Photograph by Traci Hukill
Get On the Bus: Nickelodeon founder and author Bill Raney in his Zerkymobile.
Nickelodeon founder Bill Raney pens a fine travelogue and a moving portrait of grief in 'Letters to Zerky.'
By Traci Hukill
The late 1960s, author Bill Raney reminds us, was a time when ordinary people could go on adventures without risking their futures or plunging into debt. The potent combination of cultural foment at home and a Herculean dollar abroad meant that trips to Europe--even lengthy ones--were not just appealing but attainable.
In 1967, two years before they built the Nickelodeon Theatre on Lincoln Street in Santa Cruz, Raney and his first wife JoAnne took their 10-month-old baby Zerky (short for Eric Xerxes) and miniature dachsund Tarzan on a trip around the world in a Volkswagen camper. Conscious that his infant son was essentially missing the trip, Raney kept a diary in the form of letters addressed to Zerky. Together with photos from the trip, they form a travelog from a distinct moment in history, one in which the Cold War rumbled on even as a new global youth movement began to stir.
As literature, Letters to Zerky does not particularly distinguish itself. The young Raney's musings reveal a level of self-consciousness that former diarists may find uncomfortably familiar. Youthful writers are often doing it for posterity--not the most attractive thing in a piece of prose.
As a window into the world pre-globalization, however, it's excellent. Raney writes with a judicious level of detail. Southwest Spain, he writes early on, is the poorest place he's ever seen until he visits Kosovo. Sarajevo's Ottoman history is immediately obvious in the architecture and dress. Pakistan has too many guns. Examined today, these details reveal history, movements, phases in Cold War geopolitics.
It's as a portrait of grief that Letters to Zerky truly excels. In July 1969, about a year after their return to California and a month after the opening of the Nick, JoAnne died of a cerebral aneurism. She was eight months pregnant. Raney sleepwalks through the next year. "How do you handle the death of a spouse?" he asks. "I can only speak for myself: I think you don't handle it, it handles you."
And then things actually got worse. In the summer of 1970, 3-year-old Zerky was struck and killed by a car while riding his tricycle. Looking back, Raney is graceful, restrained, anything but maudlin. "After the passage of nearly forty years, Zerky's death haunts me more than JoAnne's, even though hers hurt more at the time," he writes. It doesn't just explain how the book came to be; it imbues it with a gently persistent message not to wait, not to squander, not to miss anything.
BILL RANEY The author reads from 'Letters to Zerky: A Father's Legacy to a Lost Son ... and a Road Trip Around the World' on Sunday, April 12, at noon at the Nickelodeon, 210 Lincoln St., Santa Cruz. Free. For info call 831.429.4234 or visit www.letterstozerky.com.
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