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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

SATCHMO'S HOUSE




     In the heart of Queens, in Corona, New York stands a house filled with the spirit of Louis Armstrong—a significant, perhaps the most significant jazz artist in the history of jazz. Though a long-time fan and a resident of Queens, I had never visited the house until a few weeks ago. I learned that Armstrong and his wife Lucile—a dancer who Armstrong met while working at the Cotton Club made their home in a working class neighborhood filled with warmth, friendship and love. Decorated by Lucille and donated on her death to the city, the house welcomes visitors interested in the man and his music, a man who began life in the Storyville District of New Orleans in 1901 and left school by the fifth grade to sing in the streets, hawk newspapers and deliver coal before he became the first important improvisational jazzman to perform both on an instrument and as a vocalist.
     Known as “Satchmo” to his fans, he loved to record—reels of tape were used during his day—and his voice is heard as you tour the comfortable two story building. Drawn to music at an early age, he bought a cornet with the help of a family he did odd jobs for named Karnofsky who had a junk hauling business. Armstrong taught himself to play and began playing with a casual group of musicians.
     He developed his skills playing in the band of the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs where he had been sent for delinquency—he had fired his stepfather’s pistol into the air at a New Year’s Eve celebration. At the home he learned discipline and musical training from Professor Peter Davis. The band performed around New Orleans beginning Armstrong’s adventures in music. He played in brass bands and on riverboats and matured as a musician—by the age of twenty he began to do featured trumpet solos and to use his voice.
     Invited to join Joe “King” Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in 1922, Armstrong landed in Chicago. Oliver’s jazz band was one of the most prominent in the windy city and Armstrong could make a high enough income to afford his own apartment with his own private bath (his first.) He arrived in New York City in 1924 and was soon playing with Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra—the foremost African-American orchestra during this period—and switched his instrument to the trumpet.
     As his music and reputation developed, his singing became more and more important. His recordings became hits—he improvised and used his voice as ingeniously as he used his trumpet. He played and sang with the top people of his day—Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Earl Hines, Bessie Smith, Louie Bellson, Buddy Rich—the list of talents goes on and on. In 1964, he recorded the song, “Hello Dolly” and it climbed to number one—the top of the charts and won the Grammy for the best male vocal performance and in 1969 he appeared in the motion picture version of the show.
     On one wall of Armstrong’s home studio is a portrait painted by his friend Tony Bennett. Armstrong told him he was the new Rembrandt.
     Concerts are held in the Japanese Inspired Garden, designed by Lucille, and soon the Museum will expand with a Visitors Center right across the street that will include an exhibit gallery, archival center and performance space. This summer jazz will be heard in the garden on warm summer days.


Bests,

Elise
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Sunday, May 29, 2016

THE AMERICAN CEMETERY



     On the west side of the Greve river, approximately 7.5 miles south of Florence, Italy, set against a backdrop of hills dense with London Plane trees, headstones belonging to 4,402 American Military Dead stand on 70 acres of foreign soil. Pine, cypress, willow, oak and cedar trees enclose the section along with oleander, crepe myrtle and laurel-cherry shrubs.
     A bridge set between the cemetery office and the visitor’s center at the entrance to the cemetery leads us to row after row of crosses and stars of David. The cemetery is hushed except for the occasional rustle of a leaf or a fragment of a bird’s song. We wander among the headstones that bear the names and dates of birth of the servicemen and women who were lost to friends, loved ones and our nation. Here and there, we see a pebble placed on a stone; a way to say “We are here. We came to see you. We will never forget you.”
      Americans, traveling through the area, stop at the cemetery, on the west side of the Via Cassia, a major highway that links Florence with Rome and Sienna, to pay their respects to the heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice in World War II. The majority died in the fighting that occurred after the liberation of Rome in June 1944 and during the fierce battles in the Apennines right before the end of the war.
      The cemetery is one of 14 permanent memorials built by the American Battle Monuments Commission. The site was liberated on August 3, 1944 by the South African 6th Armored Division; the stone used to construct the chapel and headstones was supplied by Italy. 
     On the highest of three terraces located in back of the burial site are two open sections partially enclosed by walls; to the east is the American flag. Tablets of the Missing, constructed of Travertine stone, connect the two sections. Visitors barely breathe as they read the Baveno granite panels; on the tablets are inscribed the names of 1,409 Americans—United States Army and Air Forces and the United States Navy—who died in our nation’s service and rest in nameless graves. They came from every state in our union but Alaska and Hawaii. 
     Men and women study the north section’s west wall where two marble operations maps tell the story of the American Forces in the area. Inscriptions in English and Italian provide an explanation for the maps and the military operations. A forecourt at the south end of the tablets leads to a marble and mosaic chapel—a place to meditate and pray for the peace represented in a sculpture that rests on a pylon.  May we never forget.
     The Florence American Cemetery and Memorial is open daily from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm from April 16 to September 30 and from 8:00am to 5:00pm from October 1 to April 15. Staff members in the visitors’ building will accompany family members to the graves and memorial sites.
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Sunday, May 8, 2016

A LITTLE LOCAL COLOR




It’s Mother’s Day Weekend and I miss my mom. Supportive, funny, interested in everything, and a good listener—perfect strangers would stop her on the street and tell her their problems (used to drive me crazy when I was a kid.) She was an avid reader and the library was a second home to us. I was told stories whenever it rained—family stories and I imagine her stories led me to write my own.

My grandparents and their oldest children came to America escaping the pogroms against the Jews in Russia. The eldest child, my Aunt Betty was responsible for their escape. According to mom, they were hidden by a countess who couldn’t have children and had become very fond of my aunt. The rest of the family agreed but they said their savior was a neighbor not royalty. I’ve always liked my mother’s version better—she tended to add what she called “A little local color.”

Another tale was about playing with my Uncle Johnny in a field near their house in Rhode Island. Mom was wearing a red dress and they attracted the notice of a bull. They were saved by Veterans living in a Home who gave them milk and cookies and thoroughly impressed my mother. After my uncle served in the army, she told him he would now always be able to live at that Veteran’s Home.

Mom had a boyfriend who gave her a box of chocolates whenever they dated. By the time mother returned from the date the chocolates were gone—there were seven children in the family. She decided to hide the candy in the piano. Didn’t work.

She had a job selling hats and was quite successful. The neighborhood housed working class people and the shop sold hats that would meet their budget. Mom made every woman feel like a Vogue model and they returned to the shop whenever they needed a hat.

When I write fiction I try to add a little extra added color and I wish that my mother was here to read each story.

Thanks Mom.
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Wednesday, April 6, 2016

NATIONAL WALKING DAY


      Remember the “Little, old lady in tennis shoes?” Times have changed. No longer the butt of a comedian’s joke

the lady can now wear a canvas or leather athletic shoe in traditional white or let her imagination range 

as far as her feet in colors as varied as grape, sage, camel, red, maroon or sophisticated black. They’re 

donned with a sigh of relief after the fashionable narrow skyscraper stilettos worn today are kicked to the far

 side of the room. Athletic shoes may be high top or low, laced, zippered, cushioned or platformed. Today, 

even orthopedic shoes are designed to look like sneakers. The modern “Little, old lady,” is a fashion icon.

