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"I loved my job," says Ben. "Everybody in that lab all had doctor's degrees, and I enjoyed sittin' talkin' with them. After I'd clean up, I'd sit and make turkey callers, sell 'em where I could.
"One time I'd just mopped up the place with Lysol. It just didn't smell good to me, you know? So I took some of those pound blocks of wintergreen bathroom deodorant and put one in every air duct in every part of the lab. Well! 'Bout an hour later buzzers are goin' off, fire alarms are ringin', the emergency truck's comin', and everybody's runnin' around. Nobody's experiment is workin' right. Whoo! Turns out the molecules in that deodorant screwed up the PH in everybody's chemical analysis just enough to ruin all the experiments. I guess I got chewed out bad; I'm talkin' bad bad. But it smelled good for a while in there. I must have put a whole case in the vents. Smelled like you were in the woods."
Ten years ago Ben quit his job at the chemical plant and began making turkey calls full time. At first he made mouth calls and box calls on a little table in the kitchen of his trailer home, selling them for 50¢ each at hardware stores. Then a man in Mississippi named Fred A. Anderson lent Lee enough money so that he could hire three women to work for him. He rented a small space, 10 by 20 feet, in Coffeeville. Ben Lee Turkey Calls was on its way. Lee used his own products to become world champion in 1969, 70, '73, '74 and '77; Alabama State Champion in '74 and '79; Southeastern Champion in '73, '74 and '80; National Champion in '72 and '73; Southern Open Champion in '76; and Champion of Champions in '72, '73 and '74. But what set him apart from other turkey callers, what really made his reputation, was his ability to wax eloquent in the woods in gizzard-to-gizzard conversation.
"Ben has killed more turkeys than anyone I know," says Butski, who recently won $3,000, the biggest prize money ever in turkey calling, in the Levi Garrett All-American Open. "He knows the woods, the turkeys, how they react, how to position himself, when to call, when to move. It's a good turkey caller and a good woodsman that makes a good hunter."
There is the applied art of turkey calling, and then there is the fine art of turkey calling. The latter takes place on stage.
"We're callin' judges in competitions," says Billy Macoy, a friend of Lee's, a champion caller and a pawnbroker, with whom someone once tried to hock a live poodle. "Judges are harder to call than that turkey."
"A turkey would never win a turkey callin' contest," says Lee. "They might be a little erratic, might stop in the middle of a call. Like me when I talk—I could hiccup in the middle of a sentence.
"Calling is energy in motion. The rhythm, the timing, the intensity that you have to put into one call is just the same to us as if we were great gymnasts or piano players. A lot of seriousness goes into competition. The mark of a champion is the contestant who'll have his calls wrote up in front of him just like a piece of music. Say he's gonna do nine soft yelps; he'll have each one wrote out." '
Because there are no two mouth call devices alike, a person might go through 20 different ones before he finds the right one (or ones) to use in a competition. The right one conforms perfectly to the roof of the mouth, and the reed (or reeds) vibrate with precisely the right amount of tension. A competitor will put his call in the refrigerator to keep it in tune.
"Nothin' makes us more angry than someone touchin' our calls after we've got them tuned," says Lee. "Really, it's just like a musical instrument. If I'd have spent the same amount of time practicin' the piano as I have practicin' calls, I'd be as good as Liberace."