Friday, March 05, 2004


I've just heard from my friend Theresa Rocheleau in Rugby, North Dakota, that her husband's uncle, Richard Rocheleau, died recently at age 82 after a bout with lung cancer. I am saddened.

Richard was a pretty remarkable man. I met him at a birthday party the Rocheleau family threw for him in January 2003, and he let me run my tape recorder for four hours while he and the family talked in the living room. Here are the passages from the Vagabond newsletter about that visit with him and the family:

January 20, 2003
I went to Edna Rocheleau's house yesterday at 2 p.m. for a surprise 81st birthday party for Jim Rocheleau's uncle, Richard Rocheleau. I got on tape four hours of conversation with Richard Rocheleau, Big Jim, and Big Jim's brother Jerry, who farms north of Rugby. It was a family experience not unlike what I'm used to - grown children and grandchildren intermingling, a great pot of scalloped potatoes with ham and ground meat, a tuna and macaroni hot dish, salads like you'd see at an Iowa picnic.

As Richard Rocheleau was Jim's dad's brother, his experience of the world would be similar to that of Jim's dad. Rocheleau (Richard) talked of growing up in those hard days, of serving in the Navy during World War II. He was on board his vessel as far as Hawaii where he and several other sailors whose names began with "R-O" received strict orders to get off and stay in Hawaii while the ship and everyone else on it went off to battle. Rocheleau spent most of his Navy career not far from Waikiki Beach.

When he returned to North Dakota, he was home only a week when he realized how lonely his existence was - in the Navy he'd grown used to the hustle and bustle of humanity around him. Yet his father talked him out of re-enlisting. Rocheleau thinks he missed his moment to break free of North Dakota right after the war, and he might regret having missed the opportunity. Once you start putting down roots in a place, once family has its hold on you, Rocheleau thinks, that's where you'll stay, you can't get away.

Rocheleau served three terms in the North Dakota state legislature. He was an auctioneer and an inventor, he farmed, ran a tree moving business, removed stumps. He removed stumps right up until last year and thinks the hard work and exercise kept him fit. He pats his tummy and says: "Now I've gone soft."

One of Rocheleau's stand-out moments in the legislature was during debate on a bill about auctioneering that he was opposed to. When it came his turn to speak, he rose up and said his piece entirely in the chant of an auctioneer. Nearly thirty years later he could repeat the chant for me. The words rolled off his tongue rhythmically, punctuated by the auctioneer's up and down and pause and burst. When he finished for the legislature, there was absolute silence in the chamber. No one knew what to say - time stood still for that moment. Then a thunder of applause from all corners of the room. "Even so," Rocheleau said, "everyone voted 'Green,' I was the only 'Red' vote." A few days later the Governor waved him over from across the street - "Oh now I'm going to get it," Rocheleau thought. He walked across traffic to take his licking. "I want to commend you on that speech," the Governor said. He praised Rocheleau's chant and Rocheleau wondered how the Governor could be talking about it as if he'd heard it. "I was on the phone with a legislator," the Governor said. "The fellow held up his phone when you started so I heard the whole thing."

Jim and Jerry Rocheleau talked also - the afternoon wasn't an interview so much as it was a discussion, family talking over Sunday dinner, over cake and ice cream. Jim and Jerry brought my sense of the family's life on the farm forward a generation. They are only slightly younger than I am, so I was hearing the North Dakota version of my childhood.

One thing that Jerry said which stands out: "There are no trees out here, we are used to seeing the horizon, so we are wide-open and a little untamed. When we go east and end up among all those trees, we feel confined. When a fellow from the east comes out to North Dakota and sees our horizon, he feels naked."

May Richard Rocheleau rest in peace. Amen.


FEBRUARY 26-27, 2004

It was 9:05 p.m. I was parked where the snow-mobile trail crosses Prison Camp Road south of L'Anse near Alberta. This is where I was supposed to meet Tom Larson at 10:00 p.m. I like to be early, rather than late, and perhaps this is the reason why: about 9:07 p.m. this apparition of ghostly lights came down the trail towards me, it was Tom Larson in the Tucker Snow Cat pulling a drag that groomed and repacked the snow-mobile trail.

I flashed my headlights, then got out of the car. Tom brought the Snow Cat to a stop.

