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Thanksgiving, Stuttgart and ducks, ducks, ducks

I have vivid memories of my first time to be in Stuttgart on the weekend after Thanksgiving.

It was 1976. The high school football team for which I was the starting center, the Arkadelphia Badgers, had played for a state championship at what’s now known as Carpenter-Haygood Stadium in Arkadelphia on the day after Thanksgiving.

On the muddiest field you can imagine, we lost to Mena following a series of controversial no-touchdown calls at the end of the game.

I had no desire to go to Stuttgart after losing the game that Friday night.

My father, however, gave me no choice. We were to be the guests of Clyde Berry, a Stuttgart native and former head football coach at Henderson State University, and his son, Trey.

So I showered after a heartbreaking defeat that still haunts me 35 years later, and we drove that dark night to Stuttgart.

Trey, who is now one of the state’s best-known historians and a dean at Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia, will confirm that my father killed three ducks with one shot on a bitter cold Sunday morning. What’s even more amazing is that there were three types of ducks on the ground — a mallard, a green-winged teal and a pintail.

“Red, do you have a funnel on the end of that gun?” I remember Clyde Berry calling out to my father.

As the winds picked up and dropped the wind chill into single digits, we headed back into Stuttgart for breakfast. The memories of that Sunday morning will last forever.

This will be my first Thanksgiving without my dad. I’m sure I will think a great deal this week about the time we spent hunting ducks together.

Thanksgiving week and duck hunting went together at our house, you see.

I remember sleeping on mattresses filled with duck down at Trey’s grandmother’s house in 1976 and walking down Main Street on Saturday night to check out the carnival and visit the shops that were open late.

I remember driving through the countryside that Saturday afternoon listening to Dave Woodman and Jim Lindsey broadcast a Razorback football game. Dave congratulated all the high school state champions. I recall how much it hurt when he mentioned Mena.

In an article for Delta Waterfowl magazine a few years ago, Dr. Wayne Capooth of Memphis wrote about his first Wings Over the Prairie Festival, which he attended with his father at age 10 in 1955.

He wrote: “Here, after numerous carnival rides, Dad introduced me to Miss Sophie, wife of Chick Major. From her, I bought one of her calls, a Dixie Mallard, which I still own and cherish. Chick and Sophie are local legends, whose Dixie Mallard duck call established a standard of call-making excellence.

“It just so happened that their daughter, Pat, was a contestant in the world championship duck calling contest, which is held yearly in Stuttgart on the Saturday after Thanksgiving Day. Standing as close to the calling platform as I could, I saw Pat win the Arkansas title and, more importantly, the first of two straight world championships.

“In 1950, at age 12, Pat won the junior world title. In 1951, she took the first of five straight women’s world titles. Moreover, in 1960 she captured the coveted Champion of Champions crown. If that is not enough, in 1956 she won the first ever Queen Mallard beauty contest.

“Pat Peacock went on to become the director of the Museum of the Arkansas Grand Prairie. It started out to preserve agriculture, but now it is the history of the Grand Prairie. A wing is devoted to waterfowl, whose highlights include the lights and sounds of an early morning duck hunt on the Grand Prairie. In addition, there are 500 award-winning game calls, a one-of-a-kind ‘coat of many feathers,’ antique decoy collection, market-hunter guns and waterfowl art and photographs.

“Snuggling closer to the platform, I witnessed the first-ever Champion of Champions contest, won by Art Beauchamp of Flint, Mich. Every five years since, the Champion of Champions duck calling contest is held. The winner is considered the best of the best, the Champion of Champions. Those eligible to compete are former world champions.”

The 2011 Wings Over the Prairie Festival has begun. At 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, the carnival will open on Main Street and remain open through Saturday.

At 6 p.m. Wednesday, students who have attended classes conducted by famed Stuttgart duck caller Butch Richenback will hold a calling competition on the Main Street stage.

Born on July 11, 1946, as Harry Milton Richenback, Butch learned the art of making duck calls from Chick Major. Richenback was the junior duck calling champion of 1957. By 1972, he was the world champion duck caller.

Richenback won the Champion of Champions title in 1975 and then retired from calling.

He sold his first duck call in 1976, the year I went to the Wings Over the Prairie Festival with my father. Rich-N-Tone calls were born, and they have been used by more than 60 men’s, women’s, intermediate and junior world championship winners since that time.

Richenback’s youth calling clinics have been held since 1969.

By Friday, an arts and crafts fair, commercial exhibits, a sports collectibles show and displays of off-road vehicles will have been added to the Wings Over the Prairie mix.

The Main Street stage will host various duck calling contests beginning at 1 p.m. Friday.

The annual Sportsman’s Party is always held on the Friday night after Thanksgiving. It can best be described as a giant homecoming party for Grand Prairie natives. This year’s event will be at the modern Grand Prairie Center on Phillips Community College’s Stuttgart campus and feature the Little Rock band Big Stack.

Much of the day Saturday will belong to the annual World Championship Duck Gumbo Cook-Off. The world championship division of the duck calling contest will begin at 2 p.m. Saturday on the Main Street stage.

The early calling contests were part of an event known as the Rice Carnival. The first such contest was in 1936.

Here’s how the Sportsman’s Guide published by the Stuttgart Chamber of Commerce described it: “The only rules for the first contests were that contestants would demonstrate four calls — the open water call, the woods call, the mating call and the scare call. As the contest grew, the rules grew with it. Callers were later required to do three calls — the hail, feed and mating calls. Later, the comeback call was added.”

The Sportsman’s Guide went on to note that “it is only natural to expect a few ducks to show up and enjoy the contest with all the duck calling going on. Low-flying ducks passing over Main Street during the contest have only added to the festive celebration.

“Perhaps the most celebrated of those events involved the late actor Wallace Beery, then a famous movie star who served as a contest judge. A tremendous flight of ducks approached on the horizon west of town just as the finals of the contest were ending. The flight never deviated from its course but continued directly over the judges’ stand at a very low altitude.”

As a sportswriter for the Arkansas Democrat in 1982 — my first job out of college — I talked my bosses into letting me cover the Wings Over the Prairie Festival just because I wanted to be in Stuttgart on the weekend after Thanksgiving. It just seemed the place to be in Arkansas on that weekend.

The thing I’ve yet to see since 1976, though, is someone kill three ducks with one shot.

I’m glad my dad didn’t let me stay home and pout all weekend after the state championship football game.

I return to the words of Dr. Capooth: “It has never been satisfactorily explained to me why it is that scenes and incidents transpiring in one’s youth remain fresh in the memory, indelibly impressed upon one’s brain for scores of years — yes, even until death — when incidents of greater importance transpiring quite recently vanish from memory as if they had never occurred at all. Possibly, it is because ‘the morning of life is like the dawn of day, full of purity, of imagery and harmony.’

“At any rate, nearly all the scenes and incidents of me shooting my first greenhead are as fresh and well defined today as if they had occurred only yesterday.

“At the Rice and Duck Capital of the World, waterfowling has taken on a legendary status that is hard to match anywhere else in the world. The market hunters of the past two centuries may be a thing of the past but the lifestyle that they created has endured. Many of today’s natives — guides, resort owners, boat builders and call makers — trace their lineage to these colorful characters of the Grand Prairie’s past. It just doesn’t get any better than this.”

I’ll miss hunting with you this weekend, Dad.

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