Almanac (Memoir): Finding Igor

All I ever wanted to do, my whole young life, was to be part of a football team.

 

I wouldn’t run out for my first ever game until age 32. On that day I would only collect a total of five handballs but that wouldn’t stop me strutting triumphantly from the ground as though I were a Norm Smith medallist.

 

 

Jamie in full flight.

 

 

To properly justify that inflated sense of self-satisfaction and suitably explain the canyon-sized gap between ambition and achievement here, I will need to go back to somewhere near the beginning. Circumstance and a crippling lack of self-esteem set me off on an erratic, occasionally sad, but mostly funny search for belonging through sport, but always with one eye toward a path that might eventually lead me back to my first love: football.

 

My earliest memory of the Great Australian Game is the 1977 drawn Grand Final…or at least I think it is. I can’t remember ever watching the 1978 Grand Final so there’s every possibility that I have stolen that memory from somebody else.

 

We had the only colour TV in our street so we held court whenever that sturdy, wood-grained Rank Arena hummed to life, gently toasting friends and neighbours alike in its hypnotic glow.

 

Sadly for me, in my school, playing wasn’t an option until Grade 5, so all that was left in the intervening years was attempting to recreate the deeds of my Lions heroes – Quinlan, Wilson and Conlan – in the backyard by bending miraculous banana kicks between the clothes-line and the tap. Whenever I could sneak the talcum powder past Mum, I’d mark out a boundary line and goal square to give these shots more credibility.

 

I was attending Meadow Fair North Primary School, firmly in the heartland of working class Broadmeadows and, like any other school, there was a social hierarchy and the constant jockeying for better position that goes along with it.

 

Perched firmly atop of that ladder sat a baby-faced tyrant named Carl Williams of (much later to come) Underbelly fame. He was already deeply immersed in the business of schoolyard extortion. Heavily burdened with insignificance as I was, and two years his junior, I managed to fly clear of Carl’s radar in our shared time there.

 

Our lives only intersected once, in our early teen years, when Williams and a truly terrifying henchman known only as ‘Pear Head’ stood blocking the only exit of an abandoned house inside which I had taken refuge. It had been set light and was heavily engulfed in flames. I sometimes reflect on how this scenario might have played out had it not been for the timely wail of approaching sirens. Perhaps a story in itself for another day.

 

The rest of Williams’ tale has been well-documented for all to consider but less is known of Pear Head, though humanitarian work abroad seems unlikely.

 

My meteoric fall to the depths of social acceptance, thanks largely to a mother’s benevolence, occurred early into my first term of school and it would take years before I made any serious inroads into improving this position.

 

Winter in Melbourne can be cold and, as such, she reasoned the single best line of defence against the biting elements would be via the insulating properties of purple, woollen tights. I will concede that despite the obvious threat to one’s popularity that went with wearing tights, they were warm and, as I could conceal them safely under trousers, it was feasible to pass them off as long socks. The perfect fashion crime.

 

In an unforeseen twist though, very early into my journey through Grade 1 it was announced to all that a state-sanctioned nurse had arrived for the day to conduct physicals. We were quickly herded like cattle into the school hall and issued with orders to disrobe with little or no consideration given to privacy or discretion.

 

Set adrift in an ocean of pre-pubescent nudity I was suddenly paralysed with fear, acutely aware that on this particular chilly southern morning the tights had been neatly laid out for me and that by undressing, I would be announcing them to the entire school. If this wasn’t bad enough, my mother subscribed confidently to the “they’ll grow into them” philosophy on clothing children.

 

Presenting as the only child in the school who dressed like Sir William Shakespeare would make it tough enough to harvest friendships but, given I had to commence the rolling down process from just underneath my armpits, I’d handed out an open invitation to laugh uncontrollably. An invitation graciously accepted by nearly all students, teachers and healthcare professionals in the room that day.

 

It made for endless months of ridicule. Even Gabrielle Conci, a quiet kid who had taken a dump on the classroom steps only weeks earlier, was visibly relieved at the opportunity to hand the flaming torch of community outcast enthusiastically over to me.

 

I sought solace early on in football. It was a happy place for me to escape to and I would fill much of the friendless void leading up to football eligibility feeding my obsession by learning everything there was to know about The Australian Game.

