The Wall

The Wall

We approached it from the Washington Monument side, down a grassy slope toward the long, rectangular stretch of water called the reflecting pool.  At the far end was the Lincoln Memorial, and I knew that The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall was somewhere to the right of the pool and short of the Lincoln. 

My grandson, Kyle, had asked to come with me, I wasn’t sure why.  I didn’t know what he knew about the Vietnam War or what it meant to him.  He was sixteen years old, and the war had ended sixteen years before he was born, so maybe it meant to him something like what World War I had meant to me at his age.  Or it could be he was interested because I had been there.  I had spent a year in Vietnam, the place a lot of soldiers called “The Nam,” which I could never bring myself to do.  It had been in the late sixties, almost forty years ago, and honestly I wasn’t sure what any of it had meant to me either.  I had personally known only one soldier who had died over there, and I wasn’t certain his name would be on The Wall, given the way he’d died.

My year spent in Vietnam was something Kyle had gotten from his mother, but he didn’t know any more than that one fact.  I had never talked to him about any of it, so earlier that day, on the Metro ride into D.C. from Virginia, he’d asked me about it.  The conversation had started like this:

“So what did you do in the war, Granddad?”

He made it sound like a joke, asking the cliché question, and I had to smile.  “I was a medic,” I said.  “You know what a medic is, right?”

“What am I, ten?  A medic goes into combat with the soldiers and takes care of the wounded and calls for the med-evac helicopter to take them out.”

That much he must have gotten from movies.  “I wasn’t that kind of medic.  I worked in a field hospital, called a MASH.  You know that one, right?”

“Sure, I’ve seen re-runs of MASH on TV.  Did you have as much fun as they did, with all the good looking nurses?”  He smiled a sly smile, maybe thinking I’d tell him a racy story.

Our nurses hadn’t been all that good looking, except for one, who had somehow wangled an assignment to the hospital to be with her husband, who was a doctor.  He had a private hooch built for them, using enlisted men he’d commandeered as labor.  But the others, the not-so-good-looking nurses, would certainly have nothing to do with enlisted men like me, when they could have their pick of off-duty helicopter pilots nosing around offering them rides in their helicopters.  A few would go off with the pilots, especially one who was the least good looking, who was once seen, after returning from a helicopter ride, appearing a bit disheveled, with her fatigue uniform awry.   

“No, it wasn’t like that,” I said.  “That’s why I never liked that movie or the TV program.”

“So were all your nurses ugly or something?”  He still wore the sly smile.

“Well, I wouldn’t exactly say that.  They were just ordinary women doing a job.  And those baggy fatigue uniforms weren’t exactly flattering.  There was this one Red Cross girl, though.  She wore a light blue dress with a Red Cross patch on her shoulder.  That was their uniform.  She was real pretty, a real sweet girl.  Everybody from the hospital commander on down was in love with her.”  That was an exaggeration, but not much of one.

“What happened with her?”  He turned serious, interested to hear of the pretty, sweet Red Cross girl.

“Nothing happened with her.  She liked a PFC who worked on one of the wards.  Jeannie something was her name.”

Of course I still knew her name: Jeannie Bryant from Minnesota, graduated from the U. of Minn. with a degree in psychology, minored in sociology, a few years older than me.  She had volunteered for the Red Cross and Vietnam because she had wanted to help.  All of this she had told me one day in an idle conversation, during a time when I, like the helicopter pilots, had been nosing around her.  But she was sweet on PFC Jack McLain, who was my age, which made her a few years older than him.  That didn’t stop her from being sweet on him, though.  Seeing them walking, sometimes hand-in-hand, up the perimeter road encircling the tents and Quonset huts of the hospital, had made my heart ache.  But I was probably no more in love with Jeannie Bryant than anybody else.

“So she liked a PFC instead of you,” Kyle said.  “What were you?”

“I was a Spec-4.”  At his blank look I added.  “Specialist 4th class.  It’s like a corporal.”

“So you couldn’t pull rank on the PFC?”  His sly smile returned.

“It didn’t work like that.  Anyway, maybe she wasn’t as pretty as I remember.  When you’re in a place with ten thousand guys and only nine or ten women around, every one of them starts to look good, if you know what I mean.”

“Boys outnumber girls three-to-one at my high school,” he said.  “So, yeah, I think I get the picture.”

“Besides, we worked long hours, so we didn’t have much time to think about girls.”  That last part was pretty much an outright lie.  We had been young men; we thought about girls all the time.  “We worked six-and-a-half days a week and only had a few hours off to take our laundry into the nearby village.”

While it was true that laundry had been involved, the real motivation for the trips to the village was the string of hastily erected, jerrybuilt bars serving bitter Vietnamese beer and young girls for our entertainment.  Before the U.S. Army had come along and set up a huge base camp near the village, the girls had done whatever young girls did in other villages: worked in the rice fields, I supposed.  Then the soldiers descended on the village, with their American dollars traded for Vietnamese Dong at a great rate of exchange, and some of the girls became whores working in jerrybuilt bars.  We mostly did not think of that, or if we did, we weren’t too outraged. 

I changed the subject.  “We had a son-of-bitch old-timer First Sergeant whose mission in life was to make our lives miserable.  If you got on his wrong side, he’d have you on latrine assignment for a week.  That was lovely duty, burning out the honey buckets with gasoline and diesel.”  That had come out sounding a little harsh, and it seemed Kyle didn’t know what to say to it.  He nodded and gazed out the train’s window at the green Virginia countryside whizzing by.

Earlier, over breakfast at our hotel, when I had said I was going into D.C. to see The Wall, he had volunteered to come along.  His father, Joe, was there on a business trip that he had decided to expand into a family sightseeing trip.  It was supposed to be just the three of them, Joe, my daughter, Deana, and Kyle, but I had asked to tag along.  I thought it was about time, after all these years, to see this famous memorial erected for my war.  Joe announced they were going off to see some Civil War battle sites, which would probably include a side trip or two for Deana to do some shopping.  I knew that and I’m sure Kyle did too, so when I announced my objective, Kyle opted for the least boring option, going with me. 

So there we were, walking along a tree-shaded path slanting away from the reflecting pool.  Twenty minutes earlier we’d emerged from the Metro and checked the big map at the top of the escalator for the location of The Wall.  I had the Metro map superimposed in my brain, and still we almost missed our objective.  We had gone a little too far, when Kyle stopped and pointed back through the deep shade of some trees, where groups of people were moving down a slope next to a low, stone wall set into a rise in the ground.

“I think that’s it,” he said and we moved off in that direction, and it came into view, as simple and stark as pictures I’d seen.  It consisted of a series of upright panels of polished, black granite descending downward on a gentle slope and back up another slope toward the other end.  We stood at the top of the walkway next to the first small, wedge-shaped panel, with only a few names etched onto it, and looked down the length of the panels, seeing them increase in size, each successive one containing more names, the names in long neat columns, more than 58,000 of them I remembered.  There were scatterings of people and there were a few people standing alone, and some of the people stood close and touched the wall with their fingers, touching the names.  A middle-aged, overweight woman was inching her way up a ladder next to one of the panels, the ladder held by a man to steady it, and it seemed the woman might fall.  But she didn’t and when she had climbed far enough she reached forward, balancing herself gingerly, and placed a piece of paper on a portion of the panel and started rubbing back-and-forth on it with a pencil held edgewise.  I remembered—maybe I’d seen it in a movie—that people would trace a name on paper to take away with them as a memento.  We started down the walkway, moving past the panels that gave back a hazy reflection of the two of us, and past the other people intent on taking away something from the experience.  Scanning the columns of names, I could see no obvious order to them, and I saw no dates.

Kyle said in a near whisper, “I think I read the names are in the order people were killed.”  He knew more about it than I did.  I looked at him, and saw his eyes wide and staring back at me, in awe.  It’s the place, I realized; you couldn’t help but be affected by it.

A man holding a clipboard and wearing a baseball cap stood just off the edge of the walkway, on a border made of small paving stones.  He looked like he might be some sort of guide.  Approaching him I saw a patch on his jacket stating he was a volunteer.  A pin on his cap looked familiar: it was a replica of the First Air Cavalry Division patch, all yellow with a diagonal black line and a silhouette of a horse’s head, the unit patch of the First Air Cav’, to which my hospital had been attached. 

The volunteer looked too young to have been there, but I asked the question anyway, “Were you with the Cav’ in Vietnam?” 

“No,” he said.  “I actually missed ‘Nam.  Were you over there?”

“I was there with the First Cav’.”  I nodded at the pin on his cap and then pointed a thumb back over my shoulder at the wall.  “How does all this works?  How do you find a name?” 

 “The names are in order of combat deaths,” the volunteer said.  “They start at one end with the name of the first man killed.  Then the panels get bigger, with more names, as you go down the walk.  You can see the war intensifying in the way the panels get larger and contain more and more names.  Now, if you want to find any particular name, you look in the books.  The names in the books are in alphabetic order and you’ll see which panel each name is on.”  The volunteer recited all of this in a solemn tone.  He pointed up the sloped walk.  “The books are up there in those metal stands.”

I stared at him until Kyle tugged at my sleeve and we walked away.  “What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I don’t know.  Something in the way the guy said all that.” 

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know what I mean.”  I could feel him still staring at me.

The metal stands were beyond where the wall began.  They stood at waist level beneath a row of trees, each stand with a clear, Plexiglas shield covering its contents, like a salad-bar sneeze guard.  The books—nothing but loose-leaf bound catalogs—were inside the stands, beneath the Plexiglas.  I went to one and reached beneath the shield and began turning the dog-eared pages.  Along the top of each page was a heading—Rank, Service, Date of Birth, Date of Casualty, City, State, MIA, Panel Number and Line Number—with the names beneath in alphabetic order.  I paged near to the end, to where the one name I knew of would be, if it were there.

“Are you looking for a certain name?” Kyle asked.  He was taller than me by half a head, and skinny in a teen-aged way, and he was looking over my shoulder.

“Maybe it’s here,” I said.  And it was, Wilson, Francis.  I placed my finger on the page beneath his name and scanned across.  I hadn’t known he was from Kentucky or that he was nineteen years old when he died on April 4, 1969, as stated under the “Date of Casualty” heading.  Thinking back on it, I thought the date was about right.

“Wilson, Francis,” Kyle said, leaning over to get a closer look.  “Somebody who died in your hospital?”

“He did, but in a way he died somewhere else too,” I said.  Kyle frowned, obviously not understanding what I’d just said.  Of course, how could he?

“Did a lot of people die in your hospital?” he asked.

“Not as many as you might think.”  At that moment I was thinking of one who had, not Francis Wilson, but a North Vietnamese officer brought into admitting one night with a sucking chest wound.  He had come accompanied by an Army major from intelligence and an ARVN interpreter.  The interpreter looked like he wanted to slit the throat of the wounded enemy officer, but he interpreted the questions from the Army intelligence major and relayed the answers in bad English back to him.  The North Vietnamese looked too young to be an officer, but there he was, wide-eyed with fear, blood seeping from beneath his bandage, stammering out answers to the questions.  The hospital commander, Colonel Gold, came in and asked the interpreter why the man was so scared, to which the ARVN interpreter answered, “He think he be killed.”  Colonel Gold put a stop to the interrogation.  He was a thoracic surgeon who was rarely seen in the operating room anymore, but he worked on the North Vietnamese officer in the OR for four hours before finally having to pronounce him dead.  The bullet that had caused the chest wound had caromed off a rib and tore apart his liver.

I memorized the panel number and line number for Wilson, Francis and started back toward the wall, with Kyle following.  We reached the right panel and I scanned up until I found the name etched there.  I remembered everyone had laughingly called him Franny, making it sound like a girl’s name.  He’d had no friends I knew of, and had been disliked, because he was a cook in a way no one should be a cook: hands with ingrained dirt and lines of grime beneath the fingernails as if he’d been working in the motor pool before taking his place behind the mess hall serving line.  He had an air of grunginess, and no one wanted to see that in someone serving them food.

“So who was he?” Kyle asked, standing next to me.

“He was a cook in my outfit,” I finally said, stopping short of including the dirty hands and the rest.

“How did he die?”

“Pretty sadly.”  I wasn’t sure if I should say anymore; Kyle was only sixteen.  But I went ahead and said it anyway.  “He got a letter from his mother saying she was divorcing his father.  Early the next morning, maybe three or four AM, when everybody was asleep, he went to the cook’s supply tent and hung himself.” 

“Ouch,” he said, cringing over the last few words.  I wasn’t about to include the next part of the Francis Wilson saga that happened at lunch in the mess hall later that same day.  One of Wilson’s fellow cooks was sliding hamburgers onto the trays of the soldiers passing by, and with each one he made the comment, “Have a Wilson burger.”

I said, “I wasn’t even sure his name would be here.”

“Was that the worst thing you ever saw?” Kyle said.

“I never really saw it.  The early-morning crew from the mess hall found him and cut him down.  His body had already been taken away by the time anybody heard.”

“So what was the worst thing you saw?”

“I don’t know, kiddo.  After all those years, things kind of blend together in your head.”  He seemed to want to hear something, and there was one that had stayed with me, a horribly wounded engineer.  “It was from an accident, not a combat casualty.  This guy ran himself over with his own bulldozer, who knows how.  Maybe he jumped off the thing and forgot it was still running.  His boot got caught in the tread and it dragged him under.”

“Was he was still alive?”

“He was, but I don’t know if he made it.  He was completely crushed up to both hips.  We patched him up and he was flown out to an Evac hospital.  The worst cases always were.  That’s why we never knew if they made it, because they were shipped out right away.”

“Damn, that’s pretty grim.”

“It is.  His name might be on this wall, except I never knew what it was.”

“But that Wilson guy,” he said.  “He didn’t kill himself just because his parents were getting a divorce, did he?”

“I don’t think so.  He was probably damaged goods before he ever got there.  He was unloved.  Maybe that was it.”

“Unloved by his parents?”

“Maybe that.  But unloved by everybody.  Nobody in the company liked him.”

“That’s really sad, Granddad.”

“It was cold, was what it was.  It was a cold place.”

“I thought Vietnam had a hot climate.”

I looked over and saw a smile on his face and knew he’d understood my reference.  Sometimes he surprised me.  At sixteen, I don’t remember being that smart.  We started walking and I kept glancing over at our reflections in the panels, his tall and lanky and straight, and mine foreshortened in comparison and seemingly askew, my stance showing all the years behind me.  Catching a glimpse of myself unawares, I was always shocked that I seemed a different person than the one in my head.

“Do you think they’ll put up a wall or something for the Iraq War?” he said.

“I don’t know.  Probably they should.”

“But it’s not nearly as bad as Vietnam,” he said.  “Not nearly as many casualties.”

“True, but in some ways I think Iraq is worse.  We didn’t have suicide bombers walking up to us on the street and blowing themselves up.  People weren’t kidnapped and beheaded.”

“But those are just isolated things, aren’t they?”

“Maybe the beheadings, but not the other stuff, the suicide bombers and the IEDs, the roadside bombs.  It’s just a different kind of war than the old wars I can’t even remember, where huge armies and navies faced each other and there were front lines, and life went on behind them.  Iraq is different.  The insurgents make war against everybody.  There’s no place where you’re safe.”

“But didn’t we bomb whole cities away in those other wars?  We dropped atomic bombs.  We killed civilians.  How is that different?”

He was sixteen and asking indignant questions, wanting real answers, and I couldn’t give them.  In my head, I silently trotted out the old ones, the ones I’d been hearing or reading for as long as I could remember: Dropping those bombs really saved lives; we were trying to end the war.  Good, logical arguments according to the history we wrote: we killed a lot of people in order to save a lot more people.  Still, I knew they would ring hollow.  “I don’t know, kiddo,” I said.

I thought of saying again that Iraq just seemed different to me, but maybe the difference was a trick of memory, the way it can soften things that happened a long time ago, like forty years ago when I had been in Vietnam.  I thought of telling him of the time I went to Saigon on an R&R and walked all over, shared the sidewalks with streams of Vietnamese hurrying every which way, who seemed like ordinary people anywhere going about their ordinary business.  I went into shops and bars, visited a museum, walked alone along the river, all things you apparently can’t do in Iraq, where one minute you’re driving down a road and the next you’re blown to pieces.  I thought of telling him we felt safe when we went off base; we drove around in jeeps and deuce-and-a-half trucks without armored escorts and went to the village in the daytime.  There was a saying we had: we owned the days and Charlie owned the nights.  So on our half-a-day off a week, we hung out with the civilians, especially the teenaged whores.  Of course, they couldn’t all have been teenagers.  The women over there just looked young with their small frames and sleek bodies, until they turned into old ladies at around thirty-five, with betel-nut stained teeth.  I wanted to explain all of that, leaving out the part about the whores, but I knew it would end up with me tying myself up explaining differences that weren’t real but were only inside me.