     In 1921, the Sears Catalogue advertised men’s and women’s tennis shoes for $3.50.  During the Great Depression, the price went down; the 1935 Catalogue sold men’s bleached, white duck uppers with a vulcanized crepe rubber sole for 89 cents, canvas work-shoes sold for $1.49. Today, a pair purchased at your local discount store costs an affordable $4.99 to $9.99, but top of the line models, bearing the imprint of name designers and endorsed by world famous athletes, command prices of $130.00 and up.  Teen-age boys will stand in line for hours to buy the hottest athletic shoe.
     Sneakers now sport names of high fashion names like Armani, Gucci and Hermes. A pair of Hermes sneakers retailed at $525.00 and according to the Chicago Sun times, the first pair of Air Jordans sold at auction for $3,479.00.
     Sneakers: aerobic, fitness, sport, basketball, track, training, running—every sport has developed its own specialized shoe—are comfortable, casual, fashionable and, on some feet, glamorous foot covering. We’ve come a long way from the rough leaves, skins and tree bark worn by prehistoric cavemen 500,000 years ago.
     A few milleniums later, our ancestors padded their tootsies with moss or soft wool as they hunted and gathered. Wooden heels were worn all through the 17th century, although the wealthy wore shoes that were gallooned (lace made of silk and woven with cotton, gold or silver.) By the 1700’s, a latex fluid from the Hevea tree was used to mold a rubber shoe in the South American jungles.
     Walt Webster, a New Yorker, was granted a U.S. patent in 1832, for a process of attaching rubber soles to shoes and boots. What would he think of today’s woman, dressed in a power suit, (high heels tucked in a tote bag,) walking to her executive office, on the city’s hard asphalt streets, in sneakers?
     The vulcanized process for curing rubber was discovered in 1839 by Charles Goodyear and by the 1890’s, a laced canvas upper with a rubber sole was manufactured and sold as a croquet sandal. Spalding followed with a rubber soled, canvas tennis shoe.  The term “Sneaker” was first used in 1873. It was also called a gym shoe or “Tenny.” In England, the shoe was known as “The Plimsoll.” Clothing and shoes began to be designed in the 1890’s for newly active women interested in tennis, bicycling and yachting. The turn of the century saw the tennis shoe accepted as casual wear for children. Boys liked to don a baseball uniform, turn up the brim of their cap, tilt it sideways, or like today’s generation—backward.  They wore tennis shoes with high tops, made of white canvas with black rubber soles and binding and a round emblem over the ankles.
    Chuck Taylor, a young basketball player for the Akron Firestones, chose the All Star, a high-top, canvas and rubber athletic shoe produced in Walden, Massachusetts by the Converse Rubber Company in 1917. In 1923, his signature was added to the logo selling 550 million pairs. He promoted the sneaker and the game of basketball by hosting basketball clinics and received the title “Ambassador to Basketball.” During the Second World War, he became the fitness consultant to the United States Armed Forces. After 70 years, a leather and rubber “Chuck” entered the market in 1996. “Chucks,” are still manufactured today; worn by entertainers as well as basketball players. 
    The Jack Purcell canvas, athletic shoe, named after one of Canada’s leading 1930’s tennis players and the world badminton champion from 1932 to 1945, was introduced in 1933 by the Canadian branch of B.F. Goodrich. Two years later, the shoe came to the United States becoming the most popular shoe in the 1930’s and 40’s. Until the 1960’s, it was the only shoe worn by the U.S. Davis cup team. Unavailable during the Second World War because of a shortage of rubber, the sneaker by the late 1950’s, became popular with teen-agers. Teen-age idols like Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley gave sneakers sex appeal. Converse bought the B.F. Goodrich rubber division and acquired the Jack Purcell trademark in 1972 and the shoe, with its unpretentious look and rubber toe, became one of the most popular shoes of the 90’s. During its long reign, James Dean, Billy Crystal and Claudia Schiffer slipped their feet into Purcell’s.
     New Balance Athletic Shoebegan as The New Balance Arch Company, in 1906, in Watertown, Massachusetts, providing orthopedic shoes and arch supports. Runners turned to the company, in the 1950’s and 60’s, ordering custom-made shoes. The shoes are now available in a wide range of colors and widths; some models offer more than 60 sizes, and are the company’s primary source of business. Offering a full line of athletic shoes, the company is one of the few that manufactures in the United States. Presidents Clinton, George Bush, VP Al Gore and Russia’s Boris Yeltsin have worn their shoes.
     In 1920, Adi Dassler, a twenty year old athlete designed his first training shoe; leading to Adidas, founded in 1948. Dassler was one of the first to involve athletes in the development of their shoes. In 1978, he became the first non-American to be inducted into the American Sporting Goods Industry Hall of Fame. The Adidas Sports Shoe Museum in Herzogenaurach, Germany, where Dassler was born in 1900, depicts shoemaking, beginning with ancient Egypt, a cobbler’s workshop, a bicycle-like shoe cutter—a machine driven by muscle power in pre-electricity days and, of course, athletic shoes. Among the exhibits are Jesse Owens track shoes, worn when he won four gold medals in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. The museum is also famous for Muhammad Ali's boxing boots and Wilma Rudolph’s track shoes.
     Health and fitness defined the 1970’s. Aerobics and jogging brought special footwear designed for athletes. Millions of pairs were sold. The junior generation enjoyed the informality, older people the comfort. The shoes were broad-based and cushion-soled.  Designer labels were “in.” Nike had a wave, Converse a star, Adidas a triple stripe, Pima a flying wedge, Goodyear, the winged foot of Mercury. Status was promoted with sports stars.
     The 1980’s featured trainers worn with business suits. Eddie Murphy, Chris Evert, Michael Jordan, Mick Jagger and David Bowie donned them. Cybill Shepherd attended the 1985 Emmy Awards dressed in a black gown and trainers. Tracksuits often accompanied the trainers—the style popularized by young African-American men, soon became fashionable for men and women of every age size and ethnic group.
     1990’s television stars, Jerry Seinfeld and Ellen DeGeneres, wore them on-screen; French women during their transit strike.
     Adults over fifty are a consumer group with the highest disposable income—they represent a growing market for athletic footwear. The emergence of women’s sports is also had a significant effect. Girls often play as teammates with boys; many dream of playing professionally. They are able to look up to role models like Wilma Rudolph, the track and field champion who overcame double pneumonia, polio and scarlet fever to become the first American woman to win three track and field gold medals at a single Olympic Games in 1960, Steffi Graf, who in 1988 became the fifth player to achieve the grand slam in tennis by winning Wimbledon, and the Australian, French and U.S. opens and Sheryl Swoops who won Award and was one of the first players signed by the Women’s National Basketball Association.
     Claes Oldenburg, a Swedish born, American sculptor, envisioned the sneaker – worn by all nationalities – as a symbol of America’s contribution to world culture.  He fashioned a giant sneaker of wire, cloth and painted plaster.
     The once lowly sneaker, a.k.a. plimsolls, gym shoes, speed shoes, sand shoes, tennys, tackies and bobos, is more popular than ever. It has evolved from an inexpensive sport shoe into a comfortable, casual mode of fashion that allows us—no matter what our life style—to get up and go.
Bests,

