By Richard Perea
As children, do we really know who our parents are? We may think we do, but how aware are we of the life that they led? My father was an intelligent, successful man with an easy smile who dedicated his life to education. He was a schoolteacher who loved teaching. He attained his Ph.D. and became a school Superintendent and a leader in the community. As Superintendent he constantly worked to improve curriculum and he successfully organized the building of new school buildings to replace a deteriorating one. Later as the administrator of the Auraria Community College in downtown Denver, Colorado, he led a small urban campus of 400 students which was housed in old downtown buildings. In conjunction with the heads of the University of Colorado and Metropolitan State University, they planned, built, and moved to a new shared facility. Enrollment for the community college increased tenfold. I saw him as a strong good-natured man whom many people respected.
It wasn’t until his later years that I realized, from talking to him, that my father’s life was much more dramatic and suffering than I had ever imagined. Up until then, he had not spoken much of his past.
New Mexico became a United States possession in 1846, a US territory in 1848. Our branch of the family moved up from the Albuquerque/Bernalillo area around 1850 and homesteaded in the mountains of Northern New Mexico. The Southern Rockies are beautiful but can be difficult to survive. The winters are cold, water is scarce and at that time the Apache, Commanche and Kiowa tribes would attack the homesteaders. It was in this harsh and dangerous environment that our family eked out an existence as farmers, blacksmiths and buffalo hunters. My father’s great grandparents were the original pioneers that settled there.
Dad was born in those mountains at the beginning of the Great Depression. He was orphaned at four years old when a tuberculosis epidemic swept the United States and claimed his mother and most of her family. Dad lived with his maternal grandfather for one year and then with his paternal grandparents for two more years. He then was taken in by a family that had no children and lived with them for two years. From the time he was six until he was twelve, he lived in five different homes. From the age of 12 on he was on his own. When he was in high school, he lived in a small efficiency apartment and worked nights as an attendant in a State Hospital to pay his expenses. In his senior year, he was driving back from a basketball tournament in Santa Fe with some close friends. The front tire of his car came off and the car rolled and crashed. Everyone was injured. His best friend, who was also his first cousin, died in the accident. Dad was devastated, he dropped out of his senior year of high school and joined the army; this was in April of 1950. He was eighteen years old and thin from his meager life. He had to eat a lot before weighing in at the physical examination to meet the minimum weight of 120 pounds.
In June of that year, The Korean War began. Because of his hospital experience, he was trained as a medic and he found himself on the frontlines. The United States forces were racially segregated at the beginning of the Korean War. He was assigned to an all-Black battalion. The only non-Blacks in his machine gun platoon were the commanding officer and the medic. They entered the war at Wonsan. The battalion saw a lot of action and was consistently on the front lines. Out of the original platoon, only eight survived the war, everyone else was killed in action. His battalion acted as the rear guard at Hungnam in December 1950. They protected the perimeter until all the UN forces and over 100,000 civilians were evacuated. Because of administrative oversight, he spent 100% of his time in Korea on the front lines. All soldiers are supposed to go on R&R (rest and relaxation) periodically. He was attached to the battalion, but his chain of command was through the medical corp. They forgot about him. When the mistake was discovered he was sent home. He had gone far beyond the acceptable time on hazardous duty.
I went with him to Korea in 2007 for a Convocation of Korean War Veterans. That is when, for the first time, he related his war experiences to me. I was astounded! My calm father had been through so much Hell. I had not realized that Dad had been through so many challenges. I asked him how he maintained such an optimistic and positive attitude throughout his life in spite of the fact that so many things went wrong for him. His answer surprised me.
“The few years I spent with my grandfathers were the moral foundation for my Life. My grandfathers were good people. I remember my paternal grandfather’s teachings. He was deeply religious. As a child we lived in the mountains and when we went to town we would travel by horse and wagon. Grandpa would wake us by 3:00 or 4:00 AM and load us on the wagons for the long ride. When we got to town we wanted to go to the town square and play and to the stores to buy some penny candy but grandpa used to say that before you go to play you need to do something in service of others and he would take us through the alleys of town where he had us pick up trash and take it out to the dump. When we had finished then he would allow us to go and play in the park and buy candy. Grandpa used to teach that the important things in Life are God, Family and Work. Work, he explained, is service to others.”
My father noted that even though he was orphaned when he was four, the time spent with his grandfather gave him the strength to face the many years of ordeals and difficulty. He felt the expectation his grandfather had for him was to be a person of responsibility. He learned not to make excuses. As a teacher, he took responsibility for students seriously. As an administrator, he worked hard to improve the school district. As a parent, he cherished the family he had and expected each of his children to be honest and responsible. His optimism never ceased even when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the age of 82. He spent the last two years of his life concerned about his children and grandchildren. He died in 2016 surrounded by his children and grandchildren. Several months before he passed away, he told me “we all are going to die someday but every day until then we will live, make it count.”
Richard Perea is a son of Grandpa Perea. He has 5 lovely daughters and 2 lively grandsons who love their grandfather and great-grandfather.