A long time ago, I met Ethan Hawke’s half brother. “Half brother” is how he introduced himself*. I don’t know which parent they have in common, father or mother—maybe he told me at the time, but I’ve forgotten in the years since—but it was interesting because Hawke was a pretty big star at the time, on his way to becoming a bigger one, making quite a few high profile movies. I was in the Army then, fresh out of artillery school at Fort Sill, in Korea for my first assignment, dripping butter from my gold 2nd Lieutenant’s bars all over the place. Ethan Hawke’s half brother was a Second Lieutenant in that same artillery battalion at Camp Casey, and one of the first guys I met after “in-processing” into the 2nd Infantry Division.
He was a nice enough guy, friendly, outgoing. He’d been there a few months already and seemed to know his stuff. Later I came to understand that some of the other guys in the battalion didn’t like him all that much because he apparently had a penchant for, um, “sucking dick” with the higher ranks—that is, going to lengths to ingratiate himself with superiors for career advancement. I never witnessed this reported penchant myself, but that’s what I heard.
I was interested to find out that he was Ethan Hawke’s brother, or half-brother, in the same way that almost anyone finds a brush with fame—and this was a pretty light brush— momentarily interesting. For a moment, just a teasing moment, you can imagine what it might be like to be famous, admired, cool, massively popular. For a moment, just a moment, you realize that the famous, admired, cool, and massively popular are regular people, too, and that’s always an interesting sensation. Ethan Hawke was once a kid with this lieutenant I had just met. They probably played sports and goofed off and maybe even went to a community swimming pool and played videogames and watched movies like I did when I was a kid.
Another thing that I noticed about this lieutenant was that he’d already been to Army Ranger school, which immediately put me on guard a little bit. The Army is a highly status-obsessed organization, where who you are is what you wear on your collar and arm and chest, and the Ranger tab was (and probably still is) a great indicator of status. Ranger training is easily one of the toughest schools in all of the world’s military. You’ve got to be strong, tough, smart, and focused to make it through, and Ethan Hawke’s half-brother had done it. I had not. I had a measly Airborne badge on my uniform, having graduated basic jump school between my junior and senior years of college. Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of the accomplishment, but jump school is really not that tough if you keep your head down, do what you’re told, and are willing to jump out of an airplane. Airborne school is to Ranger as single-A baseball is to the World Series.
I may have paid some lip service to Ranger school, because you’re supposed to want to do stuff like that when you’re young and in the Army, but really, I didn’t want to. I didn’t have it in me. I probably wouldn’t have made it. I didn’t know that then, but I know it now.
As Dirty Harry so famously said, “a man’s gotta know his limitations.” And some of mine are these: I’d much rather be comfortable and well-rested than uncomfortable and tired and hungry. There it is.
Years passed. I left the Army in 1997 as junior captain. I had an OK career. My efficiency reports made me sound like the second coming of Douglas MacArthur, but in the Army’s badly inflated ratings system at the time, they all did—or else you were dirt. In truth, I was a passable, B-grade officer, good at some things, not so hot at others. I could have stayed if I’d wanted to, but ultimately, the smartest and most honest thing for both me and the Army was for me to leave, and so I did.
I’m not that big of an Ethan Hawke fan. I like him all right. I certainly don’t dislike him. “Training Day” is a fucking awesome movie, but that was mostly because of Denzel Washington’s gargantuan (and justly awarded) performance in it. I like Hawke's movies with Julie Delpy, particularly the second one, “Before Sunset.” Just about everyone in my generation has some appreciation for “Reality Bites.” And I thought his directorial debut, a movie called “The Hottest State” (apparently based on a novel he wrote) was actually pretty good, rather underrated and unseen.
Not long ago, I read and interesting article that Hawke wrote for Rolling Stone about Kris Kristofferson. And even more recently, I saw that he was in a new movie, something called “Daybreakers” that actually sounds kind of cool but that I probably won’t see at least until it gets to DVD.
