Risks and Rewards

Posted on 11/29/2020. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: |

Cold War Story #7 Excerpted from Cold War Stories

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This story has been published and is protected by copyright.

Risks and Rewards

In a small fishing village on the shores of Manila Bay in the Philippines, halfway between Manila and Cavite, a young man named Modesto tossed and turned in his blanket on the floor of a Nipa hut. Beside him, the frequent stirrings of his wife betrayed her restlessness. Only their child in the near corner slept soundly. Finally, Modesto threw his blanket aside, picked his way to the doorway, and let his bare feet drop to the sand, still warm from the day’s sun. From where he stood, he could see a large portion of Manila Bay. To his right and behind him, the bright lights of Manila made the sky luminous; before him the bay lay dark except for the dim lights of fishing boats that flickered and bobbed. Over to the left, a cluster of lights marked Cavite and the United States Naval Air Station at Sangley Point. The lights of Cavite also backlit an array of ship superstructures protruding from the water, the hulks of Japanese ships resting where they had been sunk during the big war that ended five years ago.

Modesto, small in stature, lean and muscular, had been a fisherman since he was old enough to pull nets and row a bonga boat. His jet-black hair and bright brown eyes were complemented by chocolate-colored skin that still had the smoothness of youth.

Tonight being Christmas Eve, he and Carlos and Chico were not fishing. Other than Christmas and Easter or during bad storms, they would normally be out in the bay fishing at this time of night. Their families depended on them to catch fish nearly every night. No fish meant there would be nothing to barter for rice, no pesos, no centavos, and no fresh fish for the fishermen’s families to eat. Modesto was a good fisherman. There were very few days when there was no fish or rice to cook in his hut. There were usually enough pesos for at least the necessities and even for some extras, like during the fiesta and for Christmas and Easter.

However, the three fishermen would be taking the bonga boat out on Manila Bay this Christmas Eve—not to fish but on a special and unusual mission. Modesto left the hut and moved aimlessly along the beach. He recalled the events of the last three days that led to what he would be doing tonight.

Modesto and his two companions had been returning from an unsuccessful night of fishing in their bonga, a boat barely large enough for the three-man crew, their nets, and sometimes a good fish catch. They were tired and wet, aching from their night’s labor. Intermittent rain, sometimes heavy, had combined with abnormally low temperatures to make it a bitter night. For their efforts and misery, a reward of only a half-dozen lapa-lapas lay on the bottom of the boat. They paddled toward shore in weary silence. As they rowed, they could make out the outlines of the hotels and casinos along Manila’s Dewey Boulevard.

The crew sat in a row from front to back in the narrow boat. Chico, the youngest, held down the middle position. He looked small huddled under a bulky poncho. Chico, the son of Carlos, the oldest member of the three men, had only recently joined the crew. Chico had been a hut boy for marines at Sangley Point, a good-paying job. For reasons unknown to Modesto, Chico no longer worked at Sangley Point, and Carlos had added Chico to the crew.

Chico stopped paddling and broke the silence.

“The casinos are still lit up. As they sow, so shall they reap. That’s what the church tells us. Well, we have worked all night and are so tired we can hardly get back to the beach. What have we reaped? Six little fish, not enough to eat, none to sell or trade. Did we sow the wrong thing? What do those rich ones in the casinos sow? They sow money. They don’t have to sweat or sit in the cold rain. Money does their work.”

Carlos sat in the back, the commanding position in the bonga. Wrinkled skin that had seen many fishing seasons covered his gaunt face. He laughed softly. “That was quite a speech from someone who’s cold and tired. Remember, fishermen live from God’s hand, and sometimes the hand is empty. That’s the way it is.”

Chico replied, “You been doing this too long and don’t know any better.”

“Maybe,” Carlos answered, “but I know complaining doesn’t help anything.”

Modesto listened in silence. There were times he had felt the way Chico did, and sometimes still did, but he had a wife and child. He had to provide for them in the only way he knew how. Someday in the hereafter he would be on the same level as the good rich and above that of the not-so-good rich. Easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for rich men to get to heaven. That’s what the good fathers said. Such thoughts made life a little more bearable at times.

