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Part III: Leo Vroman finds himself rebuilding his life in America

Last of three parts

Leo Vroman's postwar journey to his fiancee, Tineke, led from a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp to Manila, then by boat to San Francisco and by train to Chicago. New York would be the last stop before the trans-Atlantic voyage to the Netherlands, where Tineke had remained during World War II. She had returned to medical school there, awaiting their reunion.

In New York, Leo found his uncle, Isidore Snapper, a prominent New York physician who had emigrated to the United States several years before.

"Why don't you stay here," Snapper said. "There is no work in Holland."

"I need to get back to my fiancee," Leo said.

"How long has it been since you've seen her?" Snapper said.

"Almost six years."

Snapper laughed.

"There are many nice women in America," he said.

"They are not for me," Leo said.

But Snapper saw the intensity of his nephew's longing. He promised to help Tineke get to America, hopefully in a matter of weeks. So Leo reluctantly decided to stay in New York. He found work as an illustrator for magazines and later in a medical research lab in New Jersey. But he felt as if the taxi that had taken him away from Tineke six years earlier had slammed its doors again, taking him farther and farther down a lonesome road.

Still waiting

Nearly two years passed before Tineke obtained a visa to come to the United States. In that time, she and Leo spoke once on the telephone and exchanged grainy photographs. Tineke wrote to him every day. They got to know each other again through the mail.

She finally secured passage to the United States on the Queen Mary. On the night of Sept. 9, 1947, Leo tried to sleep on the sofa of his uncle's penthouse apartment in the Barbizon Plaza Hotel. The place had a view of the piers on the East River where the Queen Mary would dock. Every few minutes during the night he rose to see if the ship had come in.

Finally it was there, huge and brightly lit, as if floating above the black water. Already dressed in a seersucker suit, he put on his shoes and headed for the waterfront. About two hours later, the first people came down the gangplank. Many women looked young enough and had Eurasian features, but none recognized him.

Then there she was, tilting beneath the weight of the microscope that she carried in a case. Leo held out his arms.

"Zoen me niet, ze kijken," she whispered. Don't kiss me, they're watching.

She had told immigration officials that she was coming to work for a doctor in the United States and would be greeted in New York by one of his assistants. If Leo kissed her, she worried that her lie would be discovered. They snuck behind a stack of luggage and kissed and embraced in semiprivate.

On the train out of the city, they sat next to each other. Both felt awkward and nervous, not trusting that their reunion was real. The train passed through a tunnel beneath the Hudson River, and it emerged into the bright sunlight of the New Jersey countryside.

Leo and Tineke looked out the window at the fall flowers, asters and goldenrods. He took her hand. They were married the next day, Sept. 10, 1947, in the living room of a Methodist minister. The union was witnessed by American friends of Leo's, including a medical intern wearing a bloody lab coat. Their honeymoon was a walk in a New Jersey park.

Epilogue

Leo's first book of poems, many of them written while he was in captivity during the war, was published in the Netherlands that same year. More than 50 other books would follow, and Leo would win almost every major literary award in Holland, eventually becoming one of the country's most famous and beloved poets. A school was named for him in his hometown. A historic plaque adorns his childhood home.

As a scientist, he would become known internationally for something called the Vroman effect, which describes how the properties of plasma change when the fluid comes into contact with different surfaces outside the body.

But in his mind, those career achievements were secondary to life with the girl he fell for at first glance. In America, Tineke worked next to him in the lab. The couple raised two daughters, Geraldine and Peggy. When the children were grown, Tineke obtained another graduate degree and worked as a medical anthropologist. She also published highly acclaimed poetry herself under the name Georgine Sanders.

Peggy, the youngest daughter, married a Texan and moved to Fort Worth. Thirteen years ago, her parents were visiting from New York and decided to accompany their daughters' in-laws on a visit to the Trinity Terrace retirement community. Leo and Tineke have lived there since, in an apartment with fine views of the Trinity River and downtown Fort Worth.

Leo turned 96 on April 10. He still writes poetry almost every day and will soon publish another book in the Netherlands. His verse is imbued with whimsy, gratitude and wistfulness that his long journey is nearing its end.

as I am part, for what it's worth,

of everything upon this earth,

part of every branching tree

of moments, from void to destiny.

In this love I came to be

and it's love will finish me.

This spring, their daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren gathered in Fort Worth to celebrate Tineke's 90th birthday. She and her husband still hold hands whenever they sit close. Leo remains just as smitten as that first night in the student club in the Netherlands, 73 years ago, when the course of his life was changed.

"You smite me," he told her one recent day.

Tineke smiled.

Their only real regret, it seems, is the seven years they spent apart.

"It feels like we're still catching up," Leo said.

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