Gunslinger, Part I
Like every little boy, I played cowboys and Indians, army and other childhood pastimes such as dodge ball or hide and seek with my friends. When not engaged in these games we often played football, basketball and, of course, baseball. We pretended to be the sports heros of the day - Jim Brown, Mickey Mantle, Jerry West and the big O. We always came through, we always won the big game. I too played these games. These men were my heroes. My favorite big game, and my biggest of heroes; however, I enjoyed by myself. I knew of no other aspiring Winston Churchills, Lafayettes, FDRs, Harry Trumans, Ikes, Langston Hughes', W. E. B. DuBois', Platos, Lincolns, Frederick Douglas' or Henry Clays. These men I admired, tried to emulate and dreamed of becoming.
by Joe Gilyard
September 25, 2002
Perhaps, I did not so much want to become these men, as much as I wanted to master their art of selfless leadership. I wanted to communicate; either through the written word or great oratory and in a moment of historical crisis, rise to their level of contributing to the overall good of the society at-large. If one thinks about it, the world as we know it would not exist had these men not lived; or had the courage, insight and talent to speak the right thing, in the right way, to the right people at the right time. Whether one agrees with these men is not important; like it or not , they each had a seminal influence on history. Take Henry Clay for example, a U. S. Senator from South Carolina and a outspoken leader in the effort to maintain state's rights and slavery. Clay was wrong. History alone has proved him so. Nonetheless, a more eloquent, passionate, persuasive and commanding argument than Clay's, would be hard to find. The south's argument was morally repulsive and based on inhumanity to men; yet Clay gave it voice and to many, legitimacy.
I did not and do not agree with Clay's position, but I admire his ability to communicate. That quality, along with the ability to lead during an historically significant crisis, is what I found admirable in all of my heroes. I remember practicing writing and delivering inaugural addresses when I was seven or eight years old. I fancied myself Truman or Ike. Later I would be mesmerized by Camelot and JFK. "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country!" was more than a passing inspiration to me. It set me on the path that brings me where I am today; embittered, hurt, sad for America, yet strangely better prepared and deeply committed to public service, my country and mankind.
I began my career as a communicator very early. I could read and write before I began school. When I went to kindergarten there were several other children who professed to writing and reading. Our teacher, Miss Coleman gave out big gold stars to those of us who could print our names and addresses. I received more than my fair share of gold stars, but was deeply disappointed when Miss Coleman did not understand that I could actually write whole sentences, not merely scratch out some barely intelligible symbols my parents had taught me. "Hell fire lady", I thought, "I could write better than my dad!" After several more weeks of frustration, (probably days) I was driven to desperate measures. I would just have to write something so impressive, Miss Coleman could no longer ignore me. I thought about it (for how long is questionable) and my course of action became clear. In my neatest and most practiced hand I wrote "Dear Miss Coleman, you do not know it, but I can see your butt and wee wee." As you can imagine, she was properly impressed, could hardly ignore me and folded my note in half, attached her own note, sealed it, gave me the biggest gold star ever and told me to take the whole little package home to my mother.
Miss Coleman, may the good lord bless her where ever she is today, had taught me a lesson about communication that I have to this day never forgotten. It is important what one says and to whom! Well. I fairly flew down the red brick sidewalk to my home. I was bursting with pride and so excited. Like a young buck deer, I quickly bounded up the little hill into our front yard. There on the porch, my mother sat exchanging gossip and idle talk with the neighbor lady, Mrs. Thompson. The gossip, however, would have to wait, I had much more important business! I lurched to a stop and breathlessly said, "Hi Mrs. Thompson, here mom," foisting Miss Coleman's note with my big gold star at my mother's face. I stood there swollen with pride as my mom read the note. In milliseconds, her face, to my curiosity, turned from amusement to pique to anger. I was impressed with how hard she slapped me and how much dust it created as I scrambled out of her range and to my feet." You do not write things like this," she said. Fortunately, she did not tell my dad and the next day, I wrote miss Coleman another note. It said " Dear Miss Coleman, I am sorry." I got another gold star. I had learned it was important to consider what one says and to whom, before saying it.