 

My internet was a dilapidated old truck called The Jolly Jumbuck – its proprietor a dishevelled wizard-like figure with a nicotine-stained beard – that would park outside our school on Fridays and invite children of all ages in to read books. As hard as it is not to imagine The Feds descending upon such an endeavour these days with guns drawn, at the time I regularly looked forward to enquiring after the possibility of new football books for me to read. He would usually comply with an affirming smile and the rolling of another cigarette to aid in his search among the piles of uncategorised reading material.

 

By the time I was ten I had every Brownlow medallist, Coleman medallist and Premier committed to memory. I was taking stats for any Fitzroy game that would crackle and hiss through my radio.

 

Then there were the footy cards. Every year I worked tirelessly on acquiring a complete collection of Scanlen’s football cards. They weren’t just a happy novelty in the schoolyard, they were currency. They were also my first real shot at interacting with the wider school community since The Great Tights Fiasco of  ’78. I wanted it to lead to burgeoning friendships, but alas, when it came to trading cards, it was strictly business.

 

Though I didn’t realise it at the time this was also my first glimpse into the broader world of commerce. We would assemble out on the oval and trade like no Wall Street broker ever could. It was frenetic and sometimes aggressive but it got results:

 

“I have three Val Perovics and four Larry Donahues. I’ll give you one of each for your spare Geoff Jennings.”

 

“Are you kidding me? I have the only spare Geoff Jennings in the whole damned school. Throw in your Barry Rowlings and we have a deal.”

 

The AFL should forget all about drafts and free agency. You want transparency in the League? Have representatives of 18 clubs stand around a concrete cricket pitch, shouting and waving 3×4 pieces of printed cardboard at each other:

 

Carlton: “OK then, so what is anybody prepared to offer us for Dale Thomas?”

Collingwood: “Umm…how about our condolences?”

(Group laughter)

Carlton: “Shut up! What are you laughing at Brisbane? What happened to that Fevola card we gave you?”

 

I was becoming confident, perhaps even a little cocky until I was taken to task by a kid called Joseph Spiteri. Spiteri had a lazy eye (the hallmark of any good villain) and he went about accumulating his collection through entirely different, more disingenuous methods. He would usher the more naive traders away and into games like “Kisses” and “Flicks” in what was essentially my earliest glimpse into the shady realm of gambling, then change the rules to suit himself until my entire collection had been completely exhausted along with what little self-confidence I had entered with.

 

Grade 5 was an anti-climax. It came and went with no serious attempt at joining the footballing fraternity. I had broached the subject briefly with my father but his assessment that I would be “too slow” and “too soft” swayed me otherwise.

 

Grinding out a handful of tenuous friendships over the ensuing 12 month period started promisingly enough. One friend had convinced me to join Under 13 Hockey for Glenroy and we would advance undefeated throughout the year and onto becoming eventual premiers. My father proclaimed this endeavour “too expensive” for me to return the following year but I guess it’s always nice to go out on top.

 

Grade 6 arrived along with my first real opportunity to showcase any sporting prowess via a bizarre game termed Football Relay which was essentially a glorified handballing drill between two groups. My reliable hands enabled me to survive the process of elimination, and cling to “First Team” duties and therefore represent the school at the local carnival.

 

Winning comfortably against other local schools like St. Dominic’s, where the likes of a young Eddie McGuire had sauntered around in short pants and a blazer only a few years earlier, it was revealed the school’s triumphant Footy Relay juggernaut would be representing the school in the Western Zone finals, and would go on to compete at Olympic Park in front of around 20,000 people.

 

There was one small catch; there was no Footy Relay competition scheduled for the Western Zones and the closest in resembling this activity was that of tunnel-ball. For the unfamiliar, tunnel-ball is a game where a team of 12 has to propel a medicine ball through a human tunnel of legs with the last person gathering the ball, running to the front and repeating the process. This would continue until the final gatherer takes the ball and runs it across a finish line. We had some handy athletes on our team. We had Andrew Thompson, one of the best junior sprinters in Vic Metro that year and a gifted young footballer named Terry Tolra who would play Under 19’s football for North Melbourne (and, sadly, as a close friend of Carl Williams meet a similarly untimely demise). The more athletic lads made no secret of the fact that they felt I was the weak link of the team and shouldn’t be there. I can’t say that I entirely disagreed with them. Where every other member of our elite 12 boy squad had other representative duties to consider, be it track or field, I was the only specialist tunnel-baller taking the bus to Olympic Park that day.

