Let’s start at the beginning: working a shift at the Rotary Wheel

It was around 2:15 on a Friday afternoon when my husband and I showed up to the Appalachian Fair to volunteer at the Rotary Wheel—to sell BBQ sandwiches, hamburgers, cheeseburgers, turkey legs, Philly cheese steak sandwiches, corn dogs, hot dogs, chili dogs, kettle fries, curly fries, pizza, nachos with cheese and chili, chicken tenders, and funnel cakes. The Rotary Wheel was supposed to open in 45 minutes, at 3 pm. The problem? None of it was made. Not one thing.

The second problem? No one who was already there knew how to prepare the food. I was worried, but the Rotarians didn’t seem too fazed (my husband is the Rotarian—I was just extra help). Someone had turned on the fryers and ovens and burners and plugged things in. But that was about it. We had a manual with some bare-bones instructions, so we started with that. I was cooking hot dogs in the oven and someone else was getting the corn dogs ready, wrapping them in paper, and my husband was opening the cans of chili and the cans of cheese and pouring them into the warming crockpots. We were all hunting for kitchen supplies in the back and sorting through the refrigerated items. 

I decided in that first hour of preparation that our only option was to limit the menu—if we could get five or six items prepared, then we could serve at least that. 

Someone embarked on preparing the funnel cake batter (while not being able to find any measuring cups), and someone else started slicing the potatoes for the kettle fries. Someone else showed up who started grilling the burgers. 

The good part about no one barking orders was everyone was helping everyone else. 

“Have you seen the pans?”

“I’ll look in the back.”

“Can you get me some more onions?”

“Sure, we have a bag of some already cut.”

All of us dropped what we were doing when someone needed extra help—I’m sure just about everyone opened that big convection oven for me multiple times.

The bad part about no one barking orders was we had to contend with a little bit of chaos. At least three of us kept changing the hot dog system, all of us thinking our method was the best and that the others’ systems were flawed in some way. Eventually, we merged our systems.

More volunteers trickled in. Someone called someone else who knew how to keep the funnel cakes from falling apart in the fryer. We had opened up some side windows to get some air flowing through but had purposefully left the front customer windows closed. A customer appeared anyway. She wanted two hot dogs with chili. Could we do that?

“It’ll be a few minutes.”

She shrugged, willing to wait.

And so we began.

When we finally opened up our front customer windows, there was a lull for a while before the dinner rush. We wrapped hot dogs. We got burgers ready. More volunteers came. Someone showed up who was an expert at making the chicken tenders, kettle fries, and curly fries. Someone else knew how to make those big ol’ turkey legs.

Then the rush hit. I was prepping burgers, BBQ sandwiches, and Philly cheese steak sandwiches, and at some point I was getting overwhelmed when Tuan came over to work with me. I’d never met Tuan before, but I quickly realized he was the perfect Rotary Wheel burger/sandwich co-volunteer. Anything I said we had to prepare, he stepped right up and did, no questions asked. And fast! He knew how to wrap sandwiches better than I did, and he taught me his method. He was efficient, polite, and kind, and he was working so quickly that he managed to help the hot dog makers and the pizza slicers while never leaving me in a lurch. I am forever Rotary-indebted to him.

It wasn’t until sometime in that rush—in the middle of people calling orders and volunteers cranking food out—that I realized everything, everything, on that menu had been prepared. We’d done it, somehow. Was it because no one acted like a grumpus? Was it because no one said no when asked to do a job? All I know is that later, after I had driven home, and after I had fallen into bed, my feet were hurting, but the contentment I felt outweighed the fading ache. 

To learn more about the Rotary Club, please go to www.rotary.org.

This post originally appeared as a Community Voices column under the title, "Working a wild shift at the Rotary Wheel" in the Johnson City Press on September 6, 2015.