Sometimes, at evening, there occurs a sound so mournful and haunting that Willard Cunningham's cattle stop whatever it is they are doing and direct baleful stares at the big ranch house on the hill. If the cows had hackles, they would be standing up straight.
Even as they glower, the first sound is followed by a hoarse, reedy whine. A moment later, an equally plaintive call, this one accompanied by the beating of wings, rasps out in reply. As the curious duet continues, the cows begin to low in the fields—a veritable pastoral symphony. Finally, Willard Cunningham pockets his wooden duck call and walks back into the house on the hill.
"I'm raising me some wild mallards out back there," he says quietly. "Sometimes of an evening we'll get to talking back and forth like that. A feller can learn a lot from those ducks."
The 260-acre Cunningham farm lies on what might ordinarily be described as the outskirts of Anna, Ill. (pop. 4,766). However, the fact of the matter is Anna is almost all outskirts. That is not to say that it is indistinguishable from other small towns in southern Illinois. Anna has a state mental hospital, though no one talks about it much, and it is the site of the Union County Sportsmen's Club, which everyone talks about. The reason for this civic pride is that duck callers, goose callers, crow callers, turkey callers and coon squallers come to the club from all over Illinois each October to participate in the state duck, goose, crow, etc. championships. And a duck-calling win in Anna qualifies you for the world championships in Stuttgart, Ark., which is the whole ball of wax. If you don't think duck calling is important, ask Willard Cunningham's wife Mary. "It is a way of life with Willard," she says. "It's what he lives for."
May 30, 1976
Last October, however, something happened that so thoroughly upset Willard Cunningham, so changed the nature of his world, that he could think of little else for several weeks. Even now, Cunningham gets riled all over again when he thinks about the awful thing that Charlie Sullivan did. Charlie Sullivan, with whom Cunningham had gone to electrical school and whom he counted among his friends, had chosen the state duck-calling contest—the state duck-calling contest—to unveil the most odious contraption that Willard had ever seen.
It was—and when Cunningham describes the duplicity there is an edge to his voice—an eight-piece duck call, fashioned after those yammering one-man bands that disappeared about the same time Ted Mack became a Geritol pitchman. Around his neck Sullivan had a brace upon which three calls were mounted, each tuned differently; in either hand he held a pair of shaker calls; there was even one call underfoot, operated by a bellows.
Not only did Sullivan's sonic armament shock and offend the sensibilities of the other competitors, but it also enabled him to win first prize. And so Sullivan with his instrument vile was the Illinois representative in the World's Championship Duck-Calling Contest.
"Ol' Charlie sorta sprung the thing on everybody without warning," recalls Cunningham. "Before anybody could figure out what to do about it, the judges had awarded him first place. But that thing's not practical. No place for it in the art of duck calling. The idea is to sound like one mallard hen, but that conglomeration of his sounds like 200 ducks feeding in a cornfield."
Two hundred ducks! Imagine! Never mind the ducks. Imagine the Cunningham cows confronted and assaulted by Sullivan's contraption.
Sullivan himself concedes that his invention is meant to make the judges sit up and take notice, and is not for hunting. "Everybody who's ever been in a calling contest knows it's not the same as field calling," he says. "All I did was take it one step further. I've heard enough contests to know that after you sit there and listen to 15 guys try to sound like a duck, pretty soon they all start to sound alike. I wanted something that would add a little color to the competition, and it did—all red."
To appreciate the imbroglio that ensued, it is necessary to understand that the people who run duck-calling contests don't cotton to anyone who tries to play fast and loose with them. "I went against tradition with my multi-call," says Sullivan, "and that's the same as breaking faith with those ol' boys."
If Sullivan had fooled them once and stolen the state title that rightfully belonged to Willard Cunningham (who, it should be noted, finished second), he was not destined to get the same opportunity at the world championships in Stuttgart. Willard saw to that. A few days after his humiliating defeat, he composed a letter to the world rules committee that told all. Until recently Sullivan called his ex-classmate/friend "Willard the Rat."
The World's Championship Duck-Calling Contest is one of those exercises in provincialism that gets its name not from any discernible international competition, but because the word "world" has a nice heft to it. Hold the World's Championship Duck-Calling Contest in Kuala Lumpur or Pago Pago and you will quickly discover what a small world it is.
And judging a duck-calling contest is as esoteric an art as judging Olympic figure skating, which is to say extremely subjective and fraught with peril for the caller who is unschooled in the art of making the judges happy. In 1959 a respected Louisiana caller named Raleigh Newman boycotted the Stuttgart competition because he believed he would be required to prostitute his art in order to win. "What they want may sound good to the judges," said Newman, "but it wouldn't fool any ducks." The Stuttgart Chamber, of Commerce riposted by sending Newman a parcel of pecans with a note reading, "We hope you especially enjoy this item, and many more nuts to you."
