Many people ask about my Uncle Ned. I haven’t seen him in years.
My Uncle Ned was in the Panamanian Air Force, on loan to the Sultan of Brunei. It was all a result of messily done paperwork: they meant to write Yucatan and they accidentally put down Borneo. So when he got there, there wasn’t much to do. So he got married to a local stripper. Not that kind of stripper: a paint stripper. Her name was Thelma. She had red hair—on her knuckles. The hair on her head was bluish-green. And I’m not using the word hair in the plural collective. It’s singular. They lived a happy enough life there, though they had to share their apartment with a commedia dell’arte troupe. After four years, sick of Ned’s habit of singing snippets of the Marseillaise in a broken falsetto while picking his nose, Thelma ran off with Pierrot; the last we heard, she was working as a bovine dentist in Patagonia.
Ned was heartbroken. He quit the air force and joined a team of Morris dancers touring Togo and Sierra Leone. The tour lasted until a nasty argument about tater tots caused irreparable tensions within the group. Ned was left in the lurch in Dakar. He decided it was time to return to the US and continue his education. He applied and was accepted into the Harvard University Masters’ Program in Cosmology, and it was three weeks before he realized that Cosmology and Cosmetology are not the same thing. But Ned stuck it out. He was never the sharpest tack in the drawer, but he could work his tail off. Well, it got left somewhere, anyway.
Three years later, Ned was fresh from his discovery that, even before the formation of the Solar System, even before the formation of the first galaxies, even before the four forces were completely decoupled—electromagnetism and the Weak Force were still coupling, apparently—even in those early days of the Cosmos, there already were an incredible number of assholes. Ned received his PhD and set about proving that long before life existed on any planet, jerks were already in charge of pretty much everything. But one day he was lecturing on the Cosmic Asshole Principle, to a room full of 200 bored college freshmen and a surprising number of silverfish and book scorpions, and suddenly a light went on in his head. That was when he remembered that the dentist had stuck an LCD bulb up his nose. But what was producing the electricity to power it?
We may never know. Ned looked at the bored college freshmen—he didn’t know it, but he was looking straight at a colony of dust mites living in some dude named Trent’s baseball cap—uttered a sting of Mongolian obscenities, pulled out a cigar and ran from the room. In the hallway he met his department chair. It was very unexpected, and he gave his knee a nasty gash on one of the legs of the department chair. Who had left it in the hallway? Again, we may never know.
Anyway, Ned went downhill from there. The Department of Cosmology was located on the top of the highest hill in western Rhode Island. At the bottom of the hill, he met a woman named Margaret, they fell in love, they got married and ran off to eastern Connecticut—well, they didn’t own a car. They also didn’t own a washer, though they did own a drier. So their clothes were dirty, but very dry. Life was hard. Ned and Margaret barely had two pennies to rub together. That was their only hobby: they spent lots of money on penny-rubbing gloves and fancy penny cases. People came from miles around to sell them gloves, and millipedes. Ned was always a sucker for a box of millipedes.
I’ll never forget the last time I saw Uncle Ned. He was full of donuts, he was wearing his best plaid flannel kimono, and he was about to realize a lifelong dream by rowing the length of the Bay of Fundy in a broccoli-shaped canoe. For some reason, he felt he needed to wear a bag over his head, which caused significant problems with navigation: he took the wrong turn at Moncton and headed straight for Tierra del Fuego. I wonder if we will ever see him again.
But that’s the kind of guy Uncle Ned was. Smiling right to the end. And that’s how I like to remember him, except without the bag over his head; come to think of it, he may or may not have been smiling. Anyway, Margaret still has hopes for his return. Every Arbor Day she posts a want ad in the Duluth News Tribune asking for donations to the National Panamanian-Brunei Air Force Cooperation Memorial. Ned would understand.