Saturday, April 28, 2007
A short weekend together and then Elie won't be home now for the next two weeks as his basic training intensifies. The overnight exercises will become many days in the field. As before, I send him back to the base with his favorite tuna/corn patties (for the trip down to Beersheva and beyond) and a big container full of chocolate chip cookies that with the proper care can be stretched to a full week, even with his sharing it with his tentmates! The tuna patties disappear between here and the base.
As his training intensifies, we learn more about the elements to being a soldier, and an Israeli one at that. There are those who claim Israeli soldiers are cruel and uncaring and yet, this past week in the midst of learning to shoot a gun, my son was taught how to avoid shooting it. Elie and his unit have been taught how to try NOT to injure, NOT to kill.
As someone who was born in America and spent his early years there (and living in a home where English is spoken often), Elie's English is excellent, as is his Hebrew. Now, he is learning some words in Arabic. "Israeli army. Stop and identify yourself."
The instructions are clear. We don't want to hurt you - if you are innocent of wrongdoing, if you have reason to be here, stop and identify yourself. If they are ignored, Elie has been taught what to do - again and again, to attempt to avoid hurting...or being hurt. Only as a last resort are they taught to shoot to kill. If only the enemies of Israel would be so humane.
Elie shot a machine gun for the first time last week. He had to hit a cardboard target some 100 meters away. He hit 8 out of 10 - an excellent score, but he doesn't want to become the unit's gunner. Beyond these topics, politics entered into the weekend together. Though the army isn't telling the boys anything specific, the general consensus among the soldiers, as among the country in general, is that we are headed for another war. It could be with Hizbollah, bolstered by last year's victory in Lebanon when the Israeli government allowed itself to appear weak and indecisive. It could be with Hamas, also strengthened after watching the Lebanon War. It could be with Iran or Syria.
Since the day Elie went into the army, my thoughts are focused on what a military conflict would mean for him, as much as I worry about the country in general. For Elie and his unit, the timing here is everything. If the war starts before Elie finishes his basic training, or the artillery training that will soon follow, Elie will likely spend the war patrolling some area, and thus freeing experienced soldiers to go to war.
Beyond this training, Elie and his unit will likely be sent to battle. This is more than a mother can handle, at least more than I can handle at this time and so I pull myself back to the present - to the commitment of taking this day by day. Last summer, a close friend's son was in Lebanon and was deeply effected by the war and the loss of members of his unit - even having a friend die in his arms. How does a young man of 20 deal with this? How can anyone deal with this and continue to live a normal life? This too is more than a mother can bear to think about.
Like Elie, my friend's son was a boy in many ways when he went into the army, but a man walked out of Lebanon, a seasoned soldier. He mourns his friends, remembers the good times they spent, and is more committed than ever to defending Israel from future attacks.
Today, my son is home, sleeping in his bed, surrounded by all that is his. Tomorrow, Elie will get up early and catch one of the first buses back to the base. This I can handle. It's become part of the known equation in our lives. This week, he'll likely go back out on exercises, preparing for the larger operation where they will be out in the field for a full week at a time. On these smaller operations, a jeep travels from the base to the location where they are making camp only a short few kilometers away. The jeep carries their sleeping bags, fresh water, fresh bread. In short, it extends the comforts of the base to the camp. Soon, those comforts will be taken away. This is what it is like in a real battle. The supply lines are stretched. You have your combat meals and you carry what you need. You depend on your unit. You defend your perimeter. You follow the operation to its conclusion.
For now, I will focus only on that next exercise and think only about Elie sleeping out at a camp, close enough to base if anything is needed. I won't think now of the greater dangers facing Israel, of Syria making noises, of Hizbollah and Hamas, and of Iran in the distance. I won't think of katyushas and kassem missiles and mortars and the possibility of Iran going nuclear.
Israelis have become adept at living in the moment and rejoicing in what we are and what we have. If 9/11 taught Americans anything, it is that life is precarious, no matter where you are. That's true if you are a soldier in Israel, but also true if you are a student in Virginia, a storekeeper in Iraq, a tourist in London, a commuter in Spain. Other countries have learned this lesson; too many more still must learn. There are no guarantees, no assurances that all will be well. You can drive yourself mad if you focus on the endless possibilities.
