Like most men, I’ve had my share of mentors. Men who spoke directly into my life and helped shape the person I’ve become. And in addition to mentors, I’ve had some ‘myths’ in my life as well. I define ‘myth’ as someone who may or may not be ‘real’, but their story or persona represents something that you wish to emulate.
When I was young, I had a list of mythical men who embodied various characteristics I valued. Some were historical figures and a couple of them were movie stars. In 1981, after a couple of self-destructive years, I went through some significant changes in terms of how I wanted to live my life. Chief among them was deciding that I actually wanted to live my life. And it was shortly after that particular realization when I was introduced to two film stars; Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone.
At the time I was largely unfamiliar with the martial arts and was amazed by Norris because of what he could do physically. I could also tell that although Chuck was not a big guy, he could use his skills to make a very big statement.
What I had liked about Stallone was the characters I saw him play. And the fact that he was, in those days, so physically impressive. As a guy who had spent 18 years being scrawny and weak, that really resonated with me. Unlike the rest of the world, I was not introduced to Stallone via “Rocky”. I first saw him in the film “Nighthawks”, in which he played a NYPD detective who was sort of a reluctant badass. And to my young way of thinking, there was something rather noble about being a badass who wasn’t incessantly seeking out opportunities to prove it.
The following year I saw Stallone in “First Blood”; the story of John Rambo, a Vietnam-era Special Forces soldier, (more commonly known as Green Berets) who had run afoul of a small-town police force and used his extensive repertoire of unconventional warfare skills to fight back. What intrigued me about the character of John Rambo was his skill-set. Rambo seemed to be able to do so many amazing things. There was a sense of complete mastery in the physically impressive Rambo character. And since I had just arrived at Fort Bragg as a newly-minted paratrooper, the same Fort Bragg which is home to the Army Special Forces, I felt all the more connected to this ideal of being strong, quiet and exceptionally skilled.
During the next couple of years I caught up with all the ‘Rocky’ films (I, II & III) and made a few statements of my own in the Army. Which led me, in 1984, to the Army ROTC program at the University of Arizona. My life plan was to get commissioned as an officer, return to the Army via Fort Bragg, resume ‘jump status’ and live out my years doing all kinds of badass things.
But unexpected circumstances intervened, and by the end of 1984 a climbing accident put me into a wheelchair and out of the Army. The next few years were a numbing blur of pain and frustration as I attempted to regain my physical self. And during those years I would go see films like Rambo II and Rocky IV. It seemed that as I continued to waste away physically, falling further away from the life I once felt destined to lead, Stallone just kept on getting bigger and stronger as he saved the world, again and again.
Fast forward a few years later and I had somehow managed to reclaim my physical self and resume a life of service. I still had my mentors, but as I got older, the ‘myths’ became less important. Perhaps it was because as I accomplished more and more, I realized that the Hollywood versions of super-soldiers and robo-cops weren’t exactly accurate. Because most real “action-guys” tend to be average-sized, non-supermen who are far stronger on the inside than their visible physiques would ever indicate.
Postscript: In March of 2011, I had what I can only describe as a ‘full-circle’ experience. I was living in Las Vegas and working as a bodyguard. And for several days I was assigned to protect Sylvester Stallone while he and his wife Jennifer were in town. During these assignments there is always a lot of work to do and not much time for things like self-reflection. But once I had finished and the Stallones were safely “wheels up” on their way back home, it occurred to me just how unique this opportunity had been.
Once upon a time, when I was basically just a kid, I had looked up at a movie screen and watched a mythical version of someone who I aspired to be like. So I set about becoming that person. It took a long time for me to do that. So long in fact, that I never really sensed the progress I was making at the time. I just kept working away, trying to become that person. A person who had a particular collection of experiences, values and skills.
So as I drove home from the airport looking forward to some much-needed sleep, it hit me. I had in fact actually become that guy. So much so, that I had been placed in the unusual position of safeguarding a man who had once loomed larger-than-life in my own consciousness. A myth. As this fact sunk in, I caught myself starting to smile. It was a good moment.