in the spirit of anything festive.  As to why I constantly agreed to his plotting ideas is beyond me…for I was always getting stuck in situations where I had pulled the short end of the stubbly stick.  Carlton decided that Christmas caroling would be a fitting way to entertain a sleepy town and create an activity for seven bored teens.  He “borrowed” the white zip up choir robes from the back of his church.  They were all the same size…so, I swam in the XL that surrounded my petite frame.  It wasn’t until we were all in them did I gasp in horrific realization that we looked more like the Klu Klux Klan.  Carlton equipped us with candles that melted with fierce speed and during our three song boring repertoire, one of us were often heard cussing in pain under our-out-of-tune-breaths.  Our parents gave us courteous claps and after our attempt to spice things up with a tri round of jingle bells, we were loosing our morale.    I shake my fist in the air at him now being that it was Carlton’s idea to target the Gillet’s home on Riverside.

In order to get there, we had to walk across the covered bridge that hovered over the Yazoo River.  This is where our candles of torture were easily discarded.  The moonlight guided the way of the seven white angels.  I picked up the sides of my gown in thick handfuls in order to keep up with the group.  Thankfully my long johns under my jeans helped to keep me warm when I allowed the chilly breeze to rush in.  We arrive at the house and of course I was the one who had the nerve to knock on the door while the rest hid behind the bushes.  No one answered.  Letting go of one side of the wrinkled fabric, I tried again.  No answer.  We heard a television blaring from the inside.  Carlton suggested I climb on his shoulders and peer through the side window.  Everyone else agreed.  Once situated, we rose to the view.  Sitting in a green lazy boy wearing a navy blue sweatshirt and close enough to the bunny eared TV to touch it with a knee, I saw a white haired shaved head man resting his hands on his robust stomach.  I remember whispering loudly, “I don’t know which one it is but there is…”

And then in a sweeping jagged move, I had been dropped to the ground with Carlton yelling “RUN!!!”

I was so disoriented.  I heard the sheer panic in his voice so all I knew to do was run like an insane person however I had no idea what we were all scattering from in seven different directions…I chose to sprint straight ahead!!  With only three steps into my flee, I tripped over that damn gown and flew into a tree.  Needless to say, it threw me back in the opposite direction with my annoying gown covering my head.  I was knocked out for a few minutes until I heard a strange voice moving towards my direction.  With the same amount of panic, this voice continued to yell “MAN DOWN! MAN DOWN! MAN DOWN!”

And as I laid on the cold slightly frozen lawn…for a moment, I thought I was in my own bed tucked under a sheet…I began to wonder, “What man was down?  What does that even mean?  Is he…sad?”

Before I could come to my own conclusion, I was swooped up with two strong arms and a bulky rectangular object was dropped on my stomach while being cradled.  The choir robe still over my head.  I then realized somebody was running with me and very fast at that.  I freed an arm and snatched the robe from my face and wish I hadn’t.  I was being kidnapped by John Gillette.  His walkie talkie jostled on my waist.  I wrenched my neck backwards and see my angel colleagues trailing behind, pleading with him to let me go.  I had never talked to John at this point in my life nor even come close to touching him.  Now, I was his little orphan Annie whom he thought he needed to save.  And when I thought it couldn’t get anymore bizarre, I am now able to prove at least one of the rumors.  John began attempting to kiss me.  Um…more like gum me.  Yep, not one tooth in that mouth.

He finally stopped halfway across the bridge.  For a fearful moment, I thought that I was going to join the ranks of the candles but thankfully by that time, Carlton had caught up to us.  John gently put me down.  Looked at me for a moment.  Voiced “Over and Out” into is walkie talkie and walked away back to the location of his house.

This memory permeates me.  It encapsulates many of my memories growing up for a short period of my life in the deep delta of Mississippi.  I was as much of a misfit as the Gillette brothers.  I was different from many around me.  I was considered a Yankee for my first two years there and playing the trombone in our 14 member marching band in high school didn’t help matters much.  But the truth is…all of us have found ourselves trying to keep up with a group or is the odd-man-out.  No one is left unscathed from being humiliated.

And thankfully so.  Bring on the humiliation.  Bring on the humility.  And with that adds the confidence to write what I know.

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13 Comments

  1. KerBear

     /  February 24, 2012

    Hilarious! Makes me want to go caroling!

  2. Greg

     /  June 17, 2012

    I heard the same rumors growing up in Greenwood. Apparently, the family is related to George Gillette who was an officer of the Minneapolis-Moline tractor company. I understand that Jack and Thelma came to Greenwood in 1949 and that Thelma was a native of Greenwood.

    The house is on River Road. Last I heard, John is alive and well and still in Greenwood. It got to where he was quite competent at directing traffic and did so at every possible opportunity. Despite being “simple”, he did have a license and a car complete with enormous whip antennas for his police band scanners.

    I waited on John at Radio Shack and he often paid with what was called a “counter check” which was basically a blank check that you filled in with your name since account numbers were not used by one of the local banks until the late 1980’s. I never knew one to bounce.

    Despite some obvious eccentricities, John and George were kind and polite and watched over by the whole community. Like a lot of small southern towns, we didn’t hide our eccentrics, we invited them up on the porch for a cocktail.

    G

    PS Check out Mildred Spurrier Topp’s books on growing up in Greenwood. A lot of the action took place within two blocks of the Gillette house.

  3. admin

     /  June 18, 2012

    Greg, thank you for your comment…I lived in Gwood for such a short stint but it was a true delta experience. “Floatin” down the yazoo, snake shooting, and snow cones from the hut in the Fred’s parking lot. I’m glad to hear that John is healthy and well. It’s a town’s characters that give it a heart beat.

  4. Bobby VanDevender

     /  July 18, 2012

    Greg is pretty accurate with his history of the family.