Elise

Scene Stealer is available wherever e-Books are sold.

 
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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

CHUCK'S FORECAST FOR GROUNDHOG DAY




     Chuck has an important announcement to make today. He’s charged with forecasting the weather and telling us when spring will arrive. Chuck a.k.a. Groundhog, Thickwood Badger, Canada Marmot, Whistler and the Red Monk amongst other more casual names (some people think of Chuck as a large ground squirrel) must wonder why people do not have the courtesy to call him Charles. After all it’s an important job that not everyone is able to do. They pull him out of his burrow where he’s been comfortably hibernating to look for his shadow. Any self-respecting groundhog would rather be in his nice warm bed. Who can blame him for nipping New York’s mayor last year? There are a few horses in Central Park that would enjoy that opportunity.

     Chuck has been successful about 40% of the time according to meteorologists but Chuck—excuse me, Charles—believes they are just jealous because on February 2 of each year, it’s the Red Monk that gets all the attention.
     Groundhogs are found all over—the United States, Canada, as far north as Alaska and southeast to Georgia. They weigh anywhere from 4 to 9 pounds and are16 to 26 inches long. Charles is the proud father of chucklings. Charles thinks calling them chucklings is as cutesy as Chuck. 

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck
if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
A woodchuck would chuck all the wood he could
If a woodchuck could chuck wood!
    Wrong! The name Woodchuck is not actually related to wood or chucking. Charles received his name from the Algonquians—wuchak.
     Chuck loses a lot of weight when hibernating in his burrow. When he comes out he’s ready for a good meal—a succulent plant, wild berries, insects and your garden vegetables would make a tasty meal.

photos courtesy of Ladycamera and Susan Sam
Bests,

Elise

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Friday, January 22, 2016

SYLPHS OF THE SEAS




     The Queen of Illyria named Teuta sailed the ocean blue in 232 B.C. When her spouse sailed out of our known world, Teuta decided her flotilla of small, swift vessels (Lembi) would combat then ransack the picturesque and thriving towns along the Adriatic. Teuta was a hands-on pirate and could often be found joining her sailors in the pillaging. That motivated the towns to trek inland abandoning the coast to Illyria until Rome decided enough was enough and brought Teuta to heel—her fleet was disbanded.

