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Archive for the ‘Life Down South’ Category

Last week in the Jefferson Kroger, I was met by a curious sight: approaching me in the aisle was a woman pushing a grocery cart in which was seated a toddler, a boy, who had both arms in the air and was bobbing his head rhythmically.

The sight became curiouser when the child burst into song.

We will
We will
WOCK YOU!

His head bobbed to the beat. He pumped his upraised fists in time to the music playing in his head.

Frankly, he looked barely old enough to talk, much less sing rock songs. But there he was, belting out a tune nicely on key.

A pause of several seconds followed, then

We will
We will
WOCK YOU!

A pause of several seconds followed, then

We will
We will
WOCK YOU!

By then, our carts had passed in the aisle, and they were behind me. Even after I turned down the next aisle, I could still hear the boy singing heartily.

We will
We will
WOCK YOU!

A pause of several seconds followed, then

We will
We will
WOCK YOU!

Eventually, the refrain ceased. Either he was too far away to be heard or his mom shut him up.

Oddly, the mom seemed focused on her shopping and oblivious to the boy’s performance. I wondered briefly if she might be hearing-impaired, but decided that was improbable.

Anyway, the child was truly in the zone, and I was happy for him. It’s good to, you know, let it all hang out.

Keep on rockin’ while you can, kid. The inhibitions, insecurity, and self-consciousness will bubble up soon enough.

We Will Wock You

Wocking the Jefferson Kroger.

The Queen classic We Will Rock You is an interesting song for various reasons, which I will address in my next post, a Tune o’ the Day.

 

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Since I moved back to Georgia in 1979, I’ve lived in five different places around Atlanta and Athens. And the one constant since my return has been regular trips north into the mountains to go hiking.

There was a time when I took multi-day backpacking trips, but that practice evolved into the more civilized pursuit of dayhiking. Over the years, I’ve been on many hundreds of hikes in the mountains and foothills of Georgia, North and South Carolina, and Tennessee.

For any given hike, my route to the mountains depended on where I lived at the time and where I was headed. By now, I’ve probably driven 90 percent of the roads, county, state, and federal, in the northern third of Georgia.

Sometime in the early 1990s, on my way north, I came upon an intriguing road sign that compelled me to stop and take a photo.

Bates Motel Road

It appeared to be a legitimate, official road sign, not a joke. The story behind it was a mystery, of course. All I could do was accept it as a humorous oddity and take the photo.

When I got home, I made a print and put it on the refrigerator. I also saved it as a .jpg and filed it away on my desktop.

But the novelty eventually wore off, and for the next couple of decades, I gave Bates Motel Road little thought.

But then, not long ago, a curious thought popped into my head. That photo of the Bates Motel road sign — where, exactly, did I take it?

I remembered the setting clearly, but I couldn’t recall the location. It could be anywhere in half a dozen counties in the North Georgia foothills.

For a while, when I drove north to go hiking, I made it a point to take different routes, hoping to find the elusive sign. No luck.

Then it dawned on me to look online. I Googled the words, Googled the image. I checked Google Maps and Google Earth. I searched various counties for “Bates Motel Road.”

I did all that and found nothing. Zip.

Why, for Heaven’s sake, could I find no record of any kind? Has the road been renamed? Was it bulldozed to make way for a subdivision? The subject bugs me greatly whenever I think about it. Which, lately, is often.

When you consider how many roads must exist in North Georgia, the odds are pretty slim of locating Bates Motel Road by searching randomly. It’s a needle-in-a-haystack situation.

Inevitably, the elusive road reminds me of the story of Brigadoon, the fictional Scottish village that is nowhere to be found except when it reappears for one day every century.

Then there is the 1957 movie “Raintree County,” a Civil War-era melodrama that takes place in the fictional Raintree County, Indiana. Essentially, it’s “Gone With the Wind” with Montgomery Clift in the Clark Gable role.

In the story, Raintree County is named for a romantic local legend that, hidden deep in the forest, is a magnificent Golden Raintree planted long ago by Johnny Appleseed. Find the Raintree, the legend says, and you will learn the secret of life itself. The locals consider it a nice fairy tale.

