"I'm having so much fun that I don't ever want to leave," Eric said. "I don't know what I want to do next."The day began for Jon Zeeb last Saturday at approximately 6 a.m., when the former exalted ruler of the Weehawken Elks made his way to Lincoln Harbor Park, prepared to act as chef once again for the Weehawken Day Festival.
That's not an enviable role, slaving over the hot charcoals for six hours, cooking 14,000 hot dogs, hamburgers, turkey and veggie burgers. Not to mention the countless hours of preparation, making sure that everything is there for the people of Weehawken to gobble free of charge. But Zeeb, along with fellow Elks Tom Gray and George Pizzuta, has been the head chef for every Weehawken Day eight years in all.
"It's some operation we have there," Zeeb said. "Non-stop from noon to 6 p.m. I find every year that no one wants to be on my committee. But I do it every year and I find it very gratifying. It's hot and greasy and a lot of work, but I come back every year. I think it takes a Marine to get back there and do the cooking. We all get together and have a good time."
Zeeb added, "Little do people know that before they arrive, we've been there working our tails off for five hours. But we have a die-hard crew. I mean, we were cooking 100 burgers every five minutes. That's 1,200 an hour. And it was non-stop. Everybody was working very hard."
Zeeb is one of approximately 400 Weehawken residents who volunteered their services to insure the Weehawken Day Festival was a success, which it most certainly was. More than 5,000 of Weehawken's approximately 12,000 residents made their way to the waterfront to partake in the festivities.
Whether it was to munch on one of Zeeb's delights, or to fire a baseball at a target in order to send Mayor Richard Turner plunging into an ice-cold water tank, or to plunk down a quarter for a chance to win 'N Sync's latest CD, the people who attended the Weehawken Day Festival had a blast.
According to organizers and to volunteers, it was the biggest festival to date - and probably the best. "It was a beautiful day and a fun day," said Turner, who added that he was dunked about 200 times during the hour he spent in the tank, with all the proceeds going to a Weehawken woman who is battling cancer. "It was the best organized festival and the best run, with the most activities. I've received rave reviews from people of all ages."
Added Turner, "I could tell we had a great turnout, because usually, by 4 p.m., it starts to wind down and I don't get dunked as much. But every year, I'm told it gets better."
Turner's stint in the dunk tank brought everyone out to get a chance to send the mayor plunging, even his wife, Eileen, and his son, Richie.
"I think I dropped him about eight times myself," said Chuck Barone, the Weehawken recreation director. Barone, one of the main organizers, was also all over the place on Saturday, making sure that everything ran smoothly.
"I must have put about 40 miles on my legs," Barone said. "But it was a great success. It seems to get bigger and better every year. It's almost like, 'Now, how do we top this?' I wouldn't say it's getting easier, but it's definitely more organized. It takes a lot of hard work and planning for months, but I think we're getting the knack of it now."
Not only was the festival a chance for the township's non-profit organizations, such as the Elks, the Volunteer First Aid Squad and the countless athletic programs, to raise funds, it was also an opportunity for people to learn about the different groups and services that the township offers.
The Weehawken Day Festival was sponsored once again by Weehawken Against Drug and Alcohol Abuse. The day also represented a way for a close-knit community to get a little closer.
"I think there are people who just moved into Weehawken, who are interested to know more about the community and who get a good feel of the town by stopping by," Turner said. "They're able to learn more about the town."
"Everyone gets to know everyone else," Zeeb said. "The regulars look forward to seeing each other, but there's the chance of meeting the newcomers. It's really a good way to get to know each other. Everyone gets to see how unique Weehawken is. We become like that little town in Vermont where everyone knows each other. On a day like that, we all get a chance to know each other better."
In Turner's eyes, that's the intent of holding such an event.
"People are astounded when they get to see everything Weehawken has to offer," Turner said. "And nothing enhances it more than a day like this. We have a small town, family-style atmosphere. And we try to maintain that in everything we do."
Zeeb likes the way the generation gap is bridged by the event.
"I love the way the senior citizens interact with the kids," Zeeb said. "The seniors were getting their faces painted with the little kids, going on the pony rides. When you see the older people with the kids, it really gives you a good feeling, that we're doing something special."
Zeeb particularly felt good when a youngster recognized him from last year's festival.
"This little kid, maybe about seven, comes up and tells his mother, 'That's the guy from last year, the guy who ate the bee.' Last year, there was a bee near the grill and I chased it away, but I made it look like that I caught the bee and put it in my mouth. I guess I made an impression on the kid. But that made me feel good."
And there's no question Zeeb will be back behind the grill for the ninth annual event next year.
"I keep saying that maybe one year I will just go to the event as a resident," Zeeb said. "But honestly, I can't do that. It's a fun day and everyone works very hard. But it's all well worth it. Everyone chips in and shows the pride that they have in this town. It really is very gratifying."
"I think it brings everyone together and it makes people in town feel like it's truly their day," Barone said. "We've always been blessed with great weather and it's just a great time. And it's definitely worth all the work we put in."
"I can't begin to thank the volunteers enough," Turner said. "The reason why the day is a success is because of the volunteers. Everyone is chipping in, young and old."
All to put a smile on a face of kids like Eric Montes.