On Sept. 24, 1942, Francine Hays Tapia, 16, lay in a maternity ward in Memphis, Tenn., and waited for a first glimpse of her newborn son.
She would have to wait 47 years.Before she could see him, the infamous Georgia Tann baby-theft ring took the baby from the hospital and placed it in the Tennessee Children's Home, a way station for stolen babies. From there, they were placed with unsuspecting parents willing to pay high fees for quick adoptions.
Francine had journeyed to Memphis from Mobile, Ala., to live with relatives while she had her baby. Her husband, 17-year-old Gene Tapia, was in the Aleutians working in construction on a Navy project at Dutch Harbor.
Gene had been involved in a nonfatal street shooting in Mobile about a month after their marriage. He left town on the advice of the district attorney, and soon became addicted to adventure.
Months later, when Gene finally placed a telephone call to his mother, he learned that Francine had gone to Memphis to have their baby, and that the baby had been stolen.
Gene joined Francine in Memphis, where her uncle, a member of the police force, tried in vain to trace their son.
When Gene turned draft age in 1943, he volunteered for the Marine Corps. He spent the war clearing Japanese out of caves on the islands of Guadalcanal, Guam and Iwo Jima, using a one-two punch of hand grenades and rifle fire. After the war, Gene returned to Francine, but he missed the excitement of combat and he carried a heavy load of guilt and anger over the kidnapping of his son during his absence.
After a few aimless years, he found a way to satisfy his urge for excitement and to make a few extra bucks to hire someone to find his son. He began racing automobiles.
Gene became a well-known figure in early stock-car racing, winning state championships and setting world records in the days before NASCAR dominated the sport.
But his efforts at finding his son kept hitting a wall: a Tennessee statute sealing off all adoption records.
Finally, he paid a man with underworld connections to find out what he could. Around Christmas of 1959, the man told Gene his son had murdered two women and was serving two life sentences at a state penitentiary in McAllister, Okla. It was 20 years before the heartbroken father could bring himself to tell Francine.
But the story took a different turn on Valentine's Day in 1990. Gene was snoozing in front of the television set in their home just north of Mobile. Francine noticed that the program being aired was a documentary on the Georgia Tann ring.
She learned two very important things: The Tennessee legislature had repealed the law that had denied them access to adoption records. And an organization called ``Tennessee Right to Know' was helping birth parents and children find one another.
Francine shook Gene awake and with trembling hands dialed the organization's number.
Using the records that were now open to inspection, Right to Know volunteer Jalena Bowling of Memphis learned that the Tapia baby had been adopted out to Lester and Jeanne Adelson in New York. A driver's license search led her to Bob Adelson, a salesman living in the St. Louis suburb of Maryland Heights, Mo.
On March 20, 1990, at 7:30 a.m., Bob Adelson heard a thick Alabama accent over the telephone.
``Your mother and I have been looking for you for 47 years,' it told him. ``By the way, you have two sisters.'
Three days later, the Tapias checked into a Hampton Inn in Maryland Heights. Bob put on a suit and went down to knock on the door of these people who claimed to be his parents.
``The door opened,' he told me by telephone, ``and there was Francine, my mother. She threw her arms around my neck and gave me a big kiss. As the door opened a little further, I saw my sisters, Shaary and Becky.'
``We didn't know whether he would have hair down to his behind or earrings in his ears,' said Gene. They liked what they saw.
The Tapias needed no DNA test to prove this was their son. The physical resemblance was striking, and Bob's two sons, Robbie and Scott, were dead ringers for the teenage Gene Tapia.
Since the reunion, said Bob, ``It's been a mutual admiration society, and I have been filled in on a lot of years.' When he and Gene get together, ``We think the same, our sense of adventure is the same, we get excited about the same kind of things.'
Jeanne and Lester Adelson were innocent parties in the adoption process. At the time they adopted Bob, they were told that both his parents had died in an automobile accident.
Jeanne Adelson was a former model. Lester was a buyer with Macy's in New York and would eventually become an executive in the retailing business.
They provided Bob with an affluent, stable home in the New York area. He loved the outdoors, enjoyed summer camp in Maine and grew up with an affection for fast cars and motorcycles.
Jeanne is now in a nursing home in advanced stages of Parkinson's disease. Lester, at 92, is mentally sharp but physically frail. Bob has chosen not to burden their last days with the story of the treachery that brought him to them.\ \ Readers may write Gene Owens at 1759 Spring Hill Ave., No. 111, Mobile, AL 36607; send e-mail to him at email@example.com; or call him at (800) 239-1340, Ext. 5652.