     Halfway through the 9th century, Alfhild of the Valkyries was born. Daughter of   King Siward of the Goths, she commanded her own fleet of longships, with crews of female buccaneers who plundered towns long the coasts of the Baltic Sea. Alfhild’s chamber is said to have been protected by a lizard and a snake which kept her suitors at bay. A Danish prince named Alf crushed Alfhild’s guards but the lady scorned his marriage proposal and decided to remain a pirate and dressed as a man in chain mail accessorized by a sword and the fashionable horned helmet. Alf and Alfhid were destined to meet again—he searched and found her fleet off the coast of Finland. After a bloody battle Alfhild lost her helmet and was recognized. The fighting came to an end and Alf embraced Alfhild who had sailed her last sea as a Valkyrie. Dear reader—she married Alf.

     Anne McCormac came into this world around 1697 in Kinsale, Ireland—the daughter of a lawyer, William McCormac and a housemaid Mary Brennan. McCormac left his wife and Ireland for London bringing Mary and Anne with him. He began dressing Anne as a boy and calling her “Andy”—guess he wanted a son. When his family discovered their whereabouts, they moved to a plantation near Charleston, South Carolina where McCormac changed his name to Cormac and after a rough start joined a mercantile business and made a good deal of money. Poor Mary passed on when Anne was twelve.
     Anne had a temper to match her red hair and at thirteen she is thought to have stabbed a servant girl. She married a sailor and pirate named James Bonney who did poorly at both jobs. Her father disowned her. The couple moved to Nassau on New Providence Island—a haven for pirates where Anne began socializing with pirates in taverns and met John “Calico Jack” Rackham, a colorful dresser and Captain of the pirate sloop Vanity with its notorious skull and bones flag—Rackham and Bonney fell in love. Farewell to James Bonney—Anne considered him a coward for accepting the pardon of Bahamian Governor Woods Rogers and becoming his informant. Anne, once again, disguised herself as a man, joined Rackham’s pirate crew and married the scoundrel.
     Mary Read’s mother was married to a seaman who went on a long voyage and disappeared from their lives. After waiting many years for his return and becoming destitute she took Mary to London to request financial help from her mother-in-law. Knowing the lady preferred boys; she dressed Mary in a boy’s clothes, told her act like a young lad and informed her in-law she had a grandson. Promised a crown a week, Mary continued to dress as a boy.
     Her first job was a footboy; she enlisted on-board a man-of-war for awhile then still wearing her disguise joined a foot regiment in Flanders and then a horse regiment. There she met and fell in love with another soldier, admitted to being a woman and changed her mode of dress. The couple opened an inn called The Three Horseshoes in Holland. Her husband died while still in the prime of youth and her finances soon shrank.
     Mary knew that life as a man was much easier so she raided her husband’s trunk and went to sea on a Dutch merchant ship sailing toward the Caribbean. Eventually the ship was commandeered by Captain Jack Rackham’s Vanity and tired of her “legitimate job,” she once again turned pirate. Anne Bonney and Mary quickly discovered each other’s cross-dressing and became good friends. The two shared a reputation as fierce, ruthless, bloodthirsty pirates. 

     Ching Shih, before becoming a pirate, worked as a prostitute in one of Canton’s floating brothels in 1801. That same year she married a legendary and infamous pirate named Zhung Yi who descended from a pirate family of renown. Yi brought together competing pirate fleets and brokered an alliance know as the Red flag Fleet. After Yi passed on in 1807, Ching Shih took over her husband’s leadership position and commanded over 1,500 ships and 60,000 pirates.
     Those ladies knew how to crack a glass ceiling.

