My wife doesn’t get to see her cousin, Bree, who lives in Texas, very often. This past summer while we were in Ankeny, Iowa, Bree was visiting her sister, Kelly, in Runnells, just southeast of Des Moines. A mere 30 minute drive - we went down to visit.
A cookout was planned for dinner. Kelly diced potatoes, sliced mushrooms and other veggies to roast in the oven. I boiled the brats in beer, Melissa put her special touch on the baked beans and Kelly’s husband, Kris, stood by, ready to man the grill. The team effort paid off as we ate well. Very well.
Night time came. With the promise of a trip to an amusement park the next day, the kids had to go to bed a little early. Kelly and Kris said goodnight to their daughter, Jadyn, and son, Jax, sending them off to bed. Bree sent her son, Max, to bed, then seemed to prepare for battle.
A combination of being in a house that was not his own, adults still being up, additional company in the house, and the anticipation of the amusement park the next day, would cause any nine-year-old boy a good bout of insomnia. Such was the case for poor young Max. Telling him to go to sleep that night was as ineffective as it would be on Christmas Eve. Shortly after being put to bed, Max reappeared in the kitchen.
Bree took Max back to bed again; then again, and again. On the last trip to the bedroom, Bree issued the final warning: “If you don’t stay in bed this time, you’re not going to Adventureland, tomorrow!” Max must have taken her seriously, as he didn’t return to the kitchen again.
The adults congregated around the kitchen and dining area, enjoying cold beers and good conversation; telling stories, catching up, and reminiscing about the old days. All the while, my mind was distracted by an upcoming business meeting. It was the kind of business you would rather conduct in your own home, but that wasn’t possible tonight.
As my tummy grumbled, Melissa announced, “Hey! The Perseids meteor showers are going on.” Then suggested, “Let’s go out on the deck to watch for them.” “Good idea!” I replied with sincere enthusiasm. The adults made a line and marched single-file, through the door, out to the deck...all except me. I lagged behind, anticipating a moment alone.
Everyone was outside. The kids were all in bed; even Max, who hadn’t been seen nor heard from in nearly thirty minutes. It was quiet time; this was my chance. I headed for the board room, so to speak, around the corner.
I pulled the door closed, pushing the button to lock the handle and turned on the fan. I checked to assure the necessary paper work was on hand to conduct such a meeting. Everything being in order, this meeting could be kept short and I would be able to adjourn, rejoining the company without anyone even noticing my brief absence. I turned around, prepared to take my seat and call the meeting to order.
Just then the vanity door flung open violently, slamming into the wall with a loud bang! A high pitched, frightful, shrieking, “RRRArrrhhh!” came from the cavity of the cabinet, where there was thumping and commotion going on.
“This house is possessed!” I thought to myself, nearly jumping out of my skin. I screamed like a girl! “Sweet Lord Jesus, save me!” I cried out, looking toward the heavens for refuge.
Suddenly, something wiggled and slithered out from the cabinet. It was like watching a fast forwarded movie of a caterpillar awkwardly emerging from it cocoon. It would turn into the monster that was to devour me! The creature stood upright. It was skinny; bone white; wearing nothing but a pair of black brief underwear. For a moment I thought it might be Batman without his cape, mask, leotards and super-hero boots. The creature lunged toward me, laughing hysterically in my face, it taunted, “I got you! I got you Tom!”
I immediately denied it, “You didn’t get me! I knew you were in there all the time!” He responded with shrilling laughter, “No you didn’t! I got you good!” Before I could retaliate, the white creature threw the locked door open and escaped running away, down the hall, laughing, “I got you! I got you...”
I heard his feet thumping on the staircase. He was going to retreat to his bed before his mother found out he was up again. He had committed his heinous crime, then fled the scene and he was going to get away with it. Where is the Justice?
Still in shock, I stood there, breathing heavily; my heart racing. I thanked the Lord for saving me from the accident that could have easily happened. Since I no longer had to go, I buckled my belt, washed my hands and joined the rest of the adults on the deck. I told the others what had happened, and we all enjoyed a good laugh.
Pointing to the sky, someone said, “Wow! Look at that one.” Someone else declaring, “There’s another!” Meteors zipping across the sky offered entertainment to all, except me. My mind was still on the conference room where a business meeting should have been held, but was abruptly cancelled.
