Appreciating Letty Owings, the Reason I’m Here

I just wasn’t ready.

It should have been a routine phone call. I call Letty every few weeks or so just to check in, say hi, catch up. Events here have been a little nuts for us lately, and when I realized it had been months, not weeks, I was ashamed. Somehow our lives always seem to get consumed with work crap and medical crap and all the rest of the ‘adulting-is-hard’ crap, and we lose track of the people who matter. I knew Letty was failing– she’s in her nineties, and largely confined to her bedroom– but she could still talk on the phone.

But not this time. This time, her grandson picked up. I said cheerfully, “Hey, Ivo, it’s Greg. Looking for Letty.”

Ivo’s voice was bleakly matter-of-fact. “I don’t know if you knew this, but Letty’s in hospice.”

My brain went into vapor lock. I choked out something like uh no I didn’t, and Ivo went on to explain that she was really not up to much of anything, they have two people coming in during the day to take care of her, and so on. He didn’t say end-of-life care but he didn’t have to.

I mostly just fumfuh’d and tried to remember how to swallow, and managed to blurt out some sort of thank-you and asked him to at least let her know I called, if he got the chance. He assured me he would.

I hung up and just sat, feeling paralyzed.

I wasn’t surprised, exactly; we had all been kind of half-braced for it since her husband Ray had left us a few years previously. Given Letty’s age, it was inevitable. Time comes for us all. Hell, Letty herself had reminded me of that, more than once. I should have been ready for it.

But I wasn’t.

I’m still not. It’s a gut punch.

You kid yourself along. I knew her age, and the slow slide down that came with it, had been on her mind a lot since Ray passed. But she was still, you know, Letty. Interested in everything, fiercely compassionate, infuriated by current events. (No conversation of ours for the last four years had gone without at least a few minutes’ worth of her savage venting about Donald Trump’s ignorance and incompetence.) She had even finally written the memoir she’d been talking about for years; privately published, just for family, but it read like a real book. I had been very proud to help with the production and bindery work on it.

So I kind of knew this time was coming, but now it was here and it still took me completely by surprise. All I could think while Ivo was talking was, Oh. Now I get it. This is what losing your mom feels like. Jesus, how do people do this?

*

In Portland, Oregon, in alcoholism and recovery circles especially, Letty Owings is a legendary figure. She was the head of Ecumenical Ministries for a decade or so, something that is a career for most people half her age but for Letty it was just what she was doing to keep busy after she retired from teaching. The Letty Owings Center is named for her, a treatment center that specializes in helping single mothers beat their addiction. Here’s a video with Letty herself talking about the work they do.

But for me, she has always been just my former English teacher. Forty-something years and we haven’t ever really been out of touch, except a brief time in the early 1980s when my own addiction issues had spun out of control. She was the example that I strove to live up to. My mentor, my friend, and in the end much more of a mom to me than my actual blood mother. (Letty would deny most of this, she says all she did was get out of my way, but I was there and I am telling you that is how it was.)

When I got clean in 1986 the phone call to Letty was the one I dreaded the most. Typically, when I finally worked up the nerve to call and own up, she brushed off my quavering apology as ridiculous, the important thing was to move forward. I ended up consulting with her in the very early days of the program that eventually became the Letty Owings Center (mostly just pointing her at people she should talk to, particularly the admins at Residence XII, who I knew a little from my time volunteering on the alcohol and drug hotline.)

My memories of Letty go back to when I was thirteen, when I was a freshman and I had her for 7th period I.S.

I guess I should explain, since most of you are probably too young to remember the brief hip-happening-NOW period when the Groovy Age inflicted itself on public education.

My high school was built in the early seventies, at the tail end of the Groovy Age, and there was a certain hippy-dippy vibe about the place back then. Lakeridge was a brand-new school and it was decided that it would be designed to reflect new attitudes. There weren’t really hallways as such, but rather a huge circular open area called the Commons with rows of free-standing lockers, with classrooms in different wings radiating out from the Commons like spokes from a hub. And each department itself had a big open area with the classrooms ringing each “center” — the English Center, the Math Center, the Social Studies Center, and so on. Just outside the English Center was the designated Student Smoking Area, which was a fairly new innovation that horrified a lot of people and delighted the stoner population. And so on. Here are a couple of yearbook pages from 1974 that spotlighted the English Center, where I was to spend the vast majority of my time in high school. I find these kind of hilarious, because you can see from the pictures what a weird culture clash it was between the progressive hippie vibe and the traditional idea of high school back then.

