by Dave Lager

Chapter 21 – Neshnala’s Saga: 2003

Rolling her eyes in exasperation, not at Frank’s question, but at her difficulty in expressing her thoughts, Ro stammered, “They’re… They’re… I don’t quite know the right word… Comforting? I feel good when I’m in the trees… Really good, like… Like I’m among friends…Energized somehow… But it’s not like I get the so-called runner’s high from the trees, that’s different… It’s more like this feeling of peacefulness…”

“And do you always touch them?”

“Yea, whenever I can, the really old ones, anyway.” She saw herself running along the narrow dirt trails. If an old tree was close to the path she would run her fingers lightly along its rough bark and mutter, “Respect,” as she passed. If it was off the trail – ten, twenty or more feet – she would just point at it and nod her head, again in reverence.

And she always stopped at Neshnala.

Frank cocked his head to one side, asking, but not actually saying, “And…?”

This conversation was turning out to be a lot more “personal” than she had originally thought.
With a sigh, as if she was afraid she was admitting to something that was going to be embarrassing, Ro said, “I’m showing my respect.”

“Oh,” Frank said with a nod, as if that was the most natural of answers, then rather unexpectedly asked, “How many times have you visited Neshnala?”

“Hundreds,” Ro said with a shrug. “The first time I think I was in second grade on a field trip. Bill Cummins” – the recently retired Five Falls park ranger that Frank had replaced – “told us it was believed to be at least 250 years old and that the Sauk Indians that lived in the area called it Neshnala, the Tree of Knowledge. As I said, my dad and I used to hike up to see it all the time and now, whenever I run out here, I always go through the Neshnala meadow.”

“Have you ever touched Neshnala?”

Ro reared back, stunned at the question. For as long as she could remember the tree had been surrounded by a six-foot high chain link fence.


“Would you like to?”

Her mouth dropped open. Of all the life experiences she might wish for, that was one Ro never thought she would or could have. In some corner of her mind she had to have known that Frank, as the park ranger, had the key to the Neshnala fence, but it had never occurred to her to ask him to open it for her and let her in.

“Oh my god, yes,” she said with excitement.

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

The demon keyboard

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

—George Orwell (1903-1950)

No wonder my keyboard seems to have this strange power over me…

Chapter 20 – Neshnala’s Saga: 2003

(This the first in a series of posts excerpted from draft chapters in the next – as yet unpublished − Ro Delahanty novel, “The Berlin Riddle.”)

“Can I ask you a personal question?” Frank said.

“Of course,” Ro answered without hesitation, although she did wonder where this might be going.

They were naked in the narrow, old-fashioned double bed in the master bedroom of Frank’s ranger cottage, still basking in the afterglow of their lovemaking. In the little over two months they’d been a couple it was the first time Ro had stayed with Frank. Sunday night had become “their night,” and up until now Frank had always stayed at Ro’s apartment.

“What’s this thing with you and trees?” he asked, careful to make the question sound casual.

Ro frowned, not because it was a difficult question, but just because it was not the one she had expected. What she’d been afraid of was a more difficult question like, “How do you feel about kids?”

“That’s your personal question?” Ro said, but with a light tone.

“That’s as personal as it gets,” Frank said, adding, “I’m serious. I know you like to run in my woods.” He meant, of course, the miles of wooded hiking and equestrian trails in “his” state park. “And earlier today… Uh, I guess it was yesterday… You went out of your way to lay your hand on the cottonwood next to my patio; it was almost like you were touching the arm of a dear friend. I got curious.”

Frank had grilled steaks for them on the patio off his kitchen the previous afternoon. On the east side of the ranger’s cottage, it looked out across a grassy meadow. A huge old cottonwood flanked the patio on the north.

“Oh,” Ro said, almost like someone who’d been caught doing something they weren’t supposed to. While she knew exactly what Frank was talking about, it did turn out to be a difficult question only because she had never had to articulate her “thing” for trees out loud to anyone before. While Atti, her best friend, knew about Ro’s thing for trees, Atti had never asked her to explain it, had just accepted it as being part of who her friend was.

“Um,” she said, buying for time because she didn’t know where to start.

