Rambo: the Formative Years

updated 12/23/1985 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/23/1985 01:00AM

We found the Rambo family living in a cozy, unpretentious two-bedroom bunker somewhere southeast of Phoenix. (For fear of tourism, locals asked that their town remain anonymous.) Grandma "Grambo" Rambo sat in the parlor knitting an antimacassar, while Ma "Mambo" Rambo busied herself in the front garden planting neat rows of antipersonnel mines. Like any proud father, Louis "Lewis" Rambo was only too eager to talk about his son-turned-SWAT team.

"I always knew he was a special boy," said Lewis, his eyes growing wistful. "I'll never forget the day he said his first word: 'gouge.' "

"Nonsense, darling, he was only gurgling," corrected Mrs. Rambo. "His real first word was 'Mom.' "

"I dunno—sounded a lot like 'maim' to me," said Lewis. "I'm almost certain about the next thing he said, though. It was 'carrot.' "

"Thank heavens," said his wife. "All these years I thought it was 'garrote.' "

Mom and Dad went on to relate how the young Rambo cut a memorable figure in nursery school, but the memorable figure never brought charges and the whole thing was just an accident anyway. It was as a Boy Scout, however, that Rambo first showed the incipient individualism that would one day make him famous. "One of a kind," recalls his old scoutmaster, Emory Wing-tip. "Who could forget? One day we all whittled. Other boys made neckerchief slides; Rambo whittled a tank. Life-size. And the boy was an absolute demon at games, especially capture the flag and hide-and-seek. Rambo would find a boy, then, using everyday items like water, matches and simple kitchen utensils, somehow get that boy to reveal where the other boys were. You couldn't top him for resourcefulness."

Yet the boy's pastor, Father Timothy O'Goldberg, recalls a different Rambo, a spiritual Rambo. "Faith and 'twere a blessing how that boy could quote scripture," says O'Goldberg. "If memory serves, he seemed to particularly like Deuteronomy 32:41, "I whet my glittering sword"—and Jeremiah 46:9, "Let the mighty men come forth." Also, he liked anything to do with 'smiting.' He was very big on 'smiting.' " But was Rambo a searcher, a troubled mind foraging through the Rolodex of life's mysteries? "Oh, very much so," says Father O'Goldberg. "He was always questioning, always going for the mystical burn, as Jane Fonda might say. He'd read a passage, then walk around for days with a glazed look on his face. Finally, he'd come to me and say something like, 'Father, why "an eye for an eye"? Why not, say, an ear for an eye? Or two ears for an eye? Or, maybe, an ear and an arm for an eye?' It made me think, I can tell you." Rambo's high school football coach, Bert Hunkus, remembers his former star halfback as "eager and effective. If William Perry is a refrigerator, this guy was a Cuisinart: smaller but faster, and able to puree. He came to play; he knew it wasn't over until it was over; there wasn't any quit in him; he knew that the winner was the team with the most points at the end of the game, etc., etc. But mainly," says Hunkus, "he knew how to execute."

But it was probably his teenage sweetheart, Connie Cupiscent, who knew the real Rambo best. "I guess the first time I knew he liked me was the day he carried my books, and me, home from school," says Connie. "I was always afraid he'd drop me and pick up some other girl, but he never did." Life became an endless summer of sock hops and soda shops, and pretty soon folks just assumed the pair would unite in connubial bliss. Alas, it was not to be. "The good news was that each of them clearly was in love with just one person," recalls Rambo's father, Lewis. "Unfortunately, that one person turned out to be Rambo."

Sadly, the endless hours of working out in front of mirrors had apparently taken their toll. "It all seemed pretty innocent at first," says Connie. "We'd go to a party, and I'd catch him exchanging knowing glances with himself in a mirror. Nothing much, really, just a little nod or a wink." But the problem only grew worse. "Pretty soon he started sending himself flowers and inviting himself to movies," says Connie. "He played hard to get, but after a while he couldn't resist himself. And who can blame him? I sure couldn't compete. Nowadays," she adds, "I hear he dates himself almost exclusively." Devastated by the breakup, Cupiscent has nonetheless tried to make the best of it. "Even though I can't have him," she says, "it makes me feel a little better to know that he's going out with somebody we both like."

Shortly after his graduation from G. Gordon Liddy High School, Rambo enlisted in the Army. And the rest, as they say, is history (and, as of early December, more than $260 million in worldwide box-office receipts).

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