Our Cinematic Autobiography: An Officer and a Gentleman
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Our Cinematic Autobiography: An Officer and a Gentleman

By Cindy Davis | Think Pieces | August 21, 2012 | Comments ()


I don't know exactly when I first saw An Officer and a Gentleman, but I do remember how strange it felt to watch jagged shards of my own life swept up and put together in a different way. It was like Taylor Hackford took the bits and pieces and created a (cheesy) mosaic that I'm a little embarrassed to say still makes me cry. Just please, let us not speak of the music; we can pretend there was none.

"What happened to your mother had nothing to do with me."

Like Richard Gere's Zack Mayo, my childhood years aren't ones I look back on fondly. My mother was an alcoholic, abusive; I was an accident, and she divorced my biological father before I was one year old. By the time I was eight or so, he'd had enough of my mother's manipulative games and disappeared, though he sent me letters saying someday we'd see each other again. We didn't. My mother got remarried, to a good man who I came to call Dad. He took care of me and shielded me as best he could but eventually, he left too. On my own from about sixteen, I worked as a waitress and finished the second half of my senior high school year at night, staying with friends or here or there--but things kept getting worse. By the time I was eighteen, history had repeated itself. I was pregnant. I made the decision to give up the child for adoption, knowing I couldn't take care of a baby on my own and afraid of what kind of mother I'd be. I hadn't seen my Dad since I had gotten pregnant but he found me, living at a boarding house, shortly before I was due. He moved me out, and in with his new wife and child, then helped me get through the birth and saying goodbye. As I lay in a hospital bed that New Year's Eve, watching the lazy snowflakes fall outside, I wondered where my life was going.

"Who put that idea in your head?"

Dad had once mentioned the idea of me joining the military, and though I had immediately rejected it, I later realized it might be the only way to start over. There was no money for college and I couldn't stand the idea that the way I was living was the way it would always be. I never thought about what I was getting myself into--just jumped--I went down to the nearest recruiting office and signed up to take the test. Richard Gere's Zack Mayo was streetwise and and cocksure; I was insecure and painfully naive. When the recruiter looked at my ASVAB scores and told me there were immediate openings in food service or the military police, I chose MP--foolishly thinking I'd spend my days driving around in a patrol car, drinking coffee and eating doughnuts.

'Fall in!"

When Paula (Debra Winger) and Lynette (Lisa Blount) go to the military dance looking for their potential tickets out of town, I related to their plight. But I wasn't looking for an Officer Candidate to save me, I wanted a way to save myself. Having joined the Army without forethought or any real idea what I was getting myself into, I was in for a big surprise. When I stepped off the bus with my fellow recruits--at Fort McClellan, Alabama--I quickly found out. The drill instructors ordered us to line up and the nonstop yelling began. We were instructed to hold our suitcases and bags above the ground; if a bag hit the the dirt so would its owner, to drop and do push-ups. Never having attempted a push-up in my life, I was terrified, but I managed to keep my ridiculously big suitcases up even as the tears rolled down my cheeks. I cried every night the first week of basic. But somewhere inside me, I was as determined as Mayo, and I (too) had nowhere else to go.

"I will use every means necessary, fair and unfair, to trip you up, to expose your weaknesses as a potential (aviator) and as a human being. Understand?"

"Where are you from, Mayo the wop?"

Sergeant Foley (Louis Gossett Jr.) was as close to a drill sergeant as I've ever seen on film, and in our Company, we had one so fearsome, people would hide if they heard him coming. While we stood in line to receive our issued equipment and clothing, Sergeant Smith took a look at my nametag, and asked if I was a "wop." I just wanted the attention off me and though I hadn't heard the term before, I responded with a timid, "I guess so?" (Turns out I am.) I'll never forget him storming through the barracks like some kind of gleeful tasmanian devil, rolling metal trash cans down the aisle to wake us, or dumping someone's poorly hidden contraband jellybeans onto the floor. He'd recite the broken rule as he jumped up and down on the candies, smashing them into a rainbow pulp. Some of the girls sobbed, having yet to get past their fear while I--out of sight on the other side of the wall of lockers--had to cover my mouth to stifle my laughter. He'd drop you for twenty just as soon as look at you, and I got dropped so.many.times. But under the brim of that hardass drill hat there was also a man who, for reasons I'm not sure of, made it his mission to get me through. No matter how many times I thought about quitting, he was right on my ass...screaming. I remember one particular road march in the blazing Alabama summer heat, walking up an endless hill in full chemical gear, gas mask, fifty-pound rucksack and my M-16, watching people around me just plopping themselves down in the middle of the dirt road. Quitting. Every time I slowed, that little bastard was right beside me, yelling, "Don't you even think about stopping! You're going up that hill." (And I'm pretty sure my Platoon Sergeant dragged me a time or two.) Like Ensign Seeger (Lisa Eilbacher), I had a lot of problems negotiating the obstacle course wall (read: ran, chickened out at the last second and smashed into it, helmet first), I still don't know how I eventually got over that thing, but I'm certain it involved someone yelling at me.