Frank swung around in the bed and sat facing her, his arms across raised knees; he waited with a patient expression.

Ro, who had been lying on her back, her head on some pillows, pushed herself into a sitting position.

“I guess I’ve had a ‘thing’ – as you call it – for trees,” she said, “for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid my brother and I and neighbor kids liked to play in the woods behind our house. My dad and I would go for hikes on your trails here in the parks. Now, as you said, they are my favorite place for a run.”

“I like to be in the woods, too, Ro. That’s one reason I became a park ranger; I’d much rather be out here than in an office somewhere. But I have the feeling your thing for trees
is more of a ‘thing’ than just a pleasant hike – or run, in your case – through the woods.”

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 19 – Neshnala’s Saga: 2003

At the top of the bluff she chose to follow the Neshnala Loop Trail clockwise, first taking the half-mile section closely paralleling Rock Creek. On her right was the dense green forest covering much of the top of the bluff, oaks and maples and ash, with an occasional open meadow festooned with wildflowers, while on her left Rock Creek tumbled over rocky shoals, with picnic benches every hundred feet or so.

Ro liked this part of the trail. It was flat, the turns were gentle and there weren’t many walkers, so she could really stretch out and gobble up the yards at more than a jog, but not quite a flat out run.

Eventually the trail swung east and dipped and climbed across a huge mowed, park-like meadow dominated by Neshnala. The woods surrounding the meadow had lots of old trees, many so big one person couldn’t put their arms around them, with tall limbs reaching to fifty or sixty feet high…beautiful and impressive in their own right.

But Neshnala was a giant among them. With a circumference of more than twenty feet, three adult men with linked arms couldn’t reach around its great trunk. The gnarled roots at its base were more than forty feet across. Its canopy was nearly two hundred feet wide and reached more than a hundred feet into the sky. And because there were always the thoughtless morons who believed it was cool to carve their initials, or something worse, in Neshnala’s side, the tree was surrounded by a six-foot high chain link fence, so no one could in fact touch it.

As always, she slowed to a walk and circled the tree, taking her time out away from the fence so its presence was less of a distraction. Each time she visited Neshnala she seemed to see something different…. Sometimes it was how the other trees kept their distance, as if out of deference to their wizened neighbor…. Sometimes it was the vibrant green of its canopy, seeming more alive, more energetic than the trees around it…. Sometimes it was the gnarled branches that looked like the knuckles of an old man…. Today she seemed to sense the tree’s roots and how profoundly they delved into the life-giving earth below….

And, as always, she stopped on Neshnala’s west side, because it was where one of the tree’s long branches dipped closest to the ground, perhaps only six or seven feet above her head, so it was where she could feel the most connected to the tree and where a sense of peace and, at the same time, vigor, seemed to spread through her. To her there was no doubt it was coming from the tree, like it was the tree’s gift to anyone who was ready to accept it.

After a few moments Ro closed her eyes and briefly dipped her head to the tree, something she had started years ago. She didn’t know exactly why, except it just felt like the right thing to do. Under her breath she muttered, “Respect,” then took a step back. Her only regret was she couldn’t touch the tree.

Pulling the Gatorade bottle from its holder she took a long drink, then kicked her knees up several times and started her run again, this time turning south to head back toward the bluff. When she reached the edge of the bluff the trail hit a T, with a sign that said the Neshnala Loop continued to the right, to return to the top of the falls, while the Bluff Trail went left.

Ro went left, the trail now just a wide, beaten-down dirt path. By following the Neshnala Loop her run would have been just over two miles, a short one for her. The Bluff Trail continued east along the edge of the bluff, crossed over into the county’s adjacent forest preserve, and eventually dropped down the face of the bluff to the Lower Trail, which ran roughly east to west at the base of the palisades. Adding the Bluff and Lower Trails, altogether her run would be closer to five miles, a more respectable distance for her.

She got back to her car at not quite nine-thirty, used the bathroom, finished her bottle of Gatorade, and headed for home and her usual Monday errands. As she left the state park she felt a mild disappointment she hadn’t seen the green Dodge.

