Almost Home
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Almost Home

The Hijacker

The last thing we expected to bump into on a ball field in Normandy was an airplane hijacker, but that’s exactly what happened. Yes, an air pirate, a fugitive from justice still wanted by the FBI for the 1972 hijacking of a Delta airliner from Detroit to Algiers. When we learned who it was, we were incredulous.

Mel showing his stuff

Mel McNair? Caen’s baseball coach? One of the most revered figures in French baseball?

But remembering the first time we met him — it was at that game Don umpired — perhaps we shouldn’t have been so surprised. When Don introduced himself and asked how he got to France, he replied, “Long story,” and abruptly walked away.

And then, months later, at a tournament in which the Comets and Mel’s team were playing, Mel approached Petie and said, “We should talk. I got some stuff to tell you.”

Mel talks to Petie

What followed was one of the most amazing stories we’ve ever heard, one that began when Mel was growing up in Greensboro, North Carolina and where he got his first inkling of what it was like to be a black in the America of the early 1960s.

“I was around twelve and had just come home from baseball practice when I noticed my Momma wasn’t there,” he said.

The young ball player

“When I asked where she was, my brother said she and my sister had been arrested for demonstrating. Demonstrating for what, I asked. My brother said it was for my rights. I had no idea what he was talking about and told him, ‘I got my rights, I’m playing baseball, I’m free.’ My brother said ‘No you’re not free, you can’t do this, you can’t do that, you can’t eat in a restaurant with white folks.’

“Wait a minute,” I said. “What do you want to eat in a restaurant with white folks for?” Mel chuckled and shook his head as he recalled the conversation.

“But what does that have to do with hijacking a plane?” we asked.

“Like I told you before, it’s a long story,” Mel said.

Several things happened, the first being the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. At the time, Mel was a student Winston-Salem State University playing baseball and football on an athletic scholarship. “I was the first black to play baseball there,” he said. After King’s assassination, however, Mel and a number of other athletes decided to take part in a march to honor the slain civil rights leader. Their coach objected and told them to stay in their rooms. Mel refused.

It was a costly decision. He lost his scholarship and was forced to leave school “but I was proud of myself and don’t regret what I did.”

No longer a student, Mel was promptly drafted into the Army and sent to Germany. “Life was more complicated because I was now married and with an infant son,” he said. But much to his surprise, Mel found he enjoyed Army life. “Almost like summer camp,” he said. “I was good at everything and there were lots of sports.”

But then came an incident that changed everything and contributed to his growing radicalization. It happened during a basketball game when the wife of one of the other soldiers began hollering, “Get those niggers off the floor!” Mel turned to his coach, an officer, and demanded he put a stop to it. The coach refused. “That wiped the smile off my face,” Mel said.

When Mel was informed he was being sent to Vietnam, he refused to go. “I heard how they were talking there on the base. Just like they were talking about black people. Gooks, niggers — same thing.” Mel’s commanding officer gave him a choice: Vietnam or prison.

Mel relented but asked for leave to take care of his family which now included a second child. With the army’s permission, he packed everyone up and took them home to North Carolina.

The McNair family

That was the last the army saw of Mel McNair. He deserted and took Jean and his children into hiding in Detroit.

Detroit was a city under siege, torn by racial strife and wracked by daily protests against the war.

Detroit Riots

The one positive, the one ray of hope the McNairs saw was the Black Panthers who were setting up clinics and day care centers there. “We wanted to help, do something good for Black America,” Mel said.

They moved into a “safe house” where they were soon joined by several other people. Nobody asked any personal questions but everyone saw what was happening as violence in Detroit escalated.

Detroit in flames

Barking dogs, police with clubs, demonstrators getting blown away with fire hoses…I couldn’t handle that,” Mel said.

Detroit Police respond to riots

That’s when he and the others decided to leave the country. They had seen how airplane hijackings had soared, from sixteen in 1968 to forty-four in 1972, and decided that was how they would do it.

On July 31, 1972, Mel, who was 23, and Jean, who was 25, along with the three other adults they’d been living with, took over a Delta airliner in Detroit, demanding to be flown to Algiers where they planned to join the Black Panthers in exile. Mel and Jean’s two children and the daughter of one of the other hijackers were with them. The ringleader of the group was disguised as a priest and carried a gun in a hollowed-out bible. Mel was dressed as a businessman.

They flew first to Miami where they released the 86 passengers after securing a million-dollar ransom.

Ransom being delivered

They then flew to Boston for refueling before flying on to Algeria where the plane was immediately surrounded by armed Algerian troops. Mel and the others burst from the plane brimming with excitement. “We’re heroes!” Mel shouted to the pilot. “When you get home, send us a copy of your newspaper!”

But it was hardly a hero’s welcome. Algerian authorities hauled them in for questioning and seized the million dollars they were carrying. Only after being released did a harsher reality set in. Instead of being engaged in “the struggle,” Mel discovered that their so-called brothers-in-arms were more interested in partying and chasing women — and especially the money they’d been carrying.

“The situation was not like we dreamt,” Mel said. “We came to make a stand. We thought we could protect ourselves and our families under the Black Panthers. We were wrong.”

Within seventy-two hours, Mel was on the phone to his sister in North Carolina begging her to come get their two children, ages four and two, whom they feared were in danger. “I didn’t want to send them back to America because I didn’t want them to go through the same things we’d gone through but we didn’t have any choice.”

A year and a half later, the McNairs and their cohorts were smuggled into France by an underground political organization. Mel and Jean were taken in by a Parisian family sympathetic to their cause.

The City of Light seemed like another world. “There were people in cafes, the ‘cling’ ‘cling’ of coffee cups, car horns, everything bustling, flashy and moving so fast. Life as I didn’t know it,” Mel recalled.