We had walked aimlessly without realizing it to where the granite panels ended.  Kyle stopped and looked over at me in a way that said I hadn’t really told him anything.  I hadn’t told him what he wanted to understand.  His eyes moved away as if he already knew he would hear no more.  He looked around and said, pointing off to the left, “There’s supposed to be some other Vietnam memorials around here.  I think that’s one of them.”  We started toward it.

It was called the Three Soldiers, and that’s what it was, a bronze statue of three soldiers looking off hollow-eyed, one of the soldier’s carrying an M60 machine gun sideways across his shoulders.  I inspected the statue for authenticity and it seemed right: the combat fatigues and boots, the flak jacket one of them wore, the M16 rifle another carried, even the canteens worn on pistol belts all seemed correct.

“It looks like they’re waiting for something,” Kyle said.

“Maybe for a helicopter to take them back to the base.  Or waiting for somebody to tell them to do something they don’t want to do.”

“I heard that,” a voice behind us said in a certain tone I remembered from over there, one soldier affirming what another soldier had just said about some shitty fact of life in “The Nam.”  I turned to see a tall portly guy wearing a red vest decorated with U.S. Army unit pins.  A red baseball cap on his head had a sewn-on patch that read “Vietnam Vet.”   He smiled and said, “There was a lot of that going around.”  I took him for an old-timer sergeant; he had that look.

“Where were you over there, sergeant?” I asked.

“Not a sergeant.  I was a chief warrant officer, a chopper pilot.”  Maybe he’d been one of the ones who’d given nurse not-so-good-looking a ride.  “I flew all over,” he said.  “I saw it all and then some.  You?”

“I was up near Chu Lai, in I Corps.”

Before we could start swapping war stories, Kyle interrupted.  “I think there’s supposed to be another memorial around here too.”

“That’s right son,” the ex-warrant officer, chopper pilot said.  “The Vietnam Women’s Memorial.  It’s up that way.  You can’t miss it.”  He pointed up a path and Kyle and I ambled away in that direction.

“It sounded like he was about to start bragging about all his experiences,” Kyle said. 


“But you’re not like that.”

“I guess I don’t have anything to brag about.  But thanks, kiddo.”

 We spotted the other memorial farther up the path.  It was another bronze statue, this one of three women—nurses I assumed—and a wounded male GI.  One of the women was seated on a heap of sandbags, cradling the wounded GI’s head in one arm, with her other hand on his chest.  Maybe she was applying CPR.  A second woman was standing and looking skyward, perhaps searching for the med-evac helicopter to arrive, while a third was kneeling behind her, holding a helmet in her hand.  I inspected this statue as I had the other, looking for authentic touches.  The uniforms seemed right, but something about the whole thing seemed over-theatrical.  It appeared to depict a combat scene, with the three women in the thick of it, but women, at least in that war, weren’t sent into combat. 

“I read about this,” Kyle said.  “This memorial and the three soldiers one.  They supposedly came out of some controversy.”  He pointed off through the trees toward where the granite panels were set side-by-side in a row, going down into the ground from one end and out at the other end.  “The Wall was designed by a female college student, and there was lot of debate because it wasn’t a traditional type war memorial.”

“I remember some of that.”

  “And then a lot of veterans were mad,” he said, “because the student happened to be Asian-American, and it was supposed to memorialize a war where Asians killed Americans.  Some people got the idea for the other memorials so they could have more traditional ones and so they could show her, or something like that.”  Several people nearby had overheard and drawn nearer to listen, and I could see him becoming embarrassed.

“Where did you learn that, kiddo?” I reached up and brushed my fingertips across his thick hair.  Self-consciously he flicked a hand through his hair to rearrange it back to proper alignment, though I hadn’t disturbed it.  “I guess I read it in Wikipedia, or someplace on the net,” he said.

We started walking aimlessly away from The Wall and the other memorials.  “Where are we going?” Kyle asked.

“I don’t know. Just walking.”

“There’s supposed to be a really big memorial for World War II.”

