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Staring Down Rifle Barrels Near Mount Ararat (the Biblical Noah's Landing Place)

November 1, 1967
Eastern Turkey
Map 3

Excerpted with permission from "Letters to Zerky, a Father's Legacy to a Lost Son and a Road Trip Around the World," by Bill Raney.

Dear Zerky,

Last night you wouldn’t wake up. You missed all the excitement. Your mother and I were awakened in the middle of the night by a torrent of shouting and pounding on the side of the bus. Still groggy, I pulled on my pants and stepped out into the cold. It was snowing lightly. There I found eight very angry Turks dressed in a variety of uniforms. All of them had guns, and most of them appeared to be soldiers. The others, your mother and I have decided, were probably police. They were all yelling at me, but I couldn't understand a word they said. When they finally figured this out, they tried to solve their language problem in the age-old way: by yelling at me louder.

So there I was in the middle of the night, half-dressed in the middle of nowhere, with the snow coming down and an angry gang of men pointing guns at me. One of them, who appeared to be the leader, soon grew impatient, took two steps back, put his rifle to his shoulder, and aimed it at my chest from six feet away. My entire life did not pass before my eyes in that instant, I am happy to report, Zerky, but I did do a quick mental run-through of how Turks have a bad reputation for violence, and of how our wonderful camper is unobtainable in Turkey except by extraordinary means. In other words, I was scared.

Not having the slightest idea what to do, I proffered my idiot smile. That must have been the right thing to do, because pretty soon the leader lowered his rifle and started gesturing with it wildly towards the hills. Then he would point it back at me, take aim at my heart again, lower it again, point it towards the hills again, and then back at me again, all the while yelling at me like he was crazy. “Maybe what he is doing,” your mother finally ventured, “is pantomime. Maybe what he’s trying to tell you is something in sign language—maybe that it’s not safe to stay here because bandits will come down from the hills and shoot us?” It still wasn’t clear. Not to me at least. What was very clear, however, was that we were to get the hell out of there. So I said to myself, I said “Bill,” I said, I said “you’d better get the hell out of here! Just because it’s middle of the night and dark and snowing, is no reason not to get an early start and beat all the rush-hour traffic.” But it’s not so easy just to drive away, once we’ve set up camp for the night. First of all, all the curtains need to be drawn back and refastened individually. Then all our gear we stow beneath you on the front seat each night needs to be retransferred into the back of the bus and stowed away there. This was a challenge I was up to.

In order to show my cooperation and demonstrate the need for a slight delay, I opened the front door of the bus on the passenger side—and there you were, Zerky, still sleeping peacefully for all the world to see, your little blond head poking out of your sleeping bag like the head of an angel with golden hair.

Last night at the end of the earth, a miracle occurred. Peace fell upon the land of Anatolia. The soldiers were stunned. Their angry faces melted instantly, to be replaced by smiles. As I reached out to pull you out of your bag, and to transfer you to your mother in the back of the bus, a soldier grabbed my arm gently with one hand, while waving the index finger of his other hand back and forth across his face, and shaking his head silently. “Do not awaken the angel,” he was telling me with all the clarity his previous orders had lacked. I was to close the door quickly, before the angel caught cold. This child must go back to sleep now, he gestured, holding his palms together against the side of his cocked head. We were safe, he assured us, patting his rifle. All the voices were soft and reassuring now. You are the universal language, Zerky.

Your mother and I climbed back into our sleeping bags and talked for a while. As we were finally drifting off to sleep, we could still hear a few sounds outside. They were the sounds of people trying to be quiet. We spent the remainder of last night under the protection of the Turkish army. When we awoke this morning, all was quiet, the soldiers were gone, a thin blanket of fresh snow had erased all traces of the night before. All was peaceful, as in a dream. An angel had saved us in the night.

Thank you, Guardian Angel,

Your Dad

Excerpted with permission from Letters to Zerky: A Father's Legacy to a Lost Son and a Road Trip Around the World by Bill Raney and JoAnne Walker Raney (copyright 2009). To learn more about all of our adventures and the book, visit

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