My thought was, “You better watch your back, Max Meyers! I’m not going to forget this! Revenge will be mine!” Instead, I smiled conceding to his victory.
“Well played, sir. Very well played.”
Tom can be reached at Facebook.com/tom.palen.98
Every parent with more than one child has dealt with it. On a long roadtrip after the kids have played numerous rounds of the “Alphabet Game,” finding all the letters on signs; when they’ve worn out the game of “I Spy With My Little Eye...” you come up with new suggestions for them. “See how many license plates you can find from different states,” or one of my favorites, “Let’s name the capitols of every state.” You sing songs - as many as you can think of—and still, they get bored.
Out of boredom, the kids will taunt one another. Bickering back and forth, “Stay on your own side;” and “that’s mine!” are commonly heard. “Eventually comes the plea, “Dad, will you tell her to stop touching me!”
As the parents, you do the right thing: turn up the radio and act like you don’t hear it for as long as you can. You hope they they will work matters out on their own without your intervention. Sometimes the childish behavior can be very humorous, though you dare not laugh out loud—that could weaken your position of authority.
Eventually centrifugal force will take over. The smallest curve in the road can cause one child to lean or slide into the the other child, pressing them against the side wall of the car. “So sorry. Dad took that corner kind of fast.” For every action there is an opposite and equal reaction - except in this scenario where each reaction becomes a little stronger than the one before. They will push their foot against the side of the floor board, pressing even harder to emphasize dad’s erratic driving.
Saving the ultimate threat as your ace in the hole, you use the three system: “You’d better both be on your own sides of the car by the time I count to three! One! Two!” Generally order has been restored by the count of two. But, order never lasts long and you are forced to count again. The children become willing to test you, so you resort to fractions. “One! Two! Two and a half! Two and three quarters! Two and seven-eighths! Two and fifteen-sixteenth’s ...”
You soon realize you lost them at “two and a half!” Their dispute will continue until you finally snap. “That’s it! I have had enough!” You declare, then unleash the ultimate threat, the grand-daddy of them all: “Do NOT make me pull this car over!”
Such a threat is usually effective. If not, a deceleration and light touch on the brakes, while letting the tires touch the rumble strips, or gravel shoulder will instantly bring an angelic change in juvenile behavior. All the while you’re left wondering what would happen if you did pull the car over? You might end up being like a dog chasing a car - what’s he gonna do if he catches one?
Traveling with pets is no different.
Our cat, Edgar, thinks he’s funny. He is small enough, he can sleep most anywhere he wants in the car - but, he chooses to sleep in the big space that belongs to our dog, June. My wife and I both told Edgar to move. Aloof to our orders, he acted like he couldn’t hear us.
June said, “Edgar, please get out of my spot.” Edgar smiled with his eyes closed and didn’t budge. June said, “Edgar, move and let me lay down. I’m tired.” Edgar continued smiling with his eyes closed and replied, “I can’t hear you. I’m asleep.” June gave in, “Fine Edgar, I’ll share my space with you.” June sat down in the seat laying her head on the top of the seat back.
Edgar woke up. In shock and disbelief he said, “You are not sitting on my head! Yes, you are. You’re sitting on my head.” Edgar opened one eye, his other eye pressed shut. “You’re squishing my face June! Get off my face right now!” He demanded.
June sighed and said, “I can’t hear you. I’m sleeping.”
Oh the joys of traveling with children.
Tom can be reached for comment at Facebook.com/tom.palen.98
I’m sure every kid has done it at some point. I know I did on more than one occasion. I sat in school, trying to focus on an assignment, wondering, “Why do I have to learn this? I’m never going to use this in real life.” The subject could have been math, English, history, or any course that didn’t seem interesting to me at the time.
Thankfully, my teachers were very persistent and they pushed me to get the work done. As life goes on, I find myself saying, “I wish I would have paid more attention in...” far more often than the times I asked “Why do I have to learn this?”
In my senior year of high school, I took vocational auto mechanics. Three hours every day - fourth, fifth and sixth periods. As a kid, I dreamed of being an over-the-road truck driver and in high school I thought this is a class where I will learn things I might actually use someday.
