March 23, 2012

Night, in West Virginia…

Category: News — admin @ 6:00 pm

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I am the man of constant sorrow,
I’ve seen trouble all my days,
I bid farewell to ol’ Kentucky,
The place where I was born and raised.

—Soggy Bottom Boys
___________________

I’d been looking forward to it all winter, and that second Saturday in March finally rolled around. That morning, I headed on down to West Virginia to spend some time with my friends, Dominic and Jamie Haskin. I’ve written of hanging out there before, usually at Dominic’s famous Fourth of July parties. On this last weekend trip, he was set up at a builder’s show in the local mall, and, as I’ve done for the last four years, I went down to help out for the day. And to hang out for the night.

Dominic and his father, Chris, own and run Timberline Pole Buildings. When they sell a building, I ship the package to them right from my yard at Graber. We’ve been doing business for a dozen years now, and Dominic and I have become close friends. And after the work’s done, we like to hang out now and then.

I remember a few years back, when I first ventured down to socialize with my West Virginia friends. And how Dominic and Jamie introduced me to their social circles. And how relaxed I felt in that world. They welcomed me, their friends, as one of their own. Unassuming people who work with their hands, mostly, they freely shared what they had with this outsider from up north. I felt instantly and completely comfortable among them.

And they’d wander in with their homemade brews and baked goods and covered dishes of delicious food. We’d lounge around the pool in the sun, just being lazy and talking of all the little things. Once or twice, I joined the horseshoe game out in the back yard. And as I mingled among these people, I listened to the cadence of their talk, trying to absorb their world. Their culture. Some day, I think, I could live in a world like that.

A few years ago, as my book deal came down, Dominic regaled all his friends with this great accomplishment. Ira got a book deal. He’s writing a book. It’s gonna be a good one. Bestseller, for sure. And they all looked at me, slightly awed and uncomprehending. No, no, I said. Don’t be like that. I’m just me. I’ll always be me. Besides, the book’s not written yet. It could be a total flop.

And in time, I got to know many of them on a first name basis. As friends. Many of them have read my book. And they still look at me a little awed. But they always smile when I come down. They always genuinely welcome me. And I always go back.

A few summers ago, I met Larry for the first time. He worked for a local framing company, and was a crew foreman. A lean, wiry man of medium height in his early thirties, he grasped my hand firmly and looked me in the eye. Colorful tattoos spilled down his arms. It was a warm summer evening. I sat with him at the picnic table and we cracked open a couple of cold long-necks and talked.

He didn’t tell me all of his story, not right then. But I learned a few sketchy details later. In his youth, Larry had lived on a wild and dangerous road. And somewhere along the line, he had run afoul of the law. Not uncommon for a redneck in West Virginia. I don’t know what he did. It wasn’t violent. Ran some ‘shine, maybe, or raised and sold some pot. Or maybe it was the harder stuff. I don’t know. Whatever he was doing, he got caught. And nailed. He was convicted as a felon.

He had two children with a woman who may or may not have been his wife at one point. Whatever the case, he was no longer with her. And when we talked, he always spoke of two things. His children. And his love of riding. Larry was a Harley guy. His eyes always sparkled as he described to me the joy and freedom of the open road. On a bike. You should do it, he told me. Nah, those things are death traps, I replied. Well, I’ll have to take you on a ride sometime. Yeah, I’d like that. And that’s how it always ended. We never did get it done.

He was an outstanding and faithful worker, from all I’ve ever heard. And I have no reason to doubt those who told me that. He was dependable. Always on time, worked until the job was done. And just last year, Larry scratched together the down payment on a little house of his own. First time. A little beat-up place. He moved in and patiently began fixing it up. It would be his. All his own.

And when my book came out last July, I gave him a copy. Signed it to my friend, Larry. He grinned as he took it from my hands. Promised to read it. Somehow, though, after that he always claimed to be “almost finished” with it. Just about at the end. I laughed and told him it was OK if he couldn’t get through it. I’m not quite sure he ever even started reading the book.

And on that Saturday as I worked with Dominic at the builder’s show, he told me. We’d go out to eat later, after things shut down. And then he wanted to drop by a little pub close to home. Larry was throwing a good-bye party. He was leaving the area for a while. I wasn’t particularly into hanging out late at any pub, but I agreed. Yeah, let’s stop by for an hour. Gotta give him my best wishes.