So when the world contest's rules committee received Willard Cunningham's letter enumerating the evils of Sullivan's device, some members of the panel were not at all pleased. Chairman W. B. Stephens informed Sullivan in no uncertain terms that he would not be allowed to use his new call in the competition. "We are not going to turn this event into a laughingstock," Stephens said.
Sullivan dutifully entered with one call, turned in a desultory performance and went home empty-handed. Observers who had seen and heard his triumph in Illinois said the Stuttgart performance was what one might expect from Jascha Heifetz if they took away his violin and made him play the ukulele. "I don't think the duck-calling world is ready for me yet," said Sullivan as he climbed into his car and headed back to Illinois.
It is a tribute to Sullivan's dedication to his art that for six months of every year he takes leave from his father's electrical contracting company where he works to go hunting and honking in the frost-hardened fields of Williamson County, near his home in Johnston City, Ill. Partly because the financial dividends from those enterprises are not great, and partly because he cannot bear to part with it, he drives a '65 Ford Falcon that he calls "The Bomb," for several readily apparent reasons. Once Sullivan left The Bomb parked overnight in a bowling alley parking lot, and when he returned the next day it was gone. "Towed away for scrap," he says evenly. "I bought it back from the junk man for $10, so now I've got the only car in Williamson County that doubles in value every time I fill the tank with gas. Worth $10 empty, $20 full."
Sullivan, his wife Dorothy and their three children live in a small house near the town's high school, so there are always teen-agers milling around in front of the house. Sometimes he will call geese for them. Other times be will do his goose calls at 5 a.m. in his backyard, a practice that has not endeared him to his neighbors.
Sullivan is comfortable in Johnston City, home of the Show Bar, once a mecca to pool hustlers, including Rudolf (Minnesota Fats) Wanderone. Yet at night Sullivan lies banjo-eyed in bed and visualizes himself in Hollywood, where he dreams of becoming the next Tom Mix. "If they ever need somebody to call a goose in a cowboy movie, I'm their boy," he says. While he waits in the wings, he satisfies himself with speaking engagements at Rotary luncheons, hunting clubs and one notable performance on a Chicago TV talk show. "They put me on with a singing taxi-cab driver, a professional junk collector and a man who played the musical water sponge," he says. "I didn't want to seem like an oddball, so I acted just as crazy as everybody else." He has a way of talking with his whole face at once, and when he launches into one of his monologues on What Goose Calling Means to Me, he is careful never to use one word when a dozen will do.
What distinguishes Sullivan from the rank and file of water fowl callers is his single-minded sense of artistic mission. Hunkered down in a 10' x 5' goose pit, he surveys the sky, gauges the wind speed and direction and slowly, ever so slowly, begins to think like a goose. Charlie Sullivan is to goose calling what Brando is to acting...a Method honker.
"When I'm out in that pit," he says, "I feel like I'm putting on a personal performance for those hunters. I get myself so tuned in to the mind of the bird that that's all I'm thinking about. It's sorta scary. When I'm laying it all on the table for them geese, man, I am a goose. When I'm honkin' to bust a gut and they're honkin' back at me, it seems like me and those geese are as one. It's cool. That's the only way I can describe it."
Any day now, Charlie Sullivan fully expects destiny to sneak up behind him, grab him by the scruff of the neck and make him a cowboy movie star. He even professes a willingness to endorse products suited to his talents. "With the throat I got," he says, "I could do a cough-drop commercial that wouldn't quit."
Still, the biggest gun in Sullivan's arsenal of calls is not for ducks or geese; it is his coon squall, the sound of a raccoon and a dog locked in mortal combat. Hunters use it to get a treed coon to look into their lights so that they can shoot its lights out. The squall is Sullivan's show-stopper, the one that leaves his audiences gasping. It sounds like this: "RRROWWWRRR! Whuh! Whuh! RRROWRF! Hraowf, whoof, whoof! REEEEEEEOOOWWWRRRRRRR!"
There is something positively lyrical about the compleat coon squall, a ferocious, guttural howl that diminishes even the best chamber-of-horrors sound effects by comparison.
Sullivan has won six national coon-squalling titles in the past seven years, and claims that his nose-pinching, cheek-kneading technique has been widely copied. Yet despite his pioneering development of the multi-call for ducks, he eschews mechanical coon squallers for the more artistically satisfying mouth technique. Mechanical squallers "sound like somebody blowin' their nose," he says.
Stopping Charlie Sullivan, coon-squalling champion and duck-calling outcast, could become a full-time job, and no one who has tried it has had any measurable success yet. The officials who run the Illinois duck-calling contest are rewriting their rules to prevent him from blowing his revolutionary eight-piece call this year, but he has secured an invitation to strut his stuff at the national contest next fall in Little Rock, Ark. "Them dudes can rewrite all the rules they want, but they can't stop me. I'm just like a big, mean old coon. Feisty as hell. RRROWWRRF! Whuh! Whuh! Whuh! REEEEOWWRRRRRRRR!"