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 18 – Neshnala’s Saga: 2003 (part two)

The main entrance road continued for another half-mile through thick forests, past another road leading to a second campground on her right. Then, as it neared the towering limestone palisades, it swung left and continued for another three-quarters of a mile to end in a large parking lot next to a small man-made lake at the base of the falls.

At not quite eight in the morning, there were only a couple of other cars in the lot.

Ro climbed out of the car, taking her keys but locking the fanny pack inside. She went around to the front of the car, near a picnic bench, and began what she thought of as her own version of a Tai Chi routine, which was, in fact, a series of muscle stretches to get ready for a run. With its slow repetitions and holds of various exercises, it took her a little under three minutes to complete.

Now ready to run, she returned to the car, retrieved the fanny pack with its bottle of Gatorade and clicked it on.

What was known as the Neshnala Loop Trail was a six-foot wide crushed gravel path beginning at the north side of the parking lot, but almost immediately turned into a series of switchbacks as it climbed up the face of the palisades next to the tumbling falls. At the top of the falls the trail became a loop of a little over two-miles following Rock Creek to the north, then swinging to the east through a large meadow where Neshnala stood. Then it curled back south and then west along the edge of the bluff, offering several spectacular overlooks of the Mississippi River and the Illinois shore beyond.

Most visitors found the climb up the switchbacks strenuous, with some even quitting, breathless, less than halfway up. For Ro, it was like the appetizer before a superb meal. She loved the feel of her calves and Achilles tendons stretching and working as she climbed upward, pumping her arms, throwing one foot ahead, rolling forward smoothly, only to bring the other foot forward, to roll forward yet again….

She was aware of her surroundings; there were still some shallow puddles in the gravel from a thunderstorm that had passed through just after midnight and the westerly wind was brisk, playing along the face of the palisades. But the low-70s sun was warm on her face and neck as she climbed back and forth up the bluff face.

At the same time, though, as she always did when she ran, she was slowly withdrawing into herself, focusing on her body. Not specific parts, like certain aching muscles, or lungs gasping for air, or sweat trickling down her side, or sharp rocks poking her through her shoes; but rather on her whole body, on the totality of her experience.

She knew the feeling well. It was what she always sought, was perhaps addicted to, and nearly always achieved when she went for a run, her runner’s Zen. It was easy to use words like “trance-like” or “rapturous” or “runner’s high” to try to explain the feeling, but they were like trying to describe the Grand Canyon to someone who had never seen it, inadequate at best.

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 17 – Neshnala’s Saga: 2003 (part one)

(This is the beginning of several posts excerpted from a chapter in “Ro’s Handle,” the first Ro Delahanty novel. I’ve included it here because it brings the Neshnala Saga into our contemporary timeline: In a sense, this is where the tree’s story has been headed all along. In this post Ro is in her apartment getting ready for a run in Five Falls State Park, which will, as it always does, include a visit to Neshnala. She has just become a Fort Armstrong County Deputy Sheriff, and recently met Frank Reyner, the park ranger, although at this particular point they are not yet boyfriend-girlfriend.)

Going back to the bedroom, Ro made her bed, then pulled off her T-shirt and cut-off sweats and tossed them on the bed. Opening a dresser drawer, she got a pair of white cotton briefs and slipped them on, then pulled a dark blue sports bra over her head and down over her breasts. Standing in front of the mirror, she fitted her thumbs up under the bra just below each armpit and pulled the side of each breast back, in effect flattening herself under the bra for a more comfortable fit.

“Don’t want any bouncy boobs, do we?” she told Peter Panda, a three-foot teddy bear watching from his usual perch atop her dresser.

Over the panties she stepped into a pair of loose fitting dark blue running shorts and over the bra pulled on a dark blue T-shirt. For her feet were white cotton footies and Merrell Ascend Glove trail running shoes. Heftier than regular running shoes, they were built for the uneven and often obstacle-strewn woodland trails she favored. The finishing touch was her “official” running hat, a battered Chicago Cubs cap, not because she was a Cubs fan, she wasn’t any team’s fan, but because it was a valued gift from Tuck, her brother. A big St. Louis Cardinals fan, he had gotten the hat as a joke in a Christmas white elephant gift exchange in high school and had given it to his sister.

