The tuxedo in the attic

Uncle Walter had lived a full life before we children came into the picture.

We thought of him as our uncle — the one who drove the car, ran a truck farm, the gin and sent us on errands and assigned tasks.

Most of his instructions began with “Run in yonder and bring me my” cane, keys, etc. or “Run out yonder and get the” corn for supper, eggs, tomatoes, mail, etc.

We thought of him as old — almost ancient. But Uncle Walter had a life we knew nothing about as children. I suppose we thought, as children do, that noting much had happened before we were there, but that belief was shaken one summer day.

Grandmama wanted to clean out the attic. We were available, so up the ladder we went with flashlights.

I was nervous, because often at night we’d hear creatures running around up there — either squirrels or rats — and I didn’t want to run into a rat in the dark.

Regardless of this, we went up the ladder, slid the hatch open and came out onto the attic floor. There really wasn’t much to see. Various objects had been taken up over the years that needed repairing. They seldom if ever threw anything away, because their generation had survived the depression. They always believed it might come in handy later or could one day be fixed.

One object of interest caught our eyes. There was a trunk — a really old one with leather straps. It was a steamer trunk that people used to pack for a long trip to a distant place.

We opened it. The first thing we saw was a hat box. Inside, nestled in tissue paper, was a black top hat. Just like we’d seen in the movies. Beneath that was a black tuxedo. There was also a carefully wrapped pair of ancient roller skates and a photograph of a young man in uniform. It was a funny kind of uniform, with what looked like cavalry pants and the kind of hat we associated with the Mounties.

We decided to take these things down, because we wanted to know who they belonged to and what mystery was behind them.

Uncle Walter was in the kitchen, and we carried our booty in and spread it before him. He popped the hat up and placed it on his head at a rakish angle.

Is that your hat? I asked. “Oh yes,” he said. He shook out the tuxedo and told us he used to be slim enough to fit into it. The roller skates tied the whole thing together.

It seems Uncle Walter loved to dance. He was also a champion roller skater. Who knew? As a young man, he’d been in Atlantic City, N.J., where he’d entered a dance competition — which he won. He didn’t say who his partner had been, and we decided not to ask.

I didn’t even know what Atlantic City was, much less where New Jersey was.

He said he often skated and could perform many skating maneuvers. He said he’d taken the train up, which he did occasionally, to have some fun.

I know he played a lot of poker, because he taught us all how to play and he had poker chips. So maybe he also played poker on some of these excursions.

He told us about going to burlesque shows in New York and musicals on Broadway.

The photo of the young man in uniform was of him. It was his picture from World War I he’d given to his mother.

Uncle Walter was a medic during the war, and unfortunately was gassed in the trenches. His lungs were damaged. When he came home, he was elected county coroner and served as a doctor/veterinarian on the farm. He could do simple surgeries and was a big believer in swabbing sore throats with mercurochrome.

It was hard to visualize him dancing in Atlantic City in his top hat and tuxedo, but it happened. We had the proof in our hands. We saw him in a different light after that. He’d been young once, too.