When you look at Tom Larson's face, you see the roughened skin of a fellow who spends a lot of time working outside; you see a kind of weariness in the eyes that is common to those people who work while the rest of us sleep. Tom would be working twelve hours tonight grooming the trail to Nestoria, that to Sidnaw, then probably he'd have to groom the trail from Baraga to Chassell, too. He'd work a long night tonight, he'd worked twelve hours last night, he worked twelve hours the night before that. He's not bragging when he says it: he shrugs his shoulders as if to say "What are you gonna do?"

This is Tom's second year at grooming snow-mobile trails in Baraga County. "I've been here two years and I've got the most seniority," he said, if that will give you any idea how popular this night work is.

He warned me that riding in the Snow Cat "will grow on you." Last year on most of his trips someone rode with him as he plunged through the dark strangeness of the U.P. night.

The police scanner in the cab of the Snow Cat crackled with an exchange. "That's my entertainment for the evening," Tom said.

How did he come to this job?

"I saw an ad in the paper," he said. "I called and they told me to come get an application, so I did. Then I had to go in for an interview. They asked about my knowledge of machinery. I had worked in the woods with heavy equipment - caterpillars and skid-loaders and that sort of thing. A couple weeks later I was driving down the road and my phone rang. 'You are a successful applicant,' they told me."

"Sometimes the job isn't fun. If you breakdown when it's ten degrees below zero, you are forty miles out in the wilderness, you can't run the engine, and it's snowing so hard you can't see anything - that's not fun," Tom said. "At two o'clock in the morning."

"That happened last year," he explained. "The radiator split and blew out all the anti-freeze. There I sat in the dark. I couldn't run the engine without anti-freeze, that would burn it up. I was up above the Roland Lake gravel pit on my way to Big Bay. There is no service on the phone up there - it's a bad spot for the phone towers. That's why we have the sheriff band radio in here, we can communicate on that in emergencies. It took three and a half hours for someone to come get me. A fellow came out in another one of the machines and brought me seven gallons of anti-freeze. He pulled my drag and followed me back. If I left the cap loose on the radiator, the anti-freeze wouldn't squirt out, even though the radiator was split. He followed me all the way back. We got home at 10:30 in the morning that time."

Tom had had a gas heater in the cab of the Snow Cat to keep him warm during that three and a half hour wait. Normally he carries the heater, chain saws, a big tool kit, a fire extinguisher, first aid kit, soda, and something for his stomach if the hamburger he eats when he takes a break at Nestoria wants to give him a little heartburn. "I have to take this stuff with me," he said. "I've had to fix these machines on the trail before. Chains. Come-alongs. I've got just about everything in here."

"I worked in the woods logging for sixteen years," Tom told me. "I had to get out of that before I got killed. It's too easy to get hurt."

He illustrated how the plow on the front of the Snow Cat works hydraulically. "You use it when the trail is really bad," he said. "There are teeth on the blade of it. If you dig it in too deep, it'll stop the machine just like that and you'll hit the windshield." The windshield is cracked already. It started as a little ding and the machine's constant vibration keeps making it worse.

There are two seats in the cab of the Tucker, an instrument panel between them, the gear shift for the automatic transmission, a lever for raising and lowering the plow in front and for controlling the drag being pulled behind. Two sets of lights illuminate the way ahead.

"When it snows," Tom said, "you can't see what kind of job you're doing until you turn around and come back down the trail. The tracks throw up that much snow when the snow is loose."

Snow-mobilers might surprise the grooming operator when he's out at night. Tom has to keep watching for them.

"This is cruise control," Tom said, and he showed me a length of metal that he stuck into place to hold the gas pedal at a certain speed. "There is also a hand throttle but it keeps creeping down and you're constantly adjusting it. This cruise control, you just kick it if something happens." He did, and the machine slowed.

"This is pretty smooth right here," he said of a nice stretch. "We don't have to do too much with it." He pops his cruise control back into place.

"We're going about fourteen miles per hour now," he said. "When the snow gets deep, you can't groom this fast."

"You can feel when it's losing power," Tom said. "Snow is building up in the drag. You raise it a bit and it releases some of the snow."

He popped the machine out of cruise control to take a steeply-banked corner. I swear it felt like the machine was going to tip over, it seemed to be leaning that far. When I grabbed the handle above my door, Tom smiled and looked at me as if to say "Welcome aboard, newcomer."

