I met Melvin McNair on a dusty playing field in Caen, a city on the French Atlantic coast that had been bombed into permanent dreariness during WWII. He was managing the local baseball team, and I was managing a Paris-based team.
During the course of a doubleheader, we chatted on the field, and off during the break between games. I noted that I hadn’t met many Americans living outside of Paris during my dozen years of living in France, and wondered how he had ended up in this backwater. He casually dropped that he had hijacked an airplane and found asylum in Algeria before moving to France with his American wife.
He said he’d done it in order to call attention to the virulent racism he and his friends and family had endured back home. Now, he was running a baseball club as a way of reaching and educating the hardscrabble youth of Caen, few of whom had good prospects of landing a job or having a meaningful life. That was his goal: to bring meaning to people who had no hope.
He was soft-spoken, casual in his heroism, authentic in his caring, and without the slightest hint of resentment or bitterness.
He said something that reminded me of my friend, the author and filmmaker Norman Loftis, who once told me that being in France for a few months every year was liberating because he didn’t have to feel like a Black man — in France, he was just a man.
That’s how Melvin seemed to feel: he was just a man, and he was doing his best to contribute to society in a meaningful way.
This article by Kim Hjelmgaard goes into greater depth about the story of his hijacking, the work he’s still doing in Caen, and the inspiration he and his late wife Jean provided to the youth of Caen.
I would be derelict in my duty if I didn’t mention that Melvin was a better player than I, and he took me deep in the second game of the doubleheader, giving his team an unexpected victory over the favored Paris team. And for once, I didn’t care. On the contrary, because while I was trying my best to get him out, it seemed right that Melvin would give his team hope — and a victory — when there was so little of either to be had in Caen.
I also encourage you to watch at least part of this video, by Maia Wechsler, which shows you exactly what kind of a man he is: