I always thought a grizzly would take you.
I loved that I could hike and sit in silence with you, never needing to fill the airwaves with idle chit chat, but this quietness made me pause in grizzly bear country (which is where we’d spend most of the past 24 years hiking together). Upon suggesting we make some noise you would often reply, “How are we gonna see any bears?”
I’m not surprised that you died doing something you love. I am not surprised it involved a beautiful vista, overlooking the Yellowstone River, and roosting golden eagles with their eaglets. All those parts are fitting. Now I am tasked with squeezing beauty from the other part. The tragedy. I know you would be grateful for this type of death. You would never have settled for a stay in a hospital or worse yet, a retirement home.
How this happened will always leave a haunting, burning hole in my heart.
I know why you hiked to see the eagles. You took me every time I was home. It’s only a 20 minute car ride from the house, or as you went on your last day of life, by motorcycle. It’s not a tough scramble up, it’s rather easy in fact, and you’re rewarded with a stunning panoramic view of mountain ranges sitting back beyond the Yellowstone River. We both enjoyed running our hands across the mountain sage brush to release the scent, often collecting a bundle to sniff later in the sun warmed car. We would side step cactus that when in bloom offered juicy bursts of colors on the dry earth tones. Lexie Lulu in her sprite days even made the trek up. We shot tins cans up there which became fancy Montana tea light candle holders for our dinner table. Ultimately it was the golden eagles that pulled you here. They kept you coming back for 20 years. I get it. It was peaceful. It was a place you really wanted to be.
I long for the day I can return and walk with your wild hearted spirit.
I had you for 46.5 years of my life as my dear sweet dad, quietly dispensing wisdom and showing me the way by example of doing and not doing. I feel a prideful responsibility to carry your torch. For I was lucky to have our adventures (good, bad and scary), your influence, your lessons gleaned and then absorbed and instilled. Not only does my nose come from your DNA, so does my love of our wild and natural world. My memories are numerous and easy to grasp because they are all positive. I’ll never do them all justice, nor since living abroad, do I have many photos from my childhood, but this is what poured out of me this week, alongside a bathtub of tears.
You were always the one to “go for it”. You taught Tati and me how to ski at Roundtop in Pennsylvania by taking us not to the bunny slope, or a green beginner, but to the top of a blue intermediate. I remember managing two big falling-leaf turns, but not a third; ski tips pointing south, it was straight down at an uncontrollable speed. I was simply along for the ride at that point. You didn’t ski after me, you let me figure it out and untangle myself from a net. This parenting style worked for you and apparently worked for me because I still like to ski, so thank you. I eventually snowboarded while you skied, and then we telemarked together – a nod to our Norwegian blood. Do you remember the tip we read to help tighten our tele stance? “Take a penny (or at least pretend to) and carefully place it between your butt cheeks. Next, squeeze those butt cheeks together and start skiing.” I remember us shouting on the slopes, “Did you drop your penny?”
Always restless to be outside regardless of the conditions, you took Tati and me, as kids, canoeing on a memorably cold March 21st in Pennsylvania – first day of spring! This was the era of wearing a couple layers of pantyhose under your jeans to stay warm (same outfit as the ski slopes). Life jackets… nah. We tipped the canoe in what seemed like big rapids at our size, but were surely no more than a class 1 under a bridge. Separated from each other in the muddy water, I found my way to the edge of the river bed as did Tati. You hailed down a passing car, threw us in, sopping wet and freezing cold, and asked the stranger to drive us home. You stayed back to collect the canoe and paddles that were adrift. Again, I have gone on to enjoy river floats very much. So again, I must thank you.
I always felt a sense of pride about how I grew up and where I grew up – in a cabin that you and Katy built, with felled trees and only hand tools. The year 1972 is carved on it and it was off the grid, baby. I was born the following year. Everything you built was built to last a lifetime. In 2009 you took Tati and I to see it. It’s a trip I had always wanted to experience with you so thank you for making the time. Neither of us girls had seen it as adults. We had up to this day only pictures to trigger our memories. When asked how you embarked on such a blank slate project you replied, “It was the 70s, we just went door to door asking farmers if they wanted to sell some land.” You two were the real deal pioneering homesteaders.
Our lack of matching your enthusiasm for the great outdoors never deterred you from exposing us to all that you loved. All of our family trips involved camping, hiking, skiing and the beach. I can only count a couple trips where a motel was sprung for due to snow: Snowed Inn, Vermont and Lake Placid, New York.
These family trips required us piling in your blue Dodge Ram van, the uninsulated “Ice Box”. The Heckles always bristled at opulence. This van was a mobile sanctuary of all things you. It was your work van with tools in the back, but up front the sun visors were pinned with favorite curling and sun faded family photos, notes, dangling fishing lures, an actual sized paper cutout of a phone receiver, and the perky Super Banana character with his legs swinging to the beat of our journey.
So there we’d all be, on the back seat bench: Shawnee, Tati and I and the occasional hitchhiker squeezed in next to us. Wendy always the co-pilot and map reader. We learned how to read paper maps because of you. As a kid, I often felt like we were along on your journey, until we were allowed to play our music. The blue van trips were heavy on the JT (James Taylor), Rod Stewart, Steely Dan, and reggae. It was ok, but it wasn’t what three adolescent girls were digging. Somehow we found a common ground with Jimmy Cliff’s The Power and The Glory. This album takes me straight back to family road trips, usually heading north to Maine or New Hampshire… just like it was yesterday.
One particular trip to Maine stands out – same teenage era. We were driving to the Wooden Boat School in Brooklin, Maine, in the Ice Box. Your friend Rich who worked at the school (maybe ran the school) said we could camp on the school’s expansive property that sits bay side. I imagine these trips were the perfect trifecta for you. You got to see your fun adult friends, expose us kids to new outdoor places and we all got out of the house. This trip will forever be imprinted with a song by Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock called Joy and Pain. Why? Because it rained the entire time and the mosquitoes were as thick as the fog. I blocked most of it out except for this song, which must have drove you nuts. Do you remember how we remastered the song to new lyrics, “Mosquitoes and Pain” and choreographed a dance to which we performed to only you and Wendy? Thank you for letting us play our music on occasion. Looking back, it must have been painful, but you did it without complaining. You never were a complainer about anything.
You clearly knew music was important because you indulged Tati and me by taking us to our first concert and favorite musical girlfriend at the time, Cindi Lauper in 1985. Tati was only 10 years old and rode your shoulders most of the night so she could see. Thanks for sharing your music, making us amazing mixed tapes, and recognizing that Girls Just Want To Have Fun. We did that night!
After you moved to Montana you became immersed in fiddle and bluegrass music, often torturing us on our mature adult road trips. I tried not to complain.
On the flip side, the first time I heard silence I was with you, in my 20s (1998?) – cross country skiing in Yellowstone National Park. You were ahead of me (as always). I stopped and realized I couldn’t hear anything. I let myself fall over in the snow and marveled in the beauty of not hearing a darn thing. I will never forget how beautiful that sounded. You of course, had already discovered this, many times over. Thank you for providing an experience for me to discover it too. Silence is something I crave almost as much as you now.
The other mystical discovery was also in your presence. Clouds. How apt. We were on a camping (for us) hang gliding (for you) family trip in Hyner I believe. You and I, maybe Tati were walking out to the big landing field to watch one of your buddies land his glider. It was a gray misty day and a massive cloud was hovering on the field, barely kissing the grass. I had never seen anything like it and immediately wanted to get inside it. Together we walked… and walked towards it. I asked why we weren’t in it yet. You replied, “We are in it.” My adolescent brain popped a gasket. Pure magic.
Your imprint on caring for the world sticks hard since I was little. I still don’t let the water run when I brush my teeth and I almost always turn the lights off when I leave a room. I feel guilty if I use an air conditioner or more than two sheets of toilet paper. We all teased you for rinsing your paper coffee filter to reuse for months or was it a year? Now I do it too. I felt proud knowing you aimed to get “off the grid” in recent years, like you had back in the woods with Katy in the 70s, but this time via solar roof panels and a hybrid car. I will carry your torch for conservation each day I live.
Your lack for want or material things was something I greatly admired. You bought what you needed and indulged on occasion.
A favorite memory is when you took us to the Park City Mall (which you always called “Dark City” for obvious reasons). You had received a very important page which resulted in securing us each Cabbage Patch dolls during the Great Cabbage Patch shortage of 1983. You were god-like to us that day.