 

 

The Tunnelballers.

 

 

Nerves were rampant among the group as we headed to our positions under an atmosphere of heavy expectation, but our captain would do his best to address this by singling me out for a special mention: “We’ll be OK boys, (pointing now at me) so long as you don’t fuck up!”

 

We started brilliantly, jumping out to an early lead; the collective roar of 20,000 adolescents seemed to lift me to another level. I had done my part. I had gathered my ball cleanly and run as hard and fast as I could before putting my throw clean down the middle. We were a real chance here. We were still in front and with two more perfect rotations we were heading for tunnel-balling immortality.

 

I crouched into second position when feisty redhead Craig Ford hit the front of the queue and, throwing the ball as hard as he could, released too late, straight up into my face. I remember dropping to my knees, as much from shock as pain, and I remember the muffled torrent of abuse that followed as a result but I couldn’t accurately say how long I was down for. All I know for certain is that it was long enough for us to cross the line in fourth place.

 

Inexplicably, even though the errant throw had come from the team member in front of me, it would become quickly apparent on the bus ride back to school upon whom the rest of the team would apportion the blame…me. Empty seats were declared “off limits” as I re-navigated the aisle back to the front of the bus to where the teachers sat.

 

The only welcoming seat left on the bus ride home was next to Miss Politia, our PE teacher and coach, and she quickly offered her best efforts at consoling me by suggesting that “failing under pressure is an important part of sport” because it would allow me to “better appreciate whatever little victories may lie ahead for me in life”. My aspirations of ever joining the lucrative tunnel-balling pro-circuit died that day.

 

Word quickly spread at school of my apparent mental capitulation on the big stage but given my already modestly positioned rung on the social ladder, there was no sense challenging this version of events. Mercifully, high school loomed.

 

 

High School.

 

 

Oak Park High School would re-ignite any faint flicker of hope I had of realising my footballing dream. Imagine my repressed joy in finding out that senior Carlton defender Rod “Curly” Austin was my new PE teacher. I liked Curly immediately. He could be stern but was fair and he seldom wasted a word.

 

I admired him and there were times I genuinely surprised him with my footballing knowledge, like the time I enquired of him what it was like to be one of only three men to hold the great Peter Hudson goalless during his VFL career. “I think he may have kicked a few points that day,” a typically modest Austin suggested.

 

But I checked this deflection, vigorously waving down The Jolly Jumbuck the following Friday, confirming that Hudson kicked only the one point that day.

 

I remember watching match of the round, Hawthorn v Carlton, on Seven’s Big League one weekend and looking on in horror as a rampaging Robert Dipierdomenico ran through Austin, breaking his jaw in the process. My father, who I think sensed my admiration of Austin, chuckled on his way out of the room. “Looks like you’ll have a fill-in teacher for a few weeks,” he said.

 

It was a fair point. I pondered how long it would be before Curly would be back at school. But there he was on Monday morning, reporting for duty with his jaw wired. Understandably, he didn’t feel much like outdoor activity on this day and was happy enough to kick a few volleyballs out of the store room so that we could engage in the ritualistic warfare that was dodgeball.

 

Unseen by Austin, the drama of two girls fighting over one of the volleyballs was unfolding just outside. It was concluded by one of the girls kicking the ball off the ground and point blank into the unsuspecting mouth of Austin as he emerged from the storeroom. Time stood still and nobody dared make a sound, waiting for his reaction. I saw his eyes and though they suggested the visage of a man who wished the perpetrator was a bigger, older and somewhat more masculine, he never said a word. He wore the force of that volleyball on a freshly-broken jaw and he never so much as flinched.

 

I had always wanted to address his unconventional ball drop with him but I figured as a 200 game, premiership player with Carlton he had managed OK to this point without my help. Turns out though, he also had some thoughts on my game. He had seen me kicking off both feet on the oval one recess and stopped me as I made my way, puffing and panting back towards class.

 

“Why aren’t you playing in the school side?” he frowned.

 

“Oh…umm…I don’t think I’m good enough sir,” I shrugged back at him.

