Clayton Boutelle was up at midnight on Thanksgiving morning, cooking.
The 58-year-old Army veteran from rural Superior doesn’t sleep that much anyway, he said, and he had some cooking to do: three smokers and a couple of roasting pans, filled with turkeys.
Fast forward 12 hours or so, and Boutelle was at the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center, sitting down to a plate of turkey, potatoes and stuffing at a round table next to the mine warfare display.
“I’m out of gas,” Boutelle said.
Given his schedule, it would be reasonable to assume he meant he was tired. But Boutelle explained that he meant, literally, a smoker was out of gas.
No worries, though. There was ample food for the 107 people who already had come through the food line at the second annual Bong Center free Thanksgiving meal for veterans.
Last year, more volunteers showed up than veterans, said Jan Brill, a Bong Center employee and one of the organizers. But they still ran out of food after a couple of hours.
That wasn’t going to happen this year. “Thirteen turkeys, three hams, 100 pounds of potatoes and three large pans of stuffing,” Brill rattled off the list.
Boutelle said he had a few extra turkeys on his hands last year and went looking for a place that was willing to serve free meals to veterans.
Brill and Briana Fiandt, the museum’s curator, embraced the idea, said John Gidley, its education and outreach coordinator, who had been looking for more ways the Bong Center could reach out.
Finding people willing to help with the project has not been a problem.
“There’s plenty of involvement,” Gidley said. “You know, we're not hurting for volunteers.”
So much so that when Michael Pope volunteered to help, he was turned down. That was OK, the 55-year-old Ely man said. He’d volunteer to eat.
Pope, a Navy veteran whose fluffy white beard and twinkling eyes make him appear to be a stand-in for Santa Claus, is used to volunteering. He’s a member of Team Rubicon, a veterans service organization that performs disaster relief operations.
He was sitting at a table with family members and Kristin Kroll of Superior and her daughter Monroe, 5. Kroll is the event coordinator for the Duluth chapter of Team RWB (Red, White and Blue), an organization that strives to enrich the lives of veterans. Kroll became acquainted with Pope through Holly Breeden, the chapter director for RWB, and invited him to come to the Bong Center meal.
It’s the kind of things she does.
“We just want to get everybody back out,” Kroll said. “We want everybody to get together still. Things don’t have to come to a stop when you’re out of the military. We’re still there for you.”
In the center’s main entryway, 12-year-old Zoe San Nicolas was hanging a handmade paper ornament on the “Our Heroes Tree.” The ornament was in honor of her grandfather, Jesus M. San Nicolas, who was a 6-year-old when the Japanese occupied his homeland of Guam during World War II. He later served in the U.S. Army and found his way to Minnesota.
Last year, Zoe had hung an ornament for her father, Jaime San Nicolas, who also served in the Army. The San Nicolas family — Jamie, Alicia, Zoe and her three brothers — had come up from their home in North Branch, Minn., to visit Bentleyville and then enjoy the Bong Center’s Thanksgiving feast.
“We just discovered this museum last year,” Jamie said. “It’s actually one of my favorite military museums” within a day’s drive.