I don't know why this occurred to me now, but in the way that some ideas just swing into your head at some times rather than others, I thought I’d use the powerful internet to see what had become of Ethan Hawke's half-brother. Sometimes I search out guys that I was in the Army with and sometimes I only find a trace of them. I'm not really that nostalgic or sentimental in general, but sometimes it's just interesting to follow up.
So I went to Google and typed in the name and got a got result right away. And when I clicked on it…
The Second Lieutenant that I knew back in the early 90s is now a Lieutenant Colonel. That was disorienting for a good long moment, until I did the math and realized I’d probably be a light colonel now if I’d stayed in—that’s the career path.
What really kind of freaked me out was looking at his accomplishments. Re-branched Special Forces (the Green Berets) a few years after Korea. That’s tough business: my understanding is that SF isn’t quite in the same vein as Ranger, but it’s still highly selective, elite soldiering, and you’ve got to have a lot of the same general qualities that a Ranger needs.
Then I read through a long list of accomplishments that sounded like the resume of a character in a Tom Clancy novel. Something to do with snipers. Something else with undersea diving. Some specialized parachuting school. Some deal with SERE, which I think is a survival school where you’re treated like a POW. A few tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lots of awards, and big ones – a Bronze Star, I think, which is one of the highest military awards short of the Medal of Honor.
What really got to me about finding this out was not the accomplishments themselves. Sure, I was once in the Army, and things like Ranger and SF and all of that high-speed stuff will always carry a certain cachet with me, and elicit a little jealousy too. But just a little. If I’m being honest with myself, I know I’m not cut out for that life, the same way I’m not cut out for the life of a rock star or an actor or an NFL quarterback.
What got to me was seeing someone I once knew who had identified what they were good at, what they wanted to do, pretty early in life, and then had gone for it full-bore, all in, with total commitment, and had made it work for him, and now had a heap of accomplishments to show for it. I haven’t done that—I’ve tried a lot of different stuff, but I haven’t committed fully to any of it.
Which I think is a common ailment in people of my rough demographic.
Sure, I’ve done some stuff. I was a commissioned Army officer, promoted twice, and I do have a college degree. I’ve worked for two civilian companies and have doubled my salary in 12 years. I’ve won a few awards and accolades. I’ve written a book, learned a musical instrument and a martial art. I’m probably in better physical shape now overall than I was when I was in the Army. I’ve been a homeowner twice and currently live in a house with a swimming pool in a modestly upscale area of the Atlanta suburbs. I’m married and have a great two-year-old son.
But sometimes, a lot of times, really, all of those things don’t seem to add up to much. Maybe it’s a basic human tendency we have to downgrade our own accomplishments, but sometimes it all feels like air. Intangible. Fleeting. Except for my son, of course.
I’m betting that when Ethan Hawke’s half brother looks in the mirror, he knows exactly who he is and what he’s done. Me, I’m not so sure all the time.
One of my favorite novels is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, and one of the sharpest lines in that great book comes near the end, after the narrator has been accidentally shot. His wound is not life-threatening, and he goes on to recover. But even though he knows he was only accidentally injured, the circumstances make it appear as though he was heroic and put his own life on the line.
“…it made me feel better in some obscure way: imagining myself a hero, rushing fearlessly for the gun, instead of merely loitering in the bullet’s path like the bystander which I so essentially am.”
A bystander. Sometimes that's how I feel -- like a neutral bystander in my own life. A watcher, not a doer.
I’m not complaining, even though it may seem like it. I have it a lot better than many, many others. I should feel lucky.
But sometimes I can’t help but wish I’ve done more, that I could do more, if only I could shake off whatever condition keeps me from getting more fully invested in life.
And to Ethan Hawke’s half-brother: hats off to you, man.
* By the way, if it matters, I know the guy wasn't lying because I saw him named and quoted a few years later in a Rolling Stone article about Hawke. Also, Hawke himself referenced him (although not by name) in the piece he wrote for RS about Kris Kristofferson.