Bests,

Elise
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Wednesday, December 16, 2015

CELEBRATION




     We were young—it was Christmas and our anniversary and we wanted to celebrate our very special day with a memorable dinner. Our pocket s were fairly empty—at that time—chorus dancers and singers didn’t earn much so we scrounged and saved for a few months in order to reserve a place at The Russian Tea Room, a restaurant on 57th Street in Manhattan that gives it address as “Slightly to the Left of Carnegie Hall.”
     After the Russian Revolution, dancers, musicians and actors—once stars in St. Petersburg and Moscow—began to emigrate to New York City and the Tea Room became a hangout for White Russians looking for a taste of their former home. In its early days the restaurant had many owners including the former owner of a halvah factory in Moscow and it was he who introduced full meals.
     The artists were homesick for the gossip, intrigue, intellectual discussions and the sweets and pastries of the Czar’s Russia. Feodor Chaliapin, a commanding Russian opera star and Michel Fokine who introduced Americans to the Imperial Russian Ballet were among the newly arrived talents who enjoyed the food and the ambiance.
     I don’t know why I wanted to eat at the Tea Room—it’s still a mystery to me. Though my grandparents came to America from Russia, they came to escape the pogroms and traveled in steerage class. Our family was poor and my grandfather worked as a shoemaker. They couldn’t wait to arrive at Ellis Island, study and become American citizens. Perhaps it’s just something about Royalty that intrigues Americans.
     The room’s setting, warm and welcoming, greeted us with green walls that served as a backdrop to vivid scarlet leather banquettes that displayed tablecloths and napkins pink as the first blush of spring wine. Christmas decorations—brightly colored ornaments that would remain all year—garlanded the room along with polished samovars that sparkled and ignited my imagination with dreams of tea being carried by Tartars—nomads who traveled across Asia brewing tea to slake their thirst. Buffed wood and gleaming mirrors reflecting images of the elegant clientele seated around the restaurant promised a dinner we would never forget.
     The waiters attired in Red Russian tunics and the busboys in green paid attention to their guests without being intrusive; we settled down and each ordered a Bloody Mary to toast our anniversary. A Russian restaurant—vodka was and is a specialty of the bar
     We began our dinner with the Tearoom’s traditional hot borsht made with red beets, shredded cabbage, and the freshest vegetables of the season. The borsht, flavored with dill, was crowned with sour cream. Piroshki—little meat filled dumplings made with puff paste and filled with beef, parsley, onions, eggs and Tabasco attended the borsht.
     The main course, Chicken Kiev—rich with sweet herbed butter stuffed in a boned and breaded chicken breast, then deeply fried came next. The dish is thought to have been created by a French chef at the court of Alexander I.
     We lifted our forks in preparation for the first succulent bite of the chicken than glanced at each other. We thought we heard a soft whimper. The whimper sounded again and we looked at the adjacent banquette. The moans came from a sweet, baby-faced woman sitting on the bench much to the concern of an equally young man who sat at her side. Soon everyone in the restaurant had stopped eating and began staring at the couple. From our banquette, I could see the woman was pregnant and leaned over to ask if there was anything I could do. My only experience was watching movies where someone always boiled water. A flutter of her hand said, “Go away.”
     The maitre d escorted a distinguished fellow to the table.
     “Madam, I’m an obstetrician. May I help you?”
     “Not yet,” she said. “Not yet.”
     The Tea Room had grown silent. No sound of a fork, spoon or knife could be heard. No glasses clinked in tribute to Christmas or the Holiday season. No one was sure what the proper etiquette was. Does a caring person continue eating when someone may be about to give birth? The doctor looked as confused as every other diner in the restaurant.
     The young woman stopped moaning and slowly sank to a prone position in her booth. She couldn’t be seen and she couldn’t be heard—conversation resumed. We relished each bite of our Chicken Kiev and ate every last bit of our dessert—Baklava made with sheets of thin phyllo pastry and sweetly layered walnuts, honey, and cinnamon.  
     We’ve never forgotten that Christmas anniversary dinner and I’ve often thought about that woman. Did she give birth on Christmas? At the Russian Tea Room? A boy? A girl? And did the doctor finish his dinner?   

HAPPY HOLIDAYS

BESTS,

Elise


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