“We passed it one on our way down from the Washington Monument,” I said.  I had noticed it at the time; you couldn’t help but notice, it was so big.  But I had been intent on the memorial for my war, even though I didn’t know what it would mean to me.  Maybe I thought I would find out.

“There’s another one for the Korean War,” Kyle said.  “Want to go see that one?”

“I don’t think so.  Not right now, anyway.”  I had been born three years after World War II ended and was a child during the Korean War, with no memory of it.  I couldn’t generate any real feeling toward either of them.   I wondered if I was lacking something Kyle seemed to have, an interest in wars that were ancient history to him.  Maybe he was curious about the nature of wars, trying to grasp something he didn’t understand.  I didn’t understand them either, but I had stopped being curious.

“How would you feel if I had to go off to war?” he asked.  It sounded like the kind of question asked to see what kind of reaction he would get.

“Well, that wouldn’t happen.  First of all you’re way too young, and there’s no draft anymore, and you’re going to college and you’ll become rich doing I don’t know what.”  The last I’d heard he was hot for the UCLA film school, so he could become an actor/director.

“But what if there was a war I thought was right and I wanted to go?  Like Iraq, maybe.”

“But you would know better, at least about Iraq.”

“But what if I wanted to go anyway?”

“I wouldn’t like it.  I’d talk you out of it.”

“But some wars can be good, right?  Like the Second World War.  That was supposed to be a good war.  That’s what people say, anyway.”

“I suppose it was, looking at the big picture.  People who fought in it might have had a different outlook, at least when they were fighting in it.” 

“What about Vietnam?  Did you think it was a good war?”

“I thought so at the time.  But I was stupid, it turns out.”

We were approaching the reflecting pool, and we turned down the path toward the Lincoln Memorial and kept walking slowly.  I could see out of the corner of my eye that he was looking at me, maybe wanting to hear more but thinking that had been the end of it.  Maybe he believed the cliché about men who’d been in war being unable to talk about it to those who hadn’t.

I finally said, “Kiddo, this is what I know, but it’s only my point of view.  There are two different ways soldiers look at wars.  When they’re in it, all they want is to be someplace else.  It’s horrific and surreal, like you can’t imagine.  It’s like no other kind of experience.  But after it’s over and they go home, they look back on it a different way.  They’ll say they just want to forget it, but they don’t, really.  Strange as it might sound, it was the most significant part of their lives.  I think a lot of guys think that way.  That’s why, when they get together, it’s all they talk about.  You hear this almost boastful way of speaking, like that warrant officer at the Three Soldiers.  They can’t wait to commiserate with each other, how awful it was, which it was.  They talk about all the friends they lost, which is another kind of horror.  But you can see, in a way, they’re acting.  You can hear it in their voices.  They were there as young men, feeling more alive than they ever had before from knowing they could be killed at any moment.  They were in firefights, and they fought back to save their lives and they lived to tell about it.  You might never hear this from any of them, but there’s no greater adrenalin rush than being in combat.  And coming out intact is a bonus.”

As he listened to me he seemed to become more and more frustrated.  His eyes strayed away from mine, and he got a look I remembered from when he was a small boy, and things he didn’t understand or didn’t work out the way they were supposed to would sometimes result in hot tears.  “But they didn’t all come out intact,” he said.  “Some never came back.  And what about the ones who were paralyzed or blind or without arms or legs?  Do you think they feel the same way?”

“No, I won’t tell you that.  I can only take it so far, kiddo.”

We had stopped walking by then and were facing each other.  I knew I had to add something to balance out my take on the experience of war.  “Maybe it’s enough to know if I was young and in the same situation I was back then, before I was drafted, I would do everything I could to get out of going.  And so should you, if it ever came to that.”

“You never really experienced combat, did you, Granddad?”

“Well, technically, that’s true.  But I have a vivid imagination.”

He smiled then and seemed to relax, and the moment was over.

“How about going and seeing some more sights?” I said.

 “Sounds good.  The Air and Space museum is supposed to be pretty cool.”

We turned and started back toward the Washington Monument, past the World War II memorial we only glanced at, back up the hill to the Washington Mall, where the Smithsonian and the cool Air and Space museum were.  There were probably a lot of other cool places up there too.  Besides, it was lunchtime and my tall, skinny, sixteen-year-old grandson could eat like two of me.  We walked without saying anything, just happy to be going somewhere.



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