Lanky, graying, Hans Christian Adamson was visiting us in Hollywood when we noticed the first strange turn in our old battle. We were at dinner, back in 1942. It was a long table, I sat at the head of it; Hans Adamson was at my right; and my husband, Freddie Brisson, sat at my left.
We were all chatting, when suddenly Hans reached into his pocket and fished among his coins.
Now, Hans and my husband were close friends in spite of the 20 years difference in their ages. They were both officers in the Air Force. Hans Adamson was one of the best-read men I have ever known, which is why Freddie and I took so seriously his views on religion. Hans was also an agnostic.
Not anti-religious; he was interested in religion, but there were things he could not accept with his rational mind. Back at his home, on the East Coast, he used to attend church occasionally with his wife, Helen, who was an Episcopalian. But we had the feeling it was more out of respect for her, than for her beliefs.
Hans often said he envied people who could believe without understanding. “But that’s as far as I can go,” he would tell us during our long talks about religion. “I try to understand your churches and your little medals and things. But I cannot. So I cannot believe.”
That’s why it struck us as so peculiar when Hans fished among his change that night and brought out a medal.
“Freddie,” Hans said, and it seemed that his voice pitched a note higher than usual, “Freddie, I stopped at the PX and got you one of those new flying medals. St. Joseph of Copertino. I think he flew or something. You’re going to do a lot of flying, and I want you to have this.”
With that, the second strange turn occurred. My hand shot out. I grabbed Hans’ sleeve. I spoke very impulsively.
“No. Keep that yourself.”
“Why?” Hans asked. “I don’t want any medals. I got it for Freddie. He’s a Catholic and he believes in these things.”
I realized I had spoken sharply, and I tried to soften it down. “What I mean is, you keep it for now, Hans. You just keep it for now.”
We all kind of looked at each other, and I tried to change the subject. The dinner party was ruined. But in my mind, I sensed a premonition that actually I had done the right thing… that Hans was trying to tell us something with that medal.
Three months later, Hans phoned my husband that he was going on a secret mission across the Pacific and that he would be coming out to California for a visit.
We all spent the day together in Beverly Hills. Hans kept saying that he felt nervous. He had never talked that way before. There is not a bit of cowardice in Hans Adamson yet he kept saying the trip had a fatality about it.
Frankly, we thought nothing about it at the time. But then, at six the next morning, the phone rang.
It was Hans.
“Will you do something for me? Will you call Helen and say goodbye again?”
I was puzzled why Hans didn’t call his wife himself. At first I thought he was afraid of alarming her by calling so early. But I answered: “Of course I will.”
Then, once more, Hans said something about the trip. And I at last saw that he had really called to seek help. Right out of the blue I sat bolt upright in bed.
“Hans, do you have that medal that you tried to give Freddie some time ago?”
Hans was silent for a moment, as if he didn’t want to answer.
“Yes,” he finally admitted, “I’ve got it in my pocket with my change.”
“Well. Now, mind you I don’t think anything is going to happen. But if it does, if something should go wrong, you take that medal out and put it in your hand and hold on to it.”
There was a prolonged silence. I thought I had offended Hans. When he did answer, it was with the single word:
After he hung up, I couldn’t get back to sleep.
“What’s the matter?” Freddie asked.
I told him I felt something was going to happen. I wished I had explained more to Hans about the Catholic use of medals, how we don’t claim special powers to the medal itself, how the medal helps us focus our prayers, reminds us of our need for prayer. But I had missed my chance.
We were about to get up when Freddie mentioned: “Oh, by the way, Roz. Hans has a rather famous companion for his trip across the Pacific.”
“Captain Eddie Rickenbacker…”
It was perhaps the most famous airplane crash in history. Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, Hans, and six others, on a secret mission, went down in the Pacific.
You know the story. Twenty-one days were to pass before their rubber rafts were finally spotted. Twenty-one days of torture for us too… waiting…
From Wednesday, October 21, 1942, through Saturday, we were more or less hopeful. We learned what had happened. The plane had missed its island destination in the night, probably through faulty instruments.
By the fourth day, most of my own personal hope had dwindled. By the end of the first week, I had given up all hope. The chances of surviving the crash for more than a few moments seemed slim to me. A week spent on a flimsy life raft under a tropical sun, with no protection, would surely kill any survivors.
But my husband thought Hans was still alive. Freddie had that simple kind of trust I have seen so often, especially in men.
“You must understand,” I said, “that Hans is not a young man.”
But even as I was saying this, Freddie whispered with great depth to his voice: “He’s alive. I know he is alive. He’s getting strength from somewhere…”
I thought of the medal, and for a fraction of a moment almost believed.
Time began to be counted in weeks. The second week passed, and the third began. The search party was cut down in size. We knew that only a few routine patrol planes were continuing the endless task of searching for the tiny rubber rafts on the ocean. Eighteen days passed. Nineteen and twenty.
And then, suddenly, it was all over.
On the 21st day, the rafts were spotted. The headlines shouted, but we felt strangely quiet. As if we were being drained of the last of some sort of strength.
On the 22nd day, the rescues were made. We learned that Hans was still alive, although from the very first reports he was on the critical list. The men were kept in overseas hospitals for five weeks before they could be moved.
Then, just before Christmas, I got a call at the studio. It was from my husband, at the Air Base. The hospital plane was coming into San Francisco. Hans had sent a message that he wanted me to be there, that he had something that he wanted to tell me.
We saw Captain Rickenbacker first. He stepped off the plane, perhaps the thinnest man I have ever seen. His shirt stuck out inches, literally, from his neck. His 80-year-old mother was there to greet him.
He walked towards her and she towards him for a few paces. Then they stopped. You could feel the pulses of emotion between them. I had to turn away, because it was something I could not watch.
I was told to get on the plane. Freddie and I climbed a ladder and were inside. I had never seen anything like it: so warlike and barren and canvasy. Hans was in bed. He looked worse than Rickenbacker.
I was so upset seeing him and remembering the old Hans, that I tried to keep the conversation on trivial things: welcome home, how good it was to see him alive. I had to say that, rather than how well he looked, because of course he looked anything but well.
Freddie looked at Hans and said: “I don’t remember hearing about your hand.”
The hand was bandaged.
“It’s hurt a bit,” Hans answered.
And with that he slowly removed the bandage.
There, cupped in his hand, was the medal.
From holding it in the same position for weeks, his hand muscles had frozen so that he could not straighten his fingers. The medal had worked its way into his flesh. Hans looked up at me.
“I didn’t even let them take it away in the hospital.”
The plane was silent while with his other hand Hans pried the medal loose. Then, softly, he spoke again.
“It’s all right, Roz. I understand at last… May I give Freddie the medal now?”
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