The Other Shoe Drops: Robert Arthur’s “Obstinate Uncle Otis”
Waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Who hasn’t lived life like that sometimes? In the circumstances in which I grew up, “waiting for the other shoe to drop” was just part of life. From my earliest memories, it seemed, I was always waiting for things to end badly–for that proverbial shoe to land, so to speak, in a very bad spot.
For that reason, there was a story I read when I was very young (probably ten or so, perhaps younger) called “Obstinate Uncle Otis,” which I never forgot (I’m doing this spoiler-free, because I’d like you to go read the story, so I’m not telling you why).
That said, I remembered how the story concluded (almost to the line, it turns out later), but it made such a strong impression on me I remembered the title. I didn’t remember who wrote it or the plot, but for me, having a title is the most important thing, since ninety-five percent of the time I can only recall one of my own mental images that went with what I was reading or what really impressed me and that’s about it.
Over the years, I had cited this story many times and how it ended to friends, mostly when we’d be sitting around talking about learning how to defeat anxiety, and I always wished I had a copy of it. Searching in old anthologies or textbooks from the era was a dead end: I hadn’t read it in an anthology—the story was part of a reading-box system, in my opinion a very effective way of teaching reading to a large group of students, because each could advance at his own pace and therefore benefit no matter what level at which he’d entered the class.
Basically, each classroom was issued several file boxes. Each box was colored and represented a reading level; for example, the orange box was Level 1, the yellow was Level 2, et cetera. Here’s a current photo of what one of these systems looks like today; I found it on a UK website, so apparently, this system is still being used someplace, although it looks like they just do one box now for the whole system:
Each box contained cards the size of manila folders. Each card had a short fiction piece accompanied by comprehension and vocabulary questions. Each student progressed through the boxes at his own pace (during “reading time” each day—we weren’t allowed to take the cards home), and when he’d successfully completed one box, he moved up to the next level.
The system we were using had many levels, I want to say eight or ten, possibly more. All I remember is that once you got up into the dark colors—navy, olive, plum, brown—you were advanced. “Obstinate Uncle Otis” I believe was on a navy card (but you know what they say about persistence of memory, it’s just that’s the color I’ve associated it with over the years). And if anyone’s assuming I was a brain and made it all the way to the last color, I didn’t. I fell three short, as I recall.
For a long time, therefore, my search for “Obstinate Uncle Otis” focused on trying to find the system we’d used. To no avail. Eventually, I gave up and just started searching for the story itself online, again, to no avail. But one thing I’ve learned over the years is that if you’re looking for something specific on the Internet and can’t find it, wait awhile and try again. So every couple of years I’d Google “Obstinate Uncle Otis” and keep my fingers crossed.
This past January, I found it.
“Obstinate Uncle Otis,” by Robert Arthur, was published in Argosy’s July 19, 1941 issue. Someone had, in between my search periods, PDF’d all the old Argosys and archived them online. Imagine how thrilled I was to see this:
So, I think it’s safe to say the other shoe has dropped–for once, in position I like. I give you “Obstinate Uncle Otis.” Just click the link and go to Page 33. Enjoy!
Posted on July 11, 2012, in Deep Thoughts & Fun Stuff, The Writing Life and tagged "Obstinate Uncle Otis", 1940s science fiction, Argosy, reading box system, Robert Arthur. Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.
We had that same reading system! As I recall, it start with bright colors, then darker ones, then the very top ones were metallic.
Awesome! Man, I really wish I could find an old one, a copy of the one we had, @FS. I’d cherish that forever. It’d be a kick to see which stories were actually in there.
I too have been searching for the story for years – I’m thrilled to find it here! Thank you for passing the link along to those of us who share the same fond memories.
Excellent, Lori! It’s nice to meet a fellow fan of this piece. I swear, eventually, I’m going to find every lost favorite story of mine. I think I have almost found them all, but I’m sure another will turn up eventually.
