Herald JournalHerald Journal, Nov. 10, 2003

Oak Ridge Boy writes story about life, love, and loyalty

By Ryan Gueningsman

Joe Bonsall has sang tenor for The Oak Ridge Boys, one of country music's top quartets, for the past 30 years. The band will be appearing at Winstock 2004.

Bonsall is the product of World War II love. His parents met after they had both served in the war. Bonsall recently published a book titled "G.I. Joe and Lillie" which is his take on his parents' relationship ­ a story about life, love, and loyalty.

It's the 1940s, World War II is in full swing, and a young Joe Bonsall leaves home to join the United States Army.

Around the same time, Lillie Maude Collins of North Carolina joins the United States Women's Army Corps.

After participating in the war, the two eventually meet in Long Island, New York, and instantly fall in love.

The couple survives the aftershocks of being in a war, and settle down to raise a family. Joseph Bonsall has a son ­ Joseph Jr. ­ and pledges that there is no way that he would let his son go through what he went through.

Several years later, when Joe Jr. is about 12, his father tells him a little bit of information about what he did in the war.

"A veteran like my dad never considered himself a hero ­ the heroes never came back," Bonsall said. "One thing he did tell me was that there may be other wars in the future, but assured his son that he would never have to go through what he did."

"He put his arm around me and said 'There will always be another war, but you won't go. I promise you'll never see the hell. They'll take me first or they'll fight me to the death before they take my son.'" Bonsall said.

Ironically three years later, Joe Sr. had a dehabilitating stroke, and Joe Jr. would become the soul support for the family. This was the time of the Vietnam War.

"I went before the draft board, and they looked at both my mother and father's records and said 'We've had enough from this family,' and I walked out of there thinking 'Wow, daddy kept his promise,'" Bonsall said.

Bonsall's father never talked much about his war experience.

"For the most part, veterans don't like to talk about combat. The feeling that comes with something like that and what stays with you ­ it's an emotional adrenaline rush.

"That's what combat is ­ every hour of every day ­ day after day after day, and sometimes week after week. How in the world could a guy come home from that without it totally affecting his life? They don't.

"Our young kids fighting today won't," he said, "That's why the combat veterans won't talk about it unless it's with another combat veteran."

How the book came about

Although not a songwriter at heart, Bonsall's story "G.I. Joe and Lillie" began as a song. The Oak Ridge Boys were doing a concert in Lancaster, Penn. in 1999, and 40 to 50 veterans were invited to attend the show.

Bonsall's parents were living in a nursing home in the area, and were among the veterans to be invited. En route to the show, inspiration struck as Bonsall was reflecting on the lives that his parents had lived ­ and out came the song "G.I. Joe and Lillie."

"I wrote this song for my parents on the way to the show, and I sang it to the guys in the front of the bus, and asked them if I could sing it at the show tonight, and they all said 'knock yourself out,'" Bonsall said.

"I got to the venue and rehearsed it with our guitar player, and we sang that song ­ the standing ovation was endless," he said. "It was just incredible."

His mother and father were impressed, and received many pats on the back from other vets, he said. His mother always thought that their story was one worthy of being told ­ but Bonsall wasn't sure if that was something he was capable of doing.

Bonsall set forth to tell his parents' story. He wrote a short story and she thought it was really cool, he said.

"I thought it would end up in a book like 'Chicken Soup for the Soul,' but after a while New Leaf Press got a hold of it and liked it," he said. The only problem ­ they wanted more.

His mother unfortunately passed away shortly after seeing that short story. Bonsall added more to the story, taking information from his mother's memoirs.

New Leaf Press was so impressed by what Bonsall had put together that the company asked him to write a full book.

He did more research on what his father did during the war, and continued taking information from his mother's memoirs.

Bonsall has written a number of Christmas songs, but doesn't consider himself a major songwriter.

"I'm not a gigantic songwriter, but I have written a few," he said. "The Oak Ridge Boys have recorded several of my Christmas songs over the years."

His interest in writing started when a country music magazine asked him to keep a road diary of the Oak Ridge Boys' travels.

When the Internet came into play, Bonsall found himself writing features and commentaries, and he was asked by several publications to do some writing for them, to which he obliged.

He wrote a successful children's series called Molly the Cat, which has sold about 100,000 copies.

Bonsall on the world today

"I'm of the opinion that I believe we should have done what we've done ­ I have no problem with that," he said. "From a political stand-point, I'm not one of those that follows their leaders blindly ­ remember I lived through Vietnam.

"I believe we had to take this to their shores so it wouldn't happen again here on our shores.

"I think some people may have forgotten what happened Sept. 11, 2001, and how horrible it would be if that would happen again."

Bonsall recalled a childhood memory of walking to school each day and getting beat up by a kid. This bully would go on to take Bonsall's money or his lunch and give him a pounding.

"One day, I hit him on the head with a bottle, busted him up pretty good, and he never bothered me again," Bonsall said. "It's your typical bully story. But the fact of the matter is that it would have been nice had we been able to become buddies.

"But you know what, it didn't happen. There are bad people in this world who mean to do harm," he said. "Bottom line ­ you gotta hit the bully on the head with a bottle, and on a gigantic level, I think that's what we're doing now."

The Oak Ridge Boys

The Oak Ridge Boys are keeping busy as a band, Bonsall said. They are currently doing a tour.

"I've been with the Oak Ridge Boys 30 years and I'm thankful for my singing career," he said. "If we can maintain the good health, I think we'll keep on singing as long as we can do so."

The Oak Ridge Boys recently released a CD titled "Colors," which features a variety of patriotic-type songs.

They have a busy November and December coming up ­ including a 29-day Christmas tour, which will be in both Duluth and Rochester.

The Oaks also have a new album in the works for next year, and will continue to do live shows.

"What keeps us going is our good health ­ we're not the young guys on the block anymore, we are the older guys," Bonsall said with a laugh. "Everybody's really into it, and we still strive to grow musically."

Bonsall, though thankful for where he is at today in his life, knows it all would not be possible if it wasn't for one person.

"I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for my mother," he said. "My mother was the most influentual person in my life. She taught my that I could be anything that I want to be in this nation."

There was a list of things Bonsall's mother told him to live his life by. To this day, Bonsall holds each of these virtues to heart:

· You have to give it everything you have.

· You have to work hard.

· You have to be prepared to sacrifice.

· You've gotta treat people right, be honest, and honor God in all that you do.

"If you do those things, you will succeed," she told him. "And you have to do it, because of guys like him (she pointed to his father sitting in his wheelchair) doing what he did."

"My mother taught me that lesson when I was little," he said, "and I bought into it."

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