KERRVILLE — When you’re standing near a giant fryer that holds eight turkeys and 35 gallons of 250-degree peanut oil, you don’t take any chances.
That’s why every seven minutes, not a second more, not a second less, Luis Gonzalez shouts, “Fire in the hole!” so everyone gathered in the parking lot of the Kerrville VA Hospital knows that he is about to open the lid to the largest turkey fryer you’ve ever seen.
Gonzalez is a member of the Texas Association of Vietnam Veterans, which every holiday season fries more than 160 turkeys for local veterans hospitals and nonprofits.
On this sunny but brisk mid-December day at the stately hospital in Kerrville, a team of about a dozen volunteers is frying 18 turkeys for the hospital’s Christmas lunch.
That’s a relatively small number for an organization that has been known to fry more than 60 in a single day, which couldn’t happen (safely, at least) without the fryer that is so large is has to be pulled on its own trailer.
Don Dorsey, the longtime president of the association, is also chief turkey injector, who wields a giant syringe full of a marinade made with butter, molasses and creole seasoning. While massaging the marinade into the meat, he explains the history of the turkey frys.
It all started about 15 years ago with Ed Stout, who was then vice president of the group. “He said, ‘I’m gonna fry some turkeys for the guys at the VA hospital in Temple. If you wanna help, come help,’” Dorsey recalls.
A group gathered a few large pots and burners and made the trip up to Temple to give the patients and staff there a little surprise around the holidays.
In the years that followed, the project grew quickly to incorporate other hospitals and nonprofits, and as they got more serious about the effort, the “mechanically minded” Stout realized that with all those pots full of oil over open flame, they had a disaster-in-waiting on their hands.
He commissioned (and funded almost entirely) a $13,000 custom fryer, built on a trailer, that can fry up to eight turkeys at once. “Ed invented this. It was his baby,” Dorsey says, pointing to the carefully designed cooker that they’ve slowly tweaked over the years.
It takes a team of no fewer than four people to run it properly, one person preparing the raw turkeys, two people overseeing them while they’re in the oil and a fourth to sprinkle the birds with Tony Chachere’s seasoned salt and then deliver to the kitchen team.
For more than 10 years, Stout, aka “Head Turkey,” never missed a fry.
But in 2010, Stout was killed by a man he’d occasionally hire for odd jobs. Many members of the group are still stunned by the loss, but his daughter, Angie, donated the fryer so they could carry on the tradition he felt so strongly about.
“It’s the pride of the organization,” says Gonzalez, who joined the group in 2005, more than 30 years after he lost 22 shipmates in an explosion on the USS Newport News.
“We all enjoy this. It’s for our brothers inside that building. We have to make sacrifices (to do it) but you have to make the time.”
Julian Calderon says he’s been hooked since his first visit to the Kerrville hospital.
“I saw these guys who were out here and realized, ‘That could be me,’” he says. “You see the joy on their faces. They clap. It’s special. (The turkeys) might not be much, but it’s something. Some people don’t have families or people who come visit. Some of these guys are my age, and they are here and I am not.”
For the past five or six years, his wife, daughters and their kids have made a point to come with him.
“We all come in a van or truck, and it’s like, ‘Here come the Calderons,’” jokes Yolanda Calderon, Julian’s daughter.
Yolanda Calderon says that her dad didn’t really talk much about his time in the war, but getting involved in the group helped him open up a little more.
She also says it’s been important for her son, now 17, to see his grandfather go out of his way to help his fellow vets. “You get to see some of the same veterans (in the home) year after year,” she says.
Some of the familiar faces have come out from inside the hospital to chat with the visitors and watch their well-rehearsed turkey dance.
“Room 112, please,” Ken Zielinski shouts as Yolanda’s sister, Lisa, balances a steaming turkey on a tray as she carries it inside the hospital.
Zielinski, a former H-E-B chef and Boerne resident, says he just moved to the hospital four months ago but that he knows it’s “for good” this time.
“This is a big event for all the guys. We eat fine here, but it’s not the same,” he says, sitting in a wheelchair next to his floormate, James Farley, a Marine who appeared on a 1963 cover of Life magazine with tears on his face as he tried to save a dying comrade on a helicopter.
But on this bright day in mid-December, all of the veterans, both the ones schlepping turkeys and the ones wheeling out now and then to crack jokes with their visitors, keep that turbulent past in the past.
It’s a day to celebrate another year together.
And as the number of Vietnam-era veterans declines, each year is a gift.
Dorsey, 67, is one of six founding fathers of the Texas Association of Vietnam Veterans, a group he says started in part because the veterans didn’t feel welcome in other groups, but mostly as a way to take care of the disabled vets who weren’t getting the care they needed, he says.
Because of the more recent conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan, there’s a lot of focus on the newer veterans, he says, but that means that older veterans, particularly from unpopular wars like Vietnam, are sometimes overlooked. “Just because they’re old doesn’t mean they don’t have needs,” he says.
Every month since 1986, members of the organization have made the almost two-hour drive from the Austin area to visit fellow veterans in the care of the Kerrville hospital, which is also a long-term care center.
Usually, they play bingo or simply visit over a sandwich lunch, but for both Thanksgiving and Christmas, TAVV member Will Rogers, who is the official keeper of the fryer, leaves Austin about 4 a.m. to make sure the oil is nice and hot when it’s time to start the turkeys not long after 8 a.m.
And after frying so many turkeys over the years (no one has a definitive count, but it’s easily more than 1,000), they have the process down to a science.
They don’t fry any turkeys bigger than 14 pounds, all of them get the same injected marinade, and don’t even think about throwing an already brined Butterball in the mix.
The first turkey goes in for seven minutes, and then they add another turkey, moving them down the line until each turkey has cooked for precisely the same amount of time. Then out they come, seven minutes apart.
“It’s like clockwork,” Dorsey says. “Any changes and it throws everything off.”
To help cover some of the cost of the turkeys and oil, the group sells fundraiser turkeys at one of the designated frys just before Thanksgiving, but even though at least one turkey went for $1,000 this year, Dorsey says they never really break even on the venture.
After every fry, they carefully strain the oil and clean the cooker and turkey baskets with a power hose so they are ready to use for the next event.
This Kerrville fry was their last for this year, but that means only 11 months until it’s time to light the burners with a fresh batch of peanut oil and do it all over again.
To help fund their effort, you can donate by emailing Don Dorsey at firstname.lastname@example.org or writing a check to the Texas Association of Vietnam Veterans, PO Box 40036, Austin, TX 78704.