I was thinking of the passage in To Kill a Mockingbird where an angry mob is diffused by the accidental wisdom of a child. I had this thought because of the mob-like mentality we’ve seen at the McCain/Palin rallies. Just as I was about to laboriously type the passage into wordpress, I found that someone had already had the same thought.
The scene begins with Atticus Finch waiting outside the jailhouse where the black man he is defending from the charge of murder is being held. Unknown to Atticus, his children have followed him.
We were taking a short cut across the square when four dusty cars came in from the Meridian highway, moving slowly in a line. They went around the square, passed the bank building, and stopped in front of the jail.
Nobody got out. We saw Atticus look up from his newspaper. He closed it, folded it deliberately, dropped it in his lap, and pushed his hat to the back of his head. He seemed to be expecting them.
“Come on,” whispered Jem. We streaked across the square, across the street, until we were in the shelter of the Jitney Jungle door. Jem peeked up the sidewalk. “We can get closer,” he said. We ran to Tyndal’s Hardware door-near enough, at the same time discreet.
In ones and twos, men got out of the cars. Shadows became substance as lights revealed solid shapes moving toward the jail door. Atticus remained where he was. The men hid him from view.
“He in there, Mr. Finch?” a man said.
“He is,” we heard Atticus answer, “and he’s asleep. Don’t wake him up.”
In obedience to my father, there followed what I later realized was a sickeningly comic aspect of an unfunny situation: the men talked in near-whispers.
“You know what we want,” another man said. “Get aside from the door, Mr. Finch.”
“You can turn around and go home again, Walter,” Atticus said pleasantly. “Heck Tate’s around somewhere.” “The hell he is,” said another man. “Heck’s bunch’s so deep in the woods they won’t get out till mornin’.”
“Indeed? Why so?”
“Called ‘em off on a snipe hunt,” was the succinct answer. “Didn’t you think a’that, Mr. Finch?”
“Thought about it, but didn’t believe it. Well then,” my father’s voice was still the same, “that changes things, doesn’t it?”
“It do,” another deep voice said. Its owner was a shadow.
“Do you really think so?”
This was the second time I heard Atticus ask that question in two days, and it meant somebody’s man would get jumped. This was too good to miss. I broke away from Jem and ran as fast as I could to Atticus.
Jem shrieked and tried to catch me, but I had a lead on him and Dill. I pushed my way through dark smelly bodies and burst into the circle of light.
I thought he would have a fine surprise, but his face killed my joy. A flash of plain fear was going out of his eyes, but returned when Dill and Jem wriggled into the light.
There was a smell of stale whiskey and pigpen about, and when I glanced around I discovered that these men were strangers. They were not the people I saw last night. Hot embarrassment shot through me: I had leaped triumphantly into a ring of people I had never seen before.
Atticus got up from his chair, but he was moving slowly, like an old man. He put the newspaper down very carefully, adjusting its creases with lingering fingers. They were trembling a little.
“Go home, Jem,” he said. “Take Scout and Dill home.”
We were accustomed to prompt, if not always cheerful acquiescence to Atticus’s instructions, but from the way he stood Jem was not thinking of budging.
“Go home, I said.”
Jem shook his head. As Atticus’s fists went to his hips, so did Jem’s, and as they faced each other I could see little resemblance between them: Jem’s soft brown hair and eyes, his oval face and snug-fitting ears were our mother’s, contrasting oddly with Atticus’s graying black hair and square-cut features, but they were somehow alike. Mutual defiance made them alike.
“Son, I said go home.”
Jem shook his head.
“I’ll send him home,” a burly man said, and grabbed Jem roughly by the collar. He yanked Jem nearly off his feet.
“Don’t you touch him!” I kicked the man swiftly. Barefooted, I was surprised to see him fall back in real pain. I intended to kick his shin, but aimed too high.
“That’ll do, Scout.” Atticus put his hand on my shoulder. “Don’t kick folks. No -” he said, as I was pleading justification.
“Ain’t nobody gonna do Jem that way,” I said.
“All right, Mr. Finch, get ‘em outa here,” someone growled. “You got fifteen seconds to get ‘em outa here.”
In the midst of this strange assembly, Atticus stood trying to make Jem mind him. “I ain’t going,” was his steady answer to Atticus’s threats, requests, and finally, “Please Jem, take them home.”
I was getting a bit tired of that, but felt Jem had his own reasons for doing as he did, in view of his prospects once Atticus did get him home. I looked around the crowd. It was a summer’s night, but the men were dressed, most of them, in overalls and denim shirts buttoned up to the collars. I thought they must be cold-natured, as their sleeves were unrolled and buttoned at the cuffs. Some wore hats pulled firmly down over their ears. They were sullen-looking, sleepy-eyed men who seemed unused to late hours. I sought once more for a familiar fare. and at the center of the semi-circle I found one.
“Hey, Mr. Cunningham.”
The man did not hear me, it seemed.
“Hey, Mr. Cunningham. How’s your entailment gettin’ along?”
Mr. Walter Cunningham’s legal affairs were well known to me; Atticus had once described them at length. The big man blinked and hooked his thumbs in his overall straps. He seemed uncomfortable; he cleared his throat and looked away. My friendly overture had fallen flat.
Mr. Cunningham wore no hat, and the top half of his forehead was white in contrast to his sunscorched face, which led me to believe that he wore one most days. He shifted his feet, clad in heavy work shoes.
“Don’t you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I’m Jean Louise Finch. You brought us some hickory nuts one time, remember?” I began to sense the futility one feels when unacknowledged by a chance acquaintance.
“I go to school with Walter,” I began again. “He’s your boy ain’t he? Ain’t he, sir?”
Cunningham was moved to a faint nod. He did know me, after all.
“He’s in my grade,” I said, “and he does right well. He’s a good boy,” I added, “a real nice boy. We brought him home for dinner one time. Maybe he told you about me, I beat him up one time but he was real nice about it. Tell him hey for me, won’t you?”
Atticus had said it was the polite thing to talk to people about what they were interested in, not about what you were interested in. Mr. Cunningham displayed no interest in his son, so I tackled his entailment once more in a last ditch effort to make him feel at home.
“Entailments are bad,” I was advising him, when I slowly awoke to the fact that I was addressing the entire aggregation. The men were all looking at me, some had their mouths half-open. Atticus had stopped poking at Jem: they were standing together beside Dill. Their attention amounted to fascination. Atticus’s mouth, even, was half-open, an attitude he had once described as uncouth. Our eyes met and he shut it.
“Well, Atticus, I was just sayin’ to Mr. Cunningham that entailments are bad an’ all that, but you said not to worry, it takes a long time sometimes . . . that you all’d ride it out together . . .” I was slowly drying up, wondering what idiocy I had committed. Entailments seemed all right enough for livingroom talk.
I began to feel sweat gathering at the edges of my hair; I could stand anything but a bunch of people looking at me. They were quite still.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
Atticus said nothing. I looked around and up at Mr. Cunningham, whose face was equally impassive. Then he did a peculiar thing. He squatted down and took me by both shoulders.
“I’ll tell him you said hey, little lady,” he said.
Then he straightened up and waved a big paw. “Let’s clear out,” he called. “Let’s get going, boys.”
As they had come, in ones and twos the men shuffled back to their ramshackle cars. Doors slammed, engines coughed, and they were gone.