 

“Really?” he countered from behind folded arms. “Well, I’m telling you you’re good enough.”

 

I didn’t wait for public transport to get me the 12 kilometre journey home that night, I ran. My feet scarcely touched ground. A premiership-winning defender had just given me his stamp of approval to finally peel the wrapper off my playing career. I just knew my father would offer me his blessing to play now!

 

“I’ve seen you out there with your mates,” my father whispered over a sombre dinner table that night. “You don’t go hard enough at the ball. But if you insist on making a fool of yourself, then go ahead.”

 

I was gutted and never raised it with Austin again. I merely feigned injury or lack of interest the next few times he brought it up.

 

Besides, where’s the sense in making a fool of one’s self playing football when you can save that level of embarrassment for the swimming pool? It’d been a few years between mass humiliations so my self-esteem was ripe and ready for another pummelling.

 

Introducing: The Cork Scramble.

 

Every year my high school held a swimming carnival, hotly contested between the school’s four divisions. Long before Hogwarts ever conceived the idea our school had students sorted into randomly selected divisions or “houses”. Each house was named after an Australian sporting icon. There was Newcombe, Wickham and Lillee although, perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly, I don’t remember mine (it was probably Warwick Capper). Each house would elect a house captain, normally the standout athlete.

 

My introduction to our captain came in the final stages of my first swimming carnival.

 

Anybody could nominate to compete in an event in their age group. There were trials of course and the three best from each house in each age group were to compete on the day. This applied to all events except one, the concluding event, an inaugural novelty extravaganza christened ‘The Cork Scramble.’

 

Simply put, The Cork Scramble was little more than a pool filled with champagne corks whereby the competitor collecting the most inside 60 seconds was declared the winner. What was designed to be a light-hearted climax to the day’s proceedings failed to capture the students’ imagination on any level, except for one budding comedian who thought it funny to write my name down. The joke here being my now famous aversion to water.

 

Having almost drowned at a younger age I had a morbid fear of water. I also possessed the type of skinny white body that, though now greatly heralded on the catwalks of Europe, at the time was guaranteed to attract more unwanted attention in the form of ridicule. A double whammy. No sir, swimming was no activity for me.

 

Initially, my mother wrote notes fabricating excuses as to why I couldn’t enter the pool but, after a few months, I no longer had to extend her creative gifts. It reached the point where I merely approached Austin with a folded piece of blank paper and Curly would simply nod and wave me off to sit in the stands alone.

 

At the conclusion of the penultimate event, it was announced that House Capper was now tied for first place on points with one of the other houses. This was suddenly huge news given the overwhelming lack of interest in the ensuing Cork Scramble. The other houses desperately tried to negotiate ways around the clearly stated and accepted rules that only a student who had nominated by the closing date of an event could compete. The school was abuzz.
All I had to do was enter the pool, splash around for 60 seconds, pick up a single cork and victory on the day would belong to House Capper (Barassi, it just came to me…our House name was Barassi.)

 

House captains from both leading teams scoured the stands for whoever this Jamie Simmons character might be. They sought me here and they sought me there, a Scarlet Pimply-nell of sorts; the opposition in the hope that I was more myth than man, and ours in the hope of stealing victory on the day.

 

I looked around (rather desperately) for a blank sheet of paper I could quickly fold into a parental excuse. But I was too late. Towering over me was our house captain. He had everything I didn’t have: good looks, female adoration, a haircut that hadn’t been manufactured in a kitchen using craft scissors. Like any good captain he explained the importance of “team” to me and what an incredible contribution I’d be making.

 

I stuttered my way through a response, explaining that I didn’t even own a set of swimming trunks to which he proudly slapped me on the back and handed me a spare pair of his own board shorts.

 

Now, as his build was the hybrid of a swimmer’s thighs and a footballer’s powerful buttocks, I was faced with a notable sizing issue. The instant I submerged they filled with water. It was like having my own personalised moat to keep any advancing Saxons at bay. I would have invited people inside for a swim if I’d thought anybody would turn up.

