Scotty first saw the stripes on Uncle Ned’s back by chance. He’d gone visiting the slim, colored man who lived down under the hill from their big home on Elm Street and came upon him in the yard as he was slipping out of his sweaty work shirt.
“Uncle Ned!” the six-year old boy said, his blue eyes wide in shock.
Uncle Ned turned around and saw the boy standing in the yard, his red hair, glossy and unkempt as usual, his fat and jolly frame dressed in his denim overalls and red shirt. “Well, you look like you seen a ghost, Scotty. What’s the matter?”
Scotty pointed at the slender man’s torso. “Your back…”
Uncle Ned nodded slowly. “Ah, that.” His eyes grew heavy. “See, Scotty, long time ago in my country I was a slave and the man who was my master wasn’t a nice man…” He went on in his gentle fashion to teach the young boy a lesson about how each person should treat his fellows. “No man’s an animal,” Uncle Ned concluded. “We all God’s creatures. All alike in God’s eyes.”
Scotty learned a great many lessons from Uncle Ned. His parents, Ed and Julia Ellis, had met Uncle Ned when they’d first come to Elm Street. When they needed odd jobs done around the house, everyone in the neighborhood directed them to Uncle Ned.
Although his master had beaten him, that same master had done a great service for Uncle Ned by teaching him to read and write. Those skills allowed him to escape his country and to come to the United States and, in truth, to do better than most other colored folk. When World War II broke out, Uncle Ned enlisted. He served for almost a year before he was wounded in his leg, a wound that forced his discharge and caused him to walk with a limp the remainder of his life.
Along with the odd jobs he did, he received a small pension from the government. In this way, he managed to make ends meet.
“You are the most positive thinking man I’ve ever met,” Julia Ellis said to Uncle Ned one time.
“Oh, I don’t know about that. I just believe we’ve got to believe each day has as much promise as it does threat,” Uncle Ned replied. “We got to make this world a better place for being here.”
He practiced what he preached in the small, low-income house where he lived. Small things make a big difference he believed and he paid close attention to small things, planting flowers, putting up window boxes, keeping his yard neat and tidy. He built a big, red dog house for his German Shepherd, Shep. Because of these small things, his house stood out among those others down under the hill.
His manner and his consideration made him a favorite in the area, loved by people and animals alike, although by none as much as his faithful companion, Shep. He would spend hours with Shep, teaching him to shake hands, roll over and play dead. He showed these tricks to Scotty the first time the boy came to visit.
“Come on, I’ll show you what my dog can do,” Uncle Ned told him. “Shep,” he called. “Where are you, boy?”
After having Shep show Scotty the tricks, Uncle Ned gave the boy some cookies and milk. Then he told him that he’d better go on home. “Before your mama and papa begin to worry.”
Scotty said it would be all right. “I told them that I’d be home in time for them to go bowling. They love to bowl. I’m going to be a professional bowler when I grow up.”
Uncle Ned smiled. “Are you now? Well, isn’t that wonderful. I never have known a professional bowler before.”
One of Uncle Ned’s skills was whittling. When Ned found himself with some time, he would sit on his porch with Shep at his feet and whittle an animal from a chunk of wood. He found it relaxing and the resulting animals made wonderful presents which he gave to the neighborhood children on their birthdays or at Christmas.
All the children in the neighborhood liked Uncle Ned but Scotty seemed to have a special place in the old man’s heart. More than once he referred to the jolly little boy as his own little boy. They often shared meals together in the old man’s small house, feasting on crackling corn bread, pudding and sassafras tea.
One time, during dinner, Uncle Ned looked at Scotty and asked, “You like to go fishin’?”
Scotty shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve never gone.”
Uncle Ned’s eyes widened. “Your Daddy’s never taken you fishin’?”
Scotty shook his head.
“Hmm, well then I’m gonna have to take you fishin’ and swimmin’ in my secret best spot,” he said. “You think that would be all right with your folks?”
Scotty’s Mom and Dad thought it would be a fine idea. “So long as you wear your life jacket,” his Mom added.
So Scotty took along his life jacket and he and Uncle Ned went walking merrily along the sunny path, their fishing poles on their shoulders, with Shep trailing along behind.
With the sun on his shoulders and Uncle Ned beside him, Scotty was happy as happy could be. He laughed and joked and tossed rocks just to toss them.
“You know,” Scotty said, “I’ve never gone swimming in a swimming hole before.”
Uncle Ned looked at him. “No? Well then you are in for a very good time!”
At the swimming and fishing hole, they sat down on a log and relaxed for a while, just talking and skimming pebbles across the water. “You know the first thing I caught in this fishin’ hole?” Uncle Ned asked.
Scotty shook his head. “No, what?”
“An old shoe,” Uncle Ned laughed. “Laces and all!”
Scotty laughed and Uncle Ned delighted in the youngsters joy. Of all the things he liked about Scotty it was his laugh that topped the list. He’d thought of that laugh the evening before when he’d gone collecting night crawlers as fat as pencils to use as bait.
In preparation, he’d hosed his yard until it was saturated and then he’d waited for dark. Scotty joined him as they’d each took a flash light and a tin can and then prowled like burglars in the night, picking the crawlers up from the ground.
“Let’s you and me catch us some fish, what do you say?” Uncle Ned said to Scotty. He got the long, cane poles ready, adjusted the cork bobblers and then showed Scotty how to put the fat, juicy night crawlers on the hook so they were still squirming in the water.