Will R. Bird’s “Strike Me Pink!” (1930)….

23098_F346F1FB71895-1This is the fifth in an ongoing series where I’ll be posting PDF’s from my collection of WWI era pulp magazines.

Will Bird’s stories do get stronger once the 1930’s roll around: his pacing gets better, the stories become more focused and he becomes less prone to battering the reader with endless plot twists –at least by the standards of the genre and his earlier stories.  In short, Bird was learning his craft and the results can be seen in marvelous stories like Strike Me Pink! from the June 1930 issue of War Stories.

Bird was never a fan of the officer caste, that much is clear.  His protagonists, typically privates or corporals (with the odd sergeant tossed in for good measure) generally consider officers on a range somewhere between veiled antagonism to outright contempt.  Strike Me Pink! fits this mould perfectly.

Our hero is Sergeant Tim Corry, who has been loaned to the London Scottish Regiment by the Wales Borderers, who in turn got him from the Van Doos: “th’ Frinch Canadians, av which I’m an original, though me father was an Irishman, and distant blood on me mother’s side is Eyetalian…” explains Corry when an irate officer asks him where he’s from.

Corry is on loan because he’s a patrolling specialist and Fritz is up to something near the British lines around Loos.  When the Sergeant heads out to observe the hun lines from a crater in no man’s land, a runner very soon appears demanding a report for the company major.  And then another shows up, demanding another report on one of the official pink forms.  And then another.  Corry is gobsmacked at the bureaucratic demands of the pasty, pudgy, behind the lines & stuck in the dugout crew, who can identify a major landmark on a map, but not by sight.  In short, the officers of Strike Me Pink! are the worst sort of paper-pushers, and even when the sergeant comes hustling in with news of a pending attack, they want official reports rather than immediate defensive preparations.

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Of course, Corry saves the day by stubbornly refusing the officer’s demands and by choosing the right plan of action as opposed to the officious one, and the regiment responds brilliantly to the German attack (at Corry’s prompting) in spite of their officer’s incompetence.  All told, this is a fairly straightforward story about the difference between the men who do the fighting and the men who write the reports and file the paper, and is a very good example of what Bird is capable of writing in the pulp genre.

As a side note, Strike Me Pink! begs comparison on several counts to Humphrey Cobb’s novel Paths of Glory: both are concerned with officers obsessed with bureaucracy and paperwork, and though both Cobb & Bird served in Canadian outfits, both save their harshest fictional criticisms for officers from France and the UK.

And so, without further ado: from the June, 1930 issue of War Stories, Will R. Bird’s Strike Me Pink!  I’ve cleaned up the images a bit.  The PDF is below the cover image.  Enjoy.

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Will R. Bird – Strike Me Pink

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Will R. Bird’s “The Major’s Prisoner” (1928)….

23098_F346F1FB71895This is the fourth in an ongoing series where I’ll be posting PDF’s from my collection of WWI era pulp magazines.

Today’s story by Will R. Bird is entitled, The Major’s Prisoner and appeared in the January 5th, 1928 issue of War Stories.

Reading Will Bird’s pulp stories of the First World War, it’s sometimes difficult to remember they weren’t intended to be read as literary fiction; they were written for an audience that demanded rip-roaring tales of daring-do and adventure –and in most cases, Bird was happy to oblige.

The The Ghost Hole (1928), is a prime example of one of Bird’s completely ridiculous, but nonetheless thoroughly entertaining stories.  One simply settles in and enjoys the twists and turns, untroubled by more literary considerations.

As I uncover some of the more obscure of Bird’s pulp stories though, I’m finding a hybrid type of story that occupies a middle ground between the more serious/literary stories (i.e.: the ones that first appeared in Collier’s, Blue Book and MacLean’s and were later collected in 1946’s Sunrise for Peter), and the pure-pulp adventure stories.  The Major’s Prisoner is one of these hybrids, and my response to it has been oscillating wildly between frustration and fascination.