Later that day, Modesto and Carlos were repairing one of the bonga boat’s outriggers. Carlos owned the boat and, when the catch was successful, received an extra share of fish. Carlos had inherited the bonga, his most valuable possession, from his father. Frequent repairs kept it usable.

“I wonder where Chico is,” Carlos mused. “He should be helping us.”

Modesto pointed down the beach. “Speak of the devil. People with him. Who are they?”

Carlos looked where Modesto pointed. “Don’t know.”

Two strangers accompanied Chico. One, a gaunt, small-framed young man, was unremarkable except for deep-set eyes that glowered under heavy, dark brows. His dress, typical for men his age, consisted of loose-fitting gray pants, an untucked white shirt, and sandals. He could have been a Jeepney driver or a street vendor. The other man, dressed in a similar way, was taller, heavier, and had a round face with Asian eyes.

Chico introduced them. He gestured first toward the smaller man. “Pepe from Bulacan, and Wan from up north in Baguio City.”

The two men surveyed the boat. The one named Wan walked around it and kicked the outrigger Modesto and Carlos had been working on.

“Looks small,” he remarked.

Chico gave him a worried look. “It can haul a lot of weight.”

Modesto wondered what they were talking about. What did it matter if the boat was small or could haul a lot of weight? It worked for what they used it for.

Carlos also looked puzzled.

The two strangers and Chico moved some distance away and talked among themselves. After a short time, they came back to where Carlos and Modesto had resumed work on the outrigger.

“Pepe and Wan would like to talk about a business deal,” Chico announced.

Carlos looked skeptical. “Business deal? We are fishermen with no fish to barter or sell. What kind of business could you be talking about?”

Pepe asked, “Can you keep a secret?”

“Secret?” Carlos questioned.

“The business we are talking about depends on it.”

Carlos answered, “You’ve been talking to Chico. He can tell you.”

Pepe hesitated and studied Carlos. Then he began to speak. “Chico has told us that every night you and your crew fish Manila Bay, and that almost every night you go past Sangley Point. You may have noticed a Quonset hut that sits by itself right near the shore at the tip of the peninsula. Looks like an ordinary Quonset hut, but it’s different. It’s being used as an armory, and it’s full of 30-caliber ammunition.”

Pepe again hesitated, allowing time for this information to be fully absorbed.

Modesto felt a tightening in his stomach.

Pepe continued. “We will pay you and your crew a good amount of money to go in and get some of that ammunition.”

Beads of sweat were forming on Modesto’s forehead. He thought, This man is loco, but he held his tongue and waited for Carlos to speak.

Carlos smiled slightly. “This some kind of joke you and Chico thought up?”

Pepe didn’t respond. “You will be able to make more money than you have ever seen before.” As if to emphasize the point, he pulled up his shirt to reveal a money belt and a pistol stuck under his waistband. He pulled a packet of pesos in large denominations out of the money belt and fanned them slowly. “We will pay you one peso for every round that you bring out. Easy money, a lot of money.”

The smile on Carlos’s face disappeared, and the look of skepticism returned. “Easy? Why pay so much if it is easy?”

Skeptical or wary, Pepe knew he had the fisherman’s attention. “You will be surprised at how lightly guarded the armory is.” Pepe picked up a stick from the beach and drew a sketch in the sand of the peninsula that projected into Manila Bay, much of which was occupied by the Sangley Naval Air Station. Pepe added detail at the very tip of the peninsula to show the location of the Quonset hut being used as an armory.

“There is only one marine guarding this stretch of beach that runs from the brig on the east side of the peninsula to a point on the west side of the peninsula approximately a kilometer away. The route the marine walks is on a beach five to ten meters wide from the water’s edge to an embankment three to four meters high. The Quonset we are interested in sits on top of this embankment at the tip of the peninsula. The closest thing to the Quonset armory, about a hundred meters away, are Quonset huts for housing navy and marine enlisted men.”

Pepe drew the guard’s route in the sand. “Besides the marine, there is a large searchlight mounted here on a water tower.” He pointed to a spot near the center of the base. “This light sweeps the beach all around the base. You must have seen it when you were fishing. It makes a sweep about every fifteen minutes, then goes out until they are ready to make another sweep. Those are the things you worry about, the searchlight and the marine guard. Overpower the guard, avoid the light, and you can help yourself to as much ammunition as your boat can haul.”

The fishermen were familiar with the navy base as seen from the bay and were able to follow Pepe’s description easily. They were also familiar with the searchlight. They often saw it sweep around the base’s periphery when they fished at night.

Modesto did not want to hear any more, but Carlos asked, “You sure there is only one marine?”

“One marine. Changes at midnight, next time at four.”

“The armory is locked?”

“I would think so.”

“We are supposed to figure out how to overpower the guard and get the ammunition out?”

“That’s it.”

“Why do you want that much ammunition?”

“Does it matter?”

“Are you a Huk?”

It didn’t matter to Modesto if Pepe and Wan were Huks or not. He didn’t want any part of this crazy idea, but he could see that Carlos was seriously considering Pepe’s proposition. They had to be Hukbalahaps, the Huks, the Philippine communists. That was the only answer that made any sense to Modesto. They were the only ones who would need that much ammunition and had the means to pay that kind of money for it.

Modesto didn’t know exactly what the Huks were trying to do, but he understood there was serious trouble between the Huks and the government in Manila. The Huks had been around for a long time. During the war they had fought the Japanese and were big heroes. Now they were fighting the government and weren’t heroes anymore. It seemed like they wanted to fight whoever happened to be in power. Modesto didn’t know if they were good or bad. Pepe looked like an ordinary Filipino, not like a revolutionary or communist, whatever they looked like. Not that it mattered much to Modesto. Modesto considered himself a pretty good Catholic. Carlos and Chico weren’t, and they would admit that, and that was their business. If a person wanted to be a Huk, that was their business.

Apparently, Carlos had come to the same conclusion. He answered his own question. “I don’t suppose it matters as long as we get paid.”

“If you decide to do it, a thousand pesos up front, the balance when you deliver.”

A thousand pesos! That was more money than Modesto had ever seen at one time.

Carlos didn’t reveal any emotion or surprise. “Sounds crazy. We will think about it.”

“Someone will do it,” Pepe said. “We know Chico. That’s why you are getting first chance.”

Carlos replied, “We need a day to think about it.”

“We’ll be back tomorrow.”

Carlos had fished Manila Bay for a living since he was able to do so. He had no hopes or plans to do anything else, and he had no hope of ever having more than a bare living as a fisherman. When Carlos became too old to fish, he hoped he would sit in the Nipa hut of his son Chico until the day they carried him out to the cemetery to lie beside the father he had cared for so many years before. It was not a great deal to anticipate but realistic and predictable. The wild scheme they were considering now was something else.

After Pepe and Wan left, the three fishermen discussed the proposition that had been presented to them. Carlos had done the talking when Pepe made his proposal, but now he wanted to know what Modesto thought of the idea.

Modesto had known Carlos since he was able to remember. Carlos’s life was a model for Modesto’s life. Modesto respected Carlos’s judgment in most matters but had been surprised that Carlos seemed to be considering going forward with a raid on the armory on Sangley Point. Manila Bay fishermen considered Sangley Point off limits. Even fishing near it was questionable. To land on its beach and raid an armory seemed totally loco.

“It sounds crazy and dangerous,” Modesto said in response to Carlos’s question.

“Maybe,” Carlos replied. He walked over to the outrigger he and Modesto had been repairing, studied it, then turned and spoke to Modesto and Chico. “We need more information before making a decision. Tonight, we will fish off Sangley Point near the armory and really study the layout. After that we will decide.”

It was a little before midnight when they arrived at a position where they could observe the armory and the marine guard while they fished. Lights from the nearby enlisted men’s hut area made the armory and guard path dimly visible.

At midnight they noted the changing of the guard and observed the marine on duty as he made his rounds. The marine moved back and forth along the beach between the brig and some point along the west side of the peninsula. As Pepe had said, it took the guard about fifteen minutes to walk from one end of the route to the other.

They had moderate success fishing and after a couple of hours had a sack filled with lapa-lapas.

At two a.m. Carlos suggested that they go onto the beach near the armory and check out the door lock.

“What! Why?” asked a surprised Modesto.

“We should know what kind of lock we have to break or open.”

Chico agreed. “Let’s see what it feels like to walk on the Sangley sand.”

They decided that both Modesto and Chico would go to the armory to check the lock while Carlos stayed with the boat.

