Monday, March 18, 2013

Moose meat and wild rice

Johnston, Basil. Moose Meat and Wild Rice. McClelland & Stewart, 1978.
The Moose Meat Point Indian Reserve is populated by about 700 Ojibway. The reserve is like many other Indian Reserves; neither prosperous nor severely impoverished; westernized in outward appearance but in soul and spirit very much still Ojibway.

Near by, that is, about twenty or so miles away, is the town of Blunder Bay, a town that once had reason for its existence. Its chief claim for recognition today is its unsurpassed understanding of and goodwill toward the natives of Moose Meat Point. Town and reserve are united by a neglected dirt road that is almost unfit for passage by car. 
Moose Meat Point with its 30,000 acres, is isolated, unprepossessing, somewhat less than paradise, but it is home. Since its founding in the 1840s, Moose Meaters have gone from the reserve for various purposes and for varying lengths of time. They have always returned, as they will always return, no matter what. Moose Meat Point is home.

By the time Moose Meaters were herded onto the reserve they had already adopted a number of Western European customs, techniques, and approaches into their way of life. Some were imposed upon them. Once incarcerated on the reserve, Moose Meat Indians were expected to advance even more quickly. Missionaries came and government agents were assigned to assist in, hasten, and ensure the success of their advance.

As eager as they were to acquire what the white man had to offer, Moose Meaters had difficulty understanding and deciding upon the relative merits of “Brand X” religion and “Brand X” politics. They espoused as many religions as were available to them, only to find that the different faiths were as divisive for Moose Meaters as they were for the white man. Politics produced the same results. Moose Meaters tried to abide by the laws, moral and civil, general and special that were enacted and administered for their own good while trying to keep some of their customs and values alive. However, Moose Meaters could observe one and find themselves breaking another.

As time went by, game diminished and Moose Meaters were forced to go outside the reserve more frequently to seek employment. In their excursions into the white man’s world, Moose Meaters discovered more about the white man and his new and startling inventions, which they eagerly imported to the reserve upon their inevitable return.

But many, like the oyster in “The Walrus and The Carpenter” who chose not to leave his oyster bed, were content to remain in Moose Meat Point where they could live without interference, and in their own fashion, deal with the white man and his peculiar ways: accept, reject, or modify whatever was brought into the village.

More years passed during which the Ojibway in the isolation of Moose Meat Point made little headway. Moose Meaters remained on the reserve and they remained unpolished and unlettered. A school was built and a teacher was hired. With fine manner, acumen, and a good command of English, young Moose Meaters and Moose Meat Point could expect better things.

But things did not get better either on or off the reserve. Better English, service in wall, correct deportment, the right to vote, proper dress, social graces, and even new insights did not enhance conditions or the circumstances of the people of Moose Meat Point, nor improve their relations with white people.

Instead, matters seemed to get worse. Unemployment was high, housing poor, general health was bad, and education eschewed.

Something had to be done. In recent years, the Indian Affairs Branch devised all sorts of programs and handed out grants, left, right and centre to remedy the ills. The provincial government, too, tried to horn in by offering formulae and prescriptions for progress and success. Universities and museums began research in earnest and offered courses. Citizens began clamoring for abolition, education, integration, solution, assimilation, co-operation, and of course, damnation.

While many aspects of Indian life changed over the years, the basic nature of the Ojibway of Moose Meat Point remained essentially the same. They were individualistic, resourceful, informal, proud, impulsive, imaginative, practical, independent, perceptive, patient, and above all, possessed a wonderful sense of humour. As long as they retained their language, they retained their sense of fun and wit. Unhappily, the language is vanishing.

During the same time, the white man also has remained unchanged.  Though he may intend good, the white man has too often allowed his sense of order, organization, superiority, his fondness for paperwork, efficiency, convention, ceremony, change, his penchant for formula, prescription, solution, and his haste, overbearing, force, and decisiveness to negate his intentions.
Such then is the background and the setting for the events that make up the story of the Ojibway of Moose Meat Point in their relationships with the West Europeans and in their attempts to adopt some aspects of West European culture and to keep alive some of their own.

In one sense this story is a kind of history although it is not intended to be such. Rather, it is intended primarily as an amusing account of Indian-white man relationships.