"It takes some getting used to" is what he said outloud.

The drag weighs two thousand pounds, Tom told me. "It really smooths out the trail. This drag is getting worn. It needs a new cutting blade on it, but it'll make the season."

What does he do in the summer now that he doesn't work in the woods?

"Last summer I did well working for myself doing carpentry and wiring houses," he said.

The Tucker was rocking back and forth from side to side. The engine droned, its pitch climbing and dropping according to how hard the drag had to work smoothing the trail.

He could be grooming trails well into April, Tom said. "Out here in the woods, the trees shade the snow. The sun doesn't bust up the trail so bad."

He no longer snow-mobiles himself, he said. "Actually, when I got this job last year, I sold my two snow-mobiles and the trailer. When you do this all night, you don't want to jump on a snow-mobile and ride during the day."

The Snow Cat was feeling like it was going to tip over again. I grabbed the handle again. Tom looked at me with the amusement of a veteran.

Ahead we saw an overpass looming. "That's US Highway 41 south of Alberta," Tom said. "We have to go under the highway here."

"The warmer the snow," he said, "the easier it gets chewed up by the snow-mobiles." The snow on the trail was packed about a foot deep.

We came to a part of the trail that is a logging road. They'd been logging through here this winter, but recently had stopped, "so we've got good trail now." The trucks had been tearing up the snow surface of the road. "Actually, this is Old Highway 41," Tom said.

"If it's really cold, I'll have an extra coat and pants with me," Tom said. "I was putting up a sign at some water a little while back, and my foot slipped. This leg went into the water almost all the way up to my waist. I had to take my boot and liner off and put them over the heater to dry them out, and I rode all night with my bare foot up by the windshield."

Branches were coming out of the darkness at us, slapping the side windows of the Tucker.

"It's not a bad job," Tom said. "I ride around and get paid for it. But by about March, you don't want to get up and go out on the trail. This past January, with three machines, we groomed more than 6100 miles of trail. We had a lot of snow and a lot of snow-mobilers. To keep the trails in shape, we had to take out all three machines every night. The more sleds on the trail, the more they tear it up, the more you've got to groom."

So, I asked, how do you feel about snow-mobilers?

"I hate 'em!" he said. "At least that's what I tell Tracey." He laughed. Tracey Barrett is Executive Director of the Baraga County Tourist and Recreation Association. Tom's boss reports to her and so, ultimately, does Tom. "When snow-mobilers see us out grooming the trails, it's always a thumbs up. The women will throw you kisses."

When he started the job, Tom already had a familiarity with equipment. It was just a matter of learning where all the controls were located. "After while," he said, "you know exactly where everything is, you can do it in the dark."

The Chassell Trail, Tom believes, is one of the busiest in the network of trails in the county. "It leads right to the casino in Baraga," he said. "That's where everyone goes."

"They aren't getting my money," he added.

And the Big Bay Trail is also popular, he thinks.

"The smoother the better," Tom said as we flew down the darkness. "The trail feels worse in here than it does on a snow-mobile. These new sleds have terrific suspensions."

The fellows who operate the grooming equipment alternate which trails they work and which machines they drive. Or maybe sometimes it's "first one there gets his pick of equipment." Tom showed me a maintenance log in a binder kept in the cab of the Snow Cat. There's a checklist for just about everything. "It's easier to fix things in a warm shop," he said, "than to fix them out on the trail."

"Here's the power-line," he said. We'd come upon a big transmission line. "We follow this for a long stretch." The snow-mobile trail uses the same right-of-way as the power-line through that area.

"I see lots of deer on certain trails," Tom said. "Last night two rabbits ran across in front of me on the Big Bay Trail. I haven't see a wolf, but I've seen a lot of wolf tracks back there just before were we came under Highway 41, and on the Big Bay trail."

What do people up here think about wolves?

"They hate 'em," Tom said. "They don't like 'em."

We changed the subject. "These rubber tracks give a smoother ride, and it's quiet," he said of the Snow Cat's treads. "If we had the machine with metal tracks, you'd feel it and you'd hear it."

Now we'd come to a section of trail where the power company was replacing the poles that hold the electric wires. The equipment that is used to replace the poles has torn up the trail in places. "They've got to do it in the winter-time," Tom said, "because this ground is wet." Because he knew they'd be working here this year, he'd originally tried to put the trail along the other side of the power-line. "Too many rocks over there put an end to that."