While they contemplated making the landing, they realized they would need to time their movements carefully. They wanted to go onto the beach once the guard had passed the armory and was heading away from it at the same time the light on the tower went dark. This combination did not come up regularly. The first time they considered going in, the tower light had gone out, but they weren’t sure when the guard, who was out of sight on the west side of the peninsula, would reappear. The next time the light swept the beach, they saw that the guard was moving toward the armory from the east. They were concerned the light might come on again before he would be clear of the armory area on his way to the other side of the peninsula.

Finally, the light finished a sweep just as the guard was seen going toward the west end of his route. They pushed toward shore. Soon the bottom of the boat was scraping on the sand.

Modesto and Chico jumped out of the boat and ran toward the armory. It took only a few minutes for the two fishermen to reach the armory and determine that a padlock secured the armory door; a pry bar could be used to break the lock. They dashed back to the boat and rowed away from the shore toward relative safety.

The three stayed in their fishing location until the rising sun allowed them to observe the beach in more detail. It appeared that the path the guard walked was obscured from easy observation on the land side by the embankment that ran along the full length of the route. Their attention was drawn to two large tree trunks with roots attached that had washed up on the beach about a hundred meters to the west of the Quonset armory. Carlos suggested that would be a good place to hide while they waited for the right time to overpower the guard. They moved the bonga boat closer to shore and observed that the attached roots lifted the lower parts of the trunks off the ground far enough for a person to crawl beneath them. They all agreed that it looked like an ideal place to hide while waiting to overpower the guard.

Later that morning they returned to their home beach, tired from a full night of fishing and information gathering. They promised to get together that afternoon after they had rested to discuss the matter and make a decision.

Modesto tried to get some rest, but his mind continued to wrestle with the proposed raid. His first reaction had been to oppose the idea, to the point of defecting from the crew if Carlos and Chico wanted to do it. But as he became more familiar with what the raid would involve, his mind grew more at ease. A big factor in his thinking the previous night had been about their ability to get on and off the beach undetected. He contemplated the prize that would be theirs if they were successful. They could buy a large power bonga and have pesos to spare. They would be able to fish outside the bay and increase their chances of success. When Modesto finally drifted off to sleep, the contemplated prize loomed larger and the risk seemed to diminish.

When the three fishermen met the next afternoon, Carlos again asked Modesto and Chico for their opinions.

Chico, of course, wanted to go.

Modesto had resolved his concerns. The prize seemed too large to pass up. He now supported going forward.

Carlos said he also favored proceeding.

They started to discuss the details. Anyone observing the three fishermen huddled on the sandy beach would have thought they were mending a net or visiting, certainly not planning a daring raid on a United States military installation.

They decided to stage the raid that night. The moon would be dark. Everything could be ready, and the sooner they put the plan into operation the less likely the wrong people would become aware of it. Also, early Christmas morning might find the security forces less alert than normal. They intended to beach the boat at about one o’clock in the morning, not too long after the midnight guard change. That would give them plenty of time before another guard change took place. Their only weapons would be machetes and iron pipes. The machetes were to be used only if necessary, although Chico wanted the machetes to be the first option. He argued, “A live marine can be dangerous, a dead one isn’t. Besides, it takes more time to tie a man up than to cut his throat.”

Modesto knew Chico had his own agenda with regards to Americans. His former girlfriend who now shared her place with a marine may have helped form his opinion. His abrupt departure from his Sangley Point job may have aggravated it.

“Taking some American ammunition is one thing. Killing an American is a whole different thing,” Carlos declared. “We’ll use machetes only if we have to.”

Planning continued. Modesto and Chico would be landed on the beach and take cover under the tree trunks. Carlos would row the bonga back out into the bay. When an opportunity presented itself, Modesto and Chico would overpower the guard and break into the Quonset hut armory. They would remove as much ammunition as the bonga could haul and stack below the embankment where the Quonset was located to keep it out of the sight of the tower. They would use a flashlight to signal Carlos to return the boat to the beach when they were ready to load the ammunition. To Modesto, the plan seemed simple and doable.

Later in the day, Pepe and his partner returned and learned that the decision had been made to proceed; the raid would take place that night. Pepe seemed surprised that they were moving so soon, but he brought a thousand pesos in up-front money and they finalized the arrangements.

