Volume IX, No. 4, Summer 1982




THERE AIN'T NOTHING ON EARTH AS BAD AS WAR

A VISIT WITH J. W. LAWSON

Edited by Lisa Mestan


I'm a World War I veteran. How I ever escaped, I can't figure it. If I had to do it over, I don't know. Oh-h-h, I tell you, there ain't nothing on earth as bad as war. I know. I had my part of it. I went through hell over there in France and them Argonne Woods. I never did know for sure whether I killed anyone in the war and I'm glad of it. I drove four horses and some nights I'd go fifteen miles. You can see that tear gas at night. It rolls on the ground. I went around it--all I could. When they went to shooting that gas--that made you want to pull your mask off and throw up. I'd never pull mine off. I just let it run in my mask, then I took my thumb, flipped it under the mask, and let it run out. Oh, you get so sick! I don't know how many times I'd get into that gas. There's some of it that will go right through your clothes and eat you up. I had to use soap and water to wash that off. I was exposed to more gas and big shells than anybody in our outfit.

I was twenty-seven years old when I was drafted into the Army. In a way, I feel the draft is necessary because it gets lots of boys that otherwise they wouldn't get them if they didn't draft them. I suggest they keep the volunteer army now. They get a lot of boys that way and these drafts are a nuisance. Even with the draft, we had a dozen boys that didn't do nothing. Couldn't learn them to march or nothing--they had to stand in the awkward squad all the time.

I went to a training camp in Kansas where we trained to go overseas. I was a wagoner and I was a sharp shooter and I was a teamster. I took everything--engi-neers, signal corps, and I made good at the rifle range, too. I took a lot of boxing training in the Army and I'd box a lot. When we'd get a new recruit, I'd batter him. I weighed about 150 when I used to have muscles. I was tough.

I knowed it all. We trained at it a year and I mean from four o'clock in the morning till taps, you might say.

They had a lot of wild mules down there that never went overseas. I had worked mean mules and horses ever since I'd been big enough. They put me to breaking them to the wagon. I sometimes got some pretty bad ones, but I handled them all.

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One Sunday morning, I was hauling lumber up a hill. It was smooth and I could hold my team in the road. I got up on the hill and started west. It was seven miles out to the trenches where I was taking them. A band marched out about a hundred yards ahead of me and begin to play. My team just swung the wagon right square around. I throwed the brake on, but I seen that wasn't a-going to do. There was big rocks all along the side of the road, and, as danged as hell, I tried to hold it in the road! They went back down the hill, and when I got down the worst part of it, that lumber was a-swaying. The mules pulled the front wheels out from under the wagon, so ! just throwed them the lines. I knowed they was going to jerk me out of the spring seat. The last time I seen the mules, the front wheels was just a-going over and over. The part of the wagon I was on still kept going.

J. W. Lawson (left) and a fellow soldier pose for a picture in 1918.

When I got down to the bottom of the hill, the road crossed, and I was coming right to the middle of the white oak timber in front of me. I was afraid to jump off--afraid I'd get crippled!

I didn't know what to do, only to just set there. Instead of the wagon going into the timber, it began to swag. The wagon spun around, run up a little bank and run into a mess kitchen! The wagon just set there. It didn't fall to the ground. Some soldiers was already out washing their mess kits, and others come running out of that mess kitchen. The lieutenant come out and says, "How the hell did you get up here?" I say, "My mules run away with me." He says, "I don't believe that. I never heard of anything like that!" I says, "You've heard of the headless horseman, haven't you? This is a horseless wagon!"

I sometimes took my chances working with a stubborn mule. We had an old mule who crippled three boys. He'd kick at you with both feet and wouldn't miss. We had to put two ropes on that mule to lead him to watering or he'd run over you! The lieutenant came up to me one day and said, "Lawson, that mule's got to be curried. Can you curry him? We're going to have inspection here at ten o'clock." I says, "I can curry him, but I want to pick two good horsemen. That mule will kill you!"

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I got a couple of good boys. They were big and stout and awful good horsemen. The boys both put a rope on him, and I had one that I throwed up over his hips. He kicked up and I caught both of his hind legs. I wrapped his feet around the corral posts and snipped him up good and close right by his mane and tail. He had a strip of hair on his belly. I sheared that off and sheared his ears. We cleaned that gentleman. It was in January and cold as it was, sweat was running off his hind heels when we got through with him.

A boy walked up there and leaned up against the fence near a pretty big crack. I says, "Whoop! Get back! That mule'll kick you right through that crack!" He cussed and said, "You fellows are some horsemen!" Me and one of the boys undone his feet. That old mule laid his ears back, kicked his foot through that crack and a crack like a twenty-two pistol went off. That old mule hit that boy and knocked him fifteen foot.

I got a pair of stretchers, loaded the boy up and then me and the other boys had to carry him to the infirmary. There was a part of that boy's side that just crumbled at the bone. The doctors said they'd have to take his leg off. He never did come back.

Horses can also be mean. I remember one dandy, little lieutenant we had. I liked him well. He was a good athlete. He come down one Sunday morning and told the lieutenant, "I want to take a horseback ride." He says, "Lawson, the lieutenant wants to take a horseback ride. Go down, give him a horse and saddle him up for him."