I remember the movie mostly for its ending. As the main characters emerge from a swamp after a dramatic climax, the camera pulls back to show the Raintree looming behind them, shining in golden splendor, still undetected. The End.

My road sign doesn’t qualify as magnificent or splendid. Just elusive.

And undoubtedly looming just out of sight.

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A needle-in-a-haystack situation.

 

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Wrecking Ball

On the day Donald Trump took office as President, I put an American flag decal on the rear window of my car, upside down.

It is, of course, a symbol of national distress, as well as of my outrage that a modern-day Benedict Arnold, who also happens to be an unqualified, immoral crook, occupies the White House.

To be clear, displaying the flag upside down can be deemed an act of desecration, depending on the circumstances. I don’t seriously expect to get busted. And I will remove the decal the day the Orange Vulgarian leaves office.

The decal has been in place for two years, and it’s a fact that I drive the car almost literally every day. Plenty of people surely have noticed that the flag is upside down. Yet, not a soul, whether family member, friend, or stranger, ever mentioned it.

Until now.

———

Last Thursday, as I left the Target store in Gainesville, I noticed a white guy wearing a backpack standing behind my car, apparently looking at the rear window.

I didn’t think he had nefarious intentions. Nothing of value was on the seats. He wasn’t likely a car thief, because the parking lot was aswarm with people.

(Actually, in the minutes that followed, I left myself open to armed robbery, but that didn’t dawn on me until later.)

When I got closer, I pressed the key fob. The car chirped, the lights flashed, and the doors unlocked. The man turned toward me. He smiled and raised a hand in greeting.

I nodded to him and reached to open the car door.

“Excuse me, sir,” he said. “Can I ask you a question?”

Oh, hell, I thought. A panhandler. I don’t need this.

I stepped back to get a better look at him. He was 40-ish, short, slender, full beard, wearing a knit cap and a camo jacket. The backpack was fairly large and full, which suggested he was traveling on foot. Yet, he was neat and clean. Curious.

“What question is that?”

“I noticed your decal, the upside-down flag. I take it that’s a protest about something?” He lacked a Georgia accent.

“Yes, it is,” I said. “I put it there the day Trump became President. It will stay there until he’s no longer in office.”

“So, you’re not a Trump fan.”

“No. He’s a disgrace to the office.”

“I don’t like him, either,” the guy said. “He’s a con-man. He’s using the position to enrich himself and his family. Plus, he’s been doing business with the Russians for years. Putin controls him because he knows where the bodies are buried.”

Wow, I thought, how refreshing. Most people around here keep their mouths shut about Trump. Being hidebound conservatives, they voted for him and tolerate his behavior, but they are loath to admit it.

“You’ve been paying attention,” I said.

“Well, here’s what people don’t realize about Trump,” he said. “God made him President. And for a specific reason.”

Oh, hell, I thought. A nut job.

“Trump is God’s wrecking ball,” he said. “God is using Trump to break the stranglehold of the nonbelievers who control the federal government.”

How do I end this conversation?

We had been standing there so long that the car re-locked itself. I pressed the fob again, twice, hoping the guy would take the hint and wrap it up.

“Trump will get the job done, God willing. After that, I hope he gets what’s coming to him. He really is an awful person.”

“Agreed.”

How do I end this conversation?

“The atheists took over really fast, in just a couple of decades,” he said earnestly. “They systematically infiltrated the federal government at every level. Very clever, very efficient. But their days are numbered.”

“‘God’s wrecking ball.’ I like it.”

He grinned. “When you realize Trump is doing God’s work, it changes how you see the situation.”

Yes, I agreed, that does put things in a new light.

“Well, I need to get going. God bless you, sir.”

“Safe travels,” I said.

The man turned and went on his way. As I reached to open the door, the car locked itself again.

Decal

 

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One thing that irritates me bigly is when I discover I have a knowledge gap about something — when I find I’m uninformed on a subject commonly known to others. It shows that I’m not as educated and erudite as I like to think. I hate that.