After my 1978 Dodge Aspen with a Sparkomatic stereo that you had installed was totaled from a minor accident, you found me an old midnight navy blue Saab at a car auction with Uncle Tom (I can’t recall the specific model). It was an unexpected gift as I was approaching my graduation from art school. When you gave it to me you said, “If you’re going into advertising you need a cool car.” Uncle Paul, your younger brother by 5 years always said you were the coolest. I would drive that car, wearing your old aviation jacket and feel, as promised, very, very cool. Thank you for giving me something that in one sense I didn’t need, but did in another.
You always preferred the well-worn, well-loved kind of accoutrements. There was never a pawn shop you couldn’t walk past without “just looking” and we never missed a Second Wind pit stop when in Bozeman. I will add that I never thought second hand helmets were a good idea and I stand by that.
You raised me to appreciate what we have. I never felt without anything in my life – except that Coca-Cola rugby shirt for a brief moment in high school. I’m glad you stood your ground and said no to your children being walking advertisements (except for Caldwell, Heckles & Egan – “CHE” swag). Thank you. You gave us all the important non-things like adventure and love which is the real gold.
Your craftiness ran deeper than finding dolls in short supply. I loved that our house wasn’t filled with shiny new things. This was appreciated as I got older. As kids, you built Tati and Shawnee a bunk bed. Across the room, you made what I called my hanging bed, which always seemed like an earnest climb to get to. I don’t recall guardrails, just a plank of wood secured high in the corner, hanging by a rope in the opposite corner, no obstacles underneath. This was obviously a creative space saver, but it was also a cozy perched nest for your eldest eaglet.
You built Tati and I a treehouse as little girls on Race Avenue, nestled up in a big pine tree next to the house. It was still there last I visited. Your craftsmanship was always solid.
Your woodworking shops, all of them, from the time I was a kid will forever be etched in my olfactory. Freshly cut wood, piles of wood chips, saw dust, and planks of cherry, oak, pine, and mahogany. It all reminds me of you.
Our home, your home with Wendy in Montana since 1996 is what I’ve called my home away from home (from Portland and now Taiwan). For 24 years it’s where I felt a sense of belonging. All the cozy things, nothing glossy, nothing void of character or story.
In all our living rooms… Ruby Street, then Conestoga Avenue and then eventually this one on Third Street, we would play Connect 4, checkers, Chinese checkers, and Othello. You were masterful at all. I never learned to count cards, or play hearts like you, which always impressed me, but at least I can beat my nephews Sammy and Kieran at Connect 4. Thank you.
Your fly fishing desk always mesmerized me. It shimmered and at the same time was dark and mysterious. I wondered how you knew what delicate thing was to be tied to the other delicate thing. How did your big hands do that?
All your stacks and stacks of books. A couch that was cozy enough for all five of us. The Jøtul stove in the back room always stoked carefully and quietly by you. Pure bright day light shining in during the day, cozy soft warm light at night. The house is a warm hug. I crave it and also fear returning to it knowing you’re not there to greet me outside with a big hug and peck of a kiss.
I never heard you raise your voice. Ever. You were always calm even in the storms. To me it’s just your ethos, conserving energies for what really matters.
I would never in my lifetime witness you interrupt someone while they were talking. I could always tell by a look in your face when you had something to say. When in groups I would hope the conversation would grow a natural pause, long enough for you to weigh in. Sometimes this wouldn’t happen, and I’d be left wondering what you were going to say, always impressed with your restraint to not force words. You said what was necessary, never more. Were your keen listening skills sharp because of this or was it the other way around? I strive to withhold unnecessary words like you.
You always took the high road literally and figuratively. I never heard you say negative words about anyone, except for our current president and that was short and to the point, “I hope I live long enough to dance on his grave.” That would have been our second father-daughter dance for sure. You showed by example that if you don’t have something kind to say, say nothing or at least have a sense of humor about it. I aspire to master this level of wisdom.
You were always dialed in to the injustices of the world. Listening to Jimmy Cliff (and many other musicians you admired), I can now hear the messages you heard. They didn’t resonate as a kid, but they do now. A well read dad on global affairs was a connection I never took for granted. And you were never ranty, just crestfallen like so many of us these days.