Taking a dark leather fanny pack from its hook in the closet, she added her wallet and ID, keys, cell phone, and a granola bar to the front section, and her Glock 19 – her off-duty sidearm − and an extra magazine, retrieved from the gun safe in her study, to their elastic holding straps in the back section. A half-liter water bottle filled with orange flavored Gatorade would go in an elastic holder next to the pouch.

The drive from her apartment to Five Falls State Park and the adjoining Fort Armstrong County Great River Forest Preserve took only a few minutes. Between them they covered over two thousand acres in the southwest corner of the county; but the biggest attractions were in the state park.

A limestone outcropping had created a series of spectacular palisades facing the Mississippi River. Rock Creek had over the centuries cut a gap through the rocks, creating a series of waterfalls, some dropping nearly twenty feet, before emptying into the Mississippi. It was how the park had gotten its name.

On top of the bluff toward the back of the park was Neshnala. It was accessible by a road off County Line Road, which bordered the state park on the west, and was a popular field trip for school children, families and Sunday drivers. Ro as a student, and Ro with her family, and Ro as an adult runner had probably visited Neshnala several hundred times over the years.

The main entrances to the state park and the forest preserve were below the bluff, off State Route 20, popularly known as the Makuakeeta Road, because that was the next town it reached. Neither park had a day use fee, so Ro simply waved to the attendant as she rolled by the registration and information booth several hundred feet from the state park’s entrance.

As she passed a crossroad leading to one of the campgrounds on the left and to the ranger’s station some hundred yards to the right, she glanced in that direction, thinking she might see the park ranger’s green Dodge pickup. It wasn’t there, or at least not where she could see it.

She felt a twinge of anticipation. “Maybe he’s out and around in the park and I’ll bump into him,” she thought. But then second-guessed herself: “Hey, what do you care? You came here for a run, like you’ve done lots of times.”

Except, try as she might to dismiss the idea, she knew she did care, at least a little.

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 16 – Neshnala’s Saga: 1990 (part two)

Like “Kentucky” Coates before her when he’d crossed the creek and saw Neshnala for the first time, Ro was stopped dead in her tracks by the tree’s awesome size. And, again, like Coates, her breath left her in an audible sigh and her mouth dropped open in amazement.

One of her classmates even had to gently, but firmly push her aside.

“Hey, get out of the way, Ro,” the girl had said, more concerned about chasing down a boy who’d made some snarky remark about the size of her butt than the reason they’d come to the park in the first place.

Perhaps like the Sauk Holy Man some two centuries ago, or Coates a century ago, although she didn’t know it, Ro was – unlike her classmates − “ready” to be moved by tree’s overpowering presence. Even as a small child she had already begun to display her special feeling for the woods – what she would later come to think of as her “tree thing” − that would be such a vital force in her life; she loved playing with her brother and cousin in the narrow grove of trees that separated her house from the golf course behind them, and had a particular affinity for a stately old shagbark hickory in the grove.

Ro glanced around, half expecting to see some ‒ most? ‒ of her classmates similarly awestruck. Instead, what she saw was a bunch of kids suddenly freed from their usual classroom behavior restraints, running around, shouting, laughing, tussling; clearly, they weren’t that impressed by an “old tree.”

But she was…

As Miss Landin tried to corral her rambunctious seven and eight-year-olds and start them walking toward the tree to meet Mr. Cummins, the park ranger, Ro couldn’t contain her excitement and headed for the tree ahead of the others, striding along a gravel path ‒ it was part of what the park called the Neshnala Loop Trail and would, eight years from now, when she could drive on her own, become one or her favorite places to go for a long run.

So, she was the first to reach the fence… Fence?

At first, she was confused by the six-foot high chain-link barrier that surrounded the tree, some forty feet out from its base. Although she hadn’t specifically thought about it, she’d assumed she and her classmates would be able to get up close to and even touch the great tree, just like she loved touching the old shagbark hickory.

Later, when Mr. Cummins explained the fence was there to protect the tree from vandals who would harm it, like carving their initials in its bark, she understood, but was still disappointed.

It was Mr. Cummins who explained to the now gathered class that the tree’s name, Neshnala, meant “Tree of Knowledge” and that the Native Americans who had lived in the area several hundred years ago believed the tree was sacred. Of course, this produced snide giggles and contemptuous snorts, which added even more to her disenchantment with her classmates − didn’t they get it?