In this class we did more than just study the books. We did a lot of hands-on work; from oil changes to tune-ups, we changed shocks and struts and replaced exhaust systems. We rebuilt starters and alternators. We learned how to analyze a car, determine the problem, and fix it. It was a fun class and I was learning things I could actually use in real life.
Ken Corbett was the auto mechanics teacher; a very neat, well groomed man. Every day, he wore a pressed, dark green mechanics shirt tucked into his matching pants. He always wore a belt and polished black work shoes. Somehow he never seemed to get dirty. He was a fair man, often gruff and to the point, but he had a soft side too, and I really liked him.
One Friday, after taking attendance, he asked, “Who wants to do a complete engine overhaul on a little four cylinder Bobcat?” For those who don’t remember, the Bobcat, made by Mercury, was basically the same car as the Ford Pinto. No one was raising their hand.
If he would have asked us to overhaul a Chevy Camaro, a Ford Mustang, or a Dodge Charger, every kid in the room would have been waving their hand in the air, bouncing out of their seats, begging for rights to that project.
I looked at my buddy, Kenny Ware, and quietly asked, “Do you want to do the overhaul together? Me and you?” “Sure, why not? It’ll be fun.” He said. I raised my hand, “Palen?” Mr. Corbett said, “Do you want to do it?” Waving my finger between myself and my friend, I answered, “Kenny and I will work on it together.”
Mr. Corbett turned around and wrote on the chalkboard, “Bobcat. Palen and Ware.” While he was writing, he said, “It will be here Monday. Make sure any projects you’re working on get finished up today, because you’ll be on the Bobcat every day until it’s done,” He turned back toward us. Taking a red shop rag from his back pocket, he wiped white chalk dust from his hands, “Unless you’re waiting for parts. Then you can squeeze in some other small projects.”
Monday came. Kenny and I looked around the parking lot outside the shop, but we didn’t see a Bobcat. “It must already be inside.” Kenny said. “Yeah, it must be.” I agreed. We went inside and looked in the shop. There weren’t any cars inside yet. “We must have overlooked it in the parking lot.” Kenny said. “Yeah, we must have.” I agreed. The bell was about to ring and anyone who wasn’t in their seat when it rang would be marked down as being tardy. Kenny and I rushed to our seats.
The bell rang. Mr. Corbett sat at his desk and called out names. A response of “here” or “present.” followed each name called. He called out “Ware?” “Hey.” Was Kenny’s reply. Mr. Corbett laid down his yellow, number two pencil, looked over the top of his glasses, sighed and said, “Mr. Ware. You may answer ‘here’ or ‘present.’ You will not answer ‘hey.’ Hay is for horses and we work on cars in this class - not buggies.” He picked his pencil up again, “Ware?” He called out. “Here.” Kenny answered.
Mr. Corbett stood up and went over the schedule of who would be working on what projects for the day. “I don’t want any cars pulled in until the Bobcat gets here. It’s going to be here awhile. We’ll put it in the front space, so it doesn’t have to be moved once the engine is pulled.”
About that time we heard the garage door open and a fairly high pitched humming noise that sounded more like the hydraulic transmission of a tractor than a car. The engine was coughing and backfiring. It didn’t sound good at all. Everyone jumped up from their desks and ran to the shop.
Larry Claybaugh, the auto body teacher, pulled up in a Bobcat - not a Mercury, but a skid steer Bobcat. He lowered the front bucket to the floor, turned off the engine and climbed out of the cage. “What is this?” Kenny asked. Mr. Corbett walked to the side of the machine, pointing individually to each big red letter, he read them out loud. “B-O-B-C-A-T. Bobcat.” He said, grinning. “This must be the Bobcat you and Palen are going to overhaul.” The whole class was laughing; everyone except Kenny and me.
“Uh - We assumed you were talking about a Mercury Bobcat.” I objected. “You know what happens when you assume...you should have asked more questions before taking the project.” He replied. Kenny protested, “But we thought you were talking about a Mercury.” Corbett wasn’t going to budge. “Life isn’t always what you think it’s going to be.” He said, “Now get to work.”
“We can’t overhaul this!” I insisted. “Why not?” Corbett barked back. “We don’t know how.” I answered. Mr. Corbett just shook his head, “You didn’t know how to time an engine when you got here either. I taught you how to do it. You’re not here because you already know how to do all this. You’re here to learn.” He handed me a thick service manual, “Now, you can start by reading this and learn how to pull the engine out of a Bobcat.”
