It was no secret that Don McMillen hated black people. Don was a young American soldier who started dating my German sister, Karla, during the last months of our time in Germany. Don was not allowed in our home. And according to Dad, Don forbade (It was the early 1960s!) Karla’s coming to our home, but she would sneak over anyway. Don and Karla married, and Don moved his new wife back home to ol’ Kentucky.
When Dad was transferred to Fort Knox, Kentucky, in 1970, we were not far from Karla, Don and their girls in Louisville. Karla couldn’t have us that close for a year and not see us. So we would pile into the car and drive to Louisville to visit. All I remember about those visits is that regardless of the time of year or weather conditions, it was always the same scenario: We’d arrive. Don would go out to his car and stay there until we left. His racial prejudice became legendary in our family discussions.
I started getting brave in my young adulthood. During my sophomore year of college I decided to spend my winter break visiting family and friends around the country via Greyhound’s Ameripass. Louisville was one of my stops.
I have access to the hour-by-hour (in some cases, minute-by-minute) activities of that visit. I’ll spare you some of the tedium, but there were significant points.
The bus from Columbus, Ohio, was 50 minutes late. Karla and her family had just returned home from the bus depot when I called to say that I was in (This was before cellphones, people!). I waited and eventually saw Susie and Don coming. I recognized eleven-year-old Susie from a few days before when I passed through Louisville but didn’t stay. Karla and Susie had met me at the bus depot and brought me something to eat. This time we left the bus depot with Don talking to me about the damn cold and damn everything else with a little s--- mixed in. I wrote in my journal, “He was very nice, though.”
I was greeted at the door by Donna, only seven years old and acting like she knew me from years earlier when she was a newborn. After learning where I was to sleep, I went in to the TV room, where Don was watching the Dallas Cowboys beat the Minnesota Vikings in the playoffs. As we watched together, Don commented on all the damn plays, while Susie interjected all the news of her life. Donna was helping Karla in the kitchen. I kept hearing my name from her little voice, “Where will Tony sit? This chair’s for Tony. What will Tony drink?” She came out and whispered something to Susie, to which Susie replied, “I don’t know; ask him.” She asked, and I answered, “7-Up.”
We ate at halftime, and I was seated at the head of the table. Don did not eat, apparently distressed over a friend he just heard had died. But after supper Don invited me to go with him to “The Convenient.” I had no idea what he was talking about. Fourteen-year-old Nancy warned me that he was planning to go “drown his sorrows,” so I declined. I spent the evening playing board games with the girls as the two younger ones campaigned for my attention.
They were all in bed when Don got home. He came into the room I was staying in and asked if I needed anything. He apologized for “Fraulein,” the clock that would be chiming every hour while I tried to sleep (And Fraulein DID chime!).
The next day I had promised Susie that I’d go with her collecting for her paper route (against Donna’s wishes). We set out into the bitter cold. We had reached what Donna called the “stinky neighborhood,” when all I could think of was getting back home. But I was amused by all the people staring at this 12-year-old white girl in the company of this 19-year old black guy. Before long, I looked up and saw Karla arriving in the car. Seems several concerned citizens had called Karla to report that they saw Susie with some guy. I’m not sure how they described me, but I have some guesses.
At everyone’s insistence I stayed a day longer than I intended. There were a lot of board games to play; jigsaw puzzles to be put together; ballgames game shows, and soap operas (I was into “All My Children” at the time) to watch.
Don has since passed away. I’ve never asked Karla or the girls what transformed him from the legendary bigot to this gracious man falling over himself to make my stay enjoyable. I always give God the credit for that stuff, even if the subject isn’t aware of God’s intervention.
Don obviously did not die a perfect man, but in this one area he emerges as my favorite example of the foolishness of holding people to their past deeds. Some people do change. As a Christian, it is a basic tenet of my faith that every person CAN change. It gives me delight to remember Don McMillen as a man who, the last time I saw him, treated me like royalty in his own home.