When tomorrow comes, we deal with it, learn from it, expand with it, learn with it. And when that day is done, we hope we are richer for having experienced it, and pray that we are almost ready to face the day after that.
That's where we are now with Elie and the army. Today he was home with his family, enjoying the food, the attention, the extra hours to do nothing but sleep, eat together with the family, throw his little sister over his shoulder, argue with his big sister, and eventually play on the computer. Tomorrow he will be back in the army, feeling more and more a part of his unit, a part of the army routine. What was unknown a month ago is now familiar. What will happen in a month or two or three, will be dealt with in a month or two or three.
For now, we focus on the little things. The laundry is clean and dry and packed for the trip back to the base. The cookies in the plastic container. The cellular phone battery recharged and ready to go and Elie - Elie is safe and asleep in his room.
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Tonight, he cannot call me to wish me a good night. To tell me what he did during the day and how things are going. He doesn't call every night, but he calls quite often in the one hour free time per day they are given before they go to bed. So much is regulated for them - when they get up in the morning, how much time they have to say their morning prayers, eat their breakfast.
They have a specified period of time for dressing, for rest periods, eating, and more. They are encouraged to call home because, as I have come to learn, the army recognizes that their soldiers need to have their parents calm and aware of what is happening to them. We become a sounding board, another pair of eyes watching over as they take our sons and transform them into soldiers.
As I wrote, Elie won't be calling tonight because he called last night to tell me that they would be out on an exercise tonight. More shooting practice, and this time, Elie will learn how to shoot...well, some big thing with a gun on top. Happily, this weekend Elie will be coming home again.
That's another thing the army recognizes - the need to do things gradually. To take a boy from his home, after he has grown there 18 or 19 years is a hard thing to do and so the army recognizes that they need to send them home often enough that we understand that we are not losing a son but rather, our son is gaining new experiences. These boys are not ready to be soldiers and hike and run great distances. They need to be built up - strengthened, and so, Elie and his unit walk several kilometers - more and more as time will go by.
What all of this tells us, teaches us, is that we aren't the first. The army actually knows what it is doing with our sons...at least so far.
So - today it is one month that my son has been in the army. There is no cake, no telephone calls, no celebrations. I'm not sure if anyone but me even realizes the significance of the anniversary.
Somewhere, at this moment, Elie is sleeping under the stars of the Negev Desert in a sleeping bag, with his gun within reach. And miles and miles away, I sit here with a quiet sense of satisfaction - that we have come this far. I brought a small 6 year old boy with beautiful blue eyes to Israel and now he has grown old enough to serve in the army.
And a sense of dedication - and a sense of pride.
Lila tov, hamudi (good night, my sweet one).
Sunday, April 22, 2007
I would light a candle in memory of Israel's fallen soldiers, as I do each year, but I would not allow myself to imagine, to think for even a moment. There are ways to mourn, ways to feel sympathy for others without taking the pain in too deeply. That's what I tell myself each year, and then I watch the names and see the faces and listen to the stories of those we have lost.
Israel's Memorial Day commemoration begins with the wailing air raid siren. Once again, cars come to a stop wherever they are. Israelis are notoriously late - but not for this ceremony. At exactly 8:00 p.m., the siren wails. It is the signal for a nation to begin, or perhaps to acknowledge, their mourning and their gratitude. For the next 24 hours, we will hear only about those we have lost. The bravery, the courage, the dedication, the sacrifice.
How shall I bless him, with what will his child be blessed, asked the angel?
And blessed him with a smile that is like light.
And blessed him with eyes, large and wide
with which to see every flower, animal and bird.
And a heart, with which to feel all the sights.
Noam Meirson was only 23 years old when he was killed in Lebanon last summer. His tank was hit by a missile. I went to his funeral and was overwhelmed by the hundreds, if not thousands, of people who were there. It was an outpouring of love and sympathy for his family and a recognition of the tragedy that had befallen his family and all of Israel. This young man, killed only a month before he was to be married, reminded all of us that Israel was again at war. May his memory be blessed.
How shall I bless him, with what will he be blessed?
And blessed him with legs to dance forever.
And a soul with which to remember all the melodies.
And a hand that collects shells by the shore.
And an ear, attentive to old and young.
This year, we will hear the story of Michael Levin, who went back to America last summer to visit his family. When Michael heard that Israel was at war with Hizbollah, he cut short his visit and flew back to the land he had chosen as his home, to join his paratroopers in Battalion 890. He was killed by a Hizbollah sniper in the Lebanese village of Ayta A-Shayeb. He didn't have to come live here, except that he loved this land above all others. He didn't have to leave his family to come back and fight, except he had long ago accepted that Israel was his family too. And Israel needed him last summer and so, without a moment's hesitation, Michael came. He flew back to join his men, his brothers, because in his heart, and in ours, he was and will always be, a part of Israel. May his memory be blessed.
How shall I bless him, with what will this youth be blessed,
asked the angel?
And blessed him that his hands, wise among the flowers
should succeed also in learning the strength of steel.
And legs that dance the road's journey.
And his lips that sing the rhythm of commands.
Major Roi Klein was only 31 when his unit was attacked in Bint J'beil, in Lebanon last summer. One of the terrorists lobbed a grenade towards the group and as the grenade settled on the ground near his troops, Roi yelled out "Sh'ma Yisrael" and jumped on the grenade. He took the force of the grenade, thus saving his troops. He left behind a young wife and two small boys and yet again, redefined what it is to be an Israeli hero. May his memory be blessed.
How shall I bless him, with what will he be blessed this man asked the angel?
I gave him all.
A song, a smile and legs to dance.
A gentle hand and a trembling heart.
How shall I bless, what more?
Philip Mosko loved to volunteer for the local ambulance squad in Maaleh Adumim, his home town. He died in Lebanon doing what he loved to do best, help people. A room has been dedicated in his honor and the volunteers, including my sons Elie and Shmulik remember Philip. Maaleh Adumim and my sons mourn a boy from here, a young man who was dedicated to saving lives and in the end, gave his life to Israel last summer. May his memory be blessed.
May God bless the families of Noam and Michael and Roi and Philip and all those who have lost sons and daughters, husbands, fathers and grandfathers, brothers and sisters and may He send them comfort.
How shall I bless him, with what will he be blessed this child, gentle youth.
This boy now is an angel,
No more will they bless him, he will no more be blessed.
God, God, Oh God,
If only you had blessed him with life.
-- Ma Avarech - How Shall I Bless Him
By Rachel Shapira
May God bless the soldiers of Israel - with life.
Monday, April 16, 2007
A few years ago, while standing in Auschwitz, probably the most notorious of the Nazi death camps, Brig. Gen. Amir Eshel quietly apologized to the memory of six million Jews killed during the Holocaust, "We got here 60 years too late." Part of the ceremony included a fly-over by three jets of the Israeli air force. As the jets flew over head, Eshel continued, "We pilots of the air force, flying in the skies above the camp of horrors, arose from the ashes of the millions of victims and shoulder their silent cries, salute their courage, and promise to be the shield of the Jewish people and its nation Israel."
Two weeks ago, my oldest son entered the army of Israel. He joined the artillery division, as part of the shield of the Jewish people and its nation of Israel. This morning, as the sirens sounded, I stood in silence on a major street in Jerusalem, our beloved and beautiful capital, and thought of my son.
He's in the desert in the south, shooting a newly-issued short M16. Last night, as people gathered all over Israel to remember and mourn again for those who were murdered by the Nazis, my son slept below the open skies of our land. Having a son in the army is not an easy thing, I am coming to learn. There seems to be a part of my brain constantly attuned to the fact that I don't know exactly where he is or what he is doing. It is a slow-burning fear, a pit of worry deep inside. Accidents happen, even in training. And when he leaves basic training, my mind refuses to consider beyond the moment, beyond the next few days. I know that he will come home this weekend, tired and hungry and ready to be with his family. I ache for the time that he is away, even as I am proud of what he is doing, what he is becoming, and what he symbolizes.
Sixty five years ago, there were no Israeli soldiers to defend our people, no country to which they could escape. All over the world today, Jews are that much safer because last night my son slept in the Israeli desert with his unit, because tens of thousands of other soldiers guarded our borders, watched over our cities, patrolled our streets.
I thought of all this in the two minutes of the siren and as the slow wail of the siren died down, I thought of my son's namesake, who was killed in Auschwitz. The only promise we can offer now is that if there ever comes a time when a Jewish community is in need, this time, we won't be too late. That is the promise made each year from the people and the soldiers of Israel. This time, we won't be too late.
