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Life of Phillip John Gallson

Written by Sharlene (Gallson) Buszka

My Dad

My father was a great story teller and some of my fondest childhood memories were of him telling us stories on the many cross country trips we took when traveling up to North Bay to visit relatives, to new military assignments, or on family vacations. For the younger generation it might be hard to imagine traveling in a car for hours and hours without gadgets and technology and a radio whose signal would fade in and out depending on location. However, for us this would provide an opportunity to hear over and over again stories like Big Claus and Little Claus and Jack in the Beanstalk. But of all the stories my father told, my favorite were those of his early years growing up. For this reason, I thought I might tell you, at least part of, my father?s story.

Before I begin, I want to emphasize that even though some of what I share will not be the most pleasant, when my Dad told these stories there was never any bitterness or resentment. It was if he viewed his past experiences as part of a great adventure that resulted in the person he became. Also, part of why I am telling the story in such detail is that I think it is good to remember that even the most difficult circumstances can result in positive outcomes.

My Dad was born in Zolpha Springs Florida in 1926 right before The Great Depression. Four years later, with unemployment in the United States at historical highs, his mother and father loaded my Dad and his two older sisters, Jean and Joan, into a Model ? T Ford for the very long journey in search of work in the lumber fields of Northern Ontario.  Unfortunately, the family had not been in Canada long when my Dad recalls men in white coming into his home and taking his mother out on a stretcher (he was led to believe she died and only found out years later she had been institutionalized). He and his sisters were left motherless with a father who had little money and no family or social service system to help them through this most difficult time. Unfortunately, work as a lumber jack was seasonal and required men to go for months into the bush during the winter. This may have worked out well for many farmers as a seasonal supplement to the very short farming season in Northern Ontario. But for a man without a wife, this presented a problem. Initially, my Dad?s father tried foster care but no one wanted all three children and he did not want them to be separated. Therefore, he decided he needed a live in housekeeper.  A local church sent him an unwed mother who had a toddler and another child on the way.

Unfortunately, this woman (who the children later called Maw) hid her true character until she was alone with the children.  When my Grandfather went into the bush, food was rationed and the children were fed very little. Maw would even put marks on the food containers so she could tell if one of the children snuck something. If she found food missing she would ask who took it and this child would receive a beating with a cat of nine tails which was a leather strap with nine smaller strips attached. If no one would confess, they would all be beaten. My Dad and his sisters resorted to sneaking and eating raw eggs from the hen house or raw potatoes from the ground.  They were clever enough to put the tops of the potatoes back in the ground so the area appeared undisturbed.   Beatings were frequent for all sorts of reasons. To avoid such a beating, my Dad once stitched a small chick together after accidentally squashing it with a cellar door.  Amazingly, the chick survived!  Maw refused to call my Dad, Phillip, his given name, saying that he would never be ?filled up.?  My Dad also shared of when visitors from the church came to their house, Maw told my Dad to go upstairs and not come down until he had on better pants, fully knowing he had on the only pair of pants he owned.

Troubles spilled over to the schoolyard as well. Because he had to wear his father?s boots to school and was small for his age, other children would taunt him by chanting ?farmer John with the big boots on!? He would retaliate by chasing them around the school yard with a stick. He and his sister?s school lunches would be the apple cores or crusts from the other children?s leftovers. In spite of this, he was a good student, being moved ahead two grade levels

More children were born into the family as the housekeeper became my father?s Dad?s common-law wife. Though ?Maw? probably wouldn?t have won any mother of the year awards for the way she handled her own children; my Dad and his two sisters seemed to bear the brunt of her abuse.  So, at the age of 14 my Dad had enough and, as told by him, he ran away from home. However this ?running away? consisted of walking to neighboring farms and asking to be hired on as a farmhand.  I asked him recently why no one from home came after him and he replied that they probably figured he was just another mouth to feed. My Dad was so small, probably due to poor nutrition, that one farmer asked if he was looking for work for his father. Eventually, he did find work on a number of farms. He especially liked to share of the kindness shown by a Quaker family who hired him for a period of time. He expected to sleep in the barn but this family put him in a room with their children and the farmer took him to town to buy the first pair of new clothes he had ever owned. These Quakers also gave him his first tooth brush.

After making this break from home, the adventurous period of my Dad?s life began. Every time he got to talking about these years, we would find out about yet another job he held. Some that I can remember include working as a butcher?s helper, in a plywood factory, as a bell boy in Empire Hotel, as a messenger in a cordite factory, making pastries in Christies Bakery, setting pins in a bowling alley and, in 1943, he even served in the Canadian Reserve Army for a year and a half. When 18 he moved to Toronto and was hired on at the Royal York Hotel where he worked as a bus boy in the restaurant, a brush boy in the barber shop, a page boy and then finally a bell boy He loved to share how while working at the hotel he came face-to-face with Roy Roger?s horse, Trigger, in an elevator. 

