Sunday, December 20, 2009
Story Town (Monroeville, AL)
The crescendo of the book To Kill A Mockingbird is a scene where Bob Ewell, drunk and trying to exact revenge upon their father, attempts to kill both Jem and Scout on their way back from a school play. They are saved by the reclusive Boo Radley, who had hidden in the shadows of the children's lives until it was a matter of life and death, then emerged the reluctant hero.
I chalk it up to coincidence that the penultimate scene of my walk before arriving in Monroeville - the home town of To Kill A Mockingbird's author - involved a drunk man threatening to kill me and a rescue by a stranger who came out of the mist in a shadowy black pick-up and carried me to safety.
It is human nature that we often assign one primary label to a place or a person. Likewise, with a journey. We associate it with one primary story which leaps quickest to mind. I accept that when people think of my walk my close brush with danger on the road to Monroeville will probably be that anecdote. It doesn't encapsulate my trip in any form or fashion, but danger tends to cleave to our memories stronger than kindness. Maybe it is a self-preservation mechanism.
The town of Monroeville is in a similar boat. Outsiders associate it with one primary story. Every year it holds a Spring festival where To Kill a Mockingbird is reenacted at its historic courthouse. Tickets sell out well it advance, a testament to the enduring impact of Harper Lee's book and the simple human truths it contains. But what happens to all the other stories of that town? Do visitors take the time to think that there are other storytellers in that place?
I was lucky enough to be hosted by one of those other storytellers. Dr. Thomas Lane Butts is the pastor emeritus of the United Methodist Church of Monroeville and a repository of a lifetime of stories culled from preaching and traveling and counseling and loving others. Traveling around town with Dr. Butts I got the distinct impression that he knows just about everybody in Monroeville, including his friend Miss Nelle (Harper Lee). I didn't get to meet Miss Nelle but I did get to meet Tom's wife Hilda, and if love and devotion where what made people famous maybe their would be a festival each year devoted to her story.
Tom and Hilda have what I've found to be one of the key ingredients for the practice of compassion - a spirit of gratitude for how amazingly blessed their own lives have been. In hat spirit they welcomed me into their home after a very traumatic day and before long all my tension had melted away the warmth of Hilda's home cooked meal and Tom's colorful stories. Unfortunately, other people's stories are often like other people's jokes. I hear them and think to myself, I gotta remember that. A few days go by and then I can't remember the details which gave the story or the joke its particular resonance. Maybe it is for the best. Stories are meant to be told by the people who lived them, and hearing Dr. Butts' stories from me would be like drinking watered down lemonade ... sort of refreshing but ultimately unsatisfying. You should meet him and hear them yourself. Then you will have a fuller experience of what it was like to have a cross burned on your lawn by the Mobile KKK in the late 1950s or to have met Martin Luther King Jr. right before his star became the firmament of the Civil Rights Movement. He should really write a memoir.
The one story I feel qualified to recount is my own. On Saturday morning Dr. Butts gave me a chance to do just that in an interview with Mary Tomlinson of the Monroe Journal. We conducted the interview upstairs at the old courthouse. It is in that courtroom where each year the fictional Atticus Finch so gallantly defends Tom Robinson against the charge of rape. I joked that I would have preferred sitting at the defense table for my interview, but we sat at the prosecution side instead. In a way, it is kind of fitting. The life lesson I have always taken from that book is that I should resist the urge to judge others by the standards of my own life. How is it fair for me to judge someone else's actions when I haven't walked in their shoes or had to endure the same experiences that shaped their character and outlook? When I read that court scene in To Kill A Mockingbird my inclination is to scoff at the jurors, the prosecution and the whole Ewell family. How dare they, I thought, and voila, there comes the judgmental attitude. So the prosecution table was an apt reminder to me that the path is in surrender ... of my judgments.
My very full Saturday continued with lunch with Terri and William Carter and some of their family at the South 40 restaurant in Repton, a tour of William's grandfather's country hospital which they have restored to a museum, and then dinner at Hunter and Marsha Lindblom's house back in Monroeville. Tom joined me for dinner at the Lindbloms and then I stayed with them for the night. They are members at the Methodist Church along with Tom and Hilda and were wonderful hosts and great storytellers in their own right. This night the backdrop of the stories wasn't the Civil Rights movement but rather World War II, where Marsha's father worked closely with General Einsenhower and briefly became acquainted with Winston Churchill while he was North Africa.
On Sunday morning I went with Hunter to the Methodist Church's men's breakfast, then to worship and then to a joint Sunday school class where again I had a chance to tell my own story. Not surprisingly, my tale of the drunken man with the shotgun caused the greatest reaction. After all, it was only two days old and still fresh. But afterward and since, as I have told this story to others, I have begun to wonder if I am not doing a disservice to that troubled man I encountered on the side of the road. Do people walk away from hearing that story and judge him? Do I judge him?
Here is something I haven't mentioned. When I was in the sheriff's office they told me that the gentleman who threatened me is one of the nicest guys I would ever want to meet when he is sober. I don't doubt it. Nor do I doubt that, if I would have lived his life, walked in his shoes through Vietnam, seen and done some of the things he was forced to do, that my outlook on life would be very, very different.
At the very end of To Kill a Mockingbird Scout turns to Atticus after seeing the humanity of Boo Radley for the first time. Up to that point Boo had been her bogeyman.
"Atticus, he was real nice," she says.
"Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them."
That is the story I want this journey to tell.