We are indebted to Tom McCue, Albert Belleau, Harold Belleau, Fred Green, Xavier Michon, Rufus Johnston (my father), Norman Jones, Victor Johnson (deceased), Mike Trudeau (deceased), Eugene Keeshig, Jean Shawana, Joe Peter Pangwish, Gregor Keeshig, Lillian Nadijiwon, dear friends and fellow Moose-Meaters, and to the Ojibway for these accounts.

I dedicate this book to story-tellers, listeners and to all good Moose Meat Point people; to those with a sense of humour; to Anna Porter and my editor who can smile and giggle; I dedicate this book especially to the white man, without whose customs and evangelistic spirit the events recounted would not have occurred.

The Kiss and the Moonshine
“Leave women alone and don’t drink. Those things can wait. That’s how to get an education. That’s how the white people do it.” Such was the admonition and advice that I received from the elders when I declared my intention to go to school. And so scrupulously did I follow their words that I graduated from Loyola College in Montreal without serious entanglement from either menace.

But it was not always easy to abide by the injunctions of the elders or always to stick to noble resolve especially at a college in Montreal. Abstaining from drink was easy enough; my depleted wallet prevented me from joining the hordes of students who crowded to the bars every Friday afternoon. Women were another matter. And the fact that the faculty members of the college were more anxious to have their first two pet Ojibway students acquire some social graces and refinement complicated matters that should have been simple.

Induction into white man’s ways and customs began almost as soon as my friend and I arrived in Montreal. The first Friday evening we were there, an enterprising faculty member conducted us to the school auditorium where a dance was held for the benefit of in-residence students and the local girls.

We were ushered into the auditorium, introduced to a couple of girls who giggled, and then left to our initiative and devices. My friend, Al, endowed with more initiative than I charged in. I held back to admire the sights. Never had I seen so many young and beautiful women assembled in one place. There must have been two hundred and fifty girls and only about sixty resident freshmen. A man’s paradise. Several agonizing foxtrots disclosed to me that most of the women, for that was what I had assumed them to be, were in either grade nine or ten, and by age, just entering puberty.

They had nothing to say to me, nor I to them. They were absolutely disinterested in mining, fishing, timbering and farming. I equally was indifferent to the latest songs, movies, fashions or fads. At age twenty-one, I was too old for them. Deciding to abandon the whole business, I sat down intending to sneak away soon.

My acculturation might have ended then and there had it not been for a very attractive young lady, Jennie by name, who invited me to dance with her.

“Where did you go to school?” she inquired as we floated over the floor.

“In Spanish,” I replied.

“Isn’t that marvellous! How wonderful!” she cooed.

I was puzzled by her comment, for it had never occurred to me that the little Ontario town of Spanish might be extraordinary or exotic.

“What else did you do, while you were at school?” the young thing asked looking into my eyes.

“I worked in the mines and lumber camps,” I offered, twirling the young damsel around.

“Oh! you must be strong!” she gushed, looking into my eyes once more, and squeezing my arms. I flexed my muscles, the better to show my prowess.

And so the conversation went-she asking questions-I replying. She listening, while we twirled, skipped, spun and floated around the floor.

“You’re a marvellous dancer,” she whispered almost breathlessly.

I decided to hang around. There were things I could learn from Miss Charming, even if she were only fifteen and in grade ten. Besides that, she was gracious and gentle.

She took possession of me by seizing my elbow and clinging to me for the balance of the evening. Nor was that the only tangible way she demonstrated proof of her claim upon me. During the course of the evening, my charming companion brought me cakes, cookies, and soft drinks; she even made a lei from the coloured decorative streamers, which she pulled down from the ceiling and wound around my neck. Just the thing I had been warned against, “watch white women, possessive as anything.” I did not mind being possessed, wondering what was so objectionable about it.

Before the dance ended, she asked me to escort her home. I was elated and mote than glad to oblige. Out on Sherbrooke Street, we proceeded in an easterly direction toward Girouard. The walk was leisurely and pleasant. But I was startled when my lady-friend quickened her pace, flitted in front of me and veered to my left. But I was just as quick. I too zigged hard left leaving her still to my right side. I was puzzled by this strange manoeuvre, but I promptly dismissed the incident from my mind when she resumed her normal pace and position. We had not gone far when my friend darted behind me, emerged on my left and clutched my left elbow from behind before I could recover my senses. I was alarmed and disturbed by this erratic conduct. “What’s the m-m-m-matter?” I stammered.

