This past Saturday I was running around the city doing some errands and in general just enjoying the day. Part of that included a stop at The Strand bookstore on 12th and Broadway, one of my major haunts when I first moved to the city 20+ years ago but which I seem to visit less often nowadays. While there I bought the copy of Anton Myrer’s Once An Eagle that you see below. I had another copy of this about ten years ago that I never got around to reading due to a number of changes in my life that occurred around the same time. Instead I mailed it to a friend who read it and then passed it on to his father, an Air Force veteran now interred in a military cemetery. Both read and got a lot out of it. I had not thought of Myrer’s work until about a week ago when I heard Jim Webb talking about it on a podcast I listen to frequently. That inspired me to seek it out again. With the holidays about over and winter officially here it seemed an opportune time to read the 775+ page opus.
Published in 1968 during the height of the 1960s social unrest, Anton Myrer’s Once An Eagle, the story of a career military man struggling to do the right thing in his family and calling, resonated with Americans. The author continued exploring topics related to the Second World War, lost time, and the generation gap in his later works.
Myrer published Once An Eagle in 1968, one of the most terrible years in twentieth century history, with the Tet Offensive, Prague Spring, Events of May, assassinations, rioting, and political unrest around the world. Myrer’s tale of a career military man trying to do the right thing as he rose from young enlisted man to senior general over his half-century career spanning World War One to the early years of Vietnam struck a chord with the public. The book sold in the millions in the late 60s and early 70s.
I have spent part of this long holiday weekend reading some old interviews and articles with Myrer, who died in January 1996. Myrer was from Massachusetts and attended Harvard before leaving to join the Marines in World War 2. He returned to Harvard after the war to finish his degree and then settled in Saugerties, Myrer came home from the war determined to make sense of what he had seen and done in the Pacific. He spoke often in his writing and elsewhere of how the people of his cohort, what we would now call somewhat hyperbolically the Greatest Generation, were trying desperately in the years just after the Second World War to make up for lost time, get on with their lives and, to the extent that they could, reclaim the days of their youth that the Depression and war had taken away. Thus the mad rush to finish school, start careers, marry, buy homes, and have children. These offspring of course being the Baby Boomers.
In a small coincidence related to yesterday’s post Anton Myrer married his second wife in Brooklyn’s First Unitarian Church in 1970. This is the same church in which Price Collier, Sara Collier’s father, served as reverend before she was born. Myrer split his time between the city and (mostly) upstate. Saugerties was and remains something of an artists colony. The 1969 Woodstock Music Festival took place nearby. Other famous residents of Saugerties during this time included Bob Dylan and The Band. It was there that they recorded The Basement Tapes and where The Band itself recorded Music From Big Pink. I would love to know if Myrer ever came across Dylan, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, or the others. Saugerties is a small town, so I wouldn’t bet against it. If so, talk about world colliding.
In 1969, the year Woodstock too place not far from his home, Myrer returned to Harvard for his 25th class reunion. He was pained at the cultural divide he experienced and felt compelled to explain his own generation as best he could in his writing. Out of that came The Last Convertible. Written in the where-are-we-now and how-did-we-get-here style of Mary McCarthy’s The Group, The Last Convertible begins at Harvard in 1969 with its five now middle-age protagonists returning for their reunion and encounter the students, some of them their own children. In a series of 1978 interviews discussing his then-new book Myrer explains his sympathy for the Vietnam protesters. The Last Convertible is essentially an argument for the defense; Myrer explains poignantly to one interviewer that “I was sympathetic to the children. I was heavily on their side” before adding that “youth is too quick to judge, and they judged our generation too harshly.” To another interviewer around the same time he explains that he wrote The Last Convertible because “I felt a need to interpret our romantic generation to this embittered generation.”