He lowered the blade in front of the Tucker. "See how it will roll that snow?"

We came past a place where the power company's equipment was parked off to the side of the trail, then Tom said "that's Highway 41 over there," pointing off to our right. "If you watch, every once in a while you'll see car lights there. You wonder what they think when they see us going through the woods, this light moving among threes, no noise. It's like a ghost."

We went up and we went down. "It's kind of like a mini-roller-coaster ride here for a bit," Tom said. "If I could, I'd take you on the trail to Sidnaw. There's one hill on it, the trail comes up over the top of it and you just go straight down."

Now there were dried cat-tails standing on both sides of the trail, most of their brown furriness still clinging tightly to the top couple inches of stalk. "This is a fun spot the first time you come through it," Tom said. "This swamp could swallow up one of these machines."

We crossed a bridge made especially for snow-mobilers. "We built it," Tom said, "and we put it here."

We were swaying side to side and front to back. It wasn't exactly like trying to ride a wild bull, well maybe it was a little bit like it. "If the trails is too rough," Tom said, "you have to go slower or you'll get thrown out of the machine."

We came upon more power company equipment parked at the side of the trail. Tom pointed at a machine. "They left the lights on in that one the other night," he said. "When I came through here the other night, there it was shining in the dark. They probably parked the equipment before it was dark so they didn't notice. I found the switch and turned the lights off. I left them a note: 'The trail groomer turned your lights off at 11:30 p.m. Tuesday.'"

Even where they've torn up the trail moving their equipment, Tom hasn't criticized the power company. "They own the right-of-way," he'd explained at one point. "We're lucky they let the trail go through here."

Tom pretty much knows every curve of the trail, every bump and grind of the route. "There are a couple big rocks on this trail that stay exposed until the snow gets a little deeper," Tom said. "You have to pay attention to them." The machine jumped slightly, as if on cue. "Feel that? That was a rock. I didn't hit it very hard, but I felt it."

"Yeah, the highway is right there," Tom said, pointing. "If a car was going past you'd see right into it."

"See all these signs?" he said. He was talking about the snow-mobilers' traffic signs. "We had to change our trail signs. They want the same traffic symbols for snow-mobilers as for the highways. So that whether you are in your car or on your snow-mobile, the sign is the same."

We were headed into the liquid blackness coming at us when suddenly we saw headlights coming up the trail. It was two snow-mobiles. They pulled off the trail and circled their noses back towards us. Tom gave them a couple beeps of the horn as we went past, an acknowledgement of the comradery.

"Oh, they're going to ride on my freshly-groomed trail," Tom said. "It'll have tracks on it now. The rotten buggers." If he was trying to sound like he was upset, he didn't do a very good job. When I worked on a golf course in college, getting up to mow greens and move pins at 5:00 in the morning, I tried to sound like I didn't like golfers, too. But I knew where my paycheck came from. So does Tom.

The snow-mobile trail is established pretty much where the trail groomer chooses to groom early in the season, Tom indicated. He has some leeway in the exact layout, within the confines of the right-of-way that has been established.

Tom said: "I'd liked to take someone along when it was really storming and have them videotape the trip - so people can see what it's really like out here."

"You don't get much choice here, I see," I said. We were climbing a narrow ridge and there wasn't much room to spare either to the right or the left.

"Nor here," Tom said as we topped the hill and both sides of the trail dropped away even more steeply. I swallowed and was glad Tom had all the seniority and experience he had.

Soon enough we were back out on flat ground. Tom put his makeshift cruise control in place. Our headlights were eating up the darkness.

All of a big sudden he pulled off the cruise control. The machine slowed and groaned. "Railroad tracks," Tom said. He touched the hydraulic and lifted the front end of the drag behind us. "You don't want to catch one of those rails. That'll stop you quick."

Then we were plowing down the night again, when just as suddenly it was like we'd come out of a tunnel of darkness. The sound of everything opened up, you could feel the noise of the Tucker flying away. Lights. We crossed Highway 41. The end of the portion of the trail that Tom was responsible for tonight. We pulled into the parking lot of Cozy Inn at Nestoria.