I have a story about Pat Wellons, who you can see there with the severe beehive and the butterfly horn-rims, as well; the one about Pat, that became my first published magazine sale, was the basis of this Barnes and Noble talk a few years ago.

And on this page in the upper right you get a view of the English Center itself, in all its chaotic open-classroom glory. Letty’s also on this page, in the group picture, though you can hardly see her.

I started there as a freshman in the fall of 1975, when the place still was new. There were a lot of innovative educational ideas that they were experimenting with; one was I.S., which stood for Independent Study. Basically a free period. The theory was that students were given two free periods during the nine-period day in which they could do homework, pursue extra-credit projects, and generally better themselves by ‘participating in the design of their own education.’ Faculty soon learned that student design input on education began and ended with not wanting to work– on anything– and I.S. went away in 1981, I think.

But when I was in high school it was still a thing. Freshmen only got to do it on probation, though; instead of roaming the school at will like the older students could, for our first semester we had the traditional in-classroom supervised study hall. Sit quietly at your table (desks were not a thing at our school either, too stodgy and old-fashioned) and do homework or read.

All this is preamble, scene-setting. The point is that the assigned teacher for my seventh period supervised I.S. was Letty Owings.

I was already having a bad day, that first day of high school. I had kind of thought, since I was going to be with almost all new kids (my neighborhood was in a weird in-between zone where my assigned junior high school had been across town, not the one that fed into Lakeridge) that, maybe, it could be a fresh start; a place where I could re-invent myself as something other than a piñata for jocks and bullies.

That wistful daydream hadn’t even made it past lunchtime. I remember Stephen King talking about how when he wrote Carrie (a book hardly anyone had heard of at the time, the paperback had only been out a few months as of fall 1975) the thing he kept thinking about was the ruthless caste system of high school and how it moved to crush anyone who showed signs of forgetting his or her place in it, and I instantly knew exactly what he meant. That immutable social hierarchy was THE defining characteristic of my high school experience.

I had felt the full weight of it that day. I couldn’t tell you the specific details, I don’t remember the exact incident or even if there had been one; it might have been a cumulative series of what the kids today call ‘micro-aggressions.’ But I vividly remember going into seventh period after lunch with the feeling of defeat, the knowledge that I was doomed to be a victim of jock sociopaths for the rest of my life, no matter the environment. Was it the glasses? Did I just radiate something? Pheromones? What? So what if I like to read? Why is that anyone’s business anyway? Jangled and angry, that was my state of mind entering seventh period.

Mrs. Owings introduced herself in a tart southern accent and said flatly that I.S. was not for just goofing off. She added that when she called the roll, she wanted each of us to raise a hand, so she could learn names, and then tell her what we were working on. Homework or reading or whatever. But there had to be something.

A yearbook photo from that year, or thereabouts. That’s not me, but it shows a textbook example of the well-then-make-your-case-kid attitude Letty brought to her classroom.

When my name was called I raised a hand and said dourly, “Reading.”

“Reading what?”

Damn it. Here we go, I thought. I’ll have to tell her and then everyone will laugh again. Because the book I had with me that day was David Gerrold’s The Trouble With Tribbles.

“Uh.. this.” I briefly held up the paperback and waved it a little.

“What is that? Bring it up here.” I tensed. I could already hear a couple of giggles and whispers behind me as I did the walk of shame to the front of the room, and though she had no idea, I was already mentally rehearsing the Clarence Darrow-level defense of why it was appropriate material for I.S.

She took it from me and examined it. “Is this science fiction?”

“No. It’s about writing.” I added, “How a writer sold his first TV script.”

“Really?” Letty, against every expectation I had, visibly brightened. “Do you write? You look like you might be a writer.”

All my anger and defensiveness melted away instantly, overwhelmed by a wave of astounded surprise. I wish I could put across what it felt like, because I don’t think there are adequate words to express how amazed and relieved I was. I was thirteen and no one, no one in my life ever up to that point, had ever so much as intimated to me that a kid wanting to write stories was anything other than a weirdo, at the very least an oddball and at worst mentally ill. Not even my parents. Especially not my parents.