The witnessing of my first presidential election came in 1960, I was nine. Our school even held a mock election; Nixon won big. In reality, however, Kennedy, a catholic, won; barely out polling Vice President Nixon and in doing so, sounded a clarion call to service to an entire generation. I remember how a young, vital and confident John Kennedy energized the nation, filling us with optimism and the belief that America was poised on the brink of a greatness and prosperity not yet imagined. We were going to change the world. The previous generation had endured the depression, fought and won world war II, rebuilt Europe, harnessed the atom and eliminated many diseases. We. however, were going to bring about social, economic and political justice. We would conquer space, dispel communism and foster equality and a humane time. We believed in ourselves, we believed in America, we believed; I believed.
I watched Kennedy's inauguration and listened to his "New Frontiers" speech on our grainy black and white television set. Inspired, I went into my parent's bedroom; stood in front of their large mirror and practiced my own imaginary speech. Whereas Kennedy was the first catholic president elected, I had just been elected the first black president. I saw a bold, confident, navy blue suited young black man proudly repeat the last words of the oath of office, remove his hand from the bible and confidently stride to the lectern.The introduction was simple yet profound, " Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States."
"To all Americans, people of the world, members of congress, the court and honored guests, I stand before you this day a young man, I stand before you this day, a black man, but most of all, I stand before you a concerned man and a committed man. I am committed...." Yea these years later, I do not recall exactly what I was committed and concerned about; save to say they were the great issues of the day, as defined by a nine year old. From that point forward, my goal has not changed, I wanted to be a contributing member of the class of people who help define and shape public policy; to help insure, that the most of us, also consider and make our societal institutions and laws work for the least of us. I was studious and steadfast in my pursuit of a life in public service. Having dropped out of college for financial and familial reasons, I set about learning the skills of my trade. I accepted part-time jobs in the public sector such as Director, Wayne County Council on Drug Abuse, Director, Wooster Community Youth Center among others. These jobs allowed me a limited public profile, and the opportunity to practice leadership skills, public speaking and budgeting. From there, I began to write. I wrote novellas, news stories and public policy pieces. My abilities soon exceeded the opportunities available in Wayne County and with a bad marriage providing motivation, I moved to Sacramento California to write the great American novel.
As most writers of great American novels find in fairly short order, hunger is a great motivator. My experience was no different, money soon ran out; but I had to eat and pay the bills so I could write. The solution was obvious, I would get a writing job. I became a stringer (free lance writer) for several small local publications, but barely made enough money to continue. Before I left Wooster I had submitted several manuscripts and opinion pieces to the Chicago Sun Times. Although the Sun Times had not bought any of my work I had received some encouraging comments from one of the editors. As luck would have it, this same man had just become the managing editor of the Sacramento Union.
I called several times, no, many times hoping he would remember me, a guy he had said showed promise. Well if I showed promise back then I felt ready for the big leagues now. I called one last time, I was down to 65 cents. This times I was very direct with his secretary. "Tell him if he does not talk to me he will regret it, I am going to be the next Mark Twain." I said sharply. She put me on hold and a few moments later she was back inviting me down to the editor's office for a afternoon meeting.
I gathered my best stuff, put on my best blue jeans, white shirt and the only sport coat I had and took the bus downtown. When I arrived at the impressive big, blunt, brick building I still had no clue as to what awaited me inside. As I entered the lobby, there, prominently and ponderously suspended from the ceiling was a pick up truck sized bust of Mark Twain. I did not know it, but Twain had established the Sacramento Union. It was the first daily newspaper west of the Mississippi. How embarrassing! Again, an important lesson regarding communication. (Frustration must be controlled at any price). I did not get hired full time, but added to my stringer duties enough revenue to continue writing. After all, that's what writers do; writers write!
Writers write and I had written my way into my first political job. After a series of false starts with California Magazine, the City of Sacramento and the Sacramento Bee (a daily paper under going a labor conflict), I talked with W.O. Walker, the Ohio patriarch of black politicians and a leading national figure in the Republican Party, as well as the publisher and editor of CALL and POST newspapers. W.O. said he was going to die soon and he needed a young black republican to help run the paper after he passed. He offered me a job in Cleveland as assistant editor and political reporter for all editions and I would also help him write his critically acclaimed column "Down The Big Road". It goes without saying that I leapt at the opportunity to work for W.O. Not only did he own and edit the newspaper, but he was the first Black man to serve as a cabinet level official in the administration of an Ohio Governor.
