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The competition was more than an hour away, but many of the contestants had already arrived and were warming up vigorously. Most of them sat in a section of bleachers at one end of a large arena at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. The arena was dimly lighted and not very well heated for the month of February. It smelled of livestock, and the dirt floor was covered with hay.
The two dozen men sitting in the bleachers were there for the Ail-American Turkey Calling Championship, sponsored by Levi Garrett chewing tobacco—the big-money event on the gobbler-hailing circuit. Callers had come to Indianapolis from Missouri, Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois, Mississippi and other points to try for the main prize.
Which was, well, $3,000 for first place—not enough, of course, to bring callers flying in on chartered jets. Four contestants from Pennsylvania had worked a sporting goods show in Altoona until late the night before, then had jumped in a van and driven all night to enter the All-American. They planned to turn around and drive home when it was over. If they had anything to celebrate, they would stop on the road somewhere for a bucket of chicken and a six-pack of beer.
In this respect, anyway, the turkey-calling circuit resembles the old days of rodeo riding. Levi Garrett puts up prize money, but contestants pay their own expenses when they go on the road. Unlike the rodeo folks, turkey callers are seldom hospitalized for injuries they have suffered during competition.
Just the same, they are serious about their sport. The callers in Indianapolis concentrated as if they were musicians tuning up before a performance. Some of them closed their eyes to shut out the distraction of other callers and bystanders. The sound produced as the callers tuned up suggested a henhouse at feeding time.
To the callers themselves, who occasionally paused to listen apprehensively to rivals, it all sounded good. Real good. "I don't even know a lot of these boys," said Bob Morgan of Blue Springs, Mo., who won the competition two years ago and therefore received an automatic invitation through 1992. "Seems like every time you go to one of these contests, there's a whole new crop of good young callers."
Morgan wears a mustache and has a dark, friendly face. He looks strong but slightly round, like a man who enjoys bacon for breakfast and butter on his grits. He was wearing a tan satin warm-up jacket and a gimme cap with a brim that had just the right curl. Cap and jacket both bore the insignia of the H.S. Strut Company, one of the major manufacturers of turkey calls. Morgan is a member of the H.S. Strut staff, which means he gets some help on expenses when he attends a show like the All-American. And when he isn't working at his regular job as a union wallpaper hanger or doing a little professional bass fishing, he promotes H.S. Strut at sports shows by demonstrating calls.
Asked what sorts of calls he planned on using at the All-American, Morgan said, "Well, this is an open competition, so you can use friction, or air. But I'll be using strictly air calls. You'd be surprised how judges like a mouth yelper in these contests."
A friction call is generally made using a piece of slate or wood. The caller draws a striker of some sort—glass or wood—across it to create the sound of a turkey. An air call is produced when the contestant puts a call, an aluminum, horseshoe-shaped device that is fitted with a rubber reed and covered with surgical tape, into his mouth, fits it against his palate like a partial plate, seals it with his tongue and blows softly over it so that the latex reed vibrates just so, producing the soft, raspy yelps of a responsive hen turkey during the spring mating season. A caller who does not get the sound he likes will pull the call out of his mouth and adjust its shape or the tension on the reed, and then try again.
Morgan was one of the favorites in Indianapolis, along with Kelly Cooper, last year's All-American winner. Cooper, from Picture Rocks, Pa., manufactures a line of calls that he sells through the mail. His slate calls are especially well regarded by serious turkey hunters. Cooper, who is thin, intense and voluble, describes his style of calling as "charismatic."