“I didn’t know how to tell you. I didn’t want to hurt your feelings, but in our country, the man always walks on the outside,” she purred, squeezing my elbow. I was immediately soothed by her purr.

“Why?” I asked, astounded by a custom about which I had never heard.

“It goes a long way back,” she gurgled. “Generations ago, men used to wear swords on the left side. When danger came up, the man simply whipped out his sword with his right hand. If the woman was standing to his right, the man might accidentally strike her and put himself at a serious disadvantage.”

The explanation was logical but not convincing.

“But men don’t wear swords anymore,” I muttered.

“Maybe not,” Miss Charming countered, “but there was another reason for this custom. A couple of hundred years ago the second floor of houses used to jut out, over and above the street. The occupants of the second floor sometimes threw out their garbage to the street below. Ladies had to walk under the ledge of the second floor to avoid falling refuse.”

I was convinced from examination of the architecture of the buildings on Sherbrooke St. That there was no sound reason to perpetuate the custom of a woman walking between escort and building. I desisted from telling her about the Indian custom which required women to walk behind men. I let the matter drop and the rest of the walk passed without incident.

At the doorway of her house on Marcil Avenue, she turned and asked me if I would like to come for dinner on Sunday. Gladly and willingly I accepted; and gallantly I shook her hand. While I was shaking her hand she leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek. Overcome, I seized her hand harder and pumped it passionately and romantically. Then I skipped back to the college. This business of getting acculturated was fun.

On Sunday I went to Jennie’s house for dinner. She met me at the door, escorted me into the parlour where I met her parents and sister. A maid in a black uniform and white apron appeared with a tray of glasses.

Jennie’s father inquired, “Would you like a drink?”

“Yes, please, I’m thirsty,” I replied. The maid brought the tray over. Jennie’s father took a small goblet from the tray and handed it to me.

“To your health,” he commented, extending his goblet toward me. Not knowing exactly what to do but assuming that he was offering me a second glass as a test of my health and fortitude, I instantly raised my own goblet to my lips, tilted my head back and drained the contents in one draught.

I felt triumphant and I looked to Jennie for some sign of approbation. She only looked aghast. I looked at her father but he had turned his head away slightly and was sipping the wine. Jennie, a glass of orange juice in her right hand, took my elbow with her left.

“Come, I’ll show you our library. Father has a large collection of books,” she said guiding me around the corner and into a room, where shelf upon shelf sat books on mining and mineralogy.

“He’s a mining engineer. I’m sure you’re get along well with him.”

“Baz.” she said, touching my arm and looking into my eyes, “In our country we sip wine; we don’t drink it down like miners or farmers, or Indians.” She paused. “You don’t mind if I tell you these things. I’m sure you do things differently in your country. But I’ll teach you our customs; I’ll show you how we do things.” She looked at me warmly. I melted.

“No; I don’t mind,” I assured her. But I was perplexed by her use of the term “our country.” Surely I had equal claim.

The maid came in and announced that “dinner is being served.” Jennie conducted me to an elegant dining room which was located opposite the parlour. On entry into the dining room we did not sit down immediately but stood behind the chairs. Jennie’s father intoned a prayer first. Only when he was seated did the rest of us, as if by signal, sit down.

After I was seated I noticed the disconcerting assembly of brightly polished cutlery surrounding each plate. While I had read of dinners during which one used a startling variety of flatware, I had dismissed such practices as improbable. Now I was confronted by the fact. While I was pondering the order of use, the maid returned pushing a cart and set a bowl of clear soup in front of me. Not knowing precisely which spoon to use, I watched Jennie. It was easy; watch and do the same thing. I picked up a round-headed spoon, bent my head over the bowl, and began to scoop out the soup into my mouth.

Jennie placed a hand on my shoulder, whispered softly into my ear, “Watch me.” I watched. How graceful and elegant she rendered the act of transferring soup from bowl to mouth. She, like the rest of her family, sat erect, not bent over like me.
In this position, she deftly dipped her spoon into the soup, daintily skimmed the spoon outward and away from the lip of the bowl nearest her, and raised the spoon to her delectable mouth. So simple; and I was a fast learner. I too tried the method. A little awkward perhaps, but I managed. Jennie glanced at me approvingly.

