OTTUMWA — If you think attending a Christmas dinner with hundreds of people is fun, you should try cooking it.
"We asked his brother if he'd ever made gravy before, and he said, 'No.' So we asked if he knew how to make gravy, and he said, 'No.' So I said, do you know how to do this?" asked Chuck Osing, making a two-handed stirring motion. "He said, 'I suppose...' so I told him, congratulations, you're making the gravy."
The other volunteers laughed Wednesday. Many of them had started the same way many Christmases before during the annual free Christmas dinner at the Ottumwa Masonic Lodge on East Pennsylvania Avenue.
"He turned out to be a good gravy man," said Osing. "We can always use a good gravy man. Tell him we'll need him next year, too."
The Masons have been hosting the dinner for 31 years.
"I've been doing potatoes for five years," said Tony Fischer, although he'd actually been helping out as a volunteer for about 12 years. "You have to work your way up. I did delivery at first, then went to scheduling delivery, and then about five years ago I got promoted to potatoes."
He does a good job, said Osing, who's been overseeing the event since he helped start it.
"I've never spent a Christmas Day at home in 31 years," Osing, a 50-year Mason, said while helping clean up after the biggest part of the crowd had left.
Greg Flemming has been there for years, too. This year, besides recruiting his brother to make gravy, Flemming worked the phones. More than 500 residents called in requesting a meal. Volunteers hustled along between 10 and 11 a.m. to get meals dropped off, many at the high rises where a large number of the city's elderly make their homes. While he took orders, the volunteers were getting help from his daughter, Nikia, who's been working the dinner since Dad started bringing her at age 15. She just turned 28.
"She does so much!" said Karen Wilt, who was scooping potatoes onto plates from the kitchen serving line. "She's been working so hard."
The kitchen help was working nonstop, too. When told their efficiency made the production look like an assembly line, Carolyn Pilcher said, "It's not like an assembly line, it is an assembly line!"
Delivery volunteers, even at 1 p.m., were still getting orders from Flemming, then bringing them to Pilcher, who started the Styrofoam container rolling down the tracks. Ham, potatoes, gravy, green beans and a dinner roll. Guests who ate at the lodge — there were at least 300, maybe 400 who came in for dinner — would then head to one of the long tables after a quick stop in the back of the room to get a piece of pumpkin, apple or blueberry pie.
The volunteers teased each other and some of the visitors they knew, visiting and laughing as much as their guests.
After 1:30 p.m., when the place had quieted down, the phone rang for the first time in quite a while.
"Yeah, we can probably do that for you," said Flemming, scribbling an address on a sheet of paper.
It was an order from one of the high-rise towers they'd already delivered to. And yes, the volunteers put a plate together for one person who'd forgotten to request dinner, and was perhaps reminded of that fact seeing all their neighbors enjoying a delivered Christmas meal. But wasn't it past the time they'd scheduled to make deliveries?
Flemming turned serious for just a moment, saying he and the other volunteers don't turn people down.
"We're here taking care of people," he said.
— To follow reporter Mark Newman on Twitter, see @CourierMark