But he and Jean desperately missed their children. They realized that the only way they could be a family again was to turn themselves in and accept the consequences. They’d been in France nearly three years. When the police arrived on May 26, 1976 to take them into custody, they were ready.

Authorities in the U.S. demanded their extradition on charges of air piracy, charges which carried a possible death penalty. The French refused, arguing that black liberation movements like the Black Panthers were being persecuted for their political beliefs and that it would be impossible for them to obtain a fair trial in America. By refusing to extradite them, however, the French, under international law, were obliged to put the McNairs and their accomplices on trial themselves.

Prominent figures from throughout French society rallied to their cause. Politicians, writers and artists as well as movie stars like Simone Signoret and Yves Montand jammed the courtroom in a show of support. In that highly charged atmosphere, Mel, often in tears, explained why they’d done what they did.

On November 24, 1978, all were found guilty. The jury, however, recommended that Jean and the other woman, who’d already served two years in prison, be released immediately so they could be with their children. Mel and another man were freed a year later. (The ringleader escaped to Portugal before the trial and was not apprehended until 2011.)

In America, authorities still considered the hijackers fugitives from justice and said that conviction by a French court did not cancel out charges pending in the U.S.

In 1980, after eight long years, Mel and Jean were finally reunited with their two children. They chose to settle in Normandy, a decision based on the welcome American soldiers had received on D-Day. There, they found work in the city of Caen. Jean created a program called Youth and Hope, the first after-school program in France aimed at helping disadvantaged children. Mel worked as a mediator and counselor for troubled youth.

He also began teaching them baseball, convinced it was a good way to reach the kids. “I told them, ‘Baseball is a violent sport, but the violence is with the bat when you hit the ball.’ They liked that.”

We had seen how strongly he connected with young people. They gathered around him like eager puppies, laughing and chattering while hanging on his every word.

Mel with his Phenix players

“He’s cool,” one said. “Everyone in our neighborhood knows Mel. He’s always trying to help others.”

As we listened to Mel’s story, it was hard for us to picture him as a “wanted man” whose mug shot might be hanging on the wall of a U.S. post office. It wasn’t simply that he was older now; it was his whole demeanor. His eyes, once wild with excitement, were now soft and gentle. And we also remembered something his sister said, how her brother had been “such a company guy, an athlete who loved baseball, who was just a typical patriotic, all-American southern who just happened to be a black guy.”

That might have been the end of the story except for a chance meeting with a documentary producer from New York named Maia Wechsler. She asked Mel if he’d ever been in touch with the pilot since the hijacking and, if not, whether he’d like to. Mel said he would. When the idea of a reunion was pitched to the pilot, William May, he said yes, too, even though friends told him he was crazy. “What if they take you hostage again!” they said.

The reunion, in 2011, took place at Jean’s school and was part of a documentary by Wechsler, Melvin and Jean: An American Story (melvinandjean.com/). There were smiles and handshakes when May, accompanied by his daughter, arrived, but it was a little awkward at first. As everyone sat down to lunch, there was polite chit chat but no one was quite sure what to say. Until May blurted out, “If you didn’t like what was happening in our country and wanted to leave, why didn’t you just leave? Why did you have to hijack a plane?”

Captain May (center) at the news conference after hijacking

That broke the ice. Mel said he regretted what happened. “We were young and naïve. I’m sorry for all the anguish.” Jean called the hijacking “destructive, a one moment act that changed our lives and the lives of our children forever.”

After lunch, Mel asked May to accompany him on a little drive. They went to Omaha Beach where American troops landed on D-Day in 1944. “We walked on the sand and I put my arm around his shoulder,” Mel said. “I told him again how sorry I was. That’s where I felt I really made peace with the past.”

Sometime later, we contacted Captain May by telephone at his home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, ironically the same city where Jean had grown up. He was full of praise for the McNairs. “Mel was never one of the bad guys,” he said. “He never threatened me. He and his wife even brought their kids into the cockpit. While you can’t completely shut out the past, I’m convinced Mel and Jean have completely turned their lives around.”

Making new lives for themselves, however, did not eliminate the heartache. Their son Johari, never comfortable in France, returned to North Carolina to live with his grandfather. In 1998, he was shot and killed on a street corner in Winston-Salem, the victim of gang warfare.

Jean herself died of a heart attack in 2014. Before her death, she acknowledged how nice it would be if she and Mel could return to the U.S. to see family and friends again. “But we’re old now,” she said sadly.

Mel said he wished he could go back so that he could “cry on my mother’s grave.” His mother died not long after the hijacking and they never saw each other again.

We asked Mel if there was any chance he might now return to the U.S., even though criminal charges against him are still pending. He shook his head. “Besides, I don’t know if I could be free in America. I never knew freedom in America. I knew freedom afterwards. I know freedom now. I’m free now.

And free to continue doing what he enjoys — working with troubled youngsters — giving them a chance to find their own way, “just like I had to do,” while introducing them to the joys of baseball.

But if Mel can’t go home again, he can at least take comfort in knowing that he’s brought a bit of “home” to France through a game he loves. “In a way,” he said, “baseball has always been a liberation for me.”

On September 19, 2015, a pre-game ceremony was held at Caen’s baseball field to honor the McNairs for everything they had done for the community.

The ceremony

City officials, players from various teams and Mel himself watched as a plaque was unveiled re-naming the field. It’s now known as Terrain de Baseball Melvin et Jean McNair.

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Don and Petie Kladstrup

Don and Petie Kladstrup

American writers living in France, working on forthcoming book, “Almost Home: Playing Baseball in France.” Authors, “Wine & War,” and “Champagne.”