 

Wading around the shallow end, I clung desperately to a pair of shorts ten sizes too big with one hand and hugged a couple of champagne corks to the pasty white Xylophone that presented as my chest with the other. What I remember most about that day though…was the laughter. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Those swimming trunks might as well have been purple and knitted from wool because for 60 mortifying seconds I united an entire school through soul-destroying laughter… all at my expense. Even the teachers weren’t above pointing. Shit, even Adrian Zwallow, the gawky kid who only months earlier had recorded the worst-timed erection in school volleyball history, was mentally high-fiving me for whisking the Baton of Mass Humiliation away from him and running with it. There was something strangely familiar about all this…

 

With my parent’s divorce in 1986 I was delivered south to the Apple Isle along with the promise of better days to come.

 

Recent awkwardness waving at me in the rear view mirror, I was now at College and totally rocking my new acid-wash ensemble (and only a year or so after they had been declared “No longer fashionable” by those who adjudicate such things).

 

I arrived early for Rosny College’s Sports Sign on Day and stood at the back of the hall staring at the table marked “Football”, trying to summon the courage to put my name down. However, each impressive male specimen that strode confidently to the table and signed on just served to bring my father’s words and my own lingering doubts back to me. In what seemed the briefest of moments, an hour had elapsed and as a consequence of my inaction, only trout fishing and chess remained open.

 

That choice was made easier when, spying me standing at the back of the hall, a teacher in rubber waders and a comb-over winked at me and flicked an imaginary fishing rod in my direction. I smiled politely before trudging angrily over to the chess table to sign on.

 

Chess was great, as it happens. It was run by a stern, barrel-chested German teacher named Heinrich von Minden. He had powerful hair, hand carved from black granite. And better yet, there was a representative of the female community in our group.

 

As the token female member, Carolyn endured a lot of inquisitive, poorly concealed staring from the rest of the team but she didn’t seem to mind. She was nice. She had a thick Yorkshire accent, a curious penchant for leggings, big beautiful brown eyes and best of all, she was the first girl I could say hello to without the fear of her reaching for pepper spray.

 

Her love of The Beatles attracted me to her like no pheromone could and we’d spend hours talking about music. As for the rest, they weren’t the coolest kids on campus but their willingness to include me was all the endearing qualities I needed in a person.

 

The Tasmanian College Sports Carnival arrived shortly after and the stars had once more aligned in such a way that it was decided best practice to have the chess team share a bus with the football team en route to Launceston for the carnival… of course.

 

It was a largely buoyant atmosphere on the trip north. The footballers opted not to interact with the chess team on any meaningful level but at least they weren’t belligerent. This could work.

 

It could have… had I not over enthusiastically presented the following enquiry, without proper consideration given to the consequences:

 

“Hey, is that alcohol I can smell?” I announced, a little too loudly.

 

Teachers mobilised and from everywhere descended upon the culprit, our star centre half-forward, who now found himself instantaneously unselected from the team as punishment. My reward for services rendered to this situation would come in the form relentless kicking to the back of my seat for the remaining 45 minutes of the journey and a barrage of hand-delivered notes detailing my impending doom. I was left in no doubt where, when and how this was going to occur.

 

At day’s end, the teams from all schools gathered at the Launceston Velodrome in joint celebration and to present awards but with nothing for us to collect combined with the potent cocktail of adrenalin and advanced intellect, we soon found ourselves immersed in a plot to steal one of the many crates of apples that lined the Velodrome’s cycling track. I did consider pointing out that the apples were free and that by definition we weren’t really stealing, rather just advancing the cause of dental hygiene but what the hell, it was an activity for us to bond over while waiting for our ride home.

 

Strangely but mercifully our bus was not at the rendezvous point when we arrived, having opted instead, apparently, to leave early with the football team back to Hobart.

 

Rather than investigating how such an oversight could occur, Herr Von Minden decided to hire a mini-bus and this lightened the mood considerably. It provided a chance to chat openly on the return trip and to evenly divide our healthy bounty.

 

The discovery of a tape deck on board raised spirits further and inspired one of the other chess team members to triumphantly hold aloft a cassette though it were Excalibur:

 

“Is that…dear lord, is that Air Supply?”

“Yes, aren’t they amazing!”

“Ahh… No. I wish somebody would cut off their Air Supply!”

 

It was a funny trip home.

 

Subdued from reflecting on the potential consequences of my earlier folly, as we alighted the mini-bus Carolyn felt inspired, perhaps a little out of pity, to announce that not only was she “proud of me” but that it was “OK to kiss me if you want to.”