A text that made my heart pang, sent on April 20, 2020, “Listening to NPR show with John Prine and feeling such rage that he was probably a victim of _____’s arrogance.” (I will not write that name in this sacred space.) I love that we connected on all the issues that mattered. You inspire me to be part of the solution.
Your strong moral compass was always admirable. You always did the right thing. As a little kid I remember tossing some orange peels out the van window while you were driving. You gently pulled the van over and turned the engine off. You then explained that I needed to go pick up my litter because curious animals would come to the side of the road and would likely get hit by a car. Litter bad. Animals good. This made sense and so there began my deep loathing of all litter bugs. Thank you.
There was one prank that felt slightly uncharacteristic of you, yet so you. I would witness you play it out on us girls and then on strangers as an adult. Soon after you moved to Montana we all visited and were adjusting to what we girls were learning was “bear country”. You felt right at home and showed us pictures of all the bears you’d seen. We city slickers were on full alert, sort of. You were hiking ahead (as always). We got lost in our own gossip and were rudely interrupted by a deep growl and rustling from the woods beside us. We all screamed in terror – for this was surely how it was all going to end. I ran up the hill, Tati and Shawnee down. There may or may not have been peed pants. I would then witness you do this growling on a smaller scale while on a backpack trip with Scott in the park. I felt terrible, yet laughed just a little.
You never got outwardly upset, even when it seemed warranted. When your well-worn uniform of beige Carhartt pants were stolen from the Chico Hot Spring’s changing room, you were miffed not because of the missing pants, but because your Marine issued belt was on them. I had never known you to care about clothing let alone an accessory. I understood exactly then that it was something very sentimental and that broke my heart. I made it my mission to find a replacement, which would never truly replace the original. You knew how to let things go and move on.
Always one to help someone in need, you offered any cyclists passing through town a bed for the night and a home cooked meal (by Wendy of course). You also picked up almost every hitch hiker I can recall coming upon. As a kid this was not fun and went against everything I learned in school. As an adult it got slightly more entertaining, but only when it was Tati in the back seat next to the stranger. You’d reassure us by saying you had your Swiss Army pocketknife and we would not laugh. I admire your big heart to help others in need. You always showed me that it does make a difference. Treating others as you want to be treated was how you lived, every single day.
You were always my voice of rational reason. I could always reach out to you for a nugget of sage advice. You’d have a simple response that always made the issue at hand seem doable, manageable, sometimes infinitesimal which I suppose is what you call putting life in perspective. You lived your life with a sharp and steady perspective and that helped guide me immensely. There’s no magic eight ball that can replace your wisdom.
Your fine woodworking craftsmanship was not fully appreciated until I was in art school. You saw a need for me to have a large flat file case for storing my work and so you made me one. You then designed a cantilever topper so it became both art storage and a dining room table when I lived in a San Francisco apartment. You made Scott and I our first dining room table and drove from Montana to Portland with it on the roof. It’s a piece of art that I feel grateful to sit down with at every meal (once we move home and get it out of storage). A project we worked on together was a honeybee swarm box, now sitting perched high in my friend Heather’s garden awaiting new residents. The things you made with your bare hands are numerous, practical and beautiful. I cherish all the things your finger print is on and hold them even tighter now.
Your work-in-progress, sitting in the woodshop like you’ll be right back, would undoubtedly be another beauty. A Norwegian wall cabinet, inspired by a postcard sent by Uncle Paul from Norway, back on July 4, 1989. We never did get our ducks in a row to visit Norway as a family, something we fondly bantered about in the past year. I imagine working on this piece was a way of traveling there, by way of craft.
Your inspiration from nature charmed me when you recently asked me to help select exterior colors for your rental house across the street. When I asked what color theme you envisioned, you replied, “Northern Flicker”. Of course. A bird. A beautiful one. Your brain thought in poetic ways.
You, like my mom, Katy, cultivated a feisty independence in both Tati and I from a young age. You understood all the freedoms that come with knowing how to take care of yourself. When I turned 16 you showed me how to change a car tire and then made me do it. You gifted me a Swiss Army pocketknife at age 13 because that’s cleary a badass essential.
That said, I never witnessed you cooking more than chili, potato soup or coffee but you were always appreciative and thankful for all that was provided to you and I never saw a scrap of food left on your plate, ever. I never thought you packed enough food on any hiking trip which was a source of humor mixed with rage. Somehow you would always have a couple Mini Snickers stuffed in a pocket of your backpack though. We all wondered how you ate like a bird, yet briskly pioneered on. It was a treat when Wendy joined our adventures. It meant we’d eat well.