Mrs. Owings’ interest was so novel, and her half-smiling expression so disarming, that my tension vanished like a soap bubble. “Uh, someday. Maybe.”

“Well maybe bring in something you wrote for me to read, one of these days, then.” She waved me back to my seat and I went.

From then we were friendly. For most of my high school career I never had her as a teacher, but practically living in the English Center as I did, we still saw each other a lot, and as I grew older and became somewhat — not a lot, but somewhat– more comfortable in my own skin, she became one of the adults that I knew was safe to confide in if I ran into a problem of some kind. Even a serious one like the scary-ass alcoholism stuff going on with my folks at home. The weird thing was that I never did confide in her, not then, but just knowing I could was helpful in itself.

But our actual friendship didn’t really begin until my senior year. There was a lot that led up to this and I’m not going to get into all of it, but suffice it to say that my teen angst had mostly manifested in apathy towards everything not involving my own personal interests. It was a tunnel-visioned approach to life that might have worked if I was pursuing a degree in superhero comics or sword-and-sorcery paperbacks or prog rock, but the actual goal was to graduate high school and I was in serious danger of not doing that. It was the acerbic Mrs. Wellons that helped me course-correct so I was able to pull it out, just barely (again, that story is here) but the second semester of senior year, I had some required classes that I could only fit in by dumping Mrs. Wellons and finding some other period for English. I settled on Mrs. Owings for fourth period, reasoning that her version would be equal to the one I’d been in with Mrs. Wellons and thus adequate for what I was looking for.

It lasted three days.

Mrs. Owings buttonholed me in the hall connecting the English Center to the Commons one morning and jabbed a finger in my chest. “Greg Hatcher, I want to know just what in the HELL you are doing in my fourth period class.”

I gaped at her and opened my mouth to say something like uh…. what…? because I knew I was doing fine in there.

But she didn’t give me a chance, continuing without a pause. It was a rant. “I can’t teach the class way down here–” She held out a hand, palm down, about waist-high.”–and way up HERE.” She lifted the hand above her head, still flat, miming the rise of an elevator. “Can’t be done. Not both at the same time. It is a waste of my time and yours for you to be in that class. Why aren’t you in Honors?”

The endearing part of this for me, forty years later, is the memory of how angry she was with me: enough to swear on school property in the middle of the day, even. Letty never had any patience for what she considered “foolishness” and me undervaluing my writing skills clearly qualified. Although I was feeling her lash, I couldn’t help feeling a little flattered, too.

I tried to explain about the schedule thing, adding that her class was the most challenging thing I could find for fourth period.

That last somewhat mollified her, but she shook her head. “No. It won’t do. Lemme think on it a second. What are your I.S. periods?”

“Eight and nine.”

“Nine,” she mused. “All right. Here’s what we’ll do. I have senior electives that period, Comp 101 this quarter and The Novel next quarter, Structure Of the Novel. You will come to THAT period, those will cover your English requirement, and I’ll turn in your grade as being for fourth period, and it’ll just be between us. How’s that?”

I think it was the idea that Mrs. Owings and I would be sneaking around and putting something over on the administration as much as anything else that sold it to me. I instantly agreed.

She jabbed me in the chest again and said, “And I am going to work you, mister. No more sailing through everything like fourth period. That is over.”

Feeling somewhat chastened, I agreed to that too.

And so that was what we did. And I can say without reservation that those two quarters, the last half of my senior year, were absolutely the high point of high school for me.

Because I got to really write–things I wanted to write–for class credit. Since Letty was teaching technique and presentation in Comp 101, with no consideration of content, I could talk about anything I wanted. It was intoxicating. The papers I turned in– we did one a week– ended up being, in a very real sense, the prototype for this column. For Compare/Contrast, just to take one example, I did two thousand words for Letty on Robert E. Howard’s Conan versus Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter. Like that. I was at last allowed to let my geek flag fly without fear of reprisal, and Letty was having as much fun with it as I was.