And so, around ten that night, we pulled in, Dominic and Jamie and I. Walked into the “pub,” which was actually just a dive bar. Nice enough little place. On a small stage against the wall, an aging band was tuning up. Sixties guys, from the look of it, gray-haired and old. But after they cranked it up, they belted out some of the best 80s rock’n roll I’ve heard live for a long time. Larry had set up court at a long table, filled with his friends. Already feeling good, he whooped when he saw us. Came over and welcomed me.

I sat at the table beside a lovely lady who had already imbibed a tad too much. You’re Ira? She asked incredulously. Yep, I am. And before I could react, the nice tipsy lady jumped to her feet and hollered at the top of her voice, all the while pointing down at me. THIS MAN’S FAMOUS! THIS MAN’S FAMOUS! I instantly shot up and pushed her back into her chair. Stop that. Fortunately, what with the loud band, no one heard or paid the slightest attention to her. In the next five minutes, she popped up and did it again. And again. Screamed. THIS MAN’S FAMOUS! THIS MAN’S FAMOUS! After the third time, I finally convinced her that I was leaving if she didn’t quit that. So she settled down. It was pretty hilarious, actually. Such a thing could not possibly happen anywhere but in West Virginia.

And we hung out with Larry and his crowd, me and Dominic and Jamie. I bought him a drink, and had one myself. After an hour or so, we took our leave. Larry shook my hand firmly and looked me in the eye.

“Thanks for stopping by,” he said. “I AM gonna finish your book.”

“You are my friend,” I replied. “You don’t have to make any promises to me.” And so we left him with his friends. Rocking and rolling with the aging sixties band.

On Tuesday of last week, Larry entered a new normal in his life. He reported to the federal penitentiary in Cumberland, Maryland. As an incarcerated inmate. And this is how it all came down.

As a convicted felon from his youth, Larry was never allowed to own any guns. Never. Not for any reason. But as he slowly rebuilt his life, he couldn’t resist. And on the open, private market, he bought a few rifles. For hunting and such. Maybe for protection, too. And it would all have been fine, except one day, after a furious argument, the mother of his children turned him in. To the law. The cops swarmed instantly, like cockroaches. A felon owning guns, now that’s top priority. Then the ATF swooped in and took over the case. All this clamor and action, for a victimless crime.

And they dragged Larry before a federal judge. Even so, he hoped to get off with maybe probation. And it seemed like that’s what would happen. Because that’s pretty much all the prosecutor asked for as near as he dared to, without actually saying the word. Probation. Larry’s friends all vouched for him. He was a loving father, a productive citizen. Dominic wrote a letter to the court. Larry was a friend. Dependable. Employed, pulling his own weight. His children needed him. Have mercy on this man.

But at the sentencing, the judge didn’t buy it. Any of it. A hard-hearted, heavy-handed man, he sat there and listened grimly. Then, on a whim, or maybe because he woke up cranky that morning, he sentenced Larry to three years in federal prison. Three years. And lectured him. How dare you defy federal law like that? Who do you think you are? Then Larry was dismissively waved away. As in, get this redneck out of my courtroom. I’ve got more important matters to take up my time.

And just like that, it was done. Larry was released and instructed to show up at the prison on March 13th. For three years. Sure, they told him. You can take this program, and do this and that, and with good behavior you might be out in a year or less. Still. Even one year. That’s enough to destroy a man’s life. Or at least set him all the way back to totally broke and ruined.

Larry will likely lose his little house, the one he scraped and saved for. He wrapped up his affairs as best he could. Dominic is storing his Harley. And so he is gone, away to the Big House. For at least a year, maybe three. Gone, deprived of all he knows and loves.

Any way you look at it, this is not justice. This is tyranny. This is the arbitrary destruction of a man’s life. Casual. Ruthless. And so terribly wrong. The law devoid of mercy is not law. It is oppression. Pure and simple. Brutal oppression, grinding its victims into dust. Yeah, yeah, I know. Larry is no innocent pilgrim. He’s far from clean. He’s made a lot of stupid choices and pulled off some really mindless stunts. And yeah, he could have done things better. But three years, for owning guns because he was a felon? He shouldn’t have done it. But I understand completely why he did. It’s that old yearning that always burns in the hearts of those who long to be free.

