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Oxford

From Ole Miss to Germany, Alum’s Journey Is Illuminated by Love of Language

The building that once housed the University of Helmstedt from 1576 – 1810

Like most of the big things in my life, it started with Mississippi and Ole Miss, went on from there, and always came back to there.
It started in a large, heavy, completely metal shortwave radio that sat immovable in my grandfather’s study in Oxford in the late 1960s. None of that lightweight plastic gadget-and-gizmo stuff that requires “upgrading” or throwing away. You couldn’t “upgrade” that thing. It was solid. It was silver. It was sleek. And it was metal. Its knobs were metal. Its grill was metal. Its handle was metal. The only nonmetallic thing in it was the hard glass that covered the frequency dial, and even then, the thin red needle that slid across the white facing and black numbers was metal. And inside that small metal box was the whole wide world.
I used to go into my grandfather’s study and turn on that shortwave and open up that world. And what strange sounds came out of it. I was a little boy, so I had no idea what the languages were, but they were gorgeous. After a while, I learned to gauge their origins: the loose, slippery, elongated flow of the “Abendland,” or “evening land,” as the Germans call the West, and the tight, punctuated notes of the “Morgenland,” or “morning land,” for the East.
And the music. Heaven. Like reading a thousand books with the flick of your wrist. The gravity of Europe, the gaiety of Latin America, the respect of Asia, and the rumble of Africa. It was all there inside that metal box, and that metal box was as liberating for a boy in small-town Mississippi as a magic carpet from “One Thousand and One Nights.”
It went on from the shortwave to a big brown chest of drawers in my grandfather’s study. Down in the bottom drawer there were a lot of dusty old photograph books, the kind that were bound in leather or hardback and weighed almost as much as the shortwave. There was nothing but old black and white pictures in the books. Some were of my grandfather, Ole Miss Chancellor J.D. Williams, and his wife, Ruth Williams, or “Nana” to my brother and me. Some were of my mother, their daughter Ruth Harter Williams. Some were of various cousins and older relatives who had been alive in the 20th century. Most were of people like me, people who had always lived in America, and people who had always spoken English. And none of that interested me.
The photographs that possessed me were the very oldest and strangest ones, the ones of Nana’s German ancestors, the people who settled in Ohio in the 19th century, coming to the new land, like many, with nothing but eternal hope, a stiff jaw and an iron will. That will showed in the faces of the men and women in those old photographs. “Life is real, life is earnest,” Nana was fond of saying with a grim face, especially if my brother and I were showing off or acting a little too frivolously, as was my habit, constantly.
Her admonition was true for everyone in her generation, given what they had endured, coming of age during the First World War, trying to make it as young married couples with children in the Great Depression, just getting to feel like things were going to be okay, and then the Second World War knocking them down again as they huddled by their radios and listened to a president reassuring them that things were going to be okay, even as boys from Anytown were dying in foreign fields everywhere.
Paul Crutcher in 2014

I used to look for hours at those old black and white photographs and study the names. Barbara Meyer. Georg Fischer. The names were attached to deep-set eyes and hard stares that probably knew very little English, if any, when they came over following the European famine of 1848, the year in which attempts at revolution failed in Germany, half a century after they had succeeded in France. As I grew older, I wanted to know who these people were, what they thought, and how they viewed the world. I used to imagine sitting at a table with them when all the families gathered, the way we sit around a Thanksgiving or Christmas table now, and listening to them talk about farmers’ rebellions, despotic rulers, weddings, festivals, feasts, wars, winters, and villages encircled with stone walls. As a boy, I just wanted to know about their “otherness,” that gulf that separated them in their foreign world—about which I knew nothing—from me in mine that I knew so well.
I have never been able to explain why my own “postage stamp of native soil,” as Faulkner called it, held no interest for me, and why the call of remote drums beat so loudly. I loved J.D. and Nana, but I can’t put it down to them alone. Something else was going on inside me, and they were just the conduits for the current that had to find its way out of where I was, and into where I didn’t care, as long as it was somewhere far away. The only way I have ever been able to put it into words was through another’s words, those of German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who wrote in “Der Einsame,” or “The Solitary”:
“I’m like the one who’s traveled foreign oceans
among these so eternally at home;
the full days stand rote at their tables;
for me the distant roils with dream.”