The Major’s Prisoner is basically two stories.  The first half is a thoughtful portrayal of  Dicky Parsons, a hunting and fishing guide from rural Nova Scotia who lied about his age so that he could join up and “see the world.”  Parsons is not too young to enlist, as one often sees in stories of the war, but too old, at fifty-three.  Assigned to “the cook’s domain” he’s described as “apt and willing” and he soon became “a favourite at the kitchen.”  But by 1917 there were shortages of men and so he winds up filling a draft for the Royal Canadian Regiment, the senior infantry regiment in the Canadian Army and one Bird describes as “one of Canada’s smartest regiments.”

Bird’s choice of the RCR’s is significant in that Dicky Parsons is joining a group of professionals, not civilian soldiers.  (The RCR’s were one of the few regular force units in Canada before the war, and in fact were sent to garrison Bermuda in 1914 before shipping to Europe in late 1915 to become the cornerstone of the 3rd Canadian Division).  In addition to his age, Parsons is described as “stocky,” he “wheezed” a question at a sentry (read: unfit), and there is a carelessness, an obvious lack of attention to detail about his soldiering.  Though affable, he is continually exposed as a tourist: he makes one mistake after another until the other members of his company begin openly referring to him as “Jonah” or “hoodoo” (bad luck, bad omen, etc.).

23064LRAmidst this set-up, Parsons is confronted one day by the battalion second in command, Major McTaggart: a red-faced, fire-breathing, martinet type.  As luck would have it, McTaggart had engaged Parsons as a guide on fishing expeditions back in Boar’s Head, Nova Scotia, and like Parsons, he is also an outsider in the regiment.  Though a veteran of South Africa, he’s considered over-the-hill and is being sent home to Canada; recognizing Dicky’s plight, he’s determined to take him on as a batman so Parsons can stamp his passport home too.

Before the Major heads home though, there’s going to be a final hurrah: a night raid into no-man’s land to secure a prisoner.  That’ll show the whipper-snappers that the old Major still has a trick or two up his sleeve!  Naturally, Dicky Parsons needs to help save the Major from himself, and it all gets a little Keystone Kops for the rest of the story.  Several frequent Bird plot devices get deployed: an impossibly difficult prisoner taking, adventures in secret/hidden passages and tunnels, impromptu disguises, getting lost in no-man’s land, and a chance to show-up staff officers for the cowards they really are.

It’s harmless and ends well, but the story begins with such promise I wish Bird had been able to write this particular story for a more serious publication.  I would have liked to see a more psychologically accurate portrayal of men who were pushed aside or ostracized by their units because they simply weren’t able to soldier at the level that was expected, and yet despite their failings, still had something to contribute.  Rather than a bungling comedy sketch, I was hoping I was going to read a trench-themed Jonah tale.  But I suppose that’s not pulp fiction.

Note: Bird often published the same story in multiple magazines, and this one made its way into at least three.  It was first printed in the August 1927 issue of The Busy East of Canada (making this a very early story), and then subsequently in the March and April 1928 issues of The Legionary, the publication of the Canadian Legion.

And so, from the January 5th, 1928 issue of War Stories, Will R. Bird’s The Major’s Prisoner.  I’ve cleaned up the images a bit.  The PDF is below the cover image.  Enjoy.

img895 (1)Will R. Bird – The Major’s Prisoner

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Will R. Bird’s “Heap Bad Medicine” (1927)….

23074_49DABB7ED26E1This is the third in an ongoing series where I’ll be posting PDF’s from my collection of WWI era pulp magazines.

Today’s story is one of Will R. Bird’s very early efforts, Heap Bad Medicine from the November 10th, 1927 issue of War Stories.

The story centres upon two privates in the “25th Canadians” (the Nova Scotia Rifles, though they’re not referred to as such) –“Scotty” MacBeth, a hard drinking Scot with a charge sheet as long as your arm, and Isaac “Eagle Eye” Knockwood, the battalion sharpshooting ace from the Micmac Indian tribe.

Ordered to the Major’s dugout, MacBeth notices some brass hats carrying two bottles of premium Scotch Whiskey into the officer’s shelter, and he and Eagle Eye start scheming on how best to relieve them of it.  After being given orders to venture out into no man’s land to deal with a sniper who had notched five kills in their sector, Eagle Eye “accidentally” drops a smoke grenade in the dugout, our heroes make off with the bottles, and they head out on their mission.