For Ro Delahanty, Neshnala was not merely an old tree! It was, all at once, Stately and Wise and Humbling and Beautiful; although as an eight-year-old those words weren’t yet in her conscious vocabulary, she nonetheless knew the feeling…

Not really thinking about what she was doing or why – only instinctively knowing it was something important for her to do – she bowed her head to Neshnala to show her respect. It was a gesture she would re-enact hundreds of time over the years toward the many old trees she would encounter on her hikes with her father and, later, on her own runs, like…

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 15 – Neshnala’s Saga: 1990 (part one)

The spot where Ro stepped down from her school bus was near a picnic shelter next to a happily gurgling creek; of course, half the boys in her second-grade class immediately raced over to start poking sticks into its shallow, gravelly bed. What no one was even remotely aware of was the irony that they were only steps away from where “Kentucky” Coates had waded cross the very same creek a little over a hundred years ago.

It was Friday, May 18, just a few days past Ro’s eighth birthday, and they were on the last of the many field trips Miss Landin had arranged for them during the year. Just completing her third year as a teacher, she had already become every first-graders “hoped for” teacher in second grade. She was not pretty, cute or even pleasant looking, as her features were all in the wrong proportions – eyes too close together, face too sharp, mousy brown hair in a wash-it-and-go, easy to care for, though not very flattering shag cut − but what she may have lacked in looks she more than made-up for in her infectious personality. The kids loved her because she was pretty much a second-grader herself, just in an adult’s body.

She believed in hands-on learning, so she and her twenty-three second-graders had taken at least once-a-month field trips; of course, they’d “done” all the local historical museums and art galleries, but she had also arranged some really “fun” experiences, like a visit a working potter who’d let everyone play with the gooey clay, and spending an afternoon at a recording studio to see how much work it took for a local folk singer and her small band to make a CD.

The agenda for today was to learn about “Iowa’s Oldest Tree” in Five Falls State Park, then take a short hike to the park’s namesake falls and check the spectacular views of the Mississippi from the top of the palisades – this all to be conducted by Bill Cummins, the park ranger − and finally enjoy a box lunch picnic in the shelter.

Fortunately, Miss Landin had picked an ideal spring day for their adventure: upper-60s, clear skies, the wall of trees on the other side of the creek even sheltering them from some gusty westerly breezes. As was her wont, she had even tried to whip up some excitement about the trip by putting together a lecture, complete with overheads, explaining that there were three claimants to the title of the oldest tree in Iowa: Old Hawkeye, a giant maple located in a public park in Dubuque; The Froehlich Ash, located on private property in western Iowa; and Neshnala, a white oak in their very own Five Falls State Park.

What Miss Landin didn’t know, indeed, what no one really knew, even including the Iowa State Forester, was that the great white oak, at three-hundred-and-ten years old was, in fact, the senior of the three by more than half-a-century: Old Hawkeye was not quite two-hundred-and-fifty years old and the Froelich Ash was a relative youngster at a-hundred-and-ninety years old, although that was long-lived for an ash.

She had even copied and blown-up for her overheads photos of the three trees from a state brochure she’d found in the Lee’s Landing Library to try to give her kids some sense of their sheer size. But it hadn’t been nearly enough…

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 14 – Neshnala’s Saga: 1920s

With the goal of getting rid of the money-losing Falls operation, Iver Hubbard commissioned a detailed inventory of the potential commercial value of the timber in the Neshnala Grove – his question, of course, was: Could the land be sold for any kind of decent profit?

The report he got was that most of it could, indeed, be cut down for pulp, and that there were also some stands of hardwoods that could be logged for construction or fine furniture use, with a total value of around $2.5 million.

However, the other side of that coin was that it would cost at least $1.6 or $1.7 million to get access to the timber, to log it and to ship it to the pulp and saw mills hundreds of miles away in Wisconsin – in other words, from an economic standpoint logging the Neshnala Grove was not very cost effective, which meant, in turn, the land itself was pretty much commercially worthless.

