Golly, What Did Lee Vrooman’s Mother Think?

A jalopy with Lee Vrooman crosses the Taurus Mountains

Imagine you’re Louise Vrooman of Greenville, Maine. The year is 1919. Your 21-year-old son, Lee Vrooman, was one of the first to volunteer for the American Committee for Relief in the Near East (ACRNE). In January he sailed for Turkey. All during the war you read newspaper accounts of atrocities committed in the Ottoman Empire. You worry. Lee is a good boy, very responsible, but he’s got an adventurous streak. Your husband, Harry, has reminded you that this is a wonderful opportunity for Lee to put into practice all he learned at the College of Agriculture at the University of Maine. You’ve calmed down. A bit. A few months later you get a letter from Lee, which you later send to the Missionary Herald:

In May, Lee Vrooman wrote:
… And then we entered the Taurus Mountains for fifty miles of the wildest riding I ever hope to do. The roadbed was fairly good, thank heaven, but it was narrow, just a couple of feet leeway for the Ford. On one side, the mountains went up, on the other side they went down—no retaining wall—the road sloping down for drainage, and the whole thing a series of hairpin curves. At intervals, dirt had slid into the road, and also every so often we would strike a place where the outer edge of the road had slid away. In several places we scraped the rock going up on one side, and the outer wheels rested just on the edge of nothingness on the other side. We twisted and turned and crawled around rocks, crept under overhanging cliffs, and climbed up and slid down. After some miles it began to rain and the road got slimy, and although we had chains, we skidded in spite of them. At last we got up into the clouds so we could not see far ahead, and as for me, I claim to have a fairly steady set of nerves, but I never want to repeat that ride. To go around a corner with a one hundred and eighty degree turn in slippery mud, and when you can see only a few feet ahead of you, is no sport when one is several hundred feet above the first stopping place.
Very likely Mrs. Vrooman started praying in earnest. In June from Harpoot  [Elazığ] Lee wrote:
Many of these [Kurdish] chiefs have called on us and asked that we visit various regions in which many are destitute. The Russian army drove out large numbers, and the Turkish army, eating the flocks, reduced many others to poverty. Their normal work is sheep and cattle raising, with some farming. Mr. Riggs [head of the local relief unit] will make a tour of several of these districts soon. I have deserted my horse for a flivver [slang for old car], to visit most of my farms, as it goes so much faster. I have had a hard job getting the right kind of men to take charge, but at last all of my overhead jobs are filled and my crops are planted for the next year, my chief crops being lentils, wheat, and cotton. I have my boys converted to American machinery and they are all keen for it now, where it was practically impossible to get them to use any at all at first. Because of scarcity of water, my big crop will be lentils.
At this point Louise was probably thinking, “Farming is good. A nice, safe occupation.” But in the same letter, Lee said:
silhouette of Lee Vrooman in a filmstrip as a cowboy relief workerLast week I drove in a Ford, with two other Americans and an Armenian, to Malatia, a city sixty miles southwest of here, to attend to numerous affairs of business. The country between here and Malatia is inhabited nearly altogether by Kurds, and is considered to be a little dangerous, so we carried an army rifle with the muzzle sticking out conspicuously. I looked like a cowboy in the movies, with a cartridge belt and a Colt 45 on one side and a short but serviceable Turkish sword on the other. At one place I had a blowout, and as I was shifting inner tubes some Kurds stopped and talked to us in Turkish. Then one of them, in Kurdish, tried to persuade the others to go down the road and block it with rocks and rob us there. The men did not warm up on the subject, so we drove on, saying nothing. But it showed the wisdom of carrying firearms.

Imagine! Her baby with a gun hanging from one side and a sword in the other! It’s a wonder she didn’t suffer heart palpitations.

I had thought about calling the book “Guts and Grace in a World Gone Mad” because of the courage exhibited by the missionaries and relief workers. But “grit” also includes the idea of determination, so I opted for that.

About Lee Vrooman

Lee had planned to stay in Turkey only a short while. He ended up extending his volunteer work, and then returned to the United States to attend the Hartford Theological Seminary 1920-23. In 1922 Lee married Helen Stuart. After his graduation they went to Constantinople to study Turkish for a year. Reverend Lee Vrooman then got a job teaching at the International College in Smyrna [Izmir], and eventually was made Dean. In the 1930s he became involved with the Moral Rearmament movement, wrote a series of books on democracy, and was instrumental in developing the Training Center on Mackinac Island, Michigan. Louise Vrooman needn’t have worried about her son. He turned out just fine.

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The background photo at the top, showing the mountainous regions of Turkey, is courtesy of NASA. I added the jalopy and its passengers. The filmstrip is my creation.

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