As one might imagine, much chaos ensues, interrupted by a barrage of clichés.  Eagle Eye is naturally a stoic fellow, prone to grunting his approval when he’s not speaking in broken English about the mighty warriors in his family and the scalps hanging from the ancestral wigwam that prove it, and though he’s “the best shot in the battalion” he “could get drunk the quickest and easiest of any man in uniform.”  Oh, dear.  But it gets w16018_575C569830A9Borse: naturally the two men take a prisoner, and Eagle Eye wants to scalp him.  Only through his white man cunning does Scotty prevent this by having his Indian comrade swear an oath and kiss a bible, before his red friend tucks into the better parts of two bottles of Scotch.  Yikes.

Heap Bad Medicine is not a particularly good story; it’s entertaining enough in its way but the racism is pervasive and well, dull.  Late in the story, Scotty MacBeth is knocked unconscious by a brick to the temple, and Eagle Eye thinks he’s been killed; his reaction is to place him in a tree to honour his fallen friend, following the burial practice of his ancestors.  The tree chosen just happens to be hiding the sniper’s nest they’ve been sent out to find.  Eagle Eye deals with the sniper, scalps him, and leaves Scotty MacBeth up there as well.  And then Scotty wakes up:

“Summoning his strength he turned his head and stared for thirty seconds –closed his eyes and shuddered like a man in convulsions.  Not two feet from his own was the pallid face of a Hun, coarse-lipped and unshaven.  Yet it was not the nearness of one of the enemy that was so startling, but evidence of gross butchery belonging to the Dark Ages.  The German’s head had been almost severed, it lolled at a nauseating angle, and his scalp had been slashed hideously.”

I was really, really hoping that the story was going to turn here, and that Bird was going to make some remark about the savagery of the war, man’s inhumanity to man, the assumptions of advanced civilizations vis-à-vis “primitive” ones –in short, anything that could have justified the preceding nonsense.  But no.  The story closes with Eagle Eye losing the prisoner they managed to secure earlier and, roaring drunk, he war-whoops into no man’s land.

There’s no two ways about it: this is probably Will Bird’s weakest story of the war, and there’s not much to redeem it.  Though scornful of drinking men in And We Go On, Bird saw the humourous potential in besotted characters, and uses them to some effect later on in his “Clancy” stories that appeared in the Toronto Star.  Unfortunately we don’t see much of that here.

As was his wont, Bird republished the story a couple of years later under a different title, Delirious Tree-Men, in the June 1929 issue of Canadian War Stories.  I haven’t seen the later incarnation, but based on other examples where stories of his were republished elsewhere, I suspect it’s more or less unchanged.

I’ve cleaned up the images a bit.  The PDF is below the cover image.  Enjoy….?

img849 (1)Will R. Bird’s “Heap Bad Medicine” (1927)

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W. Redvers Dent’s “The Original” (1930)….

23077_5CEF8C9BD19E6Like so many young men of the period, Walter Redvers Dent (1900-1963) lied about his age and joined up at fifteen years old in 1916.  He served in the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles before being wounded in August of 1918.  Recovering, he then served in the Canadian Machine Gun Corps during the Siberian expedition.  He later re-enlisted during WWII (in the R.C.A.F.) where he served in Canada & was discharged in 1944.

In addition to his war novel, Show Me Death! (1930), Dent published at least twenty short stories and twice as many articles for a wide range of periodicals & newspapers in Canada, the USA and Britain between 1930 and his death in 1963.  One can find his work (with a bit of digging) in MacLean’s, The Legionary, Adventure, The Popular Magazine, Cassell’s, Saturday Night and The Toronto Star Weekly, amongst others.  His last major work was Reason For Living (1959), an examination of faith and individualism.

1930 was a big year for W. Redvers Dent.  The fall would see the publication of his novel, Show Me Death! by Harper & Brothers in the UK and America, and in Canada by Macmillan.  But before Show Me Death! would join what my friend Brian Busby eloquently calls “the lengthening cortege of Great War novels,” Dent published two excellent pieces of Canadian war fiction in the pulp magazine Adventure.