The shortwave and the old photographs in the chest of drawers led to Ole Miss and a meeting one fall day with Dr. Gerald Walton, who was then Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and who went on to become Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs. Dean Walton was advising me on the importance of not just “taking” a foreign language while at Ole Miss, but of learning one as well as I could, and preferably to the point of fluency. Even back then, in the early 1980s, Dean Walton could see the world changing, and growing smaller, and he knew his students didn’t need merely to speak the languages of others. Rather, they would be required to understand the minds of others, and language was the way to do it.
“It is impossible to understand truly how another person thinks and feels unless you first understand his language,” Dean Walton told me that day in his office. “You can study his history and his culture, but without his language, you will never really understand why he does what he does. His language is the key to that understanding.”
Wow. Talk about a railroad tie to the forehead. That was it for me. I decided right then to take Dean Walton’s advice and dive headlong into German, the language of Nana’s people, which they had abandoned in the process of assimilation, the hard, growling language of those austere-looking old people in those stark black and white photographs.
Only it wasn’t so hard and growling after all. In the summer of 1981, I met a woman at Ole Miss named Monica Brückner. She was the niece of legendary retired Ole Miss German Professor Wilhelm Eickhorst and a regular visitor to Oxford as her uncle aged and after his death as well.  Monica had studied at Ole Miss in the ‘60s, and when I met her in the early ‘80s, she was an English teacher at a high school near Cologne, Germany. Our meeting was more than fortuitous. It was akin to planets crossing paths in opposite trajectories, but in many ways, we were the same. Just as I was trying so hard to break free of where I was and get to the other side of my future, so Monica was always looking forward to a renewed sense of belonging in the other world of her past, the one of her youth, away from the cold and rainy confines of correct-behaving Germany, and into the warm and easy acceptance of hot August days in Oxford, where complete strangers would talk to her for as long as she could stand it.
Monica introduced me to German literature that was beyond my ability to handle as a novice student of Professor George Everett’s at Ole Miss: Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Heinrich Böll, and more. Monica spoke in a voice like silk on velvet, and she had that German way of filling in a void with “na ja” and “tis-ya” and the general, all-embracing German “mmmmm?” with the tone lilting up in a way that left you wondering whether it was a question, an affirmation, a correction, a warning, or just mental meandering. Monica’s “mmmmm?” had all of the precision of Johnny Depp’s “Forget about it” in the movie “Donnie Brasco.” Whatever it meant, in Monica’s voice, German was not hard and growling. It was Beethoven and Mozart. And so began the literary journey that was to prove Dean Walton right. It was the first glimpse of understanding.
After Monica came Dr. James Ronald (“Ron”) Bartlett at Ole Miss, the “Stormin’ Mormon” from Utah who had somehow metamorphosed into a blond-haired, large-spectacled, square-jawed, thick-chested Teuton in the course of his German life. Ron used to come into his classes singing hymns in a big baritone German, rattling off things that few could understand in a slicing, staccato German and gesticulating and laughing in a raucously aggressive German that had you back on your mental heels, trying in vain to hold on to just one word of meaning in whatever it was he had just said. Like Dean Walton, Ron believed that language was the key to culture, and so when you were in his class, brother, you got a full dose of the culture. Ron was the linguistic equivalent of a high-speed intercity European train ripping through a small concrete station and leaving behind a wake of wind and noise that forced you to tighten your coat and squint your eyes.
To some, it was frightening, including me. I dropped his class and only returned to him later, after I had spent some time getting to know that joyful inner bear of a man. And what a man he was. A generous man. In fact, I’d say Ron Bartlett was the most generous person I ever knew. In a Harry Potter dictionary, next to the word “generous,” there would be a video clip of Ron Bartlett giving away whole boxes of books to a student or sitting with a student for hours, explaining the hidden meanings of poems, or the German nature that pervaded the “Sturm und Drang” (Storm and Stress) literary movement. Ron would give you the shirt off his back, but then he would add to it by giving you the passion from his soul. He never quit giving.
Ron picked up where Monica left off, leading me into German poetry and lines like this one from a collection of his Goethe volumes:
“Seele des Menschen, wie gleichst du dem Wasser,
Schicksal des Menschen, wie gleichst du dem Wind.”
“Soul of man, how you are like the water,
Fate of man, how you are like the wind.”
Ron gave me that volume and many others from his personal library before he died in 2015. I still read them today.
In the early 1990s, I even tried to write a novel which had as the main character a man very much like Ron, who had told me vaguely of his work for U.S. military intelligence in Germany after the Second World War. Ron said he was posing as a businessman, which meant he did not have official cover, which in turn meant that had he been arrested in East Germany, he would have been in a bad way to get out. I had this idea for a story about a businessman like Ron working for U.S. intelligence and making trips into East Germany, the old German Democratic Republic, or “GDR,” and having to make a run to the old “green border” between East Germany and West Germany after his cover was blown. The man disappears, and there is no information about what happened to him. The GDR claims not to know. Due to the sensitivity of the mission and the man’s lack of official status, the U.S. government remains mum, the family can’t get answers, and the affair is written off as an unsolved crime. And then the Berlin Wall falls in 1989, the two German states unite, and the man’s son travels to the former East Germany to learn the truth from those who were involved.
In the fall of 1994, I took a month off from work and went to Germany to do research for the novel. I obtained reams of documents from the “Gauck Office” in Berlin, the merciful informal designation given to an agency set up after unification and named for its boss, the former East German civil rights activist and Lutheran pastor Joachim Gauck, with the full name being “The Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the former German Democratic Republic.” The records contained detailed accounts of actual border incidents in which people trying to escape the GDR had been apprehended, and in some cases, shot. I drew upon contacts I had made over the years and found little towns along the “green border” where my “Ron” character likely would have tried to get across into the West in the early 1960s, when the border was less secure than it became years later. I settled on an area south of Helmstedt. I found locals in pubs who guided me to a dense poplar forest along the old border. A former East German border guard showed me exactly where he would have tried to cross had he been my “Ron” in the novel.
“Here, there were not as many guards,” he said in German, pointing into the thick green mesh of woods. “If you took your time in the night, you could have made it to the fence, and in those days, parts of the fence were made of wire and wood and concrete posts. It was not all metal that you couldn’t climb, and we didn’t have the mines yet.”
“Mines?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he said.  “Later we put the small explosive devices on the metal fencing, the SM-70s, and we had mines in the ground as well.”
I looked at the former guard, now a successful businessman, and beheld a miniature study in the malleability and resilience of man. An hour before, riding along in his new SUV, he told me how exciting it was to be a capitalist now that the Wall had collapsed.
“But you just got through telling me how committed you had been to socialism,” I said.
“Yes,” the guard answered, laughing so hard his chest rattled from the cigarettes.  “I know!”
My jolly guide showed me where I should go to reach the place where my “Ron” would have exited into the West, and off I went through the mud and muck and briars and fallen trees blocking every path I chose and re-chose. No doubt my novel’s character would have been forced to go slowly on the night he made for the border. There was no other way to negotiate this gnarled barked molasses. After more than an hour, I emerged from the darkness into a bright, blue German sky and a perfectly waiting pub on the Western side. I was caked with dirt and leaves, but I was so happy at having walked in my protagonist’s footsteps, I didn’t even notice. Everyone in the pub did, however, and I soon found myself explaining in rapid-fire German who I was and what I was doing in that condition. The good Germans scanned me with those knowing small-town looks, then eyed each other with those looks turned up a notch, as if to say how sad it was to see a mentally unstable foreign tourist sliming himself in an impassible forest in their quiet hamlet.
“You are lucky,” the bartender said, “that you didn’t step on a mine.”
“Mine?” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “They still haven’t cleared all the mines out of that forest. Every now and then a cow gets blown up. I wouldn’t go back the way you came, if I were you.”
I gulped my beer and got a mental image of my guard friend laughing up another pack of cigarettes as he bounced over the broken road in his new SUV.
I finished the novel, and for years I tried to get it published, but there were no takers. I’m a pretty straightforward kind of guy, so I really got tired of all the wishy-washy replies with weak-kneed lines like, “While showing some bright spots of promise, yours is not the one we are looking for at present.” My favorite was a two-sentence spike from a literary Agent in New York who wrote, “You’re from Mississippi. Come back when you’re John Grisham.” Now that guy had style. Out of the hundreds of rejection letters I received, his was the only one I accepted.