"He didn't ask me to DOR. I went to him."

In the film, Sergeant Foley spends a good deal of his onscreen time trying to get Candidates to D.O.R. (drop on request), especially Mayo. Zack's best friend Sid (David Keith) finally comes to realize he wasn't in the program for himself and voluntarily quits. That sort of thing didn't happen in Army basic training, they won't easily let you walk away. Some people tried out their best crazy acts or resorted to attempting suicide to get released without the stigma of a less than honorable discharge. Others went A.W.O.L., but you can't really run from the military--that label sticks.

"I won't ever forget you, Sergeant."

I made it. I got away from my mother, made a better life for myself, and found out I could do a lot of things I didn't know I could do. And though I didn't get to carry Debra Winger away from her shitty job, graduating basic and advanced training, gaining some self-confidence and getting away from my own shitty past life felt just as good. (Yeah, I know... cheesy.) And I won't ever forget Sergeant Smith.

Cindy Davis was neither an officer nor a gentleman.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Miss Laaw-yuhr

    This amazed me and I find I have no appropriately eloquent response, so I'm just going to upvote the hell out of everyone else's comments.

  • GunNut2600

    My one RDC was name Quackenbush. I think he was a broiler tech or some shit rate that was long retired. Total fucking asshole who could barely count to ten. Used to give me and the three other nukes shit for being able to read. God I miss bootcamp. My old man would send me the sports section cut up and taped to regular paper in the mail. Every Wednesday I would get the results, which we would use as official records for the bets in football.

    The thing was, I had access to the RDC lounge which meant that by Sunday night, I already knew most of the results. So pretty much Monday and Tuesdays I would make the bets and idiots in the division would let me take their fucking money. It wasn't until playoffs that I had to stop making fixed bets. Jesus I was over extended for the Superbowl when every Raiders fan in the division became Giants fans overnight after the AFC championship.

    I was fucking flush with cash after that Superbowl.

    I ended up in the military basically for the same reason a lot of people do. Drugs and getting a local girl pregnant was my only future in my home town where the gas station was the largest employer. Couldn't get into the Army, Air Force, or the Marines but luckily the Navy doesn't give a shit about birth defects if you score high enough on the ASVAP. I've never been a fan of the movie. All to often, pilot rejects would get shuffled into the nuke pipeline. Generally they were idiots and dangerous to enlisted folks. Richard Gere's character reminds me too much of this female officer we had who not only was borderline retarded, she had an issue with gays and Hispanics.

    "Down Periscope" is the most accurate Navy movie just in the fact it shows just how retarded and dangerous Electrician Mates are.

  • AngelenoEwok

    This is amazing. Every time I read a cinematic autobiography, I want to say, "this is my favorite one!" Pajibans really contain multitudes.

  • DarthCorleone

    Wow. Thank you, Cindy, for sharing this with us. You know, as of late I have considered you one of my better Internet "friends," and yet - echoing the surprise referenced in another comment here - it's funny how little we might know about the details of the lives of people we befriend in cyber-world but still feel what I think is a valid connection in spite of that.

    Also, I love this movie.

    I've been enjoying this series of autobiographies. I've tried brainstorming one that I could write for myself that would worthy of the other contributions, but I've had trouble coming up with anything, in spite of how personal and instrumental I consider the cinema in my own background.

  • Jannymac

    I'm old enough to remember this airing in the theater -- when guys would wear their dress whites and sweep their girlfriends into their arms and carry them out while people applauded. But...I never saw this movie as being all that romantic because the central relationship for me was always between Mayo and the DI. I guess it would be called a "bromance" these days? But the scene that EVEN TO THIS DAY continues to leave me a sobbing mess is the one referenced above when Mayo talks Seeger over the wall.

  • tamatha_uhmelmahaye

    I was wondering what movie you would pick for your Cinematic Autobiography. And when I saw which one it was, I thought, "Of course."

    I love how surprised people are (me included) when they find out about this part of your history.

  • Pookie

    As a former Navy Seal, I remember fondly my drill instructors.

  • Benderman

    I don't remember any of my drill instructors fondly. I did respect them though. They were still in uniform when we hit the racks and they were back in uniform and ready to go before we got up.

  • Weeping was a fair bit of my boot camp experience as well.

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