The first, a novella called Cry Havoc! was serialized in the two February 1930 issues; the second, a short story titled, The Original, appeared in the July 1st, 1930 edition.

23089_E52CCA480AB41Like much of Dent’s war fiction, The Original was written under the nom-de-plume “Redvers.”  Within its sixteen pages, we see a fascinating examination of several key elements of the Canadian experience of the war.

The story centres upon one Corporal Arthur Hill, an “original” in an unnamed Canadian battalion who has been through five major battles as the story opens.  He’s exhausted, emotionally and physically, and as an NCO (non-commissioned officer) he’s responsible for not only reporting the deaths in his section but has also taken it upon himself to make sure the letters & personal effects of those killed make their way back to the families of the fallen in Canada.  This is not his responsibility, in fact Hill is supposed to turn everything over to his superiors, but he’ll be damned if he’ll allow one last letter to get lost in the vast bureaucracy of the war: he owes his men more than that, but it’s taking its toll.  When we first meet him, Corporal Hill is carefully washing blood and mud off the letters he’ll send home.

In short order, replacements arrive to reinforce the battalion, and in the view of the hardened vets they’re a sorry lot: the latest draft is “[d]amn poor material.  No good soldiers left; all sissies.  Canada is milked dry….” (21); the latter sentiment echoed a few pages later when a private grouses to his corporal, “if this war keeps on there won’t be a man left in Canada” (23).  Perusing the roll of draftees, Corporal Hill notices the name of his younger brother Donald, who proves a capable and eager soldier, though young and naive.

23072LRWhat ensues follows the familiar arc of many a WWI story: soldiers train, move into the line, march back out for rest, and finally move up again for a big push.  In the midst of his sixth major battle, Corporal Hill finally cracks under the pressure, and he can no longer hold the shell-shock at bay.  Witnessing it, his younger brother Donald thinks him a coward, and helps ensure his big brother will get a blighty wound to get out of the front line; this is not done from empathy, but shame.  Later, the younger Hill will be set straight about his older brother’s bravery as he himself transitions from innocence to experience in the trenches.

There are some fascinating elements to the story, especially for anyone writing about the Canadian experience of the war.  Canadians were well known for their lack of discipline-for-discipline’s-sake, and there are two good instances of it:

 

“Hill did not bother to salute, nor did the O.C. [Officer Commanding] expect it” (22).

And in another instance an officer says to Hill,

“Batman may be all right in the English army, but in the Canadian it’s a joke.  My last batman used to sleep in my bed, even use my clothes and uniform.  I was convenient for borrowing money from, and he wouldn’t budge an inch unless I bribed hell out of him” (24).

Another typically Canadian concern that arises with some frequency in our in war fiction deals with the issue of prostitution and venereal disease; after listing fatalities, casualties and other concerns to his C.O., Corporal Hill adds,

“There’s one man I would like to report sick, sir.”
Again they exchanged glances.
“There are a few others in other platoons; I will tell the M.O. [Medical Officer] about it and get them sent to field ambulances” (22).

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In context, this is clearly an allusion to V.D. and not the mumps.

In Show Me Death! W. Redvers Dent is particularly critical of the how women back in Canada created, upheld and perpetuated mistaken notions of right, patriotism, martial expectations, etc. because they failed to understand the realities of the front (and here I’m thinking particularly of the scene where women are shaming boys not in uniform).  In The Original, Corporal Hill considers his mother:

“What would his mother say?  Women were funny that way; she would expect the older brother to shelter him, even at the cost of his own life.  They wouldn’t see that it was impossible, they would simply take it for granted.  And if the kid got it, she would always think he had been a bit neglectful, to let the Germans get him. (29)

Finally, the portrayal of shell-shock throughout is particularly moving, especially on page 31 when Corporal Hill finally breaks under the pressure.  Furthermore, men are shown as being tender to each other amidst the physical and psychological battering of trench warfare, and there is an acknowledgement that the various coping mechanisms the soldiers employed were exactly that, and not bravado or jingoism.  After an action, there is the following dialogue:

“Hullo, Hill.  Well, Fritzie missed you again, did he?”
Gurgling chuckles, head shakes, loud laughter, slaps on the back –a booster convention to the life.”
“No shell has got my number yet.”