In 1946 two Canadian Mounted Police went looking for my Dad at his sister Jean?s home in Mattawa, Ontario to deliver his draft notice from the U.S Army.  This was a surprise as he had not been in the United States since he was 4 years old and pretty much considered himself to be Canadian. He reported to Camp Crowder for basic training and went from there to surgical tech school in Denver Colorado.  After completing this training, he was assigned to the 172nd Station Hospital in Sendai, Japan. After his tour of duty he was honorably discharged at the end of 1947. He then decided to go to photography school in Memphis, Tennessee. After completing this course of study, he returned home to Mattawa, where he operated Gallon?s Photography Studio for over two years. In 1950 my Dad decided that a military career had more to offer in terms of education and advancement, so he reenlisted the U.S. Army. During this period of his military career t he served as a litter bearer and medical adman in the Korean conflict.  After this, he was again assigned to the Medical Company of the 24th Infantry division at Sendai, Japan.

Because my Dad?s sisters married much earlier than he did, he had many young nieces who looked forward to Uncle Phil?s visits home. According to my one cousin, he was like the pied piper and they would all follow him around.  My cousins also share of a ventriloquist dummy he kept in his trunk. They were so afraid of this dummy that he would threaten to bring it out if they didn?t behave. He told me just recently that he made this dummy himself, and worked hard for some time to be an effective ventriloquist.

Besides photography and ventriloquism, as a young man my father was interested in many different things including Charles Atlas body building, acting in community theatre, the magic of Harry Houdini, hypnotism and card tricks. He loved country western music and the idea of being a cowboy which led him to try his hand with tricks horseback riding and playing the guitar.  Of these, my Dad was probably the most successful at body building. However, he regularly admitted to being a ?jack of all trades but a master of none.?

In July of 1953, after returning from his second tour of duty in Japan, one of the happiest periods of my Dad?s life began. It was at this time he met Marian Gamble in a corner grocery store in Mattawa while he was home on leave. My twenty ?one year old mother had recently emigrated from London, England with her family. My mother loved to tell the story of how each of them was crossing a different ocean at the same time to bring them together in a small, rural, out-of-the way town in Northern Ontario.  It was pretty much ?love at first sight? as my Dad gave my Mum a wrist watch and a ?promise? at the end of his 30 day leave in July.  He returned from his station in Minneapolis, less than two months later during Labor Day week-end at which time he officially proposed marriage and gave my mother a ring. He returned to Minnesota and they did not see each other again until their wedding in December of the same year.  When you see pictures of my Mum and Dad, it is easy to see the instant attraction. He was as handsome as she was beautiful.

During their early years, my parents moved from Minneapolis Minnesota, where my brother Phillip was born, to Washington D.C. where I was born, to Ft. Campbell, Kentucky where my younger brother Christopher was born. In November of 1963, days before John F. Kennedy was assassinated, we moved to Oahu, Hawaii where my Dad was stationed at Tripler Army Medical Center for three years. From Hawaii, my Dad was stationed at the  Amherst Reserve Center in NY. He then served in Phu Bai and Danang, Viet Nam between 1969 and 1970.  His final official station was at West Point Military Academy. My Dad was an outstanding soldier and rose to the highest rank for an enlisted person, a Sargeant Major E ? 9. His roles in the military were medical in nature, beginning as a medic during the Korean conflict, later becoming a licensed practical nurse and eventually transitioning into Hospital Administration.  After reviewing some of the notes from the commendation medals he received, it was clear that his senior officers appreciated his skills as well.  One Captain said this of him: ?You have been the most outstanding 1st Sgt I have ever performed duty with. Your courtesy and proper military appearance has reflected very favorably upon yourself and the Medical Holding attachment. When under pressure, you always acted calmly and performed with clear precision and responsible efficiency. In the recent past you were required to work an average of 70 hours per week which you did willingly and without quibble, fanfare or thought of compensation. Your loyalty has been of an outstanding nature. You have always been prompt, honest, and able to understand the human motivation factor. You have been a proud, diplomatic and humble person.?

