The Things That Shape Us

I made a bologna and mayo sandwich for lunch today.

This isn’t really significant in itself, except for a few things. First, I rarely take my lunch to work. I’m more of a “get out of the office” kind of guy, even though working in Arlington makes that an expensive proposition. Second, even when I do take my lunch to work, I’m usually too lazy to actually prepare a lunch; I’ll just grab some leftovers or a frozen meal. Finally, I greatly prefer a hot meal to a cold one, so whether eating out or dining in having a cold sandwich really isn’t my style.

So why this sandwich, and why today? I didn’t really give it much thought, other than that I was craving bologna and mayo. Then as I was making lunch this morning it hit me all at once: Dad would have been 68 today.

It’s a small thing, nothing really, and yet everything. Dad was a great cook; he could make everything from chili to French onion soup to a complete turkey dinner with all the trimmings. He was a master at the grill or the stove, and yet he never lost his love for something as simple as a bologna and mayo sandwich. It’s the first kind of sandwich I ever learned to love, and I even put it on a hoagie roll, because that’s the kind Dad would have liked.

I don’t think about Dad every day any more, which is as it should be I suppose, although I think about him more days than not. I still miss him, and I always will, but I have to get on with my life. I’m just grateful to realize that he’s always going to be with me in all sorts of little ways, ways I won’t even realize. My love of music, my love for animals, my fierce loyalty to my family, even my temper…

And bologna and mayo sandwiches.

Requiem for a Hero

When I was a kid, my daddy never ate Chinese food. I never understood why, especially since mommy loved it so much (I never ate it myself). It wasn’t until I was much older that I asked him why not, since I had tried it myself and found that I actually liked it a lot. He told me he had eaten enough rice while serving in Vietnam that he never wanted to eat rice again, and to the best of my knowledge he never did.

My father was like that. He always had reasons for the things he did, even if he didn’t always explain them, and even if they only made sense to him. He wasn’t a quiet man; he was bombastic, bigger than life, a force of nature that could stand beside you through anything or, more often, shelter you from all the ills of the world. And yet in many ways he was so gentle and loving, he wanted to be everyone’s friend, and he loved all of the animals of the world.

He served his country, as so many veterans in his generation did, with quiet dignity. He did not make a grand patriotic show of it, he did not demand honors or accords; but he always remembered those he served with and those who were left behind. I hope he made peace with his time in Vietnam; if I have any regrets it is that I never took the time to ask.

He was an athlete, not an artist; he loved football, basketball, baseball, golf, even track. Yet when his only son showed no aptitude whatsoever for sports, he turned all of his passion and devotion to encouraging me to pursue my own passions: acting, writing, and the intellectual realm. He taught me so many things: my first dirty joke, my love of music, how to play blackjack and poker, how to lose at blackjack and poker, and how to lose gracefully. He taught me what it is to be a man, and to stand tall even when the world will try to bring you low.

My father took me to my first concert, my first football game, and my wedding. He was my best man, which is appropriate, because in so many ways he is the best man I have ever known. He was not perfect; he had his flaws, but unlike other men who might try to pass those flaws off as strengths, he admitted them and encouraged me to learn from them. He asked me to be a better man than he was; I have no idea how I can.

Robert Neal Bonsall, Jr. passed away on July 16, 2012, and the world is a poorer place for it. He was the first hero I ever had, and he may be the last. Rest well, hero.