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An Army Helps Marshal the Missing Kin

January 22, 1987|ITABARI NJERI | Times Staff Writer

A mother called a bar in search of her son. He was not out on an all-night bender. He had been lost to her for nearly 40 years, taken by his father for reasons she is still not sure of.

It might have been a pay-back thing, she muses now: revenge for her rejection. "He didn't want me to leave him," said Mary Gloria Fitzgerald of her first husband. "He threatened to jump out the window the night I walked out on him. And I said, 'Go ahead. I'll help you. I'll push. . . .' " The bar and grill she called in Massapequa, Long Island, bore the surname of her son: Gannon. She thought he lived in the area with his father. The father was a good-time kind of guy, remarried to a woman with a little money, Fitzgerald said. She might have bought him a bar, she figured.

Besides, it was the only Gannon in the phone book, and a name was the only thing she knew about her son. She had not seen him since he was 5.

She did not find him then. Wrong number. Wrong Gannon. Wrong town.

The ad she put in the New York Daily News yielded nothing, either. "Happy 18th Birthday, Dennis Gannon," it said, and told her son where he could contact her.

So that she could look for work, Fitzgerald made her parents legal guardians of her son after her divorce. It was 1947, she was 25 and a high school dropout living in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn.

Now seated in the living room of her mobile home in Rancho Dominguez, she recalled that her church didn't help in her search. A letter to the bishop at the Catholic Diocese in Brooklyn brought a reply, she said, that said: "We can't do anything about this. You have to hire a private detective."

'For the Best'

Fitzgerald, her face handsomely gaunt, her pretty blue eyes magnified by thick spectacles, shrugged. "Well, I never had money to hire a private detective." From a wheelchair, she glanced past her absent legs toward the floor, then looked up and smiled.

"Everything happens for the best they say. I don't know. I don't know."

She is 65 now. Her legs have been amputated--complications from arteriosclerosis, the cause--and two fingers from her right hand are missing--the unyielding swiftness of a milling machine in a factory, the culprit. Responsibility for her apparent grace, good humor and the will in her Brooklyn-cultivated voice, she must bear.

A silk-like white blouse draped narrow shoulders that her step-father once called broad.

" 'You got broad shoulders, you can handle it,' " she said he told her, just before he disinherited his two other children, left all of the little he owned to her and triggered a recurring theme in her life: family discord and alienation.

It is an endless variation of that theme that separates parents from children, brothers from sisters, husbands from wives--people lost, hurting and hoping to be found, even when they don't know it.

"Basically, most people are willing to be found. Some are surprised that someone is looking for them, cause they didn't consider themselves lost," said Maj. Gerry Hood, missing persons coordinator for the Salvation Army for the past four years and an officer for 35.

The Salvation Army, which was founded in England in 1865, has been looking for missing people since 1891. You've got to find a soul to save a soul, might have been the subconscious motivation. The immediate cause was a lost child.

"We had a daughter who came to America who didn't contact her family," Hood said. "So the mother went to the Salvation Army and said, 'My daughter went to the Colonies and I can't find her.' " The Salvation Army did.

Fulfilling a Need

"Then somebody else came in looking for a relative," Hood said, "and then somebody else and finally they decided 'Hey, there seems to be a real need for this.' A lot of times families coming from the old country into the new . . . would lose contact because they were so caught up in trying to survive."

Similar reasons might exist now.

In the past 1 1/2 years, "we've been getting a lot of requests on homeless people," Hood said. "They are almost impossible to find. A mother will say the last time (she) heard from her son, he was on the streets of L.A. Well, it's almost impossible to find somebody unless you can (constantly) roam up and down the street."

Until syndicated columnist Abigail Van Buren of Dear Abby wrote about it in 1984, few people were aware of the Salvation Army's missing persons service, Hood said. That year, requests for help almost doubled in the Southern California territory for which she is responsible--Santa Maria south to the border. "We had 1,180 new cases. That's a heavy, heavy load," Hood said, but it has gradually diminished.

In 1985, the organization had more than 600 cases and last year, 554. On the average, it is able to solve 25% to 30% of its cases by searching through state motor vehicle, Veterans Administration and Social Security records. Searches usually take six months to a year and the person looking is charged $5.

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