And that’s where my heart is, with those who crave freedom, whatever the cost. With guys like Larry. Ordinary people who struggle with their personal demons, sometimes. People who have made some really stupid mistakes. And got caught up in the relentless grinding cogs of “justice.” Ordinary people who have no voice to speak of the outrageous abuses they endure. And walk forward in silence and bravely face the heavy burdens the “law” imposes on them. And they know that no one will ever know what they face. No one will care. They deserve what they get. They have no voice. And no one will hear their stories.

Except this time. This time, I will tell of the savage unjustness of Larry’s plight. This time, at least, my voice will speak his story to my world.

One day, the Lord will hold to account all those who inflict such brutal and senseless destruction upon the downtrodden. He will, because He is just. I don’t know anything about the judge who sentenced Larry, not even his name. But chances are he probably considers himself a “Christian.” He probably prays to his big God, as he kneels in his big church (borrowing a line from Peter Gabriel, there). But I’d rather hang out with Larry in a dive bar than sit with that merciless federal tyrant on the soft padded pews in his big, beautiful church.

I hope Larry makes it through OK. I hope he survives the brutal federal prison system without too many scars. I hope he’ll be out by next year sometime. Whenever he gets out, I’ll see him the next time I come around. We’ll sit out by the picnic table, and crack open a few Buds. We’ll talk, he and I, as old friends. And I suspect he’ll probably allow that he’s fixing to finish reading my book just about any day now.

******************************
It’s been a rather interesting two weeks since my last post. At that time, I figured it might be a bit of a fluke that the book was ranking so high on Amazon, right up there so close to the top. But it wasn’t. It’s hung in there, held steady, mostly inside the top 20 now for the last week and a half. Stuck on #15 or #16 for hours, even a day at a stretch. The highest slot I’ve ever seen was #13, early last week. As each new high showed up, I snapped a picture of the screen with my iPhone. Proof that I was there. Anyone can claim anything. You gotta have proof. There aren’t a whole lot of people out there who can say their book was 12 spots from The Hunger Games in the eBook bestseller rankings.

The intensity of it all gradually numbed down to a new normal. And that’s where I am today. I don’t have to rush to my computer first thing every morning to check the numbers. They’ll be what they are, when I get there. I probably have not yet fully grasped how many thousands and thousands of new readers have purchased the eBook.

It’s been quite a trip, too, to check out all the new reviews posted on Amazon. More than a hundred of them. They’re mostly pretty cool, although some few don’t hold back their punches. Criticism is never palatable. But it’s all part of a legitimate conversation in the market place, I suppose. If a book’s got all 4 and 5 star reviews, you can bet someone’s friends were posting most of them.

And that brings me to another persistent little misconception floating around out there. I don’t know how often I’ve seen it, both in the Amazon reviews and also in independent blog reviews. A bunch of times. Wagler left the Amish and today he’s Mennonite. Well, no. I’m not. I left the Amish and joined the Mennonites in Daviess twenty-five years ago. Since then, I’ve moved on. Today I have shed the last vestiges of any belief system that would be considered uniquely Mennonite. Or any other brand of Anabaptism.

It was just how it all worked out, on my long and relentless quest for freedom. Freedom within the boundaries of what it is to be a Christian, sure. But freedom from denominational dogma. And that’s where I am today. For the last 8 years or so, I have been a happy camper at Chestnut Street Chapel in Gap, PA. The old church just behind the famous clock tower. That’s the longest stretch I’ve ever remained with the same church since my Amish days.

It’s a beautiful little group, the Chestnut Street congregation. Many are from plain background, like me. And many are from straight out English blood. The pastor, Mark Potter, was raised an Army brat. No plain blood there. But it all fits. And Pastor Mark Potter will one day move on to a far larger group, if he so chooses. He’s that good. It’s amazing that our little church managed to latch on to someone of his quality and character. Some of his sermons are available on the church web site. Check them out.

The end of March approaches. And with it, the end of the Amazon promotion of Growing Up Amish. I’d love to see the book keep flying, of course. But I expect it to return to earth, or at least a good deal closer to the earth. Maybe my mind will even calm down enough to get me back to some serious writing.