Mr. Corbett turned and looked at the rest of the class, who were standing around to see how this event would play out. “I thought I gave you all your assignments. Let’s get on them - unless you’d rather go back to the classroom where I can give you a three-hour written test.” The boys scattered about the shop to start their work.
Mr. Corbett walked back over to Kenny and me. His softer side came out. “Boys, quit worrying. You’re making this more than it is. Once you’ve pulled the motor, it’s just another four-cylinder engine. You’ve got the overhaul manual and you’ve got me when you have questions.” He paused to let that sink in.
He opened the big steel door on the back of the Bobcat. The latch handle was greasy. He looked at his hand, then his gruff tone returned, “You’re going to need an engine hoist to lift that back door off. It’s heavy, so call me when you’re ready. I’m going to help you do that - I don’t want anyone getting hurt...” He pulled a red shop rag from his back pocket and wiped the grime from his hand as he turned and walked away, “Bower! What are you doing? That’s not where you’re supposed to be...that starter isn’t going to install itself! Now get to work!”
I thought about Mr. Corbett the other day. Cars have changed so much, I wouldn’t even begin to know how to overhaul an engine. Honestly, since high school, I’ve only changed my own oil half a dozen times or so. After I purchase five quarts of oil, the filter and such, I’d only save a few bucks and I have to figure out what to do with the old oil. It’s just easier to let the shop do it. As much fun as I had in Ken Corbett’s auto mechanics class, in hindsight, I could have said; “I’m never going to use any of this in real life.”
Being on the road as much as I have this year, I’ve managed to neglect and put off projects at home that need to be done. One of those projects is cutting, splitting and stacking firewood for the upcoming winter. I was getting worried that if I waited much longer, the wood won’t be seasoned, dry enough to burn.
Loggers generally don’t want to deliver less than a full truckload of logs, which would be about a fifteen-year supply of wood for us. That’s way too much! Plus, getting a semi truck down our narrow little road would be way more work than it was worth. I only needed two full cords at the most, which, cut and stacked makes about six face cords of firewood. I found a logger who would sell me the smaller amount of wood, if I could pick it up myself. Fortunately, I have my trusty dump truck, Old Blue. She’ll hold exactly one full cord at a time. I came home with my first load of logs.
I would cut the eight-foot logs into 16” lengths while they were in the truck, then split them with my log splitter and stack them.
The chainsaw was running great and I had new chains with really sharp teeth. The logs were cutting easy and soon I had a big pile. I shut off the saw and jumped out of the truck to start splitting the logs.
I pushed the little bulb to prime the engine on the log splitter, turned on the choke, set the throttle about half open, then pulled the cord. Then, pulled the cord again and again! Stupid log splitter! I pulled and pulled, but it wouldn’t start. Maybe I flooded the engine. I let it sit awhile, then tried again. I pulled again and again and again until my arm literally hurt. In frustration, I kicked the tire and cursed the log splitter. It was getting dark anyway, so I picked up my tools and called it a night.
The next morning, I tried to start the machine again. It still wouldn’t start. I called Jeff, a friend who has done some mechanical work on my truck. “Can you work on a small engine; a Briggs and Stratton?” I asked him. Jeff said that he could, “Give me a call Wednesday.” I forgot, I was calling him on Labor Day. Darn!
I needed to get this wood cut. I had a road trip coming up later in the week, and I was worried my firewood wouldn’t have time to cure before the heating season, plus, I still had another load to pick up after this.
Maybe the air filter was plugged. I removed the cover. It looked good, but I went ahead and cleaned it anyway. I pulled the cord. Nothing. Maybe the fuel is bad. I removed the fuel line and drained the tank. I filled it with fresh gas and tried to start it again. Nothing. I removed the spark plug wire. If I could keep it close to the plug tip and pull the starter rope, I would be able to see if it was getting a spark. The spark plug was on the front of the motor and the starter cord was on the back. I couldn’t do both.
I got my socket wrench and removed the spark plug. It was pretty dirty. I called the auto parts store to see if they had this type plug, but no one answered. I called the hardware store on a chance they would have it; again, no one answered the phone. “Why isn’t anyone answering their phone?” I asked aloud, then answered myself, “Because it’s Labor Day, that’s why.”