In my early twenties I started to understand who you were as your own person, not just my dad. I was living on my own and began to adjust my kid lens to an adult lens on you. Kids are so self-absorbed in their own lives! I apologize for that. What I started to discover is that you were fiercely multi-faceted and quietly hip. You had a motorcycle or two which inspired me to get my license, but never a bike. You had lots of cool and cute dirtbag friends. Friends you climbed granite walls in Yosemite National Park and hang glided with and who knows what else. You treated me with respect and gave me your time, always. These revelations were just unfolding and my appreciation would deepen every year I knew you. You would never waver who you were at heart.
You’ve also been a stealthy example of how to cultivate and nurture friendships. It was obvious to me how it balanced and enriched your life. It made me want to emulate whatever you were stealthily doing because I dearly love all of your friends. As I grew older I welcomed and enjoyed their company more and more with each visit. I hope to never lose touch with any of these fine people.
You showed me, without even knowing it I suspect, what a loving and healthy relationship looks like. Scott and I have always admired what you and Wendy had and will always have. You two were my first “couples role model” – married 35 years this past February. I desperately wanted whatever it was you two had. I finally got that when I married Scott at age 35.
You gave everyone time and both ears. To show for it you have what feels like the entire world mourning your loss. You are so loved because you are a kind, compassionate, and generous human. You extended this to my circle of friends by taking an interest in them, meeting them and often asking about them years later. If they were meaningful to me, you made them meaningful to you. Thank you.
You never missed an opportunity to make me feel loved. You let me know when you missed me. You always wrote or called me to express you loved me on my birthday and that it was the happiest day of your life. You’d often tell me that I inspire you and sign off as, “Your adoring Father.” A daughter never tired of reading any of this. Thank you.
I appreciate some of your more unique traits as a dad such as being unnecessarily proud that both of your daughters chose to be child-free, always reminding any who would listen that, “The world doesn’t need another mouth to feed.” I also know you love children and they gravitated to you, despite the lack of baby talk and coddling, you could lull a baby to sleep within minutes. That is the magic of you, Jack. You would often remind us how you had no idea what you were doing as a parent and we raised ourselves. I think that was a compliment.
I carry your love and appreciation of craft in many ways as a graphic designer, artist, and through writing. You took the time to write me over my lifetime and often using a pretty stamp. It’s likely why I’m particular about my stamps now. I’ve saved many of these writings, still adoring your penmanship. I may not have gotten the Heckles’ penmanship gene, but you showed me a way to communicate that is special and meaningful.
Which leads me to your hands, your strong Norwegian paws. Obviously the hands of a craftsman, but also the hands of unassuming delicate work beyond your fine woodworking. You learned how to play the fiddle and then volunteered your time to rehair fiddle and violin bows with strands of white Mongolian horse tail hair. Your hands are a symbol of your duality, strong and gentle.
While you have cheated death many times adventuring, your yang to that yin was the ability to be quiet in nature or sit with a good book or simply a cold beer. Cats falling asleep on you prove just how still you could be. The stacks of history, science, and non-fiction books, plus National Geographics and New Yorkers around the house proved you weren’t always throwing caution to the wind. And your love of poetry trickled to both Tati and I, first with Billie Collins, who I will forever associate with you, and then many more Poets Laureate. This past February you asked me by text, “Yer young enough for a second career. What would it be?” I then asked you and you replied, “Music for enjoyment. And history to better understand humanity and nature.”
For someone who loved hang gliding, heights and birds, you were not keen on airplanes. Surely too confining and perhaps your personal revolt for the TSA taking so many of your beloved Swiss Army pocketknives? Despite this, you made the long trek to visit Scott and I in Taiwan in 2017. Together, this was the farthest land we had ever explored together. It meant the world to us that you made it and could now experience our new and often bewildering life. I asked what you were most excited to see/do when you arrived and you replied, “We have mountains, give us the city.” You landed without complaints and then fully immersed yourself in the culture, particularly the food. You tried any food that crossed your plate, even a chicken foot. Fearless to the gut.