I arrived in Cleveland in the spring of 1979, the beginning of the end of the raucous post Kucinich era in Cleveland politics. As political reporter for the only black Ohio newspaper with statewide circulation, I soon found myself emersed in the rough and tumble swirl of Cleveland politics. We were a small newspaper compared to the Cleveland Plain Dealer or the Cleveland Press, but in many ways we were as influential and in some cases more so. By working for the newspaper and W.O., I was able to meet and observe the Ohio and Cleveland power brokers and elite; as well as the should haves, could haves and would haves. I was introduced to incumbent Governor James A. Rhodes, soon to be Governor Dick Celeste, unsuccessful G.O.P presidential candidate and later President Ronald Wilson Reagan, our entire congressional delegation, the state house delegates. the statewide and local judiciary and most importantly, the Cleveland City Council and its wholly incredible and omnipotent President, George L. Forbes.
However, as he had proved so many times in his long and storied life, William Otis Walker was right again; he died at 86, six months after I started working for him. Suddenly, I was truly an island unto myself. No one really knew me and there were ridiculous rumors as to my origins. I was W.O.'s long lost illegitimate child, I was a paid interloper prepared to break-up the paper and fire everyone. It was not a comfortable situation.
LONG LIVE THE KING!
Again, good fortune and my writing skills combined to offer me not only a way out, but the most important step up in my political development. During my tenure as political reporter for the paper I had written several seminal pieces on Forbes, who along with Speaker of the Ohio House Vern Riffe, was arguably the most powerful man in Ohio. Forbes, of course, was flattered. More importantly, one story I broke saved his career, While Forbes was powerful and popular, he was of course, not without enemies. Every year council would reorganize and elect a president. Forbes had been president in excess of twenty years, fending off each successive challenge with a practiced efficiency. The young lions, however, were especially restless this year and there was retribution to be paid for the political cabal hatched by Forbes and the city's banking and corporate elite against former Mayor Dennis Kucinich. To rid the city of Kucinich, the bankers refused to roll over some city financial notes; technically putting Cleveland in default and ushering in the 'neo-robber baron Forbes-Voinovich era' of "public-private partnerships." The ex-mayor's younger brother Gary served on council and quietly conspired with several black councilmen to oust Forbes as President. Council was comprised of 21 members, 11 black and 10 white. This numerical configuration guaranteed that the president would be black. Forbes, however, always the wily, thoughtful sort, made sure he had two or three white votes from across the Cuyahoga River as insurance. These "across the river" insurance votes precluded a challenge from any black councilman. Besides, they all knew that to cross Forbes was to subject one's self to an interminable punishment and possibly leave one's ward in want of even the most basic city services.
The rest of the Cleveland media ignored the council coup rumors. It was that time of the year and these stories were as predictable as spring flowers. For over twenty years they would appear, but never blossom full flower. Not being from Cleveland and not ever having watched Forbes before, like a late season hard killing frost, freeze out and kill the annual flower of conspiracy; I doggedly pursued the story. I ended up in the coup leaders house the Saturday before the Monday vote. I was allowed to listen to phone calls between all the conspirators. They were so confident of their imminent success, I was even given quotes for attribution! I wrote the story and submitted it before deadline. The great cheese headed man, John Lenear, an ill tempered and marginally qualified journalist, (interim editor of the paper), with whom I had been locked in a battle to the death over editorial control of the paper ever since Mr. Walker's death, refused to publish it. I was ridiculed and left to stew. Lenear had earned the nick name "cheese head" fron the staff due to his seemingly endless ability to make bad decisions and this was yet another one. I could feel I had a big story, however, and continued to develop it, writing a feature on lead conspirator Lonnie Burton to provide myself cover. Lenear bought it. The dummy actually thought I was spending time writing a feature about Burton and his considerable number of cats. I eventually went to Forbes himself and asked for his comments. He roared in his patented laughter. Always jocular and accommodating, (unless angry) A chuckling Forbes explained he had already counted the votes and was so sure of being re-elected, he was not even going to be here, but was taking a trip to Washington D.C. Predictably, Forbes with long, expressive fingers and hands, waved off the coup story.
