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You ever hear early in the mornin' a call so fine it had no yeppin' to it at all? You know, that very first thing the old turkey hen says settin' up in the tree mornin' time? Well, listen here." Ben Rogers Lee, sitting in a diner booth at 4:30 a.m. across from his hunting buddy, Paul Butski, places a newly devised turkey caller in the middle of his tongue. "I cain't hit it every time now," he says, positioning the call—the size and shape of half a Ritz cracker—up on the roof of his mouth. "I think I got something here, Paul. Wait till you hear how raspy it is."
Even when the waitress at the Truck Stop of America in Hornell, N.Y. places a cup of coffee in front of Ben, who is the Babe Ruth of turkey calling, five times a world champion, he doesn't flinch. He stares straight ahead, every muscle in his formidable 210-pound body as still as the packet of Sweet 'n Low trapped between his right thumb and forefinger. "C-rr. C-rr-i." Somewhere underneath the camouflage cap with LEE TURKEY CALLS, COFFEEVILLE, ALABAMA on it, an old turkey hen is roosting out on a limb in Ben's mind, stirring into consciousness. "C-rr. C-rr-i."Barely audible, plaintively sweet, it could be the sound of daylight pawing on the hen's eyelid. "C-rr." If the side of Ben's mouth wasn't open, a person might think the sound was coming out of his ears.
"Ain't that the damn prettiest sound you ever heard?" says Lee, removing the turkey call and reaching for a fork.
Half an hour later, they're driving down a bumpy dirt road deep in the woods of western New York. They've been touring the Northeast, speaking on talk shows and at sportsmen's conventions. Ben sits back, arms folded over his sizable stomach (smaller since he's had it stapled; he used to weigh 400 pounds), grin neatly tucked away above his double chin, comfortably at home in the bucking of the car as it jounces along. The soothing turkey yelps that putter out of the side of his mouth sound like those of a bird in a good mood, muttering out loud, pleased to discover itself knee-deep in beech mash and berries. "P-tt-rr. Putt-putt-putt. P-tt-rrr."
Lee, known to folks as Ben, or Roger or Ben Lee, and known to gobblers from Mexico to Maine as a sultry turkey hen with an irresistibly seductive cackle, is knee-deep in good fortune of his own making. A former janitor, he has built up his own business, Ben Lee Turkey Calls, into the third-largest manufacturer of turkey calls in the country, and he has built up a reputation as a fine caller and raconteur. Ben has discovered that in the world of turkey calling, he's as appealing to people as he is to turkeys, as adept with humor as he is with raspiness. He has recently turned himself into something of a commodity, hiring a p.r. firm to book his speaking engagements.
These days Lee is pleased to find himself just about anywhere—telling funny country stories on the Mike Douglas Show, telling funny country stories to turkeys in woods, addressing a high school graduating class, thrashing his way through the woods, talking to folks at a bow-and-arrow conference, flitting swiftly through the woods, endorsing a Crossman tree stand, lying flat on his back in the woods, making a wildlife conservation and hunting safety movie, chasing armadillos in the woods, judging a calling contest, riding his son's dirt bike through the woods, eating fried turkey at home, plain sittin' in the woods or experimenting with a bassoon reed in his Coffeeville shop.
"You know what kind of reed this is?" Lee asks. He's sitting at his desk in the office off the main room of his shop. "I went into a music shop one day and I said I need some reeds, and he give me this. Listen. I think I may have somethin'. If you keep your teeth right up here," he says, biting gently halfway up the reed and producing a sound that may approximate a word in a turkey's vocabulary—and then again may not. "You're always lookin' for the little unique sounds. Sometimes it takes me a year workin' on a call to git it where I really want it."
Twelve women work full time nine months a year making by hand all the different kinds of mouth calls Lee sells—the old hen, young hen, ribbed pro, double pro, double mouth call, maxi-light old hen, maxi-light young hen and three-reed. The calls are made by folding over and taping small, flat aluminum rings that entrap a little piece of rubber, which is the reed. A call can have one, two or three reeds to it, each one adding slightly more bass. Lee has found that for his purposes the best rubber is that of an unlubricated prophylactic. He pays $500 for 50 pounds, and the women cut them into pieces with scissors.
"We're the only company that does every bit of it by hand, from cutting the rubber to punching out the metal," says Lee. "Everything here I designed; some of it ain't good and some of it is. The only modern thing I've put in here is the packaging machine."
Indeed, the packaging machine doesn't seem to fit with the rest of the shop's contents, a glistening steed in a stable of draft horses. Otherwise, the place is filled with hunting-related things and an odd assortment of machines that includes an old printing press. An ancient soda machine in the corner dispenses Barg's root beer. An old bicycle by the door needs more air in its tires. Deer heads and turkey feet are mounted on the wall, along with pictures of turkeys and a long loop of string to which are tied about 30 turkey beards. "Turkey beards is prehistoric hair," says Lee. "A biologist once told me, when a gobbler gets up on a hen she rubs her head up against his beard an' that's how they line up." There's also a stash of old bottles and arrowheads, trophies, rifles, bows and arrows, a coffee table with an impressive painting on its top of a turkey looming out of a mountainous landscape, and coffee cans, boxes and shelves full of mouth-caller parts.