The big gobbler was less than 75 yards downhill and closing. That’s when Ben slowly turned to me, raised his headnet and mouthed, “I’ve got to shoot.”
I couldn’t see the turkey myself, but I assumed Ben could, and if he suspected the bird was aware of us, I fully understand it was time to shoot. In short, it was now … or never! What I couldn’t understand, though, was that Ben jumped up, unsnapped his camo overalls and dropped them down to his ankles. Only then did it dawn on me just how badly I had misinterpreted what Ben was trying to tell me when he whispered, “I got to shoot.” And it’s doubly understandable coming from a man who had just recently undergone gastric bypass.
The gobbler, of course, departed for parts unknown, and Ben Rodgers Lee, five-time World Champion turkey caller and the most famous turkey hunter of all time, had just been caught with his pants down, literally.
I laughed until I cried, and fully expected this big man, who once weighed over 400 pounds, to kill me. But he didn’t, and this Weekly Mistake is a testament to that fact. After he cussed me for a minute, Ben realized how funny the scene must have been, and he began to laugh with me. Thank God.
I was hunting as Ben’s guest “journalist” in the Quachita Mountains of southeastern Oklahoma at the time, and I must admit to plagiarizing this story I wrote for Turkey Call Magazine back in July of 2006. Then again, how can one plagiarize himself?
Though I promised Ben I’d never write about that embarrassing moment, he thought by then it was too funny to pass up. “Don’t make me no never mind,” Ben said in his unique, down-home Southern drawl that helped make him famous. “Write what you want. When you got to go to, you got to go. That’s just the way it is!”
And that’s the way it was with Ben Lee, of Coffeeville, Alabama. He had a knack for words. And if you liked what he had to say, fine. If you didn’t, you’d just have to get over it. Because of that attitude, some labeled him a braggart, a blowhard, a renegade. And maybe he was, but I never saw it in him. To me, he was just Ben Rodgers Lee, and that’s the only way I really know how to describe him. Perhaps those who labeled him just really didn’t get to know him like I did. Or, possibly, he had simply mellowed by the time I met him; I don’t know. I do know, however, that Ben Lee was never anything less than gracious to me, a lowly, small town outdoor writer.
One small example of how gracious and forgiving Ben was happened earlier that morning well before sunrise. We had been easing up and down old mountain roads, stopping to owl hoot ever so often in hopes of getting a turkey to gobble. It was just breaking day, and though I knew better, I simply couldn’t resist the urge to snap a picture of Ben as he hooted. Naturally, the camera’s flash lit up the whole mountainside, alerting any sane turkey of our presence. And just as naturally, I can only imagine how happy that made Ben. Looking back, I wouldn’t have blamed him if he’d thrown my wormy butt off the mountain, then tossed a boulder on my body, just for good measure.
But Ben said nary a word. The result? A photograph that is one of a kind, and one I will treasure for the rest of my life. If I can locate it, I’ll be proud to include it with this column.
Sadly, Ben was called from his earthly home much too soon. Newspaper accounts say his pickup struck a bridge guardrail on Oct. 7, 1991 and burst into flames. The sporting world, not just turkey hunters, lost a great leader that morning. He was a diamond in the rough who had had risen from a janitorial position at Ceba-Geigy Chemical Company to become one of the world’s most recognized and beloved outdoor sportsmen.
But as rough as Ben’s outer shell was, I don’t worry about his soul. You see, on many occasions Ben referred to his Maker in conversations with me, and he once wrote, “My church is a big ol’ oak tree. I feel a closeness to God there like no other place. I talk to Him; I thank Him for allowing me to be out there.”
Ben told me these inspiring words not long before he died, and how right he was: “There’s nothing like getting up in the morning and hearing one gobble. The Good Lord let us have an extra good day when we hear that.”
Amen, Brother Ben, amen...
Hattiesburg native Phil DiFatta is a lifelong outdoorsman who has written a newspaper column since 1982. Email him at email@example.com.