Our Cinematic Autobiography: An Officer and a Gentleman
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.
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.