Recently, while on a road trip, I got schooled about something new — new to me — and I’ve been pouting ever since.

It happened earlier this month on a trip to Land Between the Lakes, a national recreation area in northern Tennessee and southern Kentucky.

(Before the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers were dammed to create Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, the place was called Land Between the Rivers. But that isn’t the thing I got schooled about.)

Among the amenities and attractions at LBL is the Woodlands Nature Station, a small zoo that houses a variety of orphaned or injured animals. In residence there are hawks, owls, deer, groundhogs, a bald eagle, a coyote, and other critters that no longer can survive in the wild.

I found it interesting that, during the day, the raptors are not caged, but instead are restrained by tethers. Each bird has a perch and is free to move in a radius of about five feet. Every day, just before closing time, the birds are transferred to their night-time shelters in the “Parade of Raptors.” A clever bit of marketing there.

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So I bought a ticket and spent half an hour wandering around the place. The woodsy setting was attractive and pleasant, and the animals seemed unstressed, which was nice.

Before long, in a clearing between the wild turkey pen and the possum enclosure, I arrived at a large turtle pond. Submerged in the pond were three large alligator snapping turtles and a dozen smaller turtles of various types.

(The jaw power of an alligator snapper is impressive. An adult can bite through a broom handle.)

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My timing was pretty good. Two employees were just arriving with a bucket of lunch for the turtles.

What do the turtles at Woodlands Nature Station eat? On the menu that day was dead mice.

It seems natural enough to feed dead mice to the raptors, the coyote, and other critters, but to the turtles? I would expect turtles to be fed fish, insects, worms, or maybe commercial turtle food. Mice? Intriguing.

With some difficulty, the male employee, a portly gentleman, assumed a sitting position beside the pond near a group of the smaller turtles. He reached into the bucket and withdrew a dead mouse. Holding it by the tail (Of course. How else would you pick up a dead mouse?), he dangled it in the water in front of one of the turtles.

Here ya go, Lulu,” he cooed. “I got a nice mouse for ya.”

Remaining underwater, Lulu propelled herself forward, grabbed the mouse, and quickly retreated from the group; the other turtles had taken notice.

Better feed Alice next so she don’t steal from the others,” the female employee said.

The man dangled a mouse in front of Alice. Alice snatched it and promptly swam away.

By then, the other turtles had assembled in a rough semi-circle, waiting to be fed. One by one, the man presented them with lunch. Then it was time to feed the alligator snappers.

Hey, y’all — wake up!” the man called out. He struggled to his feet and moved the mouse bucket closer to where the three snappers were snoozing. They noted his presence and came to attention.

As the man doled out mice to the snappers, some of the smaller turtles arrived, hoping to score again. The man tried to maintain order and keep the turtles apart. From a nearby bench, the female employee offered advice and occasionally admonished a turtle for getting too close to the business end of a snapper.

Up to that point, I had been quietly observing. I finally spoke up.

The turtles really like those mice,” I said. “I didn’t expect that.”

Oh, yeah, they love ’em,” the man replied.

Where in the world do you get dead mice?” I asked. “What’s the source?”

We buy ’em wholesale.”

Wholesale? Mice?”

Oh, yeah. For places like us, with animals to feed, it’s crucial. We couldn’t operate otherwise. We place the orders automatically. The merchandise comes frozen.”

Of course.”

Anyway, that’s the new thing I learned on my road trip: there is an entire world out there, previously unbeknownst to me, in which large national companies — nay, large worldwide companies — raise mice, rats, chicks, quail, and even little bunny rabbits to execute, freeze, and sell as a food source.

Why wasn’t I aware of this? Because the logistics of animal food supply never appeared on my radar screen. I’ve never had a bird, turtle, or snake as a pet, never had to consider the food issue.

When I got home a few days later, I Googled the dead mouse business and got further informed. In the trade, the product is called feeder mice.

And, as a business, it makes sense. Selling feeder mice is just a case of meeting an industry need. A matter of demand and supply. It’s all there — production, R&D, purchasing, marketing, finance, distribution.

