The Comforts of Celebrity

Going to see a celebrity in a field you do not follow is a strange thing. There are…expectations. Recognition, to start with; maybe admiration, even excitement. I had no idea who the two celebrity fishermen were, who would be at the sporting-goods superstore in town. My elder son, who has fished a couple of times in his life, like me, asked me to take him over there to enter their raffle for a jon boat. He warned there might be fishing seminars.

The parking lot of the big-box store was not crowded. The only sign of a special event was a white pickup on the front sidewalk with the Gator 99.5 logo on its doors. I expected a crowd in Salt Life shirts and sunglasses on the back of their heads, but foot traffic was light. Far in a back corner, at an empty folding table, piles of unsigned photo cards of the two men lay unattended. At a nearby table, an outdoor-clothing company’s reps were making visitors try on shoes before they could enter the raffle. The shoes were lightweight and comfortable but had no arch support.

A few other people stood around in store uniforms or camo shorts and polo shirts, but no deference was being paid, so I could not tell who was famous. We put our names in the raffle box and took a free sticker and sunglasses. Nothing else was going on.

We were halfway out of the store when I turned to my son and said, “That was Ham Sammich, wasn’t it.” He laughed and said yeah.

Ham Sammich is what my boys and I call a regular on Duck Dynasty, the reality TV series that ran for 11 seasons on A&E. In one episode the “workers” at the duck-call plant in Louisiana go on strike, and when someone cries, “What do we want?” this man says, “Ham sammich.” His real name is John Godwin, and his fellow actor, Justin Martin, was with him this day.

My son and I circled back. I dislike the Duck Dynasty family’s politics and piety, and their show was about as concocted and annoyingly edited as any on cable. When self-styled patriarch Phil Robertson got enough money in his pocket to start talking about slaves and homosexuals to the media, we stopped watching.

But the genius of the show’s producers was to keep all that hidden as long as they did. (Phil Robertson accused them of “spiritual warfare” at one point for toning down all the references to Jesus.) It was also a measure of their control that, for a family who said they loved to kill things, they were rarely shown killing anything or even posing with dead animals. The show was light and entertaining in a way that let you ignore the probability of the other stuff and pretend to commonality. Their whole schtick was family, but they had actually created a wildly-successful family business that employed them all. Si, the liar uncle full of malapropisms, was a favorite of my younger son, and there were ridiculous lines to enjoy, such as Willie Robertson saying, “Hey Godwin, I know you’re not the smartest pickle in the barrel….”

We watched the show through our hard transition into Louisiana, when I discovered my new workplace was a scandal, the society tribal, and the environment a cesspool. My mother-in-law died when we arrived, we discovered our house flooded, the teachers treated my sons roughly for being outsiders, and the doctors in town hurt my son and said he had cancer when he did not. The comical crackers of Duck Dynasty were about as much as we could enjoy of the culture for a long time.

Mr. Godwin was tanned and look relaxed and well-rested. He is rich, if he saved his money. I hope he has. My son and I waited to get a quick photo, which I would not do for most presidents, authors, or captains of industry. An older man ahead of us told Godwin and Martin that he had wanted to ask if he had seen them on a TV show.

“You sure have,” Mr. Martin said. “America’s Most Wanted.” He, Godwin, and the sales people chortled.

America’s Next Top Model,” Mr. Godwin said in his thick north Louisiana accent. “Dancing With the Stars.” He was about five-foot six, round, and wore his characteristic white circle beard. Santa might look like him if in the off-season Santa competed to be a crappie master.

The older customer looked confused but rallied. “I thought maybe you were Chippendales dancers,” he said. They did him the kindness of laughing.

Mr. Godwin posed with us and smiled. I had expected a famous fisherman, which was one thing. This was Ham Sammich.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.