Meanwhile, the conspirators, west-sider Gary Kucinich and his east side black colleagues, had timed it perfectly. Forbes's morning flight to D. C. was barely airborne when a hurried 8:30 am news conference was called to announce that Lonnie Burton had been elected council president. The announcement was the equivalent of a political Pearl Harbour for Cleveland! Forbes was called in Washington and he immediately returned to do battle. A noble warrior, he would not relinquish the throne without a fight. If he was to go out, it would be on his shield. After all, it was only proper.
Suddenly, I found myself in the vortex of a full blown Cleveland political fire storm. At times heated winds whipped horizontally, obscuring any clear view as to who was friend or foe. Other times the winds, laden with heavy monsoon rains and political debris came straight down, showering confusion, suspicion and intrepidation all about.
There was no doubt, we were no longer in Kansas. This was the big leagues and if one could not hit a curve ball and lay off the inside slider, the bus back to the AAA leagues was boarding out back. I was the proverbial rookie; inserted in the World Series, full count, bottom of the ninth, runners on the corners! I was summoned to the third floor conference room of the Call and Post. My contribution would be my notes, observations and real time itelligence information. Team Forbes had men on base, all I had to do was drive them in! Hey batter, batter batter; little ribbie, little ribbie! The great cheese head was beside himself, hoping I would simply go down looking; or even better, hit into the double play. To Leaner's chagrin and Forbes' delight, my notes were complete and both runners scored on my towering sacrifice fly to deep center. The cheese head man had some satisfaction in the fact that I did not get a base hit and was to be named in a multi-million dollar law suit by the Kuciniches.
When I first arrived at the third floor conference room, there assembled in full battle mode with Forbes, his ubiquitous brother Zeke, former mayor Carl B. Stokes, U.S. Congressman Louis Stokes, Councilman and future mayor Michael R. White, the elite of Cleveland's banking and corporate community, even a few notable republicans, including the respected Chairman of the Cuyahoga Republican Party, Bob Hughes; the editorial staffs of the Call and Post and The Plain Dealer and all the local political operatives. Surprisingly, Forbes' clothes and demeanor belied the seriousness of the situation. While most people were in business suits or upscale casual, Forbes wore a cowboy hat, snake skin cowboy boots, jeans, a short, brown leather waistcoat with fringe swinging and hanging off of it and round John Lennon sun glasses. He was in his element, the center of attention, a genuine crisis. He moved about the room easily, like a big jungle cat in his lair. Forbes calmed the room with a couple of self deprecating jokes and set about the business of plotting his return to the throne. He made Mike White his point man inside council. White preformed admirably. Like a navy seal behind enemy lines, he obtained good intelligence material; he was an effective saboteur and when necessary, a stealthy assassin. The corporate interests provided what money was necessary. Battle plans were drawn and the execute order was given.
Meanwhile, ponderously anchored, just out of public view, over the misty gray horizon of journalistic objectivity, like dreadnoughts of yore, HMS Plain Dealer and The USS Call and Post took aim and mercilessly fired horrible sixteen inch guns; belching fire and smoke, pounding the poorly entrenched and woefully doomed conspirators. Thus softened up, if not totally devastated, Forbes' unleashed his political operatives to begin the ground assault; it was a whithering attack, routing what was now a rag-tag band of would be conspirators; selling each other off to get back into the good graces of King George. Long live King George! Long live the king! To call Forbes' response a text book example of a 'real politic' counter offensive is to diminish its horrific beauty. Order was more than restored. Forbes was stronger tham ever and wasted little time letting Cleveland's new Mayor know it. Obviously, I was "rookie of the year" material and reveled in my new found role as political insider, confidant and gunslinger. Have typewriter, will travel! Not surprisingly, 'Cheese Head' was now my sworn enemy. Most unfortunately, most interestingly, and curiously, some months later, Burton was found shot dead.