I went to the garage and found a couple clean shop rags. I soaked the end of one with clean gasoline and wiped the oil from the tip of the plug. There was still crud between the electrode and the ground electrode. I smiled because I knew the proper names of the parts of a spark plug. I used the thicker hem of my t-shirt to run through the gap and remove the build up.
I recalled Ken Corbett telling me, “Never blow on a spark plug with your mouth. You’ll end up spitting on it and it won’t fire if it’s wet. Use the air hose.” After blowing the spark plug clean with an air hose, I reinstalled it in the motor.
I gave the engine two pumps on the gasoline primer, opened the choke and set the throttle halfway. “Come on baby! Show me some magic.” I said, then pulled the cord once. The engine sputtered and died. I pulled the cord again, and bamo! She was running! I let it warm up for a few moments, then closed the choke and pushed the throttle to high! She was running “smooth as a baby’s bottom,” Mr Corbett used to say.
I picked up the first log, set it in the cradle and pulled the level. The hydraulic cylinder extended smoothly, pushing the steel wedge to the big log. The motor beared down. The machine whined and growled a bit. There was the sound of cracking wood and the log snapped, splitting into two pieces and falling to either side of the machine. I put my hands in the air and danced, “Yes! Yes! You show that log who’s boss!”
I looked up to the sky, still dancing, “Thank you, Mr. Corbett!” I could see him smiling, as teachers will do when a student follows their direction and something goes exactly as it should. I think I heard him answer, “See, Palen? See the trouble a dirty spark plug can cause and how a clean spark plug will fix your problem.” I could also imagine him saying, “Don’t stand there patting yourself on the back. Those logs aren’t going to split themselves. Get to work.”
I took a clean shop rag from my back pocket, wiped the grease from my hands, then tucked the rag back in my pocket again. I put my gloves on, looked at the wood splitter and said, “Here we go baby, let’s get this done.” and I picked up another log and set it in the cradle.
As I worked, I thought about the pioneers and how hard they must have worked to cut and split enough wood by hand to last a winter; keeping an uninsulated building at a comfortable fifty degrees. History. I looked at each log deciding how many pieces to cut it into. Math. I wrote this story and thought: did the log splitter bear down? Or bare down? English.
I smiled, thinking about how many times I questioned, “Why do I have to learn this? I’m never going to use this in real life anyway!” I looked at my completed stacked piles of wood; enough for the winter, then I thanked every teacher who pressed me to get the assignment done, whether I wanted to, or not.
Tom can be reached for comment at Facebook.com/tom.palen.98
Driving down West Howard Street on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I noticed two young ladies, actually little girls, sitting behind a table on the corner. They hollered and waved vigorously at me as I went by. I gave them a return toot of the horn. A lemonade stand. How cute! I dug into my pocket to find the smallest bill I had on me was a twenty.
The site took me back a bunch of years to Madison, Wisconsin. Along with my siblings, we would set up Kool-Aid stands. As enterprising youth, we hoped to make a few dollars. “Who knows?” I thought back then, “If this works well, I could make a living at this. The problem was that we lived on the dead-end block of our road. There wasn’t enough traffic going by our house, and honestly, we drank all the product ourselves.
I had an idea. We should move our stand one block to the west onto Buckeye Road. It was a busy street with a lot of traffic. That we did and we made pretty good money at ten cents per glass.
There were some logistical problems; whenever our pitcher ran dry, we had to send someone a block away to replenish our stock. We lost business when people would stop to buy a glass of Kool-Aid and we didn’t have the merchandise on hand to serve them. Although we assured them it would only be a couple minutes until more Kool-Aid arrived, they were not willing to wait.
“You have to run faster.” We would tell the one going for a fresh pitcher. Running with a full pitcher caused spillage and made for some very sticky staff. We learned to use two pitchers, which solved the problem, but there were other issues.
Disputes arose over whose turn it was to run back to the house for more Kool-Aid, which led to the question, who is the boss? There were heated conversations as to whom should work which position and who would handle the money. I personally enjoyed the marketing end of the business - that is, hollering and waving vigorously to draw the attention of drivers going by.
The troubles within our business were becoming increasingly more difficult to overcome. When Mom’s sugar canister was empty, we tried making a pitcher of fruit flavored Kool-Aid without sugar. That didn’t go over well and the customers complained - some even asked for their dime back. Poor product quality and turmoil amongst the staff led to our company shutting down.