"I stop here and take a little break," Tom said. We climbed down out of the Tucker. "Oh, my back," he said as he stretched his legs and straightened up. "This is hard on your back." It looked to me like the run of long hours was wearing on him.

We went into Cozy Inn. There was a bartender on his side of the bar, there were two fellows on our side. Tom had worked in the woods with one of the fellows, the other guy was a truck driver. The truck driver was talking about trucking, as truck drivers are wont to do, the way poets want to talk about poetry. The two men looked at us as we bellied up to the bar. Tom went to the cooler and got himself a root beer, he got me a diet cola, he asked the fellow behind the bar for a hamburger. He told the fellow he'd work with in the woods that he was showing me the ropes. The guy thought maybe I wasn't dressed for the work, what with my shirt that has a button-down collar, my sweater vest. If we'd have been in the city, I'd have thought maybe he was picking a fight, but we were in the country and this was just a good-natured country fellow who had a few beers in him. I just smiled and nodded at him and didn't try to explain that I was a writer, or worse, a poet.

The truck driver was talking some more about truck driving, about which streets in Detroit you could and couldn't park on in the dark, about two black fellows who stopped traffic at an intersection for him so he could back around and get his rig headed in the right direction to make a delivery in an otherwise ugly mess of streets. When they'd gotten him squared away, the truck driver said, he'd given them a $20 bill and told them to have a good time.

Then we were talking about grooming the trails and riding in the Tucker Snow Cat and what-not. In a bar, you don't have to signal your tangents, a few non-sequiturs are expected. The good-natured country fellow opened another Bud Light and told Tom how go-o-od it tasted. Tom just smiled and sipped his root beer. The fellow wanted to ride in the Snow Cat with Tom to some bar at the end of another trail somewhere; he thought I should drive his pick-up to the bar, then we'd switch places again. He really wanted a ride in the Snow Cat.

Tom took all the banter good-naturedly until the fellow thought maybe he'd go out and climb up in the driver's seat of the Tucker. Tom didn't do or say anything obvious, in fact he was entirely pleasant throughout, but all of a sudden I knew it was time to go. Tom finished his root beer in one swallow, and though you wouldn't say he straightened his back, at least his shadow straightened its back. "We've got to get back at it," he said. "I've got a long way to go." And so we did. We climbed back in the Tucker, which had been idling all the while in the parking lot.

We were back on the trail. "The temperature is not quite right," Tom said. "See the balls of snow the drag left? The snow wants to ball up." Partly that was the result of the temperature and partly "we haven't had any new snow in awhile."

"You get used to drivimg right next to those signs without knocking them over," Tom said. He had been grooming to the edge of his side of the trail on the way out; now he was grooming to the edge of my side on the way back. "You want the trail as wide as you can make it, up to a width and a half of the drag."

The drag we were pulling packed the snow by the sheer force of weight. "We are going to an equipment show at Watersmeet," Tom said. "There's a new drag that also vibrates to pack the snow firmer."

Back at the place where the power company had been working I observed that "they really messed up the trail here." The ruts were wide and deep. "We can fix 'er up," Tom said, and he did.

Where the trail went right between the poles of the power-line, there were markers with alternating and slanted yellow and black lines. "The lower end of the lines has to be towards the center of the trail, that way the markers guide the snow-mobiler onto the trail between then. The DNR showed me pictures of some markers that had been put up wrong on one of the trails. I had to go change them. The fellow who put them up wasn't aware that there was a right way and a wrong way."

We were back along Highway 41 and saw traffic going past. "This is not such a bad trail to break down on," Tom said. "Along here you're close to the road."

I wondered outloud if snow-mobilers wouldn't give up riding their sleds if they could drive the Tucker and groom trails. Tom repeated what he'd said earlier: "This is all the trail-riding I want to do."

"Most of the riding is in the day-time, which is good," Tom said. "We groom and the trail gets to set up at night. It hardens up."

There were more ruts where the power company had been working. "They can tear the trail up with their equipment but I can fix it," Tom said. The ruts looked worse to me now that we were heading back, partly because they were on my side of the trail.

"We have less snow cover than usual," Tom observed. The engine of the Tucker was roaring, the treads throwing up some snow, the drag grinding the trail down to a white smoothness behind us.

"How much do you think the rubber tracks for this Snow Cat cost?" Tom asked me. I didn't even want to venture a guess.