The previous semester Mrs. Wellons had taught us how grammar and language worked and I internalized that to such a degree that I still use it daily (I don’t think I could diagram a sentence today, I admit I’ve forgotten the specific symbology you use. But I know what the parts are, and I understand parallel construction and the rule of three and the agreement of tenses and so on, with the same subconscious-reflex familiarity most people bring to tying their shoes.) Letty’s approach to Comp 101 was the perfect follow-up, it gave me an understanding of overall structure and how you use the workings of language like carpenter’s tools to build a piece.

I haven’t set foot in a high school English class since 1979 (despite teaching Young Authors in high school myself) so I have no idea if this is still how it works, but that was not generally the approach back then. Back when I was in high school English, you read Great Works and then you had to write book reports on them saying why they were Great, even if you thought they sucked. (I’m sorry, but I am never ever going to like A Separate Peace; it’s bloated, shallow, and obvious. I don’t care how many Honors English types think it’s genius. The 1972 movie starring future Hardy Boy Parker Stevenson, which we were also forced to sit through, just exaggerates those flaws.)

But this was useful. More, it was fun.

The following quarter, the Novel, was at first glance a reversion to that Great Book thing I was talking about above. But Letty’s take on it was different. We did Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (a local boy, Letty added, lived just outside of Eugene) and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.

She didn’t demand we appreciate them, she just wanted us to read them and get familiar with them so we could follow along when she took them apart for us like they were boat engines and showed us how they worked. (As it happens, that was actually the way I learned to appreciate them, so maybe that was her plan all along.)

But the important part, as far as I was concerned, was that it was still about structure. It meant that I was able to take these lessons and apply them to what I was doing on my own, to learn the carpentry of prose. Letty was convinced, and she convinced me, that writing is a craft, not an art; it’s something you can learn, and that books are built. Sure, some are Great Literature, but you don’t set out to do that. You set out to build a thing that works. Greatness comes with practice and not everyone gets there, but baseline competence is something every writer can and should master, even if it’s just for the PTA newsletter.

The last day of school, she asked me what I had planned and I told her I was probably going to U of O down in Eugene. “Well come back and see me sometime,” she told me. “And send me anything you write. I’m interested.”

“Seriously?”

“Serious as a heart attack, kiddo. Here.” She scribbled her address on a sheet of paper.

I took it, flushed with the flattering knowledge that she really was interested. “Uh. Thank you. For, you know, everything.”

She laughed. “It was my pleasure. I got to see Greg Hatcher challenged, finally. That was a treat for me.”

I’ve kept my promise. From that day to this one, Letty’s gotten a copy of everything I have ever done. She has better files on my work than I do. In recent years I’ve made up large-print versions for her at the printshop I was working at, because of her failing eyesight. But the job never feels done till Letty gets her copy. She loves it all, no matter how pulpy and lowbrow it might be.

“I can hear your voice,” she says. “And it still is a thrill to look at the cover and see your name there, and remember you from my classroom back in the day.”

Hearing that was a thrill for me, frankly.

*

It became natural to drop by her house when I was home for Christmas or whatever, and she opened her home and family to me like I was one of them. Like I said, we never really lost touch, though it took me the better part of a decade after graduating high school to get to where I could call her Letty. We’ve weathered a lot of personal stuff together; deaths and divorce and rehab and God knows what all. Not all of it’s been on my end (though most of it was) but even so, I like to think there were times she was able to lean on me as much as I have on her.

This is probably my favorite picture of the two of us, from a party about twenty-five years ago. One or the other of us just got off a really good joke. I can’t remember what. But our times together generally look like this. Talking really fast and laughing a lot.

It took me a while to get to know her husband Ray, because he was always so quiet; he was perfectly content to sit back and let his outspoken wife carry the show. But they were a set, a perfect match.

I first met Ray the night of the senior prom. Letty was full of school spirit and loved things like the prom, she and her husband always chaperoned.

When my date Heather disappeared to go to the women’s room and didn’t come back, I started to wonder what was up. I went over to the restrooms and just as I was trying to decide if I should knock or something, the door flew open and there was Letty. “Greg! Thank God. Heather’s in here with me, we’re trying to help a girl drank a whole quart of vodka and she’s about to choke on her own puke. Go find Ray and tell him I haven’t flushed myself and see if he can’t call a doctor or her parents or something.”

High school. A more innocent time. Yeah.