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(16 Comments) »

  1. Very good post, like normal.

    Comment by Katie Troyer — March 23, 2012 @ 6:36 pm

  2. Reading your post about Larry could have been like reading the story about any one of the friends we knew in the past. The lesson here is don’t judge. I have never liked fences and used to sing that song ‘don’t fence me in’ all the time. Now we are older we have cleaned up our life a lot and are now an old boring Christian couple, but I still need to remind my husband from time to time of where we came from and not to be so critical of others.

    Comment by carol ellmore — March 23, 2012 @ 7:16 pm

  3. It seems to me that Larry has made another stupid choice. Larry broke the rules again. His past is in the past. It is what he is doing now that counts. Apparently, the first time in jail didn’t make a lasting impression on him. He had restrictions. He might be the best guy in the world, but he broke the law, and deserves whatever the judge gave him. He, thought he could get away with something. When you play, you must pay.

    Comment by Judy Flasher — March 23, 2012 @ 7:58 pm

  4. We are not a nation of laws. We are a nation of statutes, edicts, rulers, and arbitrary decisions that have very little, if any, relationship to The Law.

    Comment by Ed Yoder — March 23, 2012 @ 7:59 pm

  5. It’s easy to say he broke the law, now he must pay. How many of us broke the same laws he did that made him a felon and just didn’t get caught? I did some pretty stupid stuff in my younger days and shudder to think what would have happened had I ever got busted. I too would have that awful label, “Convicted Felon” for life, even though I in no way resemble the person I was then.

    Comment by Vern Herschberger — March 23, 2012 @ 9:16 pm

  6. Beautiful story, narrated by such a compassionate soul! I don’t know why, but this brought to mind the Randy Weaver, Ruby Ridge tragedy, – not many similiarities, but the main one being the total injustice done to the entire Weaver family, by several federal agencies. Their only “crime” was being different from what society dictates, and missing a court date. Larry will be okay – he’s lucky it didn’t turn into a siege.

    Comment by The pizzalady — March 24, 2012 @ 7:21 am

  7. Thank you for sharing your deepest feelings about something you feel very strongly about, an injustice served to someone considered to be a close friend and a good person. It is obvious you have sincere compassion for this man and his plight. It is very unfortunate when something like this happens to someone we love. We find ourselves asking “how could this happen to such a good person? He never bothered or hurt anyone. Why can’t they see the person I see?” Fortunately, injustices in the system are appealable. If he feels the judge was acting on prejudices instead of punishing the conduct, then he has every right to feel wronged. No one person is perfect. Just as your friend is not perfect, that judge may not be perfect either. The system and laws are designed to protect society from dangerous people. If this judge had ulterior motives; Larry’s injustice had little to do with laws, and statutes and more do with the arbitrary decision of a man who may or may have been aware of his own bias’. If this is the case, thank you for telling his story and bringing to light the egregious disposition. I am hoping it will be overturned and he can return quickly to his family and friends and the life he has built for himself.

    What the reader doesn’t have here is the whole story. We know he was a good friend and a good father. We know Larry has made a lot of stupid choices and pulled off some mindless stunts. What we don’t know is how recent is this pattern bad choices? We know he has a weapons offense but what was it for? Armed Robbery? Domestic Violence? Did this recent “furious argument” involve threats, were guns involved? Were guns being left in the children’s reach? Did the ex-wife fear for her life or the lives of her children in any way at any time? Did he buy these guns years ago and maintain possession of them? If so, I’m sure the judge considered the fact that it wasn’t an isolated incident and instead a long-standing pattern of criminal conduct and violation of the law that stretched over the course of this man’s life.

    Did the bad conduct of the whole-person outweigh the good conduct of the whole-person? The judge would have had this information. Was there sufficient evidence of rehabilitation or evidence that behavior of a similar nature would not occur in the future? Did the judge consider how the past and current transgressions would predict future actions? Did the judge consider whether or not Larry would continue to own guns if released on probation? The law that prevents convicted felons from carrying guns may serve the greater good, but also subjects people like Larry to follow a law with which he does not agree. Larry, a man who would never hurt anyone. Do his beliefs give him the right to “seek freedom at any cost” as you say? At what cost? The cost of potentially destroying his livelihood? Losing his children, his friends? You say, “he couldn’t resist. My guess is that most convicted felons can’t resist, hence the need for the law. Regardless of whether or not Larry would never hurt anyone, the law does exist for a reason. If these laws lower recidivism, then these laws are just and appropriately protecting our society from the majority. Is Larry the minority to which this doesn’t apply? We don’t know, because we don’t have all the facts. If Larry decided to take the risk of losing everything he has built over the years, then that was his freedom of choice to do so.