    John Gillette is the grandson of Dr. Loper, a longtime Greenwood physician. Besides practicing medicine, Dr. Loper also owned some farm land. Dr. Loper’s daughter, Thelma Loper, was his heir. The Loper family lived in a nice-looking Tudor-style house on West Harding street, just off Grand Boulevard. In my opinion, it’s one of the prettiest houses in town.

    Thelma Loper went away to college — probably somewhere up north — and she married Minnesota native Jack Gillette. I believe Jack’s full name was John Ford Gillette, but he always went by Jack. After they were married, Jack Gillette and Thelma Loper Gillette returned to Thelma’s hometown, Greenwood, circa 1949, to live and raise their family. (Jack Gillette was a son of George Lewis Gillette, one of the founders and executives of Minneapolis-Moline Power Unit Company, a corporation that was formed in the 1920s by the merger of three separate companies for the purpose of manufacturing farm equipment.)

    When Thelma and Jack came to Greenwood, they purchased a big house on River Road. It was the historic Stage Marye home, and it’s the house featured in the article. (Thelma also kept her father’s house on West Harding Street, which was usually rented-out to someone.) Thelma and Jack raised four children in the River Road house — John Loper Gillette (the subject of this story), George Lewis Gillette, Jane Gillette and Josephine Gillette.

    Josephine Gillette married Burt Spicer and moved to Saint Louis. The parents — Jack and Thelma — passed away sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s. The three unmarried children — John, George, and Janie — were living in the River Road house when I moved to Greenwood in the late 1980s. I was very fond of all three of them. I didn’t know Josie all that well, because she lives in Missouri, but I knew the other three siblings.

    Eventually, Janie Gillette moved to St. Louis to be closer to her sister Josie Spicer. George Gillette was eventually hospitalized. John is still living in Greenwood, directing traffic and telling funny stories. He no longer lives in the rambling house on River Road, though, as it was too large to maintain for just one person, and it was becoming very dilapidated. He now lives in his grandfather, Dr. Loper’s house, on West Harding, and is my next door neighbor. (The Loper house is smaller than the Gillette house, easier to maintain, and a more suitable home for a bachelor to live in.) John is a super nice guy and a definite character. I always salute him military style when I see him and call him Kemosabe, which is a term that he seems to like.

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this tale about him.

  5. admin

     /  July 19, 2012

    Bobby,

    Thank you so much for this ample amount of insight! Now, who is Greg? Do you know if the River Road House will be saved or will it be eventually torn down? I used to live on Grand Blvd…in those patio homes that were designed by Fred Carl…who also was a very dear friend of my late dad.

    I’m laughing now…I love that you call John, “Kemosabe”…this is very fitting. Again, thank you for taking the time for setting more of the rumors straight.

    (I wish I could sign my name…but I try to keep this anonymous…which is silly really…it’s way past that now)

  6. Bobby VanDevender

     /  July 19, 2012

    I’m not sure who Greg is, but I believe he said in his response that he worked in Radio Shack at one time, where he sold John Gillette lots & lots of computer supplies.

    However, I’m pretty sure that I know who you are, and I was so sorry to hear about your dad. He was a very fine man, gone way too soon. I was always fond of your mom as well, and I remember her two pretty daughters.

    I think eventually someone will buy the Gillette house on River Road and renovate, but probably not for the asking price of $85,000 or whatever it is. The house needs way to much work to sell for that amount. If they drop the price on down to $40,000 or something, I believe some industrious young person will snap it up and start the renovations. I drove by it a few days ago and noticed that a lot of the overgrown bushes have been cut back away from it, and the house itself looks solid — just a lot of water damage, and a new roof will definitely be needed.

  7. Bobby VanDevender

     /  July 19, 2012

    (The family I’m thinking of attended church at the same place that I attend. The dad worked in marketing for a large company in Greenwood, and the mother was a housewife who sometimes helped at St Francis center. She was originally from Ohio or somewhere like that. The girls went to Pillow and sometimes participated in little theatre activities. The girls were about 10 years younger than me. The parents ultimately moved to Memphis. When they lived in Greenwood, they were at 904 Grand.)

  8. C J Raike

     /  November 12, 2012

    Although not “young” my husband and myself would like to be the ones to take this grand place under our wing if it is not already sold or demolished ? I have emailed Ms. Spicer but have not recieved an answer as of yet. does anyone know of its disposition since July ?
    We happened upon this site looking for this answer and would like to say how much we enjoyed the stories about this place immensely :)

  9. admin

     /  November 12, 2012

    Dear C J,

    I have not lived in Mississippi for over 20 years but if anyone would know about the house it would be Bobby…who is in the comments above…we have figured out that we once performed in a play together years ago…this blog just keep connecting the dots and it delights me.

    Thank you for enjoying the story…for years I knew I needed to write it down. I truly hope you all can save this old house…you will be right by downtown and Viking has truly added to the beauty of those few streets. I’ve been back…for my dad’s funeral…and the new bookstore has a fantastic little lunch place on second floor.

    You know what…I have your email in my admin…let me connect with Bobby and see what he knows…I’ll get back with you.

  10. Melissa

     /  November 15, 2012

    I love, love this story!!! Remind me to tell you about WooWoo.

  11. admin

     /  November 15, 2012

    Woo….Who? :)

  12. Greg

     /  June 11, 2016

    I heard yesterday that John Gillette passed away on June 9 and will be buried June 14th. He was a decent, kind person who loved to serve his fellow man. He will be missed by all that knew and loved him.

    Greg

  13. Tomara L Wales

     /  November 17, 2016

    I thoroughly enjoyed this story!! Thank you for sharing! I’m looking to buy and restore The Grand Mayre and this story just makes it that much more desireable :)

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