That night Modesto wandered along the beach, waiting for time to pass so he could join his companions and start on an adventure that would (pray to God, hail Mary) make them all rich. A few days ago, he wouldn’t have dared hope for anything more than enough food to eat and the bare necessities for himself and his family. Now heady dreams filled his mind. He would be part owner of a big power bonga, a serious fisherman who went after the big catches outside the bay. He would have a Nipa hut with more than one room furnished with a bed and a cooking stove. He curled his toes in the sand. He might even buy a pair of shoes.

It was early, but Modesto turned and walked slowly toward the place where the bonga rested on the beach. When he arrived, he found Carlos sitting on an outrigger, silently contemplating the small waves splashing against the beach. Carlos looked up when Modesto approached. “Couldn’t sleep? Me either. That happens often at my age.”

Modesto squatted beside Carlos. Carlos continued. “Sometimes being old isn’t so bad. I have less to lose.” He hesitated, then apparently feeling a need to reassure Modesto, added, “Don’t worry, it’s going to work.”

Modesto wanted to agree with him. “I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t believe it would work. Where is Chico?”

“It’s still early. Chico will be here. He wouldn’t miss this.”

Chico finally showed up, yawning, at the agreed-upon time.

Modesto asked, “You have trouble sleeping?”

“No, why?”

Modesto laughed. “The resurrection wouldn’t disturb you.”

Carlos stood up and tugged on the boat. “Let’s go,” he said, and all hands joined in to launch the bonga on its special mission.

Each person assumed his position. Soon their rhythmic paddle strokes were moving the boat smoothly through the water, the bow making a luminous splash as it broke the flat surface of the bay.

Modesto mechanically dipped his paddle. The closer they came to the base, the more uneasy he felt. Was he a coward? Modesto had never done anything like this before. He had known danger when they had been caught in storms while fishing, but that was a normal part of a fisherman’s life. This would be something different.

Carlos started talking about how this raid reminded him of ventures more dangerous and not as carefully planned during the big war. There were other differences. Those raids had been mainly for food because he and his family were starving. Sometimes he had picked up other things, too, but food had been the main thing. This raid was for money, enough money to change their lives. Another difference was that he disliked the Japanese. He didn’t particularly dislike the Americans. Americans were overbearing, overpaid, oversexed, and drank too much, but Carlos believed that, overall, their intentions were good.

Modesto wanted to know if Carlos would feel guilty about stealing from the Americans.

“No,” Carlos replied. “Americans have more wealth than the ocean has fish and taking some ammunition out of that hut won’t hurt America any more than I hurt Manila Bay when I pull lapa-lapas out of it.”

Modesto had considered the same thing. Was this really stealing? Would he be breaking any of God’s laws? He concluded that some of the laws of men might be challenged, but not God’s laws. The commandments as interpreted by Modesto pertained to individuals, to neighbors. Who did that ammunition really belong to? Maybe Filipinos had as much right to it as Americans.

Chico’s voice broke into his thoughts. “Are you afraid, Modesto?”

Modesto thought, Chico must sense my uneasiness. “Maybe. I guess I am, but I will be glad when we get on shore.”

Maybe he would be. His mind would be fully occupied, and he would not have time for imagined dangers. His thoughts of wealth and a new life from earlier in the evening were now crowded out by more urgent thoughts about the danger and what might go wrong. Sangley looked bigger and brighter than usual.

He turned to Chico and asked, “How about you?”

“Sure,” Chico answered. “You can’t be brave if you’re not afraid, and I keep thinking the guard could be the one that’s screwing my girlfriend.”

Modesto laughed. “Used to be your girlfriend.”

“That’s what I mean.”

“Don’t do anything dumb with the guard.”

“I know.”

They reached the position off the point where they would wait for a chance to go in. Again, they watched the changing of the guard. They waited for an hour and then began looking for the right opportunity to land on the beach. They looked for the guard when the searchlight swept around the base perimeter. Twice they watched and did not see the guard when the searchlight swept the beach in front of them. Carlos leaned back against the stern of the boat. “No hurry. We will wait until we know where he is.”

A while later the light flashed on again. This time it started at the far end of the base and moved toward the armory. As it swung around the peninsula, it caught the marine moving west away from the armory near the bend in the shoreline. As soon as the light went out, Carlos whispered, “Now!”