    I think what the 3rd poster was trying to say is that we are all accountable for our actions and conduct. Past transgressions do follow us throughout life; they shape us into the people we are today. We learn and grow from all of our decisions, especially the bad ones. Those are the hardest to shake. No matter what we do to make ourselves better, we are undoubtedly still haunted by things we have done in our past. In Larry’s case, it is not just his conscience, but the law that continues to haunt him to the present time. If he doesn’t agree with the law he should write his congressman, petition to get the law changed. Show his voice, make it public, tell his story. Deliberately choosing to not abide by the law and being well aware of the consequences doesn’t seem to be very sensible, especially if he has worked so hard to build his life to what it is today. If Larry’s decision to purchase guns wasn’t a matter of choice, but a matter of uncontrollable temptation, then that sheds a new light on the original youthful act that placed him in this predicament in the first place. Were these mindless stunts simply youthful indiscretions or part of some kind of character flaw or a continued inability to control his impulses? We don’t know because we know very little about this man and the choices he has made throughout his life.

    I personally am thankful for labels and records. It prevents us from unknowingly bringing in a pedophile to care for our children, hiring an addict to run our local pharmacy, or a thief to manage the local bank. When a criminal can’t mentally or physically resist impulses and temptations, neither God nor the system can stop them or prevent future transgressions. History will always repeat itself. God does and will have ultimate authority to judge us all, but in the mean time I thank God for giving man the sensibility to create structure and try to prevent harm. Unfortunately, a man’s initiative to remain in God’s good graces isn’t as effective as our criminal justice system. It is not perfect, but that is why we have an appeal system. I sincerely hope Larry, Mr. Wagler, or someone else with influence is able to change the system if it isn’t working. Unfortunately we cannot bring about change by resisting the law through defiance and bashing. It takes a little more effort. Mr. Wagler has started with telling his story to the world.

    Ira’s response: If you peruse some of my past blogs, you will know that I strongly believe the system IS broken. It has been for a long time. And it will not get better, regardless of how many petitions are presented to whom. Power corrupts, and only grasps more power to itself. As a libertarian, I recoil from abuses of power at any level of government. Especially the federal level. This was an abuse of power. Not just in my opinion. But as a matter of fact.

    But others have detailed the corruption of our federal government far better than I ever could. I encourage you to read this short and succinct article by Lew Rockwell. http://lewrockwell.com/rockwell/police-state-end-the-trial191.html

    That’s how it really is, and that’s the system that just devoured my friend.

    Comment by It'sAWonderfulLife — March 24, 2012 @ 4:19 pm

  8. Very interesting…based on your book and the writing on this site I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between Larry’s life and yours, Ira…i.e. Laws = ordnung, judge = mean bishop/parents/authority figures, big house = Amish community, etc.

    When we feel very strong emotionally about something it can be a good thing to pursue the “why” of that. Sometimes it’s because we’ve personalized their “story” with aspects of our “story”.

    Hopefully, by the time Larry gets out he will have a better idea of which rules to break and which to have a healthy respect for; and which fights to not pick.

    It can take awhile to discover the distinctions between those who are being authoritarian and those who are authoritative. In truth, there is no Wizard of Oz, and the Emperor has no clothes. Still, it’s important to continually review our decisions/behaviors, and see how they impact those we come in contact with as well as those who are influenced by domino effect.

    It’s not just that the system is broke…the world is broke & has been from the beginning. Because of that, Inner Peace is truly a most worthy goal. Not in my lifetime, but ultimately Inner Peace is what will heal the minds of all the people on this planet.

    Respectfully, Sarah

    Ira’s response: Very nice, with the parallels, Sarah. You nailed me there, and I’m sure there is something to that. But there’s a BIG difference, when your actual freedom is at stake. No one ever threatened to jail me (even though I should have been jailed a time or two). The wrongs here are far more real, and far more grievous, in my opinion.