Nor did I realize, until the next course was placed on the table, that meats and roast beef, which were served, were to be eaten with the same flourish and ceremony. Flourish I possessed; ceremony I had not previously observed. 
I stabbed a slice of roast beef, cut it violently, shovelled it into mouth and chomped on it vigorously a few times before swallowing it. As I skewered the next portion, Jennie turned to me whispering in my ear,

“In our country, we chew beef fifty-eight times.”

Wanting to please her and show that I could adjust to any situation, I promptly began counting with each clamp of my jaws. By this time I had learnt to sit upright.

One; two; three; four; five; six; seven...

“Mr. Johnston,” Jennie’s father intoned, “I understand that you went to school in Spanish. Is that the town near Blind River, Ontario?”

Not knowing which was the greater offence, talking while one’s mouth was full or swallowing meat before it was masticated the proper number of times, I was still counting; ... fourteen, fifteen ...

“Yes it is, sir,” I replied.

“My company, Normanda Mines, is doing some exploratory work in that area. The surveys and core samples are encouraging. You must know the area quite well?”

“Yes, Sir. I worked in lumber camps, just north of Blind River.” I mumbled through a mouth filled with roast beef. I was about to resume chewing the roast beef when I realized to my dismay I had masticated; I could not recall whether it was nineteen or twenty-nine. I wondered what would happen if I underchewed or overchewed the meat. I did not want to start over again; so I started at fifteen.

“Mr. Johnston, I also understand from Jennie that you worked in the mines. Is that correct?” He said.

Twenty-seven, twenty-eight...

“Yes sir! I worked for the Algoma Ore Properties, a subsidiary of Algoma Steel.” I carefully mouthed my words around the now completely shredded and dry roast beef.

“And what did you do?” He pressed on.

“I worked underground,” I rolled the answer over a couple of strands of roast beef.

“Mmmmm, very interesting.”

I wanted to eat. I wanted to chew. I wanted to swallow. I forgot how many times I had chewed the beef. With all the questions directed at me, it was impossible to keep count and to think of my answers at the same time. How my hosts managed this, was a wonder to me. White people never ceased to amaze me.

But I gave up; I chewed as discreetly as I could.

“Where were you born?” Jennie’s mother asked.

“On the Moose Meat Point Indian Reserve,” I replied.

“You’re an Indian then!” Jennie’s mother said, horror and astonishment in her tone.

“Yes, Ojibway.” I answered proudly.

The rest of the meal took on the aspects of an inquisition, but at least some etiquette was forgotten and I was just as glad. I passed the cross-examination with flying colours. So much interest was shown in me that the dinner had become pleasant.

After dinner I lingered another hour answering questions before I excused myself to return to the College and to my studies. I virtually skipped and frisked on the way back like a spring ram.

Next Friday evening I went down to the college auditorium as soon as the doors were opened at 8.00 o’clock. There were crowds of girls, but Jennie was not there; she would, I was certain, arrive later. While I waited, I danced with some of the girls who commented wonderingly upon my Spanish origin. A couple of them even gave me their phone numbers asking me to call them. I accepted the information politely without intending to use it. I much preferred Jennie.

I waited all evening for Jennie who did not arrive. Nor did she ever return to the school dances after that. I wondered why. But all was not exactly lost. During the next few weeks I collected some twenty or twenty-five phone numbers of girls which I dutifully inscribed on the legs of the double decker bed which I occupied. 
And just as the faculty members and the local girls were anxious to impart to my friend and me some polish, so were our colleagues. Many of my fellow boarders suggested that I purchase a small black book and write therein the phone numbers and the names of the girls that I had collected. Willing to please and get cultured, I brought one, carefully writing down phone numbers only, but not deliberately omitting the names. It was simply a question of economy. I saw no point in depositing all the information especially when I knew which name was associated with which telephone number.

I soon caught on to why my classmates and fellow resident students were so inordinately interested in my book. To confuse them I deliberately set down the names of girls beside the telephone number belonging to other girls. I even added ten or fifteen other fictitious names and numbers to the list. In the end I confounded colleagues and even confused myself.

The girls were possessive as geese, the young men acquisitive as squirrels. But I learned.

