Photo Courtesy of RJ Hakes

*trigger warning, mention of death

I first met RJ Hakes ’22, an Eli Whitney student, in the Berkeley common room, typing away furiously at his laptop in preparation for finals season. It was there that he told me about his travels to over 80 countries and his 20-year service in the Navy, his enthusiasm for soccer and affinity for archaeology. He is an avid Twitter user and proudly displays a tattoo of a unicorn-cow hybrid — a unicow — on his forearm. 

Austin, Texas, where his wife and daughter reside, is Hakes’s home. But his story begins in Denver, Colorado, the setting of his childhood. After graduating from high school, he began building houses there. Later, working for a now-defunct airline gave him the means to leave, scratching his growing wanderlust.

Novelists like Hemingway and Kerouac enabled him further. “You could feel their life in the reading,” Hakes said. It was this desire to lead a life such as theirs — singular and uncompromising — that would go on to influence Hakes’s decision to enlist in the Navy. 

“It was a very impulsive thing to do,” he admitted, matter-of-factly, “and there’s really no basis for it, other than I decided, one day, that I wanted to travel the world and do some cool shit.”

The year was 2001, and Hakes was initially contracted to work on airplanes, a job he found immensely undesirable: 9/11 had just occurred, and the United States and Iraq were at war. “I was not especially happy with what I was seeing, and I was wanting to get out and just go back to school,” he said. “I got offered a chance to go to Italy and live in Sicily.”

There, in Sicily, Hakes was first exposed to the Navy’s Special Operations programs. Intrigued by the guise of thrill they boasted, he applied and was admitted. Once his two-year training concluded, Hakes then joined a small unit that experienced six casualties over a several month period.

Following a number of deployments, Hakes switched positions to work at the White House as a team leader for the Secret Service Bomb Squad.

“[During that time], my friend Chad was killed,” he said. “I went over to Dover Air Force Base, helped carry his casket off the plane, and a few days later, I was in Afghanistan to help out his team. I was gone a lot. I think I was home 20 days a year.”

Throughout his military service, Hakes was continuously compelled by brotherhood and an intimate sense of community. Skydiving, he said, was the one thing the Navy could not ruin for him. He recounted the elaborate jumps — the meticulous work one must do while plummeting 30,000 feet through the air — the fierce coldness and intricacies of altitude with an air of genuine, bygone affection.

Once his 20-year service drew to a close, Hakes matriculated at the University of Pennsylvania. From there, he transferred to Yale, which he praised for its Eli Whitney program. In some environments, nontraditional students are starkly separated from the remaining student body, marked as different and excluded. In others, they are completely integrated, with no real sense of unifying solidarity. Yale, he told me, strikes a beautiful and accessible balance between both. 

I asked him, then, if the younger undergraduates ever annoyed him. 

“No,” he said slowly, diplomatically. But some 19-year-olds, the ones enraptured entirely by their idealism, amuse him. “I think it’s good for people to become active, to become socially conscious, to become really passionate about things… I think what’s also important is to be willing to challenge your preconceptions and admit, ‘I’m new in this world. I don’t know everything.’ Like, it’s okay to have a firm conviction. It’s even better to analyze the opposing viewpoint and come to realize the strengths of your conviction.”

Still, he admires them for their camaraderie, their unrelenting kindness. “It’s completely okay to not know that you’re right,” he reassured me. “To feel like you need to explore more and not have the right answer all the time.”

On campus, Hakes studies Classical Civilization and serves as co-president of the Yale Undergraduate Veterans Society. He is involved with the Yale Curling Club, painting it as an “oddball sport.” “I also do a lot of silly shit on the Internet,” he said.

In the future, Hakes wants to create soccer leagues for younger children in lower-income communities. He plans to continue traveling — not the kind of travel that entails backpacking or booking exclusive resorts — but the kind that demands complete immersion in other cultures. 

Learning brings Hakes joy, and barriers to learning, specifically, internal competition, bring him sadness. By saying this, he does not refer to the destructive, cutthroat competition amongst peers, but the persistent certainty of impostor syndrome that Yalies routinely submerge themselves in. The unshakeable suspicion that everyone else is miles ahead, that everyone is simply better.

Hakes, additionally, has a fondness for bizarre tattoos. He pulled back the sleeve of his Yale sweater to show me a few of his own: a matching tattoo with his wife that reads “Your mom;” his daughters’ names on his wrists; a little whale named Willhelm, donning a sailor hat; and then, of course, the famed unicow on his forearm. Hakes cracked a smile. “It’s got a little unicorn horn,” he explained, “and its milk tastes like lucky charms.”

Other tattoos are from his deployments: the altitude of Denver, drawn by his friend with a makeshift tattoo gun; a king crab that his military badge is superimposed upon; the initials of his friend, killed in Afghanistan. 

“I have tattoos on my feet, too,” he said. “In the Navy, there’s this old tradition, where you get a pig tattooed on one foot and a chicken on the other. The reason why is because when ships would sink… the only thing left on the surface would be pigs and chickens, the livestock, because they float. The idea was, if you got them on your feet, you would stay above water. You wouldn’t drown.”

But because Hakes is Hakes, and because irony is in his nature, he walks with a rotisserie chicken on one foot and a ham on the other. And because he has lived so much, he is soft-spoken and astute, but unpretentiously so. I am struck by how he reasons, with measured deliberation, through the baffling unreality — as well as odd harmony — of how Yale operates. Even the ill-timed plunking of the Berkeley piano could not override the weight of his words: RJ Hakes is the kind of person with a lived and necessary wisdom to dispel. A teller and collector of narratives — from his studies in archaeology to the ink on his skin.   

Iris Tsouris writes for WKND. Originally from Atlanta, she is a first-year in Davenport College interested in architectural analysis.