In the past couple days since you’ve left us I have witnessed (May 17) one very rare Montana-esque big blue sky with cumulus clouds, (same day) someone popping a rare and rad wheelie in thick Taichung city traffic, something you thrilled to do on your 250cc Harley-Davidson Sprint in the 60s and then (May 19) discovered a crested goshawk nesting just across the street from us in a large, beautiful mango tree. The best part, she has chicks so I will continue the contemplative raptor gazing with you, in spirit, while clutching the Nikon Monarch binoculars you gifted me years ago.
I came up with a name for these moments, Spirit of Jack, and I’m keeping a list of them. It makes me feel like you’re right here with me which is the only way I think I’m going to get through this.
Living abroad during your death has been the most isolating and painful time of my life, but I have a Scottie who’s taking good care of me. He is my other calm in the storm. I know you loved him and he grieves with me. We will deeply miss our hikes and happy hours with you, drinking only the best craft IPAs we can find. I also have Tati in Jeju who is practically in my time zone. We both commiserate what we lost and celebrate what we have. The uncertainty of traveling home or even to each other due to COVID-19 is another hard reality we must bear. While there are miles between Wendy, Shawnee, Tati and I, our hearts are close. We have each other and we know it. From Livingston to Lancaster, Wendy is draped in love and support. Our family is small and mighty, rich with soothing stories which I hope will slowly unfurl until I pass away. I want to sip them slowly with my tea. I am holding all my friends’ messages near and tight. I’m quietly digesting. Despite my ability to reciprocate, there’s gratitude to those near and far. I feel the love. I need the love.
This is a painful club called grief. I now realize that I may not have always understood what someone needed in their time of grief. I apologize if I never reached out to you when you needed it. I too was paralyzed, and more likely clueless to what it feels like to be, as Rumi wrote, violently swept. I know now.
I’ll miss your lens on the world, Jack.
I’ll miss your texts and calls that start with, “What cha doing?”
I’ll miss pruning your wild and wispy hair in the backyard.
I’ll miss seeing all your hand sharpened pencils around the house.
I’ll miss sitting with you at breakfast, your legs crossed in that classic Jack way, you sipping black coffee, nibbling toast with honey, NPR humming softly behind you on the radio.
Come May 2021, I’ll miss your clockwork text messages with photos of the Montana golden eagles, their nest, and fluffy white eaglets. I’ll still chuckle at an old photo comment … “chicks with bunny sushi!”
You wrote this to me in my 20’s, by email I think. I can’t find the original source because I immediately printed it (after adding some cloud icons because that’s what graphic designers do). I’ve kept this little slip of paper with me all these years, even in Taiwan. This embodies you and everything beautiful in the world. I felt lucky to have received it.
When I miss you I will…
a deep breath in my lungs
hold a feather
for the vista
take the path not worn
wait for silence
cut fresh wood
a cold IPA with pretzels, tortilla chips or your favorite, peanuts that require shelling. If it’s before noon and I’m at a bakery I’ll order what you always called a “fat pill”.
You activated all my senses, but none more than the one for adventure in the great wild. Thank you.
I will never see you grow old or frail. I will always remember you as the sharp-minded, loving, kind, grateful, fearless, zen-like, sure-footed lean mountain goat of a father. I will forever be grateful to have had you as long as I did.
As you always said to me before I left for a trip…
I love you.
Your adoring Daughter
Official obituary, written by Scott McMillion, a family friend, journalist and author.
The Livingston Enterprise front page news of the accident, published on May 15, 2020. He was not taking photos as is incorrectly reported in this article. No photos from this day were found on his phone.
Note added since original blog posting: We, my family, have come to believe that Jack was caught off guard by a swooping golden eagle that he came to observe that day, causing him to lose his footing, and then fall. Golden eagles have broad wings that span 6 to 7 feet and can be silent in flight. I shared more about this in a following blog post titled: Dulan, Gong Bathing (specifics mid-way in post, under headline “A Gong Bath”).
Tributes to Jack Heckles is a separate blog page of other public tributes.
If you would like to share a private message or contact me, use the “Private Contact Form”. If you wish to leave a public message, comment under “Leave A Reply”.
Everything will be deeply cherished and saved. With love and appreciation for being in this space with me, Sarah (a.k.a. Passionfruit, my Taiwanese blog alias. My husband, Scott, is Pickles)
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