Zerky in Dogubayazit

Mount Ararat

Mount Ararat

November 1, 1967
Dogubayazit, near the Iranian border in eastern Turkey.

Dear Zerky, last night you did not wake up so 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. There I found eight extremely angry Turks carrying rifles and yelling at me even though I could not understand a word they said. Then, when they finally figured this out, they tried to solve their language problem by yelling at me even louder.

So there I was, half-dressed, in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, with the snow coming down and an angry gang of men pointing guns at me. One of them soon grew impatient, took two steps back, put his rifle to his shoulder, and aimed it directly at my chest from six feet away. At that point my entire life did not pass before me in an instant, I am happy to report, but I did do a quick run through thinking about how Turks have a reputation for violence and about how our wonderful VW camper is unobtainable in this country except by extraordinary means. In other words, I was scared. Not having the slightest idea of what to do, I proffered my idiot smile, which must have been the right thing to do because pretty soon the leader lowered his rifle and started gesturing with it wildly towards the mountains. Then he pointed it back at me, took aim at my heart again, lowered it again, pointed it up towards the hills again, and then back at me—all the while yelling at me as if he had gone crazy. “Maybe what he is doing,” your mother said, “is pantomime. Maybe he’s trying to tell you something in sign language, maybe that it’s not safe sleep here because of bandits who might come down out of the mountains and shoot us.” This still was not clear—not to me at least. What was clear was that we were going to get the hell out of there. So I said to myself, I said, “Bill,” I said, “you are now going to get the hell out of here. Just because it’s snowing in the middle of the night and is pitch black outside, that is no reason not to get an early start and beat all the rush-hour traffic.” But unfortunately it is not so easy to get up and go, once we have set up camp for the night. First, all the curtains need to be drawn back and individually fastened into place, and then all the gear we stow beneath you each night needs to be retransferred back into the back of the bus and stowed away there. This was a challenge I was definitely up to. So in order to show my cooperation and to demonstrate our need for a slight delay, I opened the front door of the bus on the passenger side and there you were, Zerky, 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 as peace fell upon the land of Anatolia. The soldiers were stunned, their angry faces melting into smiles. As I reached in to pull you out of your sleeping bag and transfer you into your mother’s arms in the back of the bus, a soldier grabbed my arm gently with one hand while waving the index finger of his other 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 was saying, holding his palms together against the side of his cocked head. We were safe now, he assured us, patting his rifle. All those angry 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, sounds of soldiers 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 blanket of fresh white snow having erased all traces of the night before. Everything was peaceful as in a dream. An angel had saved us in the night.

—Excerpted from Letters to Zerky


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