However successful, my Dad was ready to try his hand at a civilian career, so after 22 years of active duty, he settled our family down near the Canadian border in the home he had purchased while serving at the Amherst Reserve Center. At this time he was hired by Millard Fillmore Hospital (then located at Gates Circle) as Director of Medical Records. He worked there for another 17 years where he left an outstanding record as a highly conscientious, organized, successful professional. Perhaps after so many years of wearing a uniform, my Dad enjoyed wearing a variety of suits and sport jackets to work. He was always well groomed and many at the hospital would comment to my mother about how ?dapper? he always looked. His organization even extended to his attire and how he systematized his color coordinated closet in such a way that suits and sports jackets were rotated from left to right after wearing them so as to be worn equally.

As I mentioned previously, my father did not consider himself especially talented in any particular area, but this clearly was not true.  Of particular note were his wood working and home handyman skills. He crafted many things such as a cradle, sandbox, picnic tables, rocking horses and a train table. He finished off multiple basements, added beams, chair rails and cove moldings to his homes and those of his children. He could do electrical work and plumbing. Consequently, nothing was ever broken for long in our home. He was such an invaluable resource to his children when things needed to be done around their houses. Any repair or home improvement project in my own home always included my Dad?s expert help.

My Dad retired from Millard Fillmore Hospital in 1988 and shortly after my mother started having problems.  In 1992, at the age of 60, she was diagnosed with a form of dementia. At the time of diagnosis, the doctor predicted she would live about six more years. Therefore, my father set to making the remaining time with her count.  During the first years, they traveled as much as they were able, returning to England and Hawaii and going on many golfing trips with friends. They traveled cross country through both the United States and Canada stopping throughout to golf at as many different locations as they could.  As her abilities declined, my Dad took over more household responsibilities but in such a way that my mother was always allowed to do as much as she could with dignity. They also continued to visit and babysit grandchildren frequently as this brought them both much joy and a happy distraction. As most of you know, my Dad lost his wife of 46 years fifteen years ago.

The final 15 years of my Dad?s life was spent adjusting to life without my Mum. Though he was lonely, as was his way he kept their house and took care of himself in the methodical, organized, matter-of-fact manner that served him so well over the years.  He golfed, bowled and played cards to keep himself busy.  Because he lived streets away from me, he helped chauffeur my younger boys to lessons, practices and friends houses. He was my emergency contact for them at school and would pick them up and care for them when they were ill.  He rarely missed any of my children?s games, concerts, competitions, recitals or plays.  He would even travel with us hours away to other cities to see them perform. He also listened to hundreds of books on tape while he walked thousands of miles. In fact, he wore out at least 3 belts on his treadmill.

His biggest joys during this phase of his life were his three children, 12 grandchildren and, most recently, 2 great-grandchildren. He frequently remarked that he was most happy when everyone was together. As it became more difficult for him to hear and join in conversation, he would still say he enjoyed just watching all of us talk and spend time together. My Dad was diagnosed with Parkinson?s disease six years ago. He handled this quite well for the most part but found it especially difficult when he decided to stop driving after two minor fender benders.  Giving up driving was giving up the independence that had sustained him for more than 80 years. The last thing he wanted to do was to be a burden to his family.  For this reason, he decided to move to Amberleigh retirement community two years ago where transportation to medical appointments and meals would be provided. Though his health continued to decline, he reported that he made a good decision to move. He maintained a certain independence, had people to talk to and was close enough to see his children and grandchildren on a weekly basis.

Phil loved and valued family relationships and kept close to his two sisters and two sisters-in-law in Canada. He called each of them every month and made a final visit up to North Bay to see his sisters, sister-in-law, nieces and nephews the week before he died. Though the long drive and maneuvering in and out of the van was challenging, he kept a smile on his face handled himself with dignity and humor. When I walked him back into his apartment, he said how happy he was that we made the trip. This was the last time I saw my Dad and I realized that this was such a fitting book-end to the memories of my father. Both my earliest memories and final memories of him were of family trips to North Bay.

Though it appears that my Dad?s story did not exactly have a happy ending, we know better. First, he leaves the legacy of his life to his children and grandchildren. This legacy includes so many life lessons:

?      Be humble

?      Love and value family ? and tell them you love them

?      Serve others not expecting to get anything in return

?      Don?t let negative life circumstances make you despondent or bitter

?      Be organized

?      Be intentional  in your plans and actions

?      Work hard

?      Be determined

?      Better yourself

?      Take care of yourself

?      See the good in others

?      And most recently, I realized his life was lived expecting little but appreciating much which seems to be the opposite of today?s culture where people want so much but appreciate so little.

Though his faith was a very personal part of his life, it became more important as the years went by. He faithfully attended this church, read the Bible through multiple times and lived his faith in a quiet, humble manner. I know he looked forward to the day he would be reunited with my mother and his grandson Cameron, and now that happy ending has occurred.

 - Sharlene (Gallson) Buszka

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