Systems have to be in place to euthanize the little things and sort them by category — size, weight, color, and so on. The merchandise must be properly preserved, packaged, shipped, and delivered. And certified as healthy and disease-free.

What, you ask, is the cost of a dead mouse? There are variables aplenty — size, weight, nutritional content, quantity ordered.

As I write this, RodentPro.com has a special sale on extra-small “pinky” mice, sold in bags of 100. Normally 35 cents each, they are now available for the amazing low price of 24 cents each!

If pinkies are too small for your needs, RodentPro sells small adult “weanling” mice for 65 cents each (bags of 50) and large adult mice (choice of brown, white, or hairless) for 75 cents (bags of 25).

If the sale ends before you have a chance to act, don’t worry. The other big names in the business (Mice Direct, American Rodent Supply, The Big Cheese Rodent Factory, etc.) are sure to have special offers that interest you.

Woodlands-3

Woodlands-4

Like I said, it’s mortifying to discover something that is new to me, but common knowledge to others.

On the other hand, looking at the bright side, at least I’ve narrowed my knowledge gap a bit.

 

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Duel Epilogue

I’m here to report that my eight-year battle to eliminate an unwelcome tree in a local cemetery, a tree that had no business being there and was pushing a tombstone askew, a battle I thought I had won in 2014, in fact continued for four more years.

I didn’t reckon on the stump. The stump turned out to be remarkably stubborn.

The short version of the story is this: I noticed the tree in 2006, when I first moved to Jefferson. It was growing next to the grave of a pastor who died a century ago. It had grown so large that the headstone was beginning to tilt slightly.

No one else seemed to be doing anything about it, so I took it upon myself to eliminate the tree. In June 2014, after a lengthy campaign, I declared victory. At last, the blasted thing showed no more signs of life.

The complete story is in a celebratory blog post I wrote in 2014.

At the time, I assumed the stump would disintegrate fairly quickly. The day would come, I told myself confidently, when I would be able to uproot it with a swift kick, and the pastor could rest undisturbed again.

Secure in that knowledge, I stopped at the cemetery every few months to assess things. Each time, I would administer a kick in hopes of dislodging the stump. Each time, I left disappointed.

The seasons came and went. The stump did, in fact, dry out and crack. It became gray and shrunken. Random chunks broke off. No bark remained.

Twice, I gave it a few vigorous whacks with a sledgehammer,* but still to no avail. The stump remained as solid as a fire hydrant.

Then, about a year ago, I got the first indication that victory might be near. (Nearer. Nearing.) When I administered the customary swift kick, I heard a sharp crack, and the stump moved.

I still couldn’t dislodge it, but for the first time, it was slightly loose and wobbly.

Several trips to the cemetery later, just a few weeks ago, I administered the kick that proved to be final and victorious.

One evening after supper, on a lark, I drove to the cemetery and walked out to the pastor’s grave. There was the stump, old and worn, still wobbly, but still, literally, holding its ground.

This time, my kick succeeded.

I applied it smartly, as usual. To my amazement, the stump popped out of the ground, sailed a few feet, and landed on the grass with a thump. I stood there, blinking in disbelief.

After 12 years, the deed was done. The tree and the stump — gone at last.

And, by God, I prevailed. That tree was tenacious, but not as tenacious as me.

* In hindsight, I realize that entering a cemetery with a sledgehammer was a foolish move. I could have been arrested for intent to deface grave markers.

Stump

Rocky 1, tree 0.

 

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One of my go-to spots for a pleasant walk in the woods these days is Sandy Creek Nature Center in Athens. SCNC is a 225-acre park, half woodlands and half wetlands, located where Sandy Creek and the North Oconee River merge on their way south.

The park features several miles of trails, a visitor center, a small museum, classrooms, and a gift shop. Activities include classes on woodsy lore, programs for kids, nature walks, etc. It’s a good place to get your nature fix.

SCNC-1

By now, I know the park thoroughly. I’m familiar with all the trails, the terrain, and the various features that help make the place interesting — such as a reconstructed log house from the early 1800s and the ruins of an old brick-making factory.

