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Lee's Uncle Lowell and Aunt Christine make all the box calls for him in their home in Biloxi, Mississippi. "They can glue together one hundred boxes in a day," Lee says. The box call, made of mahogany imported from Honduras, is a small rectangular box with an unremovable lid that slides back and forth. The rubbing of the lid against the box produces a variety of yelps, depending on the pressure applied.
All told, Lee sells about 25 items, including his various calls; his book, The Turkey Hunting World of Ben Lee; his record, Mouth Calling for Beginners; camouflage masks and clothing; Ben's 100 insect repellant; duck, goose and crow tube calls—"Doing a crow call with your natural mouth makes your tonsils rattle real bad," Lee says—camouflage tape and gloves; and Ben's deer lure, made from female deer urine and glands brewed in a secret solution. "I used to cut the deer glands off and sew them on my pants for hunting," Lee says. He also sells tape cassettes, including Tall Turkey Tales, on which he recounts several life-threatening tangles with snakes and novice hunters and tells about the time a Mexican millionaire invited him down for a hunt: Ben had his own "walkin', live, livin' human clock," a Mexican whose sole duty it was to wake Lee up at four in the morning. "I don't think he slept for five days," Lee says.
Ben Lee Turkey Calls is located in a green, square, concrete-block building between the Methodist church and the Village Pharmacy and across the street from the public high school in the heart of downtown Coffeeville.
Coffeeville is on the mighty Tombigbee River and boasts a population of 350, not counting the many armadillos, snakes and deer that roam regularly through the streets and into everybody's backyard. The town has no ball field, no stop sign, no local policeman and no crime.
Ben Lee and his wife, Patsy, who teaches Sunday school and helps with the business, live in a new brick house they built just outside town. "Hurricane Freddie come through here September of 1979," says Lee. "We were in our double-wide house trailer, and when the eye of the storm got over Mobile, I said to my wife, 'Patsy, this place is gonna blow away; we're leavin'.' Maybe it was animal instinct, but I knew that storm was comin'. Freddie destroyed our home and blowed the windows out of the turkey-call business. Blowed the roof off the concrete, too."
The Lees have two children, Gayle, a local deejay who just graduated from high school, and Roger, 14, who has won awards in turkey calling contests and loves hunting and turkey-trotting around with his father. Whenever Ben slams on the brakes of his pickup truck and leaps out to go chase armadillos, Roger leaps out behind him. One evening last summer Ben was running through a field of clover near Coffeeville, arms outstretched toward the panicking armadillos, which darted here and there just out of his grasp. Roger sprang along behind, whooping and hollering, barefoot in the snake-infested brush.
Lee, who was born in Starkville, Miss.—"Ain't nothin' to it; just a place in the road," he says—has been roaming the woods learning the puts, cuts, purrs, cackles, gobbles, kee-kee run cries and assembly yelps of the turkey for most of his 38 years. "I been makin' callers all my life. When I was six or seven I was goin' turkey huntin' before school. I'd miss a class and bring in a turkey to make up for it. There wasn't any callers back in the '50s and '60s, wasn't any turkeys back then in many states. My father took me huntin'. He used a slate-and-corn-cob caller, and he showed me how to make one."
His father was from Biloxi, and his mother was from Georgiana, Ala. "Hank Williams used to go out with my mother's sister," Lee says. "He used to play on my granddaddy's porch and my grand-daddy would fiddle with him. My momma can remember Hank comin' there barefoot in overalls, no shirt, when he was 15 years old.
"My father was at Pearl Harbor. He got crippled up by the war, so they sent him to college. I was born on the Mississippi State campus. When I was two we moved to Silas, Alabama, where my daddy taught ag and shop. I remember one time he had some boys making turkey calls, and one of 'em boys swallowed a mouth caller. Doctor told the kid to eat white bread and milk. He swallowed that thing—ooh. I'll never forget it as long as I live."
Ben spent his childhood hunting and fishing in the woods around Silas. When he graduated from high school he married Patsy and they moved to Mobile, where he got a job at Brookley Air Force Base working for 89¢ an hour. In 1966 he took a job as a janitor at the Ciba-Geigy chemical plant 100 miles from Mobile. There he made $1.21 an hour, and he and Patsy moved to nearby Coffeeville.