So, Hubbard and his cousin, Darwin Lester, who also happened to be a member of the Iowa House of Representatives from Lee’s Landing, hatched a plot. Using only the part of the report that said the Neshnala Grove was worth “at least $2.5 million,” Hubbard and Lester in effect blackmailed the state with an ultimatum: The Hubbard’s were willing to wait two years to sell the “valuable” Neshnala Grove, with no assurances of protection for Iowa’s Oldest Tree, or would donate the land to the state if they would take it and make it into a park of some kind.

It actually took nearly three years to work out all the kinks – including that the state demanded that Hubbard pay for demolishing the dilapidated hotel, which they didn’t want – but in 1928, at not quite nine-hundred acres, Five Falls became Iowa’s third state park.

It was the government’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1930s that cut the switchback hiking trail up the side of the bluff and built an access road from County Line Road leading into the north half of the park and to the Neshnala Grove. Once the great tree became more easily accessible, it didn’t take long for the state to have to add a fence around its base to prevent thoughtless morons from carving their initials in its flanks.

The first campground was added below the bluff in the early-50s; the second in the mid-70s; the boat landing on the Mississippi River came in the early-80s, after the state negotiated an access right-of-way across the Grand Island Railroad tracks.

Over the decades the state would acquire, either by purchase or donation, additional parcels of adjacent land, so that by the time Ro Delahanty was camping there with her family in the late-80s, Five Falls State Park encompassed over twelve-hundred acres.

It was in the late-60s that Fort Armstrong County established its Conservation Commission; one of its first projects was to buy nearly twelve hundred-acres of timberland next to the state park, calling it the Great River Forest Preserve. Like the state park, it had picnic areas and hiking and equestrian trails, but no campground.

The more than fifteen miles of trails through the woodlands of the side-by-side preserves would become one of Ro’s favorite places to run – the visits always included a stop to pay her respects to Neshnala

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 13 – Neshnala’s Saga: 1920s

But the war effort and fast changing social and cultural attitudes – the children of the band members who had once performed polkas and Sousa marches in the park’s bandshell now preferred playing jazz in the newly opened nightclubs − meant that by 1922 Falls Park was for all intents and purposes broke − the hotel had been shuttered, the gardens had gone shabby, the picnic shelters had fallen into disrepair…

When Iver Hubbard, the great-grandson of Elias Hubbard, assumed control of Hubbard Enterprises in 1918 he inherited a diverse and mostly successful collection of businesses – a chain of general stores in eastern Iowa, a new and even more luxurious edition of the Captain’s Hotel in downtown Lees’ Landing, and their freight hauling business, all doing well; only Falls Development was not. Within just a couple of years, though, he had come to recognize that things were happening that meant the company either had to adapt or die…

Trucks were quickly becoming a more efficient way of hauling freight than horse-drawn wagons, and what used to be mostly rutted gravel roads were being paved over into modern highways and interconnected; in 1926, for example, U.S. Rt. 32 – which started in Chicago, and passed through Lee’s Landing on its way to Council Bluffs − became one the country’s first interstate highways; which meant the Hubbard freight company had to make the switch from horse-drawn wagons to trucks to stay viable.

Similarly, starting in the late teens, large and well-stocked self-service food stores, the earliest iterations of modern-day supermarkets, had begun appearing in eastern U.S. cities; which meant the Hubbard general stores needed to reinvent themselves to stay relevant.

But those two large scale transitions would require lots of capital, so Iver Hubbard made a big bet on the future by selling their most valuable property, the Captain’s Hotel, and using the cash to…

Redesign and rebrand the general stores as the FoodHub food stores… Between the late-20s and early-50s the chain expanded to more than a hundred locations in the northern Midwest; it was eventually acquired in 1959 by a competitor, Major FoodMarts, in a deal worth tens of millions of dollars.

Retire the horses and their wagons and replace them with a fleet of gas-powered trucks. The freight-hauling business was renamed Hubbard National Trucking, and by the end of the 1930s was one of the larger U.S. interstate firms. In the late-1960s the sixth generation of Hubbards would move their headquarters from Lee’s Landing to the booming western suburbs of Chicago and its proximity to multiple modern interstate highways.

Then there was the problem of Falls Park that had to be dealt with…

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

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