    Comment by Sarah — March 25, 2012 @ 7:05 am

  9. The summer I turned eighteen I was invited on a several-day road trip with a friend to visit her father who was locked up in a federal prison. A loving father of two who had lost his job, he made the bad decision to run a couple truckloads of drugs to make ends meet. He was given the choice between two years behind bars followed by two years on parole, or four years inside. Of course he chose 2/2. What made the greatest impression on me, however, was that most of his fellow inmates were American Indians. Many of them were convicted of exactly the same crime as my friend’s father, but had been handed life sentences. Spending an afternoon inside a prison, watching these men visiting with their families was quite a formative experience.

    Comment by Naomi — March 25, 2012 @ 5:50 pm

  10. Well, the upside is that if you send Larry another copy of your book, he’ll have to read it. :/

    Comment by Rose — March 25, 2012 @ 7:00 pm

  11. The spirit of Appalachia distilled into one blog entry.

    Comment by Rhonda — March 25, 2012 @ 11:36 pm

  12. I’ve seen more than once that you can’t expect justice from the judicial system. I’m pretty cynical when it comes to that. We’re watching some dear friends get dragged through the beginnings of it now and it’s brutal. And it’s because things are not always as they seem.
    I’d better stop. Hiss and spit.

    Comment by Anita B — March 25, 2012 @ 11:58 pm

  13. Just finished your book GROWING UP AMISH and loved your story and the way it was written. No wonder you cared so for Larry. You are very much alike, I think.

    As I read your book I was so afraid that you would not find a relationship with the Christ of forgiveness, so I was thrilled when you did. Keep writing……..our lives are so like yours in many ways.

    Comment by Linda — March 31, 2012 @ 10:46 am

  14. Jesus and justice, incarnation and reality, versus religion and my hypocrisy too.

    Re: the discussion, Crime is not intention or potential, only an ACT. Regulations are the definition of tyranny, though they may differ in degree. And God has opposed this abridgement of freedom and forced worship of idols since Babel, through Babylon, and still.

    Ira saw it right, and helped me see it too. I had to think of 2 Chronicles 19, where upright judges were appointed, and the outfall of ch. 20 (and notice how a spiritual battle is won, even when the enemy uses physical weapons to try to cow you). Ira, you are a lawyer and a writer, and are on earth, in America, at this time. I see an almond blossom in this piece.

    Comment by LeRoy — April 9, 2012 @ 12:27 pm

  15. I just bought your book and finished it in a day. I couldn’t put it down. I come from a similar background and many described our group like the Amish. While our church rules were vastly different they were restrictive just the same. To leave the church was to lose your salvation. The emotional turmoil of leaving is at times unbearable. But like you, I have experienced that amazing grace of God and have come to know him. Thank you for sharing your story! I’ll be recommending your book on my Facebook page hoping it speaks to some who are still trapped by religion so they can have a chance to experience the freedom of Christ!

    Comment by Emily — April 14, 2012 @ 10:10 am

  16. In my teens I dated a young man who ended up in jail for some reason or another. Probably alcohol related. It was years after our relationship ended that I heard of his incarceration. I visited him a couple of times. He was surprised to see me, but I think he appreciated the visits.

    What I most remember about him was his shitty father and his God awful lonliness. Some nights, after his father was in a drunken stupor, and he just couldn’t take it anymore, he would hop on his bike and ride to my house across town, tap on my bedroom window to wake me up so he would have someone to talk to. The poor soul. He was kind to people, had a good heart, but he kept getting into trouble. Not all people in prison are like my friend, but I think a lot of them are. There is so much more than what meets the eye. What kind of life did the man have as a boy? Was there anyone to encourage him, invest time in him? Or was he abused, told he was worth nothing? Did anyone ever show him love? Was he poor? Was he educated? How can anyone know the heart of another man, enough to place any sort of judgement on him? It just isn’t cut and dry. I think it’s important to have compassion. A whole bunch of it.
    “It ain’t me. It ain’t me. I ain’t no Senator’s son. It ain’t me. It ain’t me. I ain’t no fortunate one.” These are lyrics from a CCR song. And some of our boys in prison were never fortunate ones.

    Comment by Francine — November 2, 2012 @ 12:12 am

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