“Hello, Corp!  How Fritzie ever misses you, I don’t know.”
Corporal Hill preened.
“I’m just unbreakable, that’s all.”

All the while each man was looking furtively and anxiously for some particular friend, who was in another section, to appear.  No word was said about casualties, or the dead.  That was an unwritten law.” (21)

The Original is a very good Canadian WWI story, with a lot going on that’s worthy of examination.  The framing device doesn’t quite work, and Dent probably needed another ten pages to bring the story to a more satisfying end and to make the younger Hill character as complicated as his older brother, but on the whole it’s a solid addition to our war literature.

From the July 1st, 1930 issue of Adventure, W. Redvers Dent’s The Original.  The PDF is below the cover image. Enjoy.

img01W. Redvers Dent – The Original

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Will R. Bird’s “Impressions of Passchendaele” (1934)….

10019LROne of the many veteran’s associations that emerged after the Great War was The Ypres League, dedicated to preserving the memory of those who fell in the salient and to “keep an ever-living memory of their fellowship….with the survivors” (The Ypres Times, Vol.1. No.1, Oct., 1921).

The League was founded by Colonel Beckles Willson, a Canadian popular historian and briefly the right-hand-man of Max Aitken at the War Records Office in London (his rank was purely honorary).  Willson wrote two contemporary accounts of Ypres (In The Ypres Salient: The Story of a Fortnight’s Canadian Fighting June 2-16, 1916 [1916]; and Ypres: The Holy Ground of British Arms [1920]), forged a 1916 anthology of verse supposedly written by men in the trenches (which I’ll write more on later) and after the Armistice, spent months acquiring documents & material on behalf of what would become Canada’s War Museum.  But I digress….

The official quarterly publication of The Ypres League was The Ypres Times (not to be confused with the satirical trench newspaper, The Wipers Times).  In the April, 1931 issue it was announced that Will R. Bird had become “the corresponding member for Amherst, Nova Scotia” (p.182) and over the next several years, Bird would contribute a handful of articles and at least one poem to the magazine.

Today is the anniversary of the final action at Passchendaele, when the Canadians took the last of the high-ground north of the town, on November 10th, 1917.

Below is Will R. Bird’s Impressions of Passchendaele from the October 1st, 1934 issue of The Ypres Times.  Enjoy.

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Will R. Bird’s “The Kaiser’s Birthday” (1934)….

23075_9A189DD3E5672In the 1980’s, after graduating with a degree in Library Science from the University of Alberta, Arthur M. Smith began compiling a bibliography of the works of Will R. Bird.  It appeared in 1985, and is a staggering work of academic research.  I’ve been pouring over it during the last few months, marveling at just how difficult an undertaking it would have been in a pre-internet age; there are over 500 articles, short stories, and novels.  Five-Hundred!  And Bird published everywhere: from The Maritime Advocate to The Ypres Times to Sweetheart Stories.   Smith is now head of the Library & Archives at the Royal Ontario Museum; his Will R. Bird bibliography can be viewed on the website of Mount Allison University Library here.

There are some real gems in Smith’s bibliography for the Great War literary enthusiast.  One of the more intriguing (not to mention obscure) of Bird’s WWI short stories appeared in Reveille, a magazine published since 1927 by the Returned and Services League of Australia –basically the down-under equivalent of the Royal Canadian Legion.  I got in touch with Lee-Anne Gwynne at the Australian War Memorial, who very graciously scanned me a copy of Bird’s The Kaiser’s Birthday, from the May 1st, 1934 issue.