After old “Bartletto,” as Ron used to call himself, came the one event that was to change my German soul forever, and the one that put me on a path of wunderbar no return. It was a summer exchange program organized primarily through a woman in Oxford named Christa Byars, who passed away on November 29, 2017. Christa was born in Germany. In the 1960s, she married Raleigh Byars of Pittsboro, Mississippi, who was serving in U.S. Army Intelligence in Germany. Raleigh and Christa settled in Oxford.
Christa’s hometown was the small city of Helmstedt, West Germany, which had the name “Hemlstedt an der Grenze,” or “Helmstedt on the Border.” It was truly right on the border between East and West. Christa’s father, Fritz Klauke, used to visit Oxford. He was a huge man with one of those big German heads and a face that stared at you like a grizzly warning you off of its domain. Fritz had a pickup truck, and I used to see him sitting in it around town.
“My goodness,” I said to myself one day when I saw him kicking back in his pickup truck outside the Kroger. “A German redneck.”
In the summer of 1982, the summer between my junior and senior years at Ole Miss, the German Department was advertising the “Sister City” summer stay in Helmstedt as a way to live with German families and vastly improve one’s language skills in a short amount of time. I signed up and couldn’t wait to try my school “Deutsch” on the real McCoys.
The Helmstedt address of Paul Crutcher’s host family, the Osterwalds.

After the long trip was over, I was taken to the home of my “host family,” which was located at Braunschweigerstraße 33 in Helmstedt, just a short walk from the city center and the Hausmannsturm (Hausmanns Tower) on Neumärkerstraße, a classic old structure that was lit up every night in bright pink. My family was “die Familie Osterwald,” or “the Osterwald family,” consisting of Kurt and Marianne and their children, Frank, 18, and Gesa, 14. Kurt was a “Tischler,” a carpenter, cabinetmaker, and woodworker extraordinaire. Marianne ran the business and the house, and Frank and Gesa were like something out of a novel I wished I had written. Frank’s eyes were his mother’s, sparkling and mischievous, and Gesa’s were her father’s, dark and pensive. They were good kids. Smart kids. Loving and kind kids. And fun kids. Maybe it was because I was something new for them, and they were something new for me, but we bonded, and my German, which I had thought I had some grasp of before then, went from “zero to sixty” in Porsche time.
But not without some major hiccups and stalled transmissions. On one of my first days with the Osterwalds, I decided to try my hand at a conversation with a young woman about my age who was working behind the counter at a small store. Back then, I possessed a leonine head of blond hair, and as I had forgotten my hair brush when packing for the trip, I had the idea of asking the young lady if she could “show me her brushes.” The only trouble was, and unbeknownst to me at the time, I didn’t exactly say the word “brushes.” I said exactly the word “breasts.” The two words are incredibly close, or least they were to me. As soon as I spoke, her eyes lit up like two matches just struck off the paper, and then came some German that was genuinely hard and growling.
“Ja, und?” the woman demanded, meaning, “Yes, and?” She put her hands on her hips and assumed the fighting position. I couldn’t understand why she was making such a fuss over my asking if she had brushes. So I pressed on.
“Yes, and may I see them?” I asked her.
The only words I caught, in the torrent of German threats and indictments that came out of that woman’s mouth in the ensuing 30 seconds, were “Unvershämtheit” (shamelessness) and “Polizei” (police). I ran out of the store and back through the streets and straight through the door and up the metal steps of my host family’s house and described what had just happened, asking for someone to tell me what had just happened. They did.
But I didn’t stop there. For the Osterwalds, the day had a natural rhythm, a ritual that didn’t just have to be followed, but one they loved following. Part of that ritual was the way in which the family would gather after dark around a small wooden table tucked away in a corner of the upstairs living quarters, an area squared with puffy little couches and a couple of chairs, and, framed at one wall with a record player and a collection of albums, some lamps and glasses for schnapps and steins for beer. They would turn the lights down low and listen to German folk music or watch a show on television.
During his time with the Osterwalds in Helmstedt, Crutcher could see Hausmann’s Tower lit up at night in the distance.