So I went and found Ray and introduced myself. He knew all about me, apparently, but we had never met. So he made some calls and then we hung out in the vestibule just outside the ladies’ room, chatting, while we waited for EMTs. Hell of a way to meet someone. But I kind of enjoyed it. Mostly because Ray didn’t treat me like a kid, but rather took it as us just being two guys waiting for the womenfolk. In the four decades I knew him I don’t think I ever saw him rattled or heard him raise his voice, and the closest I ever saw him come to anger was mild impatience. He was one of the most soothing presences I have ever known, and his passing a few years ago was a huge blow to all of us. Someone so stable just felt like he should be a permanent fixture.

We all worried that Letty would be lost without him, and certainly a bleakness of outlook has been there since he’s been gone. But it did persuade her to finally get her memoirs done, and her grandchildren and I co-conspired to keep her motivated and interested. As I said before, I was very proud to be the production consultant on it.

That was about four years ago, and though we were urging her to do some sort of follow-up volume, her health just hasn’t been up to it. For the last couple of years she hasn’t really been able to even get out of bed, and so we come to her.

It’s not just me. There have been quite a few of us strays that she took in, and she counts us all as family. Certainly we count her as such. More than anyone I’m related to by blood.

Taking in strays is something Julie and I have done since I started teaching myself, as well. It might just come with the job– Letty always said so. “Kids run away, but a hell of a lot more of ’em get thrown away. No kid should get thrown away.” But I learned it from Letty, and it’s her example that’s the reason Julie and I have acquired our own posse of kids over the twenty-five years or so I’ve been teaching.



Honestly? The way I teach Young Authors, the way I attack any writing project, and most of all, the way I deal with other humans, period…. that’s all from Letty. Tolerant of human imperfection but impatient with ignorance, compassionate but not naive, generous but not blindly so. Fiercely interested in everything. Always willing to laugh, even at herself. Respecting sincere effort and the knowledge of craft even in fields she didn’t understand or had no interest in. I can’t always live up to that but I’m always trying.

I’ve been a published working writer for going on thirty years now, even won some awards here and there… but my proudest moments were always when Letty called and said something like “Land sakes, that one you just sent me, I couldn’t put it down.” She was my first and best audience, and really, the reason I’m still at it, forty-some years later. Without her, I sure God wouldn’t be here.

Now that it looks like we’re losing her, I wanted to write this so you all will know who she is, and about the legacy she left me and dozens– hundreds— of others. There’s a shitload of lost kids and single moms and damaged people where she made the critical difference and pulled us back from the edge. On behalf of me and all the other strays she took in, I hope you all enjoyed reading about it… and I’m kind of hoping she’ll get enough clarity at some point to be able to read this herself.

Because, like pretty much everything I’ve written from 1978 to now, it’s really for her.

10 Comments

  1. Greg Burgas

    That’s a great story, Greg, and I’m sorry that you’re going through that (with, you know, everything else that’s going on – sheesh, 2020 is not a standout year). It’s wonderful to have a teacher like that – I would assume everyone who likes learning has at least one teacher like that in their backgrounds. We all know teachers don’t get enough credit, but reading something like this, they REALLY don’t get enough credit!

    My high school started as one of those hippie schools, but the teachers went on strike in 1976 and the district cracked down. By the time I got there in ’86, they had created classrooms, but the rooms still didn’t have doors and some of the walls were those accordion dividers (others had real walls). We used to hear grand stories about the good ol’ hippie days, and we would look at the giant spaces now separated by walls and think of how cool that would have been.

    I dig the photos of “your” kids. Katrina certainly looks … different these days! 🙂

    Thanks for sharing, sir!

    1. Well, Katrina’s hair color changes like a mood ring. This is the current version. I think, anyway, it’s been a couple-three weeks. She’s been pining to have it done since the lockdown began months ago and finally caved when it was safe for her to see her hairdresser. For her that’s like me giving up books for three months.

  2. Edo Bosnar

    Yeah, thanks for this Greg. I know a little of what you’re going through right now, and man, it sucks.
    Letty sounds like an amazing person. I had a few good teachers in HS, but none of them left such a lasting impression on me or kept in touch afterward (I kind of envy you in that).
    Thanks again for the great post.