 

And so my first ever kiss was between the totem poles (not a euphemism) at Rosny College. I hadn’t so much as practised a kiss in my life so all I had as reference were a handful of memories from the silver screen. Suffice to say the reviews of ours weren’t great.

 

Nervous, I went in like I was bobbing for recently stolen apples. Stiff hipped and with rigid arms I bowed in at her like she was The Emperor of Japan, diving open-mouthed onto this poor girl. All suction and no technique, I think I only pulled away when I noticed her head starting to change shape. Ever so sweet though, she placated me by saying it wasn’t a bad first effort. But I’m pretty sure what she was really thinking was how useful I might be at cleaning her fish tank. Nevertheless, it was an awkwardly blissful ending to an otherwise uncomfortable day.

 

The years drifted by on my sporting career.

 

I went through the motions in my 20s trying my hand at a variety of disciplines, table tennis in particular, some badminton and even two seasons of Gaelic football after stories of more plentiful employment opportunities drew me north to the Sunshine State. All the while watching, studying and loving The Australian Game but trying never to focus too much on having never played.

 

And then it happened. As my oldest and dearest friend ‘Kanga’ and I were driving home one night from an Adult Education guitar lesson (I’m still black listed from trout fishing), he stopped the car suddenly near his home. I stared at him as the engine whined into reverse. We stopped alongside a modest tin sign welcoming all comers to try their hand at mature-age Australian Football. Noting in particular the words “Beginners welcome” and the fact that “Football” (probably the most important word) was missing an “l”.

 

“What do you reckon mate? Want to play Footbal?” he grinned.

 

I’d run out of excuses, mine or anybody else’s for that matter. Not even two weeks later I was running off the bench half way through the second quarter and into a glorious unknown.

 

The team.

 

I can remember every single one of those five handballs in vivid detail. By season end I had added a goal, a handful of useful games and even a shiny new nickname (Igor – in reference to the curious hunch I adopt when running) to my football resume.

 

Better yet, it allowed me the opportunity to feel a part of something bigger, and even revel in the odd personal achievement:

 

 

Igor’s century of “footbal”.

 

 

Fourteen seasons later I still get as excited every second Sunday morning as I did before that first game and it’s why no matter how many memos my body sends me to consider giving it away, they are promptly overruled by a voice that tells me: “Just one more season”.

 

I really love that voice. That sweet, nurturing voice of reason that suppresses all the other voices, like that one that keeps telling me to eat toothpaste or, in particular, and more than any other, the one that would have insisted “You’ll only make a fool of yourself”.

 

Muddy maybe, but no fool.

 

 

 

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About Jamie Simmons

Born in Melbourne, a third generation Fitzroy supporter, in 1972 before emigrating to Tasmania during The Great Broccoli Famine of 86. Leaving my island lodgings, largely at the request of locals, to settle once more on the mainland in 1997. These days living out a peaceful existance on the outskirts of Brisbane, where I spend most of my time serving as a fashion warning to others.

Comments

  1. Great piece Jamie. Liked the school photos too.

  2. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    This should have been a mini-series. I was moved to search for more about your exploits “Igor”. Those Sharks sure have a good ‘un in their midst. If only I could pick you out from those photos.

  3. Brilliant read Jamie. I could relate to so much, I still think I should have made the school tunnel ball team but alas, not to be. Did you ever come across Darren Penney at Oak Park?

  4. Great stuff Jamie plenty of messages in that and the odd painful memory and yep keep going!

  5. Jamie- I’ve alerted some friends to this and especially the section in which you document your first kiss. Brilliant and so funny. And making your footy debut at 32, which was when I gave it away! Well done on this too. I loved the characterisation of Curly Austin too. Great, great memoir. Thanks.

  6. Nicole Kelly says

    So fabulous. What a tale! I laughed aloud about the tunnel ball competition… who knew that was a comp?? But your true love of the game shines through. Thank you!

  7. John Butler says

    Quality Carlton content, and a triumphant ending. What’s not to love about this!

    I remember school tunnel ball comps, in spite of my best efforts to forget.

    Great stuff, Jamie.

  8. That’s a beautifully told story, with a fine line in self-deprecation. (I don’t know whether your old man is still with us. If yes, I’m curious what he might make of this tale.)

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