On one of those nights, they were asking me to tell them what I did for hobbies in Mississippi. I was trying to think of something I could explain in my simple German, and I chose to describe how my brother and I would shoot poisonous snakes on some land we had near our home in Holly Springs. When I came to the part about the “shooting,” I got that verb mixed up with the one for “shitting.” Again, to me, the two words were so very close. This time, my German had improved to the point where I knew instantly that I had made a mistake, but before I could correct myself, the laughing started and I never recovered. Right when I was about to get a word in, my host father Kurt nailed me:
“I just want to know one thing,” he said in German.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“How often did you hit the snakes?” he asked.
And at that, a new crush of laughter.
Years later, as I was learning Arabic, I had an Egyptian friend who was helping me with the language. One day he said he wanted to switch and practice his English, which was fairly rough. I said OK and asked him what he wanted to talk about. He chose a broad topic where he thought he couldn’t go wrong, which was a basic history of the Middle East.
“You see, before Islam,” he told me, “there were the Jews and the Genitals.”
“Um, you mean Gentiles,” I corrected him.
“Really?” he asked, incredulous.
“Yes, really,” I assured him.
“But the two words are so close!” he protested.
“Trust me,” I said, remembering the young German lady in the store with the brushes I had wanted to see, “they aren’t.”
Proving Dean Walton right again, the language I was learning around that little wooden table in the corner of the Osterwalds’ living room was the key to their German culture, to the way they felt and thought, and to what they did and why. One of the most memorable things they introduced me to was the folk music of a band consisting of two guys who played the guitar and mandolin and called themselves “Zupfgeigenhansel,” which was taken from the name of a collection of folk songs published in 1909. The bards sang old songs of love and war and revolt and harvest and “Alltag,” the German word for “everyday life.” In my favorite, a tune called “Es wollt ein Bauer früh aufstehen” (A Farmer Wanted to Get up Early), they told the story of a farmer’s wife who “has relations” with a visiting priest. When the farmer comes in from the fields early one morning and discovers the affair, he chases the priest from the house, forcing the good father to descend unceremoniously from the second-story bedroom window, with his liturgical bare hindquarters hanging out of the window for all the village to see.
“They said it was the morning star,” go the lyrics, describing what the villagers were saying at the sight of the priest’s buttocks dangling from the open window so early in the morning.
“No, it wasn’t the morning star,” comes the rejoinder. “It was the priest’s rump face.”
The Osterwalds were good people. They were the “Mittelstand” of German society, the middleclass backbone, the glue that held things together, the blue-collar workers, tradesmen and artisans, the small family businesses that, like the townsfolk of George Bailey’s Bedford Falls in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” did most of the “working and paying and living and dying” in their communities. They were the soul and conscience of all Germany. Know this family and its language, and you knew the better part of the Germans and theirs. You knew in what they rejoiced, in what they took solace, in what they shared, and in what they were one. And most important, you knew what they had suffered.
In one of the days’ end rituals, we sat and listened to “Zupfgeigenhansel” records around the little wooden table, drinking local beer and schnapps with the lights down low, and I asked Kurt and Marianne about their memories of the war. At first it was casual, but as each one took turns telling me about those memories, about the rubble, the deprivations, the hunger, the losses, and the family members never heard from again, things got dark and quiet.
Kurt told me about the night his father left home to return to the Eastern Front. Kurt was a small boy. His father had been on leave, but he had to go back, and after he left, Kurt never saw him again.
“Es war so kalt in diesem Winter,” Kurt said. It was so cold in this winter.
Kurt grew silent. He sat and smoked, ignoring his beer and staring into nothing, the dim lamplight reflecting out of his dark brown eyes that were no longer there. Marianne filled the void with her angelic German voice, without doubt the most beautiful voice I have ever heard in any language.
“He lost his grandfather in the First World War,” she said. “And then he lost his father in the Second World War. Those poor boys, they never had a chance.”
