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.