Forbes hired me as an Executive Assistant to the Council President. It was like being publicly invited down to the political O K corral by the legendary Wyatt Earp himself. I was more than happy. I was given my political six-shooters, my spurs and a license to use them. We went back to the saloon, city hall, and I was introduced to the saloon keeper, Forbes' closest ally Merce. Merce was short for Mercedes Cottner, the council clerk and grand dame of all that was political in Cleveland. She was an old, grand motherly lady, with a great snow white halo of hair. Her flinty, hard blue eyes, however, told you she was not to be trifled with. Either she or George could end your career with a simple nod or a wink. I had been in Cleveland all of eight or nine months and now I was an assistant to the most powerful Black politician in Ohio, in fact, one of the two most powerful politicians in Ohio period, black or white. I set about to make myself valuable to Forbes and knowledgeable as to how government works. Being a writer, I expected to be Forbes' George Will or William Raspberry, two highly intellectual political pundits. I thought my six-shooters were simply ceremonial, after all I was a writer. Instead, I found myself patrolling the wild and wooly far out reaches of Forbes' political Ponderosa ranch. Being the new kid in town and hand picked by Forbes quickly made me a target. I learned to shoot fast, true and first. I loved representing Forbes at public events. I also watched him closely, trying to learn his mannerisms and ways, his secrets and his political thought process. To not do so would have been a waste, Forbes was a master at this political craft.
Being a quick study, I soon earned the respect of the other councilmen. It was like being Billy the Kid. Every one knew someday I was going to be the fastest gun on the ranch, period. This 'rep' continued to draw the wannabees. Some, in turn, forcing my hand and meeting with an untimely political defeat. Still, I had not fought the right fight, the big fight yet. Council itself was amazing. Forbes ruled with a iron hand. He simply was to many, intimidating; intellectually and physically. With Merce doing his internal bidding he was without peer. The mayor was easily diminished in his presence. In public they pretended to be affable partners, but behind the scenes, Voinovich provided little more than target practice for Forbes. Truth be told, however, they did eventually develop a mutual respect and like for each other. Their relationship developed along the same story line as the fierce lion who has the thorn removed from his paw by the little field mouse. The media often referred to them as "Big George and Little George" In fact, it was not uncommon for Forbes to bring the newly elected Mayor Voinovich to tears; publicly humiliating him at will. I remember one particular long, tough, budget negotiation that went right down to the wire. The councilmen and administration were tired and hungry. Rather than give up though, Forbes suggested that sandwiches be brought in for everyone. "Little George" agreed and asked chief of staff Jim Conrad to see to getting the money out of the city budget, Forbes indignantly interrupted; cursing, insisting the mayor was personally causing the delay, therefore the mayor should pay for the food out of his own pocket. Humiliated again, Voinovich sheepishly, grudgingly, did so; but not without crying like a chastised baby in front of everyone. This was depressing. This was not at all what I imagined my role in politics would be. I had expected to 'frame issues', write policy papers, prepare speeches and debate positions. Some of this I did do, but too often I found myself involved in political knife fights, or simply protecting territory Forbes had marked as his own. Forbes, of course, detected my dismay. He was not one to coddle me, or anyone else. He explained that my job for now was to learn and the only way to truly understand how Cleveland works was to start out in the political sewers. He laughed that certain laugh and explained,"your job is for me to throw you into the sewer, and you better come up smelling like a rose". He went on to say that while I was indeed one of his fast young guns, there was much more for me to learn. He offered this advice," stick around, pay attention and I will teach you to walk through political snow, and leave no foot prints." Needless to say, I was impressed and renewed my commitment to learn the system to do good things for people.
The councilmen themselves ranged from entertaining to criminal to pitiful. Council nonetheless had its groupies and I was an instant hit with them. They had nicknamed just about every member of council. The entire councilmanic body was refered to as "Silly Council"; George was of course King George. His minions, however, did not fair as well with their nicknames. There was the piggage for a sloppy porcine looking black fellow named Tyrone, a smallish, geeky, west side councilman, Dale Miller, was known as the baby smurf and an unrefined, wholly rude and offensive black woman from the east-side Fannie Lewis, was dubbed the young gorilla. Most gorillas, however, honestly had more grace than this woman. On a trip to the White House, at a formal dinner, she unceremoniously picked up her finger bowl and drank from it as would a thirsty simian. Yet another east-side representative, John Barnes, earned the moniker 'the cheap hood'. This was not only due to his style of dress, but the petty, unenlightened, borderline criminal schemes he continuously hatched. For example, he was in trouble this one time because some how,(wink. wink) he managed to buy a 700 series Mercedes Benz for $50! Current Cleveland Mayor Mike White was named the "jr. mayor" due to his bald ambition and unchecked arrogance. Artha Woods was named 'the party girl' because of her outrageous over dressing and cheap costume jewelry. Her outfits were not only loud, ridiculous and inappropriately elegant, but old and dated. When she entered a room it was like seeing a walking, talking piece of art nouveau, a live museum piece!