Sunday, April 15, 2007
Israel over the Sabbath is a quiet, introspective place where we take the opportunity to rest and spend time with our families. Amid the hussle and bussle of the work week, time flies and you aren't so preoccupied with thoughts of where each child is and what they are doing. You know this one is in school, this one has gym today. Did she wear her sneakers, did he take an extra sandwich because he has a late class?
When the Sabbath comes, the routine is interrupted. For Orthodox Jews, the Sabbath means a time with no radio, no computers, email and Internet. It's a time dedicated to family and if someone isn't at the table, their absence is felt so much more strongly. Routine seems...less than routine.
So much of what happens in your life seems just a little bit different when you have a son in the army, even the Sabbath here in Israel. Something that you are accustomed to hearing or seeing suddenly seems different, more real, more urgent.
Today was the Jewish Sabbath in Israel and as I try to do as often as possible (that's my way of saying not often enough), I went to the synagogue. And, as they do each week, the chazan (the person who leads the prayer service) said two special prayers, one for our soldiers in general, and another specifically for those being held by our enemies. Another time, I'll write about the one for the kidnapped soldiers - this post is about the one we say each week for all our soldiers.
We invoke the names of our forefathers because they brought us to this land and helped cement the connection we feel so strongly. They are our advocates, praying for the safety of our sons on high, as we pray for them here. From the most northern points of our country and deep in the desert, where Elie is now. From the Mediterranean Sea on our west, the Jordan River and beyond, they are all in our hearts. Somehow the words seem more real and I think of my son, not yet standing guard of the land of Israel, but that will come. What made the moment more special was that there were so many others whose sons are also in the army, also serving the nation, each one quietly praying for his or her own son and my son too, just as I am praying for their sons, and for the daughters of Israel and the fathers and husbands.
He Who blessed our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob-may He bless the fighters of the Israel Defense Forces, who stand guard over our land and the cities of our God, from the border of the Lebanon to the desert of Egypt, and from the Great Sea unto the approach of the Aravah, on the land, in the air, and on the sea.
May the Almighty cause the enemies who rise up against us to be struck down before them.The chazan's son is in the tank division. Another friend's son is in Elie's division. More than one has a son in an elite unit, another just starting out in the navy.
May the Holy One, Blessed is He, preserve and rescue our fighters from every trouble and distress and from every plague and illness, and may He send blessingPrayers help us and give us hope. They allow us to crystallize our fears and move past them to hope. We entrust the army with our sons, but we entrust the army to God.
and success in their every endeavor against our enemies. May He lead our enemies under our soldiers' sway and may He grant them salvation and crown them with victory.
And may there be fulfilled for them the verse: For it is the Lord your God, Who goes with you to battle your enemies for you to save you.
The history and successes of the IDF are a reflection of their training, their dedication, at times their desperation, but always a result of the faith they carry with them and the faith we have in them and in God.
May He bless the fighters of the Israel Defense Forces, who stand guard over our and. Amen.
Friday, April 13, 2007
"Those who don't know how to weep with their whole heart, don't know how to laugh either."...Golda Meir
Having a son in the army presents you with the choice of living with fear and, by extension, tears and worry, or learning to cope and to enjoy the experience as best you can. Somewhere along the line in the last few weeks, I've decided that I want to be a mother who welcomes my son home with happiness, but more importantly, one who keeps the fears and worries from overwhelming him. This is a new experience for him - a growing one and so I will grow with him, share with him what he will share with me and allow him to do and go where he must.
It's hard. I have always been one of those semi-neurotic mothers who knows where each child is, when they will be home, more or less what they are doing. Where is Elie at this moment? Does he know that I am thinking of him? He doesn't know, and he shouldn't know because he has his job now - and that is to be a soldier, to learn, to experience, to serve.
During Elie's months in basic training, he will learn a tremendous amount about what it means to be a soldier, the responsibilities that carries, the dangers, and the things he can do to defend himself and get about the job of helping to defend the country. Some of the things he is learning and doing are, in their own way, humorous for those of us who have never experienced "an army."
