June 6, 2012


Starring Richard Gere, Debra Winger, Louis Gossett, Jr., David Keith, Lisa Blount (who was always hotter than Winger...RIP). Directed by Taylor Hackford. (1982, 122 min).

Some movies can change your life. But not always for the better...at least initially...

One of the dumber things I did in my youth was marry my girlfriend right out of high school. Everyone I knew - family, friends, co-workers - tried to talk me out of it. I didn't listen. What did they know? I was in love.

30 years and a second marriage later, with the 20/20 hindsight which comes with such maturity, I may have mistaken love for the amount of uninhibited sex I was having at the time. When you're an adult only in the legal sense, sex makes you do dumb things, like getting married before you're ready, alienating your friends and family and, at least in my case, joining the military.

Like most idiots who get married before the ink on their high school diplomas is dry, me and my new wife had shitty jobs, no money and bills which were suddenly our responsibility to pay. We did the same thing a lot of young, dumb couples do...act like we were still in high school. We spent money we didn't have, had hysterical knock-down, drag-out fights and often came crawling back to our parents to bail us out of the jams we got ourselves into. Still, we were in love, and that would see us through the dark times.

I am actually amazed we lasted as long as we did - four years - though I think if you would have hooked both of us up to a polygraph back then, you'd discover we probably stopped actually liking each other after a few months. I dunno, maybe we tried so hard to make the marriage work just to prove all our naysayers wrong.

Anyway, still young, dumb and impressionable, one night during the early months of our wedded bliss, we decided to catch a movie, 1982's An Officer and a Gentleman. And yes, my wife picked the film. If were up to me, I'd have chosen Airplane II, playing in the theater next door. I have nothing against romantic dramas. They just aren't my first choice in movie entertainment, even though there have been many that are mighty fine, the best one being Casablanca. Then again, if you don't like Casablanca, you must not like movies. Some films transcend their genre. An Officer and a Gentleman is one of 'em...a so-called chick-flick that just about everyone has to admit is pretty fucking awesome...

...and if you are an impressionable 19 year old with a way-too-young bride on your arm, it is potentially life-changing.

We watched this film when I was between jobs, having just lost my dubious position as a telemarketer (how much of a loser do you have to be to get fired as a telemarketer?). Up on the screen was Richard Gere, cool and studly in his Navy whites after completing pilot training, strutting into a factory at the end of the film to scoop up Debra Winger to rescue her from her menial existence, all to a swelling power ballad (which itself became somewhat iconic back in the day).

After leaving the theater, the first thing we did, at my wife's insistence, was run over to Tower Records to buy the soundtrack. Then on the way home, music from the movie blaring from the tiny speakers of our Honda Civic (back when Civics were still cheap cars), my wife suggested that I should enlist in the military, purring how hot I'd look in uniform.

Even though I was no physical slouch back in 1982, no way could I fill out a military uniform the way Richard Gere did. But I was also 19 (aka: stupid), a bit drunk and had no better financial prospects on the horizon. What do you think I did? My young, hot wife wanted to see me in a uniform!

I enlisted in the Air Force soon after. Yeah, I know, Gere's character joined the Navy, but Navy basic training was too long. I was still very lazy at the time, and hey, a man in uniform is a man in uniform, right? My wife would dig me all the same. Air Force training was only six weeks, so the Air Force it was.

I managed to make it four weeks before getting drummed out because I couldn't pass my bunk and locker inspection.

That's not what I told my wife, though. The night before I shipped out, she, my best friend and I got totally high and drove around Portland all night. After failing basic training a few weeks later, I used that incident to convince my wife I was kicked out because my Social Security number popped up for a random drug check. That way, it wasn't entirely my fault, especially since she was there doing bong hits with me.

Hey, this was 1982; getting kicked out for drugs sounded a lot cooler than being unable to fold your socks. At any rate, arriving home after the long flight from Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, the reunion with my wife was a far cry from Richard Gere saving Debra Winger from a life of factory labor. My wife was taken back - and obviously repulsed - by my shaved head (which made me look like Charlie Brown). Despite her smile, her eyes basically said, "Way to fuck up...loser").

This may have been the first moment I pondered whether or not marrying young had been a good idea (roughly around the same time she probably realized I was no Richard Gere).

This was another instance  I was reminded that real life is never like the movies. I first found that out as a kid when I got the bright idea to stage my own game of Rollerball with some neighborhood friends and ended up breaking someone's nose. Even as I blindly signed my name on the dotted line in the Air Force recruiting office, the guy in charge told me there was recently a big boost in enlistment following the release of An Officer and a Gentlemen. At least I wasn’t alone in my stupidity.

"Have you put on some weight?"
So I was duped by a chick flick - and my wife - into getting my head shaved and freezing my ass off for a winter month in San Antonio. In the end, all I had to show for it was 900 bucks and a set of fatigues. I was decidedly not military material; definitely not Richard Gere.

A few years later, I could totally sympathize with the gullible bastards inspired to join the Navy after seeing Top Gun, only to have their dreams dashed when they weren't dropped into a fighter plane the second they signed up. How many of them were goaded into signing their life away by a woman?

The reality is that all those rogue hot-shots we cheer for onscreen actually went to college first, a prerequisite for any military training program worth making a movie about. The rest of us are underlings. Even if I had made it through basic training, the closest I would have come to the heroic glory depicted in Officer or Top Gun would have been putting out the fire after Gere or Cruise crashed their plane and strutted away unscathed. While they hopped in the sack with Debra Winger or Kelly McGillis for some deep reflection, I’d be spending the better part of a day getting the stink of burning jet fuel out of my nostrils.

Anyway, getting drummed out of the Air Force was the beginning of a long downward spiral of dismal employment, apartment evictions, mounting debt and an eventual divorce because I couldn’t pull my head out of my ass.

We’ve all looked back to examine - with far more maturity - the events which guided the course of our lives. Sometimes we laugh at our former selves, other times we wonder “what if I’d done this instead of that?” The decision to see An Officer and a Gentleman was one of those times, a catalyst for the direction my life took over the next several years.

Do I regret joining the military? Not really, believe it or not. Yeah, my reasons were dumb, and I’m convinced my first wife and I were destined for divorce no matter what. But most of my past failures steered to the life I have now, once I finally grew up, and which I wouldn’t trade for the world. I’m not an 80’s-era super-stud, but I now have a wife who loves me as I am, and two awesome daughters. If I didn’t go through all the shit I put myself through back when I was young and stupid, there’s a good chance my daughters wouldn’t have ever been born. Now that’s something to regret.

So yeah, An Officer and a Gentleman is probably one of the most influential movies of all time, at least for me. It was life-changing, and I can only thank God today that, eventually, that change turned out to be a positive one.

Things could have been far worse. I could have been influenced by Natural Born Killers.

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