OMG! Me too! The colored reading cards. I LOVED THOSE!
I loved that story too but I remember it from an “Alfred HItchcock Presents” collection.
Alfred HItchcock’s Ghostly Gallery: Eleven Spooky STories for Young People (Random House 1962). Thanks Google Books.
I thought I was the only one who remembered this story! Thanks for posting about it!
Just so you know, the reading system you were talking about is called SRA (I forget what it stands for) and it’s published by McGraw Hill.
Great, Scott! I’m so glad I helped (even if inadvertently). Maybe it’ll be out there enough now that a whole new generation can get exposed to it. Still one of my favorite stories of all time!
Ahhh…SRA. Yup. That’s it. The second you said that I remembered it. Thank YOU so much for sharing that. Now maybe I can do some more effective Google searches. I think it’d be a kick in the pants if I could find an old one. That would be a true treasure to own.
I’m a little late to your party but what the heck.
I read Obstinate Uncle Otis in 9th grade (1979, Lubbock, Tx).
I ~hated~ 9th grade english and the reading assignments. To me, every story seemed to be Olde English (it wasn’t) or Shakespeare (it wasn’t) or Homer and the Iliad (still wasn’t). If a teacher required me to read it, my 9th grade mind assumed it was gonna be god-awful boring and was going to require effort to make sense of.
Then I read “Obstinate Uncle Otis”.
Like you, I remember this story like I read it yesterday. I now have 9th graders of my own and I tell them about this story.
To learn (today) that it was written in 1941, I’m stunned and amazed. (I thought my 9th grade teacher had finally had me read something modern, at that time. Even then it was 38 years old.)
Thanks for your post (2+ years after you’d written it).
It was fun to learn this story had such a huge impact on someone else as it had on me.
Oh my gosh, Tom! Would you believe I thought I’d responded to this comment months ago only to realize it got saved in draft and I never clicked “Reply?” I’m an idiot. Anyway, I’m thrilled to know you enjoyed the post, and I’m always glad to meet another Obstinate fan! I think your story about its age, and how it was considered “modern” back in the 1970s, is fascinating — in a way, even though it was written back in the 1940s, it was still, for the 1970s, part of new genres that were developing. I’m so glad, too, that you are sharing this with your children. It’s important to keep the good stuff going and to not let it be forgotten.
Thank you so much for posting the PDF. I, like so many others, read about Uncle Otis years ago. For me it was the fifth grade – 75 – 76. While it wasn’t my introduction to fantastic fiction, it was very formative for me.
We had anthology text books, and I even remember the picture like it was yesterday.
Looking at my writing today, this story directly influences me still.
I cannot say thank you enough.
You are welcome! Always great to meet another Otis fan, and I’m so happy I was able to find it. It was, as you can tell from my post, extremely formative for me too. Around the time I read it I think I was watching movies like Fantastic Voyage and other science fiction adventure films, mostly the ones that were on television. So it was around the time I guess I started getting into fantastic fiction in general.
Uncle Otis is in Ghosts and more Ghosts – a book of short stories by Robert Arthur. FYI.
Oh my gosh, THANK YOU!! I am so going to check this out. If I loved that story so much, I’m sure I’ll love his others.
Thank you so much for sharing this. My search was similar to yours: I remember reading this as a young child and never forgot it. And I’ve searched for it occasionally. Thanks for posting this.
You are so very welcome!! I’m so happy to hear you get to enjoy this awesome story again!!
I too, read Obstinate Uncle Otis way-back-when (late 70’s give or take) and it was the beginning of my lifelong romance with reading and writing fiction.
Fast forward to today (14 Dec 2022) I read a short story called The Ultimate Egoist by Theodore Sturgeon. I highly recommend you read that story. Not sure which one came first, but the parallels are very clear.
OMG, CONRAD!! It’s always so GREAT when I hear from someone else whose life was so profoundly impacted by this story! Thank you for the recommendation. I’ll go find it and check it out.