Hitchhiking is a national pass-time in Israel. As much as we warn our kids not to, it is often the only way to get to and from some areas within a decent period of time. It's generally safe here and most people stop and give others a lift along the way. It's just done. We have a friend who can get anywhere, any time - in less time (or at least the same time) as if he was actually driving there. It's a talent he has. He gets the ride and gives the driver a pleasant, conversation-filled trip.
During last summer's war, much of the army moved from place to place - by hitchhiking to get there. Not the army exactly, but certainly soldiers getting to and from the front. The fastest way to get there was to jump in someone's car rather than wait for a bus. So already, less than two weeks into the army, the soldiers of Elie's unit have been instructed not to hitchhike - and when they do, how to go about determining what is safe.
Much of it is common sense, once you put the argument together, but it might not occur to you, if someone hadn't actually said so. For example - be careful about getting into a car where the front seat is empty, but someone is sitting in the back. There are exceptions - like a mother sitting with a baby, but if there's no little child in the back - why is the person sitting there and not in the front? Common sense - don't automatically get in the car.
The hidden message, of course, is that you as a soldier of Israel are a target. Be smart. Be aware. What seems ordinary may not be. Be careful.
Then there are the funny things about the army. Soldiers are required to wear uniforms, and the uniforms must be...well...uniform. Part of the uniform is the beret. The beret is a story in and of itself and I'll post about that when I finally understand all the colors and options, but for now, as a new soldier, Elie's beret is green. With much pomp and circumstance, Elie will be awarded a blue beret after he finishes his training. For now, he's got this green beret that hangs between a strip of material and the uniform on his shoulder. The beret slips forward and back and so I asked him, logically, if you don't have to whip it out and put it on your head, why not pin it down. You can pin it on the underside and no one will see it.
So Elie answered, "Combat forces don't do that. Jobniks do."
Jobniks are those soldiers who are not part of combat units; they do...jobs. There are many reasons why soldiers are classified as jobniks. By personal preference or because their family has lost a relative in the army in the past, they are an only son/child, or have mild health issues (requiring glasses, or a history of asthma, or whatever), many young men and women are funneled into non-combat units where they serve and serve well, providing important backup to the combat units, serving in intelligence, computer, engineering, and administrative positions.
It is one army, but there is always some friendly "competition." Are you in the Golani or Givati brigades, are you a pilot or in the navy or in artillery. Are you a combat soldier or a jobnik. And, apparently, only "jobniks" pin their berets down. I say - good for the jobniks!
Another funny story we've heard - so, the uniform that is worn off-base must be perfect, the beret in place, the socks and shoes specific colors depending on the division of the army. Each color is significant and must be properly worn according to the division you are assigned. And, to ensure that this is done, along the way, at any point, are the soldiers with the responsibility to check. They stand at significant locations where many soldiers pass each day on their way to and from the bases, and check. These locations, or at least some of them, are "known" to the soldiers, as they have been warned by others. But, the inspecting soldiers have a limitation - they are not allowed to run. Before crossing the street, they must STOP and look BOTH ways and then, having checked, they must walk across the street.
And so, soldiers who fear they have been caught because their beret is not in the right place, or they are wearing the wrong uniform (for example the non-off-base one), need only run to avoid being caught. When the soldier responsible for checking yells, "hey you," all these soldiers have to do is run across the street and while they are doing that, the other one must stop, look both ways, and then walk across the street.
I also find it funny that Elie is now required to check in...and does. Often when my children go away to sleep at a friend's house far from home, I ask them to give me a call when they get there. It's something I did when I lived in America - call home and tell them you arrived safely and it's something I've tried to impart to my children.
Well, Elie now has to call me or send me a note when he gets safely to his base. And (here's the funny part), he has to send a message to his commanding officer telling him that he arrived home safely as well. And best of all, the army tells the boys to call their parents! I'm not proud - I'll take any call, any time!
Finally, as the Jewish sabbath approaches again and Elie won't be here, I'll wish him and all of Israel a safe and quiet Shabbat.
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
We live in a society that has been forced to protect itself on a constant basis from the day we declared statehood in 1948 until this day. Guns cannot be ignored or denied. Barely a day goes by that I don't see a gun somewhere - on a soldier, a policeman, a civilian who believes he or she needs one. Even my children go to school guarded by someone carrying a gun. I enter the mall and go through a security check; the bank; the post office; and every restaurant. If I wish to pray in the holiest of all places for the Jewish religion, there too, I pass through intensive security and more guns.
