On the occasion of Dia de los Muertos, I would like to tell you about my beloved Aunt Vee, who passed away in August at the age of 90.
She wasn’t born on a horse, but might as well have been. “Best babysitter I ever had,” her mother used to say of Comanche, so patient and careful was he not to dislodge little Vera, who sat in awe atop the impressive gelding. Later, as a toddler, she entertained herself trying to climb up his leg or the fence he was tied to as a means of embarking.
Vera became a voracious reader well before starting school. She recalled to me how she walked to school that first day with Richard, her big brother by five years (and my father). He was told to hold her hand – a bit of an embarrassment at his age – and she had to run to keep up with him. It became a habit that stuck with her. “Never walk when you can run,” advised her father. Vera (now Vee, a nickname she got in school stemming from her initials, V.V.) was in complete agreement. She was a good athlete and a sought-after player on all the boys’ ball teams, and so excelled in academics that she skipped a few grades.
One of her chores was to round up the horses and put them into the corral for the night, among them her father’s prize cutting horse. Cricket was a spirited animal trained to cut cattle from the herd, capable of turning 180 degrees in a single move. Vee, a girl of 10 or 11, was under strict orders never to ride him. Each evening she would put a piece of her mother’s oil cake in her pocket and seek out a mount for the task at hand. Cricket was the only one who came for the oil cake, and little Vee – without the benefit of saddle or bridle or even so much as a rope – hopped on and herded the horses into the corral. One night as Vee and Cricket headed into the corral behind the other horses she saw her father watching them, a ghostly shade of pale. For the very first time Vee realized that she was in fact riding Cricket; just because she hadn’t saddled up didn’t mean she wasn’t riding him! She jumped off and began a profuse apology. Her father cut her short. “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars,” he told her. “You can ride Cricket any time you want!”
The one-room school in her home town of Gateway, Colorado, didn’t have a twelfth grade, so Vee went to Grand Junction to finish school, working for a family there in exchange for room and board, as my father had done before her. She was also able to continue piano lessons, and by college was recognized as a very accomplished pianist. After graduating in 1941 at the age of 16, she enrolled at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where her big brother had gone. Growing up, Vee and Richard each had some cattle of their own. Vee had sold hers to help Richard through school, and now he sent her part of his military pay so she could continue her education. It is my great good fortune that Vee’s roommate at Boulder was a graduate student who went on to become my mother!
Vee thrived at Boulder, and found a mentor in an English professor who was seen by some as a bit of a curmudgeon. He ate occasionally in the dining hall, and complained to Vee that the young denim-clad women never dressed properly to dine. One Saturday night, Vee got all the girls to wear formal gowns to dinner. The professor laughed and laughed at the surprise, and was ever after more widely appreciated. When Richard came to visit his little sister, often at inconvenient times, her mentor set him to grading papers, taught him some native American dance, and generally kept him from being underfoot. Eventually, Vee figured out that it was her roommate, Mary, who accounted for the frequency and duration of Richard’s visits, and the rest is (my) history.
Vee enjoyed and excelled in college, graduating not long after her 20th birthday. Because of her gift for languages, her mentor recommended her to a war-time program where she was taught to read Japanese in its romanish form. She was given a post in Washington, D.C. that she rarely spoke of, because her work there was so confidential. Her job was to translate Japanese teletype messages as they came in to the office of her boss, a nephew of General George S. Patton. One morning she and another young woman arrived early for work and picked up a teletype. It was Japan’s unconditional surrender. They sat on it nervously until their boss arrived. “Don’t say anything until you hear this on the news,” he told them. Vee didn’t say anything for many years.
After the war, government work was clearly going to be too dull for Vee. She worked briefly in Indiana, but was eventually prevailed upon to return home to teach in the one-room school, though she wasn’t much older than her oldest students. When the town asked her to stay on the next year, Vee said she had other plans. What plans? Ummm….she had to think quickly. “Alaska,” she said. “I’m going to visit Alaska.”
So it was decided. She bought a plane ticket from Seattle, but on the train there she met a librarian who urged her to join her on the ferry instead. The year was 1949. Shortly after arriving, she met the love of her life, Keith Specking, marrying him less than a year later. “I liked his eyes,” she told me.
And now I will begin shamelessly plagiarizing the lovely obituary my cousin Joan wrote for her mother, which I note in italics.
They owned and operated Rabbit Creek Inn, a six table restaurant 10 miles south of Anchorage. She claimed she was a lousy cook and waitress and liked to tell the story of tripping over Rusty, their big Irish Setter, and spilling an entire platter of fried chicken on the floor of the restaurant. In addition to the restaurant, they homesteaded 160 acres and built the cabin where they lived the first four years of their married life. The first August there, her husband and his partner went on a moose hunt and packed it out on their backs. “Why don’t you use a horse to pack it?” she asked, introducing her husband to horses and their value to hunters in Alaska.
In 1953 they moved to Hope, Alaska, on the Kenai Peninsula about 90 miles from Anchorage. As they raised their family, they started a big game guiding business based out of their main cabin at Brushkana Creek on the Denali Highway in central Alaska. For nearly 40 years in the guide business, she spent hours over a wood cook stove in a cabin or a tent, helped pack horses with supplies needed for a pack trip back into the wilderness, led back horses over wilderness trails, and drove long distances to pick up clients.
At the museum in Hope, you might still find a pamphlet talking about the effect of the Good Friday 1964 earthquake, magnitude 9.2, on that little village. A letter from Vee to a neighbor, who was away at the time, reported on the damage not only to the homes but to the land, much of which swamped, and the supply drops being made during that time of physical isolation from the rest of the world.
In the late 1960s, her husband ran for the state legislature and spent years as an elected official and then working for the governor. They lived in Juneau during the winter months while he was involved in politics, and summers in the Interior hunting camp.
Vee’s many adventures in Alaska are too numerous to share here, but are not forgotten, thanks to her own writings.
Vera and Keith retired to 160 acres outside of Eagle Point, Oregon, and built their own home. They spent summers trailering their horses up the highway to Alaska, stopping to fish and camp along the way. They had many visitors at their ranch “Chimney Rock” and Vera continued to ride and even show her beloved horse Limelight.
It was at Chimney Rock I met Vee and Keith about twelve years ago, having seen them only as an infant. My own parents had passed away, and vacation time that would normally have gone for a visit to them gave me an opportunity to finally meet my father’s sister, my mother’s college roommate. My mother had always told me that if I met my Aunt Vee I would know the meaning of true Western hospitality, and she was so right. I only wish I had met her sooner.
Upon Keith’s death Vee moved to Helena and spent her final years living at Shelby House, enjoying coffee on the patio and conversation over meals with friends.
Calling to talk to her at Shelby House was one of my happiest rituals, and I only wish I could call her now to fact-check my work and tease out the story of yet another one of her many adventures.