While being simultaneously entertained and dismayed by council, I was rapidly learning the inside machinations of the system. I became an excellent speaker, solid policy analyst, public relations operative, political operative and an even faster gun. It took almost three years, but I had arrived. I was armed and dangerous, locked and loaded, but with Forbes there was no room for anyone elses' agenda, and I understood that. This was the George Forbes Show and oh, what a show it was!
I knew it was time to leave Forbes when one afternoon he called me from his law office. "You know who this is", he said. When ever there was business to be transacted Forbes never identified himself on the phone. He also did all of the really important business in his law firm office. Most of what went on at "Silly Hall" was just for show or anecdotal. He explained that I was to come over to his law office immediately. I hurried the three or four blocks to his firm and was met at the conference room door by Ruby; his secretary at both council and the law firm. She stuck her head in the door. I knew something big was afoot. Assembled in Forbes' conference room was everybody who was anybody, including Mayor Voinovich, The Publisher of The Plain Dealer, The Akron Beacon Journal, the biggest bankers and several "connected lawyers". I was instructed to take a large sealed package, marked 'eyes only', over to the Cleveland Press and its publisher Joe Cole. I was instructed to wait for Cole to sign the documents, take them back to council, give them directly to Merce Cottner and tell her to prepare it for a vote but not to put it on the agenda. Forbes would introduce it, declare an emergency at the end of the meeting and call the roll; steam rolling his way to whatever was the desired result of the meeting in his office.
On the way back from Forbes's office, I did something I had never did before; I went down into the dark underground parking facility of city hall and opened the package. To my surprise, chagrin and disappointment, there prepared and in perfect order was a UDAG, an Urban Development Action Grant. These grants were popular federal largesse for local communities. They did a lot of good, but it was obvious that this grant was born of conspiracy. A conspiracy to pirate the most valuable piece of downtown real estate, kill the Cleveland Press and divide up the paper's very valuable subscription list between the Beacon Journal and the Plain Dealer; providing both entities with a windfall in advertising dollars. UDAGs are not easy to put together. There is often a wheel barrel of documentation and they must be timed precisely right for the feds to even consider them. The city community development department was responsible for UDAGs, but all of them were reviewed by Forbes' council staff (me and others) before they were submitted to the feds for consideration. This one had been put together outside the city process and had circumvented all of the usual routine reviews.
The next morning's front page made it clear what was going on. There on the front page of the Plain Dealer, Forbes and Mayor Voinovich were prominently pictured with 'Little George' crying (again) great big crocodile tears over the "sudden" demise of the Cleveland Press. The Press, on the other hand, had head lines shouting " LAST ISSUE!" Businesseman and nacent publisher Joe Cole had gallantly fought the good fight trying to preserve Cleveland's status as a two newspaper town but sadly failed (wink, wink). Forbes and Voinovich lamented the passing of a great Cleveland institution, but in reality had conspired (public-private partnership) to kill it, fostering the development of the North Point office complex, now situated where the former Cleveland Press sat, on the most valuable piece of downtown Cleveland real estate. the corner of Ninth and Lakeside, the gateway to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the beautiful and impressive Great Lakes Science Center and the new Cleveland Municipal Stadium. As planned, Forbes waited until the unsuspecting council ended its regular meeting, declared an emergency, had the clerk call the roll and the rest was history. Many people lost their jobs and several unions fought the closure in federal court, but the fix was in.
Forbes, meanwhile continued to burnish his image as a leader, power broker, bully and brilliant public servant. He was all these things at once and was comfortable playing his conflicting roles. He was brilliant with a quick, nimble and powerful mind; yet he could be brutish in the application of his particular charm. There was a city official whose wife had mental problems, she was always depressed and often interrupted her husband at work with silly calls and threats to harm herself. We were in a finance committee meeting, the meeting where Forbes set the council agenda, and city officials from Mayor Voinovich to community groups c
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Gunslinger, Part II
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Gunslinger, Part I
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