23087_5ED6446513891The Kaiser’s Birthday is a more serious, more literary story than some of the adventurous romps Bird wrote for pulps during this period.  Set on the 27th of January, 1918 (we’re told “four winters” have past), we’re introduced to Otto Kettner, an exhausted private in the German army, starving, miserably cold, and most objectionably, ohne zigaretten.  A comrade in the front line sarcastically informs Kettner of the latest news from Berlin: to celebrate the Kaiser’s birthday, “there will be an Iron Cross and special leave for the man who gets a prisoner to-day” (18).  Kettner and another private are sent to use a crater just forward of their fog-shrouded trench as an improvised listening post; almost immediately Kettner’s pal is killed by random enemy fire, leaving him literally alone in the fog of war.  Kettner heads towards the enemy lines, presumably with the intention of getting the Kaiser’s reward, but in his weakened state is overwhelmed by the smell of good English tobacco wafting from a nearby cellar.  One clumsy movement, he’s taken prisoner and then collapses from exhaustion & starvation.

When he regained consciousness the neck of a metal water bottle was pressed to his lips.  He swallowed and the fiery liquor gave him strength to sit up.  He gazed around stupidly, saw that he was on a seat of sandbags and old blankets.  He had another drink and the potent rum made him strangle.  Then he coughed.  One of the solders immediately handed him a cigarette.  They were watching him in a mildly curious way and talking in an undertone that sounded sympathetic.  His wonder increased as he saw the badge on their collars.  It was the maple leaf.  His captors were those blood-thirsty Canadians (29).

23081_A0B3992FB895EAll ends well for Kettner, and he’s amazed at how well-fed and supplied these Canadians are, after the propaganda he’s heard about France starving and London bombed to ashes by Zeppelin attacks, etc.  In an acknowledgment of their kindness, (and a pack of cigarettes) Kettner presents one of the Canadians with his Iron Cross, second class, and the Canucks get a good chuckle from the private’s heel-clicking imitation of a high-toned German officer as he does so.

The Kaiser’s Birthday is not a bad read, and at four pages, it’s an ideal length for high-school teachers to hand out to a class.  There are a lot of WWI stereotypes in this short story: most interesting among them is the pale student, temperamentally unsuited to the trenches, who shoots himself.  The self-inflicted wound will be fatal; the various reactions of his comrades are notable, and I’ve flagged this story for a longer piece on suicide in the trenches in Canadian ficiton.

And so: The Kaiser’s Birthday, from the May 1st, 1934 of Reveille.  Enjoy.

Will R. Bird – The Kaiser’s Birthday

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Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade with British Fifth Army March-April 1918….

img526A lovely little pamphlet arrived in the mail today, care of Patrick McGahern Rare Books in Ottawa.  If you don’t yet receive McGahern’s catalogues, click on the link above and fire them an e-mail to get on their mailing list.  Being at the other end of the country, I prefer to get their catalogues electronically, as the best and rarest items always go quickly.

A case in point: today’s pamphlet titled, Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade with British Fifth Army March-April 1918 by William K. Walker.

Walker was a Lt-Colonel in command of the unit, and was awarded a D.S.O. and Military Cross.  At twenty pages, it’s hardly an exhaustive history, nor is it literary, but it’s a charming addition to the existing histories of the unit, written nearly forty years after the events described.  It appears to be self-published.

The Canadian War Museum has a copy, as does Library and Archives Canada, but the Amicus database tells me there are no other copies in academic libraries.  These are the kind of books Patrick McGahern and his son Liam (who runs the shop now) unearth with some regularity.  Go on.  Sign up for their catalogue.

There is one outrageously funny anecdote in Walker’s little history:

Strangely, our very first casualty was not caused by Germans, but by a huge ostrich!  A man at Rear H.Q. discovering an aviary in a garden behind a cheateau, thought one of the big birds would be a unique souvenir.  When about to rope his “souvenir”, the ostrich, with a lightening stroke, broke his arm.

Evacuated to the Base, the man told the gospel truth –he had been kicked by an ostrich.  Smiling indulgently, nurses and doctors alike were gentle with this “shell-shock” patient.  When seen at the Canadian Machine Gun Depot at Seaford, England, our “hero” had a wound stripe up.

Brilliant.  “And what’s that one for, granddad?”  “–that there’s for when I were kicked by the ostrich.”

I’m posting this pamphlet as a PDF because I know there is someone out there researching this unit who can’t get to Ottawa to see a copy in person.  (And maybe just to a brag a little that I now have a copy).

William K. Walker – Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade

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