There are advantages and disadvantages to the prevalence that guns have in our lives. But for all the arguments and debates, guns in Israel are considered a necessity and are treated with respect. They are not toys and we do not live our lives playing a game. For as long as I have known my sons would serve in the army, I have known the day would come when my sons would learn to shoot, to carry a gun, to bring it into my home.
So, last week, Elie received his gun from the army. Artillery units don't need guns, but in the months when his unit will not be training with the larger equipment, they will be patrolling Israel's borders, as most soldiers do. During those months, Elie will be required to carry a weapon and so part of his basic training includes - the gun. The first step in the army was to teach the soldier the responsibility of the gun. This is his personal weapon and his responsibility. Soldiers will go to jail if they misplace their gun, certainly if they misuse it.
Because Elie and his fellow soldiers have not yet had any training in the army, they were not given any bullets, nor were they allowed to take their guns off base. For the few days they had off during the holiday of Passover, they returned their guns, only to get them back today. The first thing Elie had to do was memorize the serial number of his gun - this is his personal weapon.
Over the long semi-vacation time (home in the evenings, days training closer to home), Elie told us some of what would be expected of him in the next few weeks. He explained about the type of gun he'll have and how he will be trained to use it. Of course, being a person who is gun-aphobic, I don't remember much other than it's "short" - so it is either a short M-16 or a short Uzi. Of course, if one of those types don't come in a short version, clearly it is the other type that Elie now has.
The first thing they will have done today, is to have each soldier shoot 5 bullets at a cardboard target. This allows them to configure the gun to the soldier's eye. I'm sure that "configure" is a technical writer's word and not a soldier's word, but here too, I show how the army is about learning. It's a process for all of us. Elie is learning what it means to be a soldier as I am learning what it is to be a soldier's mother.
After shooting the 5 bullets, they check how many hit a relative area and are able to adjust the gun's sights to match the shooter. I don't understand all the technical issues involved, but what I do know is that this gun and this soldier become attuned to each other - the best person to shoot this gun becomes the person to whom the gun was adjusted and that is my Elie.
What amazes me above all else, I think, is the process of education that is taking place. The army of Israel is incredible in that it enters all facets of the boy's life - his family, his relationships with others, his discipline, his self-worth. Long before the boys enter the army, they are tested and interviewed to find what interests them most, where they have the most talent, where they can excel. Like the gun, the position for which this boy is destined in the army is selected for him, adjusted to his talents. The army cannot consider all facets and the gun cannot do all things. The gun, like the army, has a purpose - both are used in the defense of the land. But the boy, the soldier is an integral part. Without him, the gun is useless, the army less efficient and able to do its job.
The gun is matched to the soldier; the soldier matched to the needs of the army. Those who have an interest and talent in computers are often steered to the computer and hi-tech areas of the army. Elie has a friend who has volunteered for years in the local fire department and despite a number of health issues that might have limited him, he was able to join the fire department of the air force.
Many who volunteer for the local ambulance squads become medics in the army, as those who dream of flying might become pilots and those who love the water enter the navy. Elie was tested and asked if he would be willing to enter a combat unit and his answer was positive. His interest in computers, his ability to handle "situations" as they occur, and his willingness to be part of a team - all lead him to where he is now. I am amazed that the army could see my son and understand him. Was it luck that made this match or was it some great amount of experience? I don't yet know the answer to that. I only know that Elie seems to be on a road that will make him a better soldier, which is the army's concern; but a better person too - which is my concern.
More than that, the army understands something that I never gave them credit for - they understand that they must take a boy and turn him into a man, but to do that, they must consider the family, the individual. And, most important, they seem to understand that this isn't something that happens overnight. The army understands the concept of a process and so the boys are taught slowly what is expected of them - each in its time and its own way.
What I have learned, in so short a period of time, is that the army is alive in many ways - it is constantly changing. What becomes evident is that our family too is changing - as Elie begins his basic training and takes on the knowledge and responsibility that comes with the gun he is shooting somewhere at this moment.
Wednesday, April 4, 2007
To see he is the same, though very concerned about how his boots shine, how his uniform washes. He shows us his dog tags - and gives more details than a mother needs to know about what they are for, how many, etc.
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