A topo map of the park would show a long, elevated center ridge dropping off to lowlands on both sides. The river on the west and the creek on the east have created extensive wetlands, some seasonal and some permanent.

Even in dry seasons, the wetland areas are mostly boggy and impassable. And, being important habitat for plants and animals, the swamps and ponds are the pride of the park staff.

Claypit Pond

A century ago, long before the park existed, human activity had a major impact on this locale. In 1906, the Georgia Brick Company built a factory here on a hill overlooking Sandy Creek. Using a newly-patented “tunnel kiln,” which was six feet in diameter and 300 feet long, the company produced 25,000 bricks per day.

SCNC-2

Ruins of the old brick factory. Ironically, a fire put the company out of business in 1923.

This being North Georgia, the red clay soil needed to manufacture bricks is, literally, underfoot everywhere. Georgia Brick Co. excavated it at the bottom of the hill where the factory stood.

As the years passed, the excavation site became a small lake thanks to rainfall, flooding from Sandy Creek, and the work of beavers. It’s known today as Claypit Pond.

SCNC-3

Claypit Pond.

The south end of Claypit Pond has a well-defined shore, but the north end does not. It tapers off to swamp and bog, varying with the amount of water present at the time.

Now that I’m aware of the pond’s ebbs and flows, I have a habit of noting its size when I go walking at the park. The difference from visit to visit is easy to see.

The Beavers

Beavers are fascinating creatures. As you probably know, they are large rodents adapted for an aquatic life. Adults usually weight 40 or 50 pounds and live 10 to 20 years.

Beavers have large, sharp front teeth — incisors — that are designed for serious incising. Their hind feet are webbed for swimming. Their large, flat tails are used (1) as a rudder when they swim, (2) as a prop when they are sitting upright, and (3), when they smack the water sharply, as a way to warn the group of danger.

A beaver’s mission in life is to modify the environment to its advantage, usually by building dams. At a spot where water is running, the beaver will collect fallen branches, cut down small trees, and assemble them to block the moving water.

Why? Because it creates a pond of deeper water that helps protect the lodge and the beavers from predators. It also creates a new area of calm water where aquatic vegetation will grow, thus providing a food source for the beavers.

In addition, new vegetation will sprout around the edges of the pond — another source of food and building material. As a bonus, the new vegetation filters contaminants from the water in the pond.

Typically, beavers eat the tender parts of the plants they harvest, store some for future consumption, and use the rest as construction material. They are most active at night, working from sundown to sunrise and resting in their lodges during the day.

Beavers have lived in Claypit Pond for as long as the staff can recall. The beaver lodge in the middle of the pond is about six feet high and is hard to miss.

SCNC-4

A typical colony consists of four to eight related beavers. They will accept no outsiders in the group and will drive off any newcomers who try to settle too close to their territory.

When their own offspring become sexually mature at about two years old, they are booted out of the colony. In most cases, the youngsters go out into the world, find a mate and a suitable spot, and start a colony of their own.

Apparently, that is what happened at SCNC this year.

If the park staff is right, and they probably are, a young male recently left the Claypit Pond colony, moved to a spot north of the Audubon Society Bird Blind (see map), and constructed a new dam. And a fine dam it is, worthy of a seasoned veteran beaver.

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The new dam flooded the swampy area behind it, creating a new pond that, for the moment, extends north almost to the high ground at Cook’s Trail.

Accordingly, an area of the park that once looked like this…

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… now looks like this.

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The question now: is the pond a permanent feature? Will it survive the dry season? I’m curious to find out.

Beavers are a good example of why we should be in awe of the natural world. Amazing ecological systems are all around us — systems that evolved to perform important functions, even if we don’t understand them — systems that can perform virtual feats of magic when people don’t get in the way.

SCNC-9

A few weeks ago, someone left this stone next to the Claypit Pond Trail. I don’t know if it’s an offering, a statement, a celebration, or what, but I sure agree with the sentiment.

 

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In Remembrance

This is a feel-good story about people and families, although it’s tempered with a measure of sadness. It seems fitting as we enter a new year, a time when the old steps aside for the new.

