SEBRING - Major Bruce Stefanik had literally been cooking for days.
"Since Monday," said Stefanik, who runs the Salvation Army mission in downtown Sebring. The building is almost 100 years old, and he didn't want to overload the breakers, so the first went in a roasting pan on one kitchen wall, a second went in the oven, and a third in another electric roaster in the dining hall. Each cooked 12 hours until all 16 were done.
"One lady told me she wanted a leg," Stefanik told volunteers on Thanksgiving morning. But she won't get a whole one, because the birds fell off the bone.
The couple is from Pennsylvania, lately by way of St. Augustine. This is their fourth year to serve Thanksgiving in Sebring. Besides the donations of cherry pies and German chocolate cakes, he collected nearly $3,500 in cash to buy turkeys and other groceries.
But by 10:30 a.m. Thursday, when the servers arrived and took their places on the line, almost everything was done, save a few pans of stuffing that arrived in the bed of a Chevrolet Avalanche.
His wife, Major Vicki Stefanik, expected 300 diners would line up between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. "That's how many have told us they're coming. More will just show up here."
Like Helen Gill, who walked in at 10:20 a.m., dressed in a festive red sweater. Other volunteers let her in early because they assumed she was there to serve, but no, she was ready to eat.
"My husband and I moved down here 31 years ago," said Gill, who drove from Lake Placid. But he died three years ago, and her nephew won't be joining her later tonight from State College, so she didn't want to eat alone.
"I have friends, but I'd sooner come here," Gill said.
Another diner from Avon Park also came early. He'll eat in the dining hall, which seats 48, and then he'll deliver meals to the homebound in the City of Charm.
"We also expect the EMS and the first responders here," said Don Elwell, a frequent volunteer. "They've been invited."
Some of the diners will be homeless, Vicki Stefanik assured. No one asks, they don't have to make reservations or show IDs, but many of the homeless have that certain camping-out look.
David Marshall of Sebring brought his two children, Hannah, 5, and Zayden, 4. His mother-in-law, Sherry, was volunteering inside.
"We wanted to save for Black Friday," he smiled down at the kids. "And we came down to eat with the people who aren't as fortunate. They don't know anything about that kind of stuff."
Art Holland brought his family too. All volunteered. Why?
"Because we work for God," said Holland, of Sebring.
"They are soldiers," Bruce Stefanik said. "They agree not to do certain things. They will not use alcohol or tobacco."