I acquired not only some polish and refinement but knowledge over and above the academic. Listening to my colleagues who expounded upon sex once in a while, I came to realize the magnitude of my ignorance in such matters; my inexperience; and the vast knowledge of my colleagues.

Four years at Loyola College went by during which I avoided and evaded women and desisted from alcohol. I became acculturated without catching “cultural shock,” more or less. I was ready, more or less. I knew something of the theories of romance, and dining and talking more or less.

Even after graduation I was not particularly interested in women nor they in me. Whether they grew weary in the wait or were simply disinterested, I was unable to say; but it was probably for the latter reason.

After I started to work in Toronto, I began going back to the reserve at Moose Meat Point at fairly regular intervals. And I eventually formed a liaison with Early-In-The-Morning, who possessed among other attributes an automobile. She was an Indian girl, in all probability less possessive than her white counterparts; and much less pretentious. Just the girl for me. The elders would approve too. Keep the race pure that way. Each return to the reserve was more pleasant than the last; each held out more promise.

The association with Early-In-The-Morning began innocently enough; but, as I got to know her better, my affection for her grew. So did my resolve to kiss her. However, not knowing precisely how she would respond to my advances, and my amorous fibre being weak and static, Early-In-The-Morning remained unkissed. 
I had to do it right. Having learned something about pitching woo and the theory of sex not from gutters or behind bars but from the mouths of the college intellectuals, in sanitary seminar rooms, and in comfortable recreation lounges, I determined that I was well able to apply West European kissing methodology upon Early-In-The-Morning. No more erotic handshakes. But it was rather difficult to decide which approach would best please and most excite Early-In-The-Morning, there being so many ingenious variations to the art of romance. I considered each in turn and dismissed them as somewhat inappropriate. The “Blood-letter,” otherwise known as the “hickey rouser” was not the kind of kiss to be rendered at the initiation of a romance. It smacked too much vampirism and violence. Moreover, Early-In-The-Morning was on the anaemic side. She would not hickey. The “nipper” was too inconstant, missing the point, too birdlike. Besides, Early-In-The-Morning was ticklish; she would probably go into convulsions and terminate the business before it got underway. Then there was “the butterfly” which because I wore glasses would not work. Most intriguing of all was the “French kiss.” Were I to try jamming or ramming my tongue into her mouth, Early-In-The-Morning might not be ready for this refined and advanced way of kissing. In all likelihood, she would bite, scream and cause a huge commotion. 
While I knew the theory of kissing, I had no real practical experience. Having fastidiously avoided women and girls during my high school and college days, my proficiency in the craft of kissing was deficient. To go out to practise at this point was out of the question.
So I planned a plain simple kiss. Under the circumstances, the gradual approach, as recommended by some of my college contemporaries, was the best. All that remained was the style of kissing. I tried recalling Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, Roy Rogers and John Wayne, but they were not very illuminating. I went to a few movies and watched Allan Ladd, Glen Ford, Walter Pidgeon and Humphrey Bogart. Of all the kissers I saw, I was most impressed by Humphrey Bogart. His was the technique. It was manly, nothing weak about it; it was honest, nothing deceitful; it was direct, no beating around the bush; and it was forceful, no one could resist it. Early-In-The-Morning would like that. I shivered in excitement. The next time, for sure.

The opportunity came several weeks later, when I again returned to Moose Meat Point ostensibly to visit my parents and relatives. On Saturday I sought out Early-In-The-Morning by walking five miles to her parents’ home. She too had come home for the week-end. I was in luck.

That evening we went out to Blunder Bay, and though it was warm I shivered. At the bowling alley, I was unable to hold the ball properly because of the clamminess of my hands. I shivered. Afterwards we went out to a restaurant where I showed her the proper manner of consuming soup, the civilized number of times beef was to be masticated, and the correct posture for dining. For all my guidance Early-In-The-Morning continued to dine without regard for posture or manners or decorum.

“You eat the way you want to eat. I’ll eat the way I want to eat,” she said. I shivered again. I had but one purpose, one resolve, the kiss. For it, I overlooked her ill-manners and forgave her surliness.