  3. Jeff Nettleton

    Greg, I know what you are growing through. I lost my mother, back in September, rather suddenly. She always had little nagging health things (arthritis, blood pressure, back, etc) but fixed what could be, damped what was chronic and soldiered on. She had been a music teacher, which is how she met my father, who was the agriculture advisor, then junior high science teacher (the only one, in our small school). My siblings and I effectively ended her teaching career, by being born, and she moved on to other things (selling real estate). However, life wasn’t done with her and teaching and she ended up running education programs for real estate licensing.

    After her retirement, she began doing volunteer work in hospitals, right up to just before her death. We lost my father in 2008 and retirement had been their time, to not do for us. Mom filled up her time with others, now that Dad was gone. She spent much of her time comforting families who had loved ones in hospital, many of whom would not leave again, alive. Her illness came on rather suddenly and her liver was causing her kidneys to shut down. She didn’t want dialysis, but did it at my brother’s urging, to see if her kidneys would pick back up. It didn’t work and she stopped and soon departed. She was a strong-willed woman, a leader and trailblazer who indirectly, through example, taught me to respect women in the workplace (and general) and that a good leader does, not just sits back and directs.

    As I said, both my parents are teachers and I spent my life around teachers, either in school or during 20 years at Barnes & Noble. Good teachers are a precious thing. They awaken the desire to learn, not throw facts and figures at the student and make them repeat it on a test. Good teachers make you think about your world, how it works, how it doesn’t, what can be done about it. They change your outlook from ignorant and possibly afraid, to curious and inviting. They are some of the worst paid people in some of the most vital jobs within human society. The good ones still do it because they can’t help but teach. The phrase “Those that can do, those that can’t teach,” is the biggest crock of bullshit created by some a-hole who wouldn’t know how to get a child to read a sentence, let alone point them to the career of author. Teachers can do and do it every day, as they teach. To borrow from Alan Brennert’s excellent Christmas story and Kara’s explanation of heroism, they do it because it needs to be done and because they can do it, whether anyone knows they have done it or if they even exist.

    All good teachers are collectors of strays, because they look to the person inside, not the occupier of the desk for the period. They succeed because their pupils succeed at life, not just their subjects. The good ones also don’t accept excuses for not living up to your potential when they see it and don’t let you cheat yourself. My dad was one of those; his classroom was a place to learn, not goof around and he didn’t let students roam the halls with passes, like some of his colleagues. You had better have used the bathroom between classes or brought a bucket, because you weren’t leaving his class (apart from a classmate of mine, who was diabetic). When he died, we heard from multiple students about how his classroom was the one place where they actually learned something and that they appreciated that he didn’t let them get away with not learning. Letty sounds much the same.

    Losing someone who is that kind of influence on your life, parent or mentor, is never easy; but, after time, the hurt transforms into nothing but the good memories, which create warm feelings.

  4. I’m so sorry for her passing. My beloved drama teacher, Jo Yeager, who had a similar impact on my life (and many, many others) is now in her 90s, so I know sooner or later … given she and her husband are still living in their own home, that’s a pretty awesome run. Won’t make me miss her any less when the time comes.
    Mum was a teacher so I was exposed to some of the same ideas you’re talking about, though they certainly weren’t part of our school system. Diane Ravitch’s “Left Back” showed me schools have been bouncing back and forth from “Freedom!” to “Disicpline!” for most of the last century. Similarly when I was in college there were almost no course requirements outside of what was required for your major, and one of the teachers said that, too, went in and out of vogue. It was great for me, as I was able to take the non-science courses I wanted to.

    1. Thanks for all the nice comments, everyone. I appreciate them.

      Letty left us last night. Peacefully at home, as far as I know. Honestly I did most of my grieving over the two weeks it took me to write this piece. Now that she’s gone for real, it mostly just feels bleak and empty.

      Hug the important folks when you can and let them know how much they matter. I’m glad I was able to do that and I’m grateful I have this place to do it.

  5. TTM

    Mrs. Owings
    Guiding, gliding through the ages
    Touching lives and spaces
    Arching towards what is good
    Accepting and giving, as easily as an oceans tide
    Present at the coming of age
    Teaching without sparing your spirit
    Generations of adoration not for the love of written language
    But for the one who made it live
    A grateful heart, a soul’s approval
    Hundreds thinking the same thought
    You made a difference
    You saw each one
    Teaching to their heart
    Jill McGranahan Visscher

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