They rowed the bonga onto the beach. Modesto crossed himself, and he and Chico jumped out of the boat and found shelter under the large tree trunks. They carried iron pipes, machetes, and what they would need to bind and gag the guard.

Modesto knew that the marine would be armed with something better than an iron pipe. Successfully overpowering the guard had always been a concern, and the concern became magnified by the reality of their situation. Between the water and the tree trunks were over five meters of open beach, and the marine could be anywhere in that area when he passed them. What if the searchlight came on while they were overpowering him?

While Modesto contemplated these difficulties, he heard the guard approaching. He was walking slowly, quietly whistling some tune over and over. In the dim ambient light, Modesto observed that his carbine was slung over his shoulder and he wore a soft-billed cap. Good, he’s not wearing a helmet, thought Modesto.

At that moment, the tower light snapped on and started sweeping the beach. The guard safely passed the tree trunks as he moved toward the armory.

“Damn,” Chico whispered.

Soon after the light went out after its next sweep of the base, the marine guard could be seen returning from the direction of the armory, still whistling the same tune. He moved steadily toward the tree trunks where Modesto and Chico crouched.

When the marine reached the vicinity of the tree trunks, he paused, stopped whistling, and turned to look at the bright lights of Manila. Modesto and Chico made their move. The marine appeared startled by the noise Modesto and Chico made, but before he could react Chico swung his pipe and hit the marine in the back of the head. As the marine fell, Chico swung his pipe at the back of his skull again. “That’s for good measure, Joe!” he hissed.

They dragged the limp marine into the shadow of the tree trunks, rolled him on his stomach, and worked feverishly to bind and gag him. Chico put the gag in the guard’s mouth while Modesto pulled his arms behind him and began wrapping the rope around his wrists.

Chico stood up. “You can finish this. I’ll open the armory.”

Chico disappeared into the darkness as Modesto began to knot the wrist binding. Suddenly, the marine grunted, yanked his wrists loose, and rolled over, throwing Modesto off his back. Modesto landed near his machete when he fell to the ground. He grasped the handle with both his hands, raised it over his head, and brought the blade down with all his might on the neck of the struggling marine. The blade cut through flesh and cartilage, stopping only when it hit the vertebrae.

Modesto, still grasping the machete, stood up. He started toward the armory and then paused to pick up the carbine the marine had dropped on the beach.

Modesto found an upset Chico attempting to break the lock.

“The bar doesn’t go through the eye of the padlock. How in hell are we going to break the lock if we can’t get the pry bar in there?”

Modesto took the bar from Chico’s hand, took aim, and brought it crashing down on the padlock. The padlock flew off, hitting Modesto in the leg on its way to the ground.

“Jesus Christ!” Chico exclaimed. “That should wake up the dead.”

They groped their way inside the dark armory. They felt around and found boxes that must be ammunition cases. They started stacking the cases below the embankment where the Quonset was located. They had stacked four boxes when the light passed again.

While waiting for the light to fade, Chico asked if the guard was securely tied.

“He is secure,” Modesto replied without any more detail.

The light passed, and they finished moving two more boxes, as many as they felt they could haul in the boat, and then waited for the light to go on and off again.

When the light went out the next time, they signaled Carlos. He brought the bonga onto the beach near the Quonset, and they started loading the ammunition boxes. Then, for some reason, the searchlight that had just passed a short time before came on again and swept along the beach toward them. Carlos urgently signaled for them to push off, but Modesto ran back to get the last box waiting in the sand. He gripped it firmly and started running back toward the bonga. Suddenly he was surrounded by blinding white light. He heard someone shout, “Halt! Halt!” But he kept running, until something hit him in the back and knocked him down. He tried to get up, but he didn’t seem to have any strength in his arms and legs. Something under him felt warm. Blood, his blood.

He had the sensation that he was swimming underwater, swimming hard, but he was not moving.

He could hear far-off voices. “Did we get all of them?”

“The old man looks like he has had it. The young one is alive but scared as hell.”

Modesto felt something on his neck. A hand? He heard a voice again. “A very weak pulse. Amazing what these Huks will do for their cause.”

A dim light shone beneath the water. Modesto tried to swim toward it, but it kept getting dimmer and finally went out.

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