———

Here in Jefferson, the local hotspot on weekends is the Pendergrass Flea Market, billed as the largest indoor flea market in Georgia. Indeed, the place is sprawling, chaotic, and crowded.

PFM

Over time, the PFM has evolved into a social gathering spot for area Hispanics, and, to a lesser extent, various Asian groups. Much of the merchandise reflects that fact.

Maybe you aren’t in the market for Mexican pottery, oriental spices, cell phone cases, boom boxes, Iron Maiden tee-shirts, imported toys, imitation jewelry, pony rides, tools, tires, or live chickens, but the fresh produce is plentiful, and the food court has an array of authentic international cuisine.

The PFM began as an ordinary flea market operated, then as now, by Anglos. Likewise, while many of the vendors are Hispanic and Asian, just as many are locals of European stock.

One of them is my amiable friend Tony, a fellow divorcé and retiree.

Tony is a builder, a tinkerer, a hands-on kind of guy. In the same way that Trump golfs and I busy myself with wordsmithing, Tony enjoys woodworking. Behind his house is an elaborate workshop where he spends his days, and many nights, building planters, birdhouses, benches, side tables, and whatever else strikes his fancy.

On Saturdays and Sundays, you will find Tony at his booth at Pendergrass Flea Market, selling his creations.

Tony-1

Tony-2

Tony rented the booth a few years ago as an experiment, to see if sales would make it worthwhile. He seemed hopeful, but not optimistic. And, I gather, sales were slow at first.

But he stayed with it, and, over time, business improved. And continued improving. Soon, he was spending much of the week in the workshop to prepare for the weekend ahead. He also branched out and began making seasonal items for the various holidays.

One Saturday before Christmas, I stopped at the flea market to see how Tony was doing. His booth was brimming with woodcraft, including quite a few Christmas-themed items. Most notable: dozens of colorful paintings on rustic 4”x4” pieces of wood — Santas, Christmas trees, snowflakes, snowmen, elves, and more.

Had Tony painted them? Did his skills transcend woodworking?

No, he said, they were painted by his mom, an artist and author who lived on the other side of Atlanta.

To be clear, I know Tony only casually. I knew little about his family or his daily life. His mother was an artist and a writer? Interesting.

This is what Tony told me about his mother Marge.

She was born in Ohio, got married, had four children. She was a Registered Nurse by profession. Eventually, the family moved to Kennesaw, Georgia, where she worked at a local hospital until her retirement. Before long, she founded a private nursing service and ran it for the next decade.

Marge was an accomplished painter, working in oil, acrylic, and watercolor. She published five books. Her cooking skills and singing voice were widely acknowledged.

She was widowed in 2002. In 2015, at age 85, she toured Europe with friends.

Tony and his siblings were quite prolific. Marge had 13 grandchildren and 27 great-grandchildren.

In early 2017, Marge called Tony with a business proposition. If he would give her a supply of rustic wood squares, she would paint them with scenes suitable for Halloween, Christmas, and other holidays. Tony could sell them in his booth, and they could split the profits.

This was not a lady fading into her dotage.

Tony made and delivered several dozen 4”x4” squares. She demanded more.

He furnished more. She demanded more again.

In the end, she painted about 350 wood squares, all initialed, dated, and equipped with a ribbon for hanging. As each holiday arrived, Tony displayed and sold the appropriate paintings.

One of her favorite subjects, he told me, was an angel. Marge had painted about 50 of them. Tony figured they would be the hit of the Christmas season.

In November, after a long life of good health, Marge suffered a sudden and fatal stroke at age 87.

Because of his mother’s fondness for the angels, Tony decided not to sell them. Instead, he gave one to each of the 40 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, in remembrance of Marge.

The proceeds from the sale of her other paintings will go to her favorite charities.

When Tony finished telling me all this, I turned away and began perusing Marge’s paintings. It helped me maintain my composure.

At that point, I badly wanted one of her paintings. Any would do. I chose this one.

Snowman

I may leave it up after the holidays. Just, you know, in remembrance.

 

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