Despite the few issues, we had fun. At the end of the day we were hot and sticky. We did well, but when we divided our receipts among the partners, we ended up with only around a buck each. I decided there had to be an easier way for a eleven year old kid to make a living. That’s when I discovered Grit Magazine. Media! That’s where the real money was...but that’s a different story.
I pulled the twenty dollar bill from my pocket and continued to drive to the Kwik-Trip at the corner of Baker and Broadway streets. I bought a medium size cup of ice with a lid and a red straw. Now I had plenty of smaller bills and some change; enough for a glass of lemonade and a tip.
Returning to their location on Howard Street, I signaled to turn left, parking on the side road. With my cup of ice in hand, I walked toward their stand. A small square table, painted white, had two standard size sheets of paper hanging down, taped to the front. Each bearing a hand-drawn advertisement in colorful crayon. In the breeze the signs were pushed back at an angle under the table top and I couldn’t read them.
Behind the table were two small wooden chairs, painted pink. They looked like miniature, old fashioned, oak school teacher’s chairs. On the table top there was a pitcher of pink lemonade with two poured glasses to the side, a container of ice cubes and a cash box. Spare glasses were in a box below the table.
“Would you like to buy some lemonade?” One of the girls asked. “How much is it?” I inquired. In unison, they answered, “Fifty cents.” I smiled, “Do you girls negotiate prices for a larger purchase?” They looked blankly at each other. “How much would you charge me to fill this cup with lemonade?” Both girls turned to their supervisor for advice, who was sitting in a lawn chair behind them, reading a book.
Dad closed his book and spoke up. “To negotiate means he’s asking you to give him a price to fill a bigger cup than what you’re serving.” “How much should we charge?” Asked one of the girls. Dad was going to make them do the math, “How many of your cups will it take to fill his bigger cup.” The girls studied the glasses for a moment, then answered, “Probably two.” Dad then asked, “and how much are two glasses of lemonade?” They smiled, knowing the answer, and replied together, “One dollar.”
Dad then explained, “Okay, but since he’s buying in bulk and he brought his own cup and ice, you should give him a little price break. How about seventy-five cents?” The two girls looked back at me and said, “Seventy-five cents, sir.”
“Well,” I said rubbing my chin, “my cup might hold a little more than two glasses, so how about one dollar and you fill it to the top?” “Okay,” they replied.
One of the girls held my cup steady with two hands while the other picked up their pitcher, also with both hands. Her tongue was sticking out a bit from the corner of her mouth as she focused on pouring the lemonade without spilling it. My cup held nearly all the lemonade that was left in their pitcher. She stopped pouring when the glass was full, within a half inch of the top. “Perfect!” I said.
The girl set the pitcher down and said, “That will be one dollar, please.” I snapped the lid on my cup and handed her a bill, “Here’s one dollar for the lemonade,” I said, then handed another dollar to her partner, “and here’s a tip for your great service.” With a big grin, she turned and said, “Daddy, we got a tip!” Rightfully so, Dad smiled with pride, “Good job, girls!” He told them.
I took a drink from the straw in my glass and asked, “How long have you two been in business?” One of the girls wrinkled her face with thought then replied, “About and hour and a half.” I followed up, “Has business been good? Are you selling a lot of lemonade?” “Yes,” one girl said, the other added, “Lots of cars have been stopping.” I wished them continued success for the afternoon, and chatted with Dad for a few minutes, telling him what a great job he was doing with his kids.
As I was turning to walk back to my car, the two girls were hollering, “Lemonade!” While waving vigorously at another car. Mom came out the front door of the house with a full, fresh pitcher of lemonade. I started to say, “When I was your age kid, my mom didn’t refill our pitcher - we had to get our own. Had to walk a mile in the scorching heat to get more Kool-Aid; barefoot; in the snow; uphill both ways.” But, then I thought, “Geesh, that makes me sound old.”
As I pulled away in my car, I took another pull of lemonade and thought how summer is nearly over. I wondered: How much better off would this world be if more parents put down their devices and had their kids put down their devices to open a lemonade stand in front of their house, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, on Howard Street in your town, USA.
Tom can be reached for comment at Facebook.com/tom.palen.98
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