Reading of the world, and then going to see it
Growing up in the isolated small town of Ainsworth, Nebraska, which actually celebrates The Middle of Nowhere Days each summer, it was easy to feel a bit cut off from the world. With only two television channels (CBS and PBS), and a few radio stations, books were a primary gateway for me to the wider world. And what a world it was! Edgar Rice Burroughs transported me in time and space to Africa and Mars, Louis Lamour returned me to the Old West, and Alistair MacLean took me on adventures spread all over the globe. However, the one book that proved to be the most formative, and somewhat prophetic, was Once an Eagle by Anton Myrer.
Once an Eagle tells the story of Sam Damon, who grew up in an equally isolated Walt Whitman, a fictional Nebraska small town. That caught my interest right away, and Damon’s adventures fired my imagination. The book follows Damon’s career through World War I and World War II, and on to Southeast Asia, where his luck finally ran out. He never shirked a duty, and did whatever he could to accomplish his goals.
Damon has just graduated high school when the book begins and is working at a variety of menial jobs while he ponders his future. Books transport him to a better, more significant future as he reads of Benedict Arnold at the Battle of Saratoga. He yearns for more than his small town can offer him, and sets out to make that a reality.
Fired by the war stories of his family and others, his path takes him to the U.S. Army. He initially tries for an appointment to West Point, but when that seems to be taking too long, he joins up as a private soldier. From a wind-blown Texas outpost, his first international adventure took him to Mexico, where he took part in the operation to chase the Mexican bandit Poncho Villa through the north-Mexican desert.
This is where the book eventually started becoming prophetic. After I finally made it out of Nebraska, to another small town in Iowa where I taught in a high school, my first venture outside of the country was to Mexico. I made trips to Cuernavaca and Mazatlan to improve the Spanish that I was teaching at the time. My trips were more peaceful, and the most danger I was in was during my first cab ride through Mexico City. However, compared to my peers back home, at least those who like me had not enlisted in the military, I was becoming well-traveled.
My next destination was France. Damon went to fight and was promoted to officer in the Great War. I went to meet the family of Sophie, my eventual wife. I had no idea at the time, but this trip would not only introduce me to my French family, but Jean-Marc, a friend I met on that first trip, finally gave me the idea for my current book, Le Football: The History of American Football in France. Since that first trip, I have travel widely across France, sometimes doing research, and sometimes just for fun. Perhaps in a small way Damon prepped me for being open to falling in love with the country, although I am pretty sure that Sophie had a more influential role.
During the interwar years, Damon found himself in China, as a military observer with the Chinese communist guerillas fighting the Japanese. After I arrived at Ohio Northern University, located in Ada, OH, another small town, I took a chance and signed up to teach a summer course for the United Study Abroad Consortium. Damned if I didn’t end up in China with the communists too. Of course, by this time, the entire country was ruled by the communists, but that was just a detail. We were in Chengdu, and had the chance to take a side trip to Xian, the ancient capitol. Although there was again little danger, this was another of what has become a series of trips of a lifetime for a boy from Nebraska.
Damon may have been the inspiration for much of this travel. His trip to China was an opportunity that he grabbed onto, and I have made a habit of doing the same. Unlike Damon, I also had the opportunity to visit Cuba years before the recent thawing of relations, and loved the experience. By this time, my friends back home noticed that I had visited quite a few communist nations, which probably in the minds of many included France, and they started to worry about me. I was having the times of my life though!
After China, I have not had the chance to visit the south Pacific as Damon did, and given the surface connection between our stories, there is no way in Hell that I am going to visit Southeast Asia, where he was finally killed.
Once an Eagle not only inspired me, but it also continues to be an influential work read by American military officers. It is part of reading lists either required or recommended for both the U.S. Army and the Marines. Sometimes it is depicted as an anti-war novel, and that may have been Myrer’s inspiration, but I would quibble with that characterization. Damon might hate war, but once it starts, he does whatever necessary to win. The example that he sets as an officer with absolute integrity is one that still speaks to contemporary readers. I have also tried to emulate him morally, but admittedly with less success than I have had in following him geographically.
The fictional young man from Nebraska blazed a path that I have so far been quite content to follow though. Conceivably, Damon’s early career playing sports in the military and visiting France might have lain dormant at the back of my brain, providing a mental framework that I would later use. When the opportunity arose to tell the story of how American servicemen played so many football games in France, before it was finally transplanted by Laurent Plegelatte, an avowed French communist, something may have clicked. What could I do but jump at the chance to try to tell the story to the world?
Russ Crawford is an Associate Professor of History at Ohio Northern University in Ada, OH. His most recent book is Le Football: A History of American Football in France, published by the University of Nebraska Press.
The image featured at the beginning of this post is by Homini.