Suddenly it hit me, Marianne’s description of grown men as “poor boys.” It was a passage from a short story by Heinrich Böll, who had served in the German army on the Eastern Front, and had survived to write about it extensively after he returned to his native Cologne. Böll’s story was called “Der General stand auf einem Hügel . . .” (“The General Stood on a Hill . . .”). In it, Böll describes a scene in which two older German soldiers collect the body of a younger comrade, a boy named “Paul” who had just been killed in action, and with whom they had been talking only moments before. The two older men are going through Paul’s possessions, the few things he had kept in his soldier’s coat, laying them out across Paul’s chest. There was a cheap pocket knife, a crumpled travel brochure advertising a vacation retreat for families with small children, a letter written in a woman’s hand, a few coins and then some photographs:  a small, thin woman with two small girls in front of a house, the kind that companies build for their workers, as close as possible to the factory. “My God,” Böll writes, “these keepsakes, spread out over a soldier’s coat, speckled with blood and dirt, that is war.”
Kurt was old enough to be my father. I was thinking of his father and grandfather as older men. But in truth, those men had died when they were barely out of boyhood themselves. Like Marianne said, they really were “poor boys.”
Helmstedt’s City Hall (or, in German, Rathaus)

After the Osterwalds and Helmstedt, there was a Fulbright Scholarship in Germany at the nearby University of Göttingen following my graduation from Ole Miss in 1983, and after that a Bosch Fellowship in Bonn and Stuttgart in 1990-1991, where I worked as an attorney for the German Ministry of Justice and then for the Bosch Legal Department. In my Fulbright year, I learned the “student” culture of Germany and got to know people who would later work in business and government. In my Bosch year, I learned the “office” culture in Germany and became reacquainted with people who had risen in those career paths since I knew them in our student days. After my clumsy research on the novel that never got out of that potentially mined poplar forest in 1994, it seemed there was nothing left to do in Germany, and I would not return for seven years.
                              ***********************
Like most people, I can tell you where I was on the morning of September 11, 2001, and what I was doing. I was standing in the radio room of my FBI Field Office, watching the second plane hit the South Tower as it happened.
I had joined the FBI in 1997. In the days that followed 9/11, I would travel to Germany to work with German police on the matters relating to that day. All of the German I had learned from Ron Bartlett, Monica Brückner, the Osterwalds, my student friends in Göttingen, my Bosch friends in Bonn and Stuttgart, and from others in many more places, came flooding in to fill every conversation, every meeting, each nuanced request and every exhaustive reply. As if speaking in tongues, I was using expressions I had not heard or spoken for years, the little ways people have of saying things that only they know in their country, in their section of a country, or in their town or village, the things that are not found in any books, the fragments of gold that leave natives looking at you like, “Where did you come from?” This was Dean Walton’s ultimate triumph. I understood, and I understood when it counted most.
Before I left Germany at the end of the first tour in 2001, I visited Monica Brückner, my gracious mentor, the English teacher I had met in that hot summer of 1981 at OIe Miss. We sat at a café in Cologne on a cold and snowy evening. I wore a black cashmere turtleneck, a sweater I still wear and will never discard, no matter how ratty it gets, so often did I wear it in those dark days in Germany after 9/11.
“It’s as if everything you’ve ever done with Germany has been leading up to this one moment of your life,” Monica said with that typical German finality, as if now I could move on, the matter having been settled.
“You’re right,” I said.
“Mmmmm?”she lilted and sipped her coffee. Whatever that meant.
I was in and out of Germany several times after 9/11, the last one being in 2004. Germany has been absent from my life for far too long, but it remains in my heart. I won’t ever move on from it. I can’t. I may have left it, but it won’t leave me. Sometimes, when the “Heimweh” (homesickness) gets too strong, I return to Ron Bartlett’s volumes, and he keeps me good company, his generous spirit continuing to give long after the man is gone.
J.D.’s shortwave radio finally gave out around the time I stopped traveling to Germany in the early 2000s. It had done its good half-century. Now I can dial up just about anything I want on the computer or stream it from a service on the “smart TV.”
Just the other day I was riding in my brown 1996 GMC Sierra pickup truck, purchased in Oxford in 1996, listening to my German news and music via the “tune in radio” app on my cell phone, which I had plugged into my truck’s sound system. I remembered that day at the Kroger in Oxford when I saw Fritz Klauke of Helmstedt sitting in his pickup truck.
“My goodness,” I said to myself, smiling.  “A German redneck.”


Paul Crutcher is a Supervisory Special Agent with the FBI living and working in Virginia.

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