"$4000 apiece."

"We send this machine out on the trail the first time because the rubber tracks help it to float across the swamps if they're still wet. The only way to get the trail set up is to get out there early and starting pushing snow down into the swamp. We call snow 'Finlander gravel" because you can make a road with it."

"This is a $140,000 machine," Tom said. "We trade them in every three years. This one has 15,045 miles on it in three years - 1700 hours of running time. You can figure the average miles per hour." That would be nearly nine miles per hour, including operator rest time when the machine is running but not moving.

"I groomed a hundred and ten miles of trail in one night," Tom said. He wasn't bragging, it was just a fact. "It took sixteen hours. If I do both these trails and the run to Chassell tonight, that'll be a hundred twenty miles. I will be a beat puppy when I get home."

Riding in the warm cab is not as cushy a job as some might think. Just staying in your seat as the Tucker jerks side to side and front to back is a workout: as the Snow Cat flies down the trail, you use all the muscles you've got to keep your bones in place. The night driving on the trail is exhilarating, but it is tiring too.

"The more the snow-mobilers come up here, the more we have to groom," Tom said. "We have three grooming machines and five trails, so we have to double up some trails every night. The warmer it gets farther to the south, the more the snow-mobilers come up here. Some years we're the only place that has good snow and people are just begging for motel rooms."

There is a crescent moon hanging in the sky ahead of us. "One night there was a full moon so bright," Tom said, "I shut all the lights off and groomed by moonlight. You could see half a mile down the trail, that's how bright it was."

We passed under Highway 41 again and Tom soon brought the machine to a stop. "Jump out," he said. "I'll show you how much the trail has set up already." We met behind the drag. "See how firm this is already?" He kicked the part of the trail that we'd groomed on the way out. I checked the firmness of it with my boot. "Now compare that to this side." He indicated the snow behind the drag, which was almost the consistency of loose snow by comparison. "It'll take just a couple hours for this to firm up, then the whole trail will be smooth as glass."

We got back in the cab of the Snow Cat and started rolling again. "Next week we're supposed to get more snow," Tom said. "That's job security, when it snows. I have a buddy who is a roofer. Every time it rains he says 'Pennies from heaven' because somebody's roof will leak and that's work for him. That's what snow is for me."

"If we had a good blizzard tonight," Tom said, "I could give you a really good ride. You can have a complete white-out. One time I just had to stop. I couldn't tell whether I was on the trail or out in the middle of a field."

"The harder the trail freezes, the less the snow-mobiles tear it up," Tom said.

We were passing through a portion of woods owned by Michigan Tech. "There forestry classes will come out here," Tom said. "There'll be snow-shoe tracks all through the woods. I'll say 'Oh, a class came through here today.'"

We were nearly back to my car where it was parked on Prison Camp Road. (Or as it says on the maps, Baraga Plains Road - but everyone knows it as Prison Camp Road.) Trail grooming is partly a matter of getting to know the trails, Tom said; and partly it's a matter of getting to know the limitations of the machines - the Tucker pulling the drag, and the drag itself.

We stopped where the snow-mobile trail came out of the woods and ran along Prison Camp Road for a quarter mile. My car was just across the way.

"Thanks for the ride," I said. I appreciated the chance to see him doing his job, to hear him talk of his work.

"Oh, thank you," Tom said, like I'd done him the favor. "I like taking people out with me."

I got down out of the Tucker and closed the door firmly. It was about one o'clock in the morning, but I was headed back to my motel room, a warm bed, a night's sleep. Tom was headed down the trail to Sidnaw, then maybe he'd have to go to Chassell if no one else wanted to do that trail tonight.

He had miles to go before he could sleep.


MARCH 5, 1998

I suppose the first thing they have to teach those Navy fellows out to sea is not to shoot through the floor. Which maybe explains why so many of them seem conservative. And bull-headed. Sometimes I think the ship has to be sinking before they'll listen.

Cool and grey, this morning: serious, but not somber. If the sap is rising, today it pauses.

Stones are conservative, definitely conservative. Like Navy men. Trees are liberal. Stones get where they are going but it's always with a lot of grunting and puffing. Trees, sometimes they fly.

Stoneboat. Stone boat. Stone. Boat.

Even when other people are having seconds, don't ask for more. What we are given is enough. Today is enough. This is enough.

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