Later that evening Early-In-The-Morning took me home, to my uncle’s place, where I was staying. All was quiet and in darkness. She stopped at the gate but kept the motor running. We talked. At least she talked; my mouth was too dry for my talking, and I shivered. I moved closer, perhaps a few inches. She talked on, I moved over. She did not seem to notice. Good. She talked on, I moved over again, until I was as close as I could possibly be without sitting on her. Again she did not appear to notice. I took this to mean that she had no objection. So I placed a friendly shivering hand upon her right shoulder. Early-In-The-Morning did not resist. I moved my friendly, shivering, clumsy hand to her other shoulder. She did not protest ... she did not wince. She was ready. I was ready. She talked on. 
I gazed at Early-In-The-Morning. She looked lovely, tempting. She looked at her watch and announced. “My God. I didn’t realize it was so late, I’d better be going.”
I made my move – manly, direct, forceful and swift – but I did not quite complete the assault for the car horn blasted the stillness of the night and disrupted my ecstasy. I tore myself loose from Early-In-The-Morning, knocking off her hat and getting a button from my coat sleeve entangled in her hair. She screamed. The car horn promptly stopped. The door of the cabin flew open with the reverberating crash of a rifle shot. From the interior, like a bull burst the gangling shape of my uncle, his form made ghostly by his white long johns. On his feet were rubber boots. A cap was jammed over his ears. With a galvanized pail clasped tightly in each hand he scudded across the open field into the mist. Miraculously the light in the cabin was on. I disentangled my button from Early-In-The-Morning’s hair. Then she exploded into gales of laughter, rocking and rolling in her seat, while I skulked on my side realizing that I had placed my elbow upon the car horn in my eagerness to kiss her. I slunk out the car door.

I stood unsteadily beside the car, Early-In-The-Morning’s peals of laughter stinging my ears. I sort of lurched away. She was still roaring. My ears burned but I no longer shivered. Disconsolately and dejectedly I shuffled toward the cabin. 
Early-In-The-Morning tooted he car horn, and then drove off with a roar in a cloud of dust. I was too ashamed to turn around and wave her on her way.
At the door, I waited for my uncle, who emerged from the mists bearing the pails. He was puffing when he came up. 
“Oh, it’s you. Holy Jeez, you scared me. I thought it was the police.” Puff, puff, puff. “I just threw out two pails of good moonshine,” He said mournfully, puffing and wheezing some more. I dared not disclose my own misadventure. 
“We would’a had a nice drink,” he grumbled. 
“Yeah; too bad,” I commiserated. 
As it was there was no kiss and no moonshine.

All the stories recounted in this book are true: all are based on events that have occurred. (The names of the principals in the stories have been changed.) If the accounts sometimes appear to be far-fetched and even implausible, it is simply because human beings very often act and conduct their affairs and those of others in an absurd manner.

Some of the events recorded are the products of Ojibway impulsiveness; others are the result of misunderstanding , or imperfect communication of information; still others are the consequence of the application and clash of different cultural approaches.

Ojibway and other native North Americans will readily recognize and appreciate the stories for what they represent. In order for those with different cultural backgrounds to grasp the substance of the stories, they must understand the influence and role of missionaries and bibles upon Ojibway belief; comprehend the power and force of the Indian Agent and the Indian Act upon the life of the Ojibway; know the attitudes and the character of the English-speaking West European and his regard for other peoples; and finally be aware of the ever-shifting trends in policies and practices of governments in their dealings with the native peoples.

A case in point is contained in “A Sign of The Times.” Prior to the 1960s, all decisions respecting policy and program were made by the Indian Affairs Branch and presented as fait accomplis to the native peoples. Commencing around the 1960s, a new approach, reflecting an enlightened attitude and a more generous spirit was injected into government-Indian relationships. Indians were consulted on many matters concerning their well being before decisions were rendered. Whenever a new program was to be instituted or some important issue to be resolved, general meetings were convened, to which all sorts of officials, chiefs, delegates, and interpreters were invited, equipped with cameras and tape recording machines. There were no real pattern to the meetings; the course of many meetings followed the order described.

The few accounts recorded in this book have for years amused the Ojibway of Moose Meat Point. The events and their repeated telling can reflect and reveal only one aspect and only a small portion of the Ojibway sense of humour. The stories as written cannot adequately convey the real nature or impart the scope of that sense of wit and humour that forms an integral part of the Ojibway peoples and their character. The limits of translation act as an effective bar to a fuller exposition of Ojibway humour.

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