We had a little bay horse I rode all the time, but you had to shake him up when you started to get on him. He'd throw you right in the saddle and wheel around. When the horse was ready, I said, "Sir, you want me to assist you on getting up on that horse?" "What? Hell no!" he says. But instead of acting like an athlete, he acted like some old, granny woman getting on. He throwed the reins up over the horse's head and took the saddle by the horn. Just as he started to get in the saddle, the horse wheeled and throwed him back on the top of the horse's hips. He kicked up and hit him in the back of the head before he hit the ground. That lieutenant couldn't talk and couldn't eat. They had to pump his food down. We went overseas, stayed a year, come back and he was still in the hospital. They put a dollar and half worth of silver in the back of his head. It would've been better if he'd been dead. I finally told the lieutenant and the captain that when I told the fellows that a horse was mean and will kick, bite or something, they had better believe me. Well, they found out when they didn't listen.

"I've been exposed to more gas and big shells then anybody in our outfit, and they all knowed it, too."

I had the measles along in January. They weren't hurting me, I didn't know I was even broke out. A doctor come through and he said I'd have to go to the hospital. They kept sending me down to a

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board of three doctors. They found something wrong with my back and asked me if my folks had TB. I told them, "Yeah. I had a sister that died with it. They asked me if I wanted to go overseas. I says, "I ain't going to lie to you. I don't want to go overseas, but if you doctors thinks I'm able to go overseas, I ain't no better off than the other boys." One of them doctors didn't want me to go and the other two says, "You might as well get over there and drill in the hot sun and everything and you'll get better." I says, "It's left up with you three doctors. If I'm not ready to go overseas, I don't want to go. But I believe in protecting my country--do my job."

Some of the boys tried to get out of going overseas. There's a boy that went down there with me every time they had a sick call. My officers thought he was kind of nutty. They kept him down there three days. The man in charge told the captain and the lieutenant, "We found out something. You two fellers is the ones that's going crazy. That feller ain't as crazy as you two!" They asked him if he wanted to go overseas. "No! I'm not going either!" he says. You know, they didn't take him. We went overseas and stayed a year and come back and that feller was training rookies there on the post!

When we got overseas, we took a close order drill. Then they put me to hauling stuff to the doughboys.

Nothing ever hurt me as bad as getting hit in the leg with some shrapnel. I believe there's three or four pieces that they never did get out. When I rub my legs hard, it seems like I can still feel some of it in there.

I remember how it happened. It was light as could be and we was in a little, old shot-down town. There wasn't a house standing--it was just a rock pile. My helper's name was Bug--Mitchum Palmer Bug. Gas, bullets and bombs fell all around us. I says, "Looky here! We're going to get killed!"

There was an old chimney standing over a little ways. It wasn't over ten foot high. I says, "Let's make it for that old chimney!" We run and got in there--I beat him in. There was a shell that hit right out in front of us about thirty foot. There was shrapnel that came through our legs and bored a hole right through a big old sand rock. I don't know how thick it was, but it had a hole that was as deep and as big as a gallon bucket. It felt like I had both legs cut off--fire wouldn't of hurt any worse. I felt down there and both my legs was bleeding. Some of the sand out of that rock got in my legs.

Bug said, "Lawson, are you hurt?" I said, "Yes, I'm hurt!" I had an old, dirty hankey and I tried to rake all of the sand and shrapnel out of my legs that I could. The blood was just pouring out. I kept rubbing and rubbing and rubbing. There were seven pieces so big and so deep, I couldn't get them. I thumbed down the driver of a big truck that had come through. He says, "Where you going?" I says, "We're a-going to headquarters." He says, "Hop in! That's where we're a-going!" The doctor, he come down the next morning. He picked as much shrapnel out of my legs as he could, but, they was down deep. Some of them was like a match-head. He couldn't get them all.

I didn't do nothing for about ten days. The officers didn't insist on me doing anything either but they transferred me to infantry.

They put me out on the front as a sharp-shooter. We'd run over a lot of the Germans up there. The captain told me he wanted me to hunt out a place on a hillside located nearby. It was just thick pine, rocks and bluffs. I went out there and started to pick me out a place. I come up on a bluff where there were some steps that looked like they had been made on purpose. I found a place and settled down. When it started to become daylight, I tried my wind gauge and my other equipment. I had my field glasses on and saw something that looked like a dead horse over in an old field about a half a mile away. The captain had told me not to let a German cross that old field but, when I looked again, there were three starting to cross the field. One of them was about thirty steps ahead of the others. They was running. I stopped the first one. The others turned and went back. I didn't get to shoot at one of the ones who went back--he ducked back pretty quick behind that dead horse. He was pretty well camouflaged, but I kept looking and I seen this smoke coming out. I knowed that fellow was there with a machine gun, so I put in a clip. I just shot about a foot at a time along that dead horse. I set there a little while. There hadn't been no more smoke when a bullet come so close to my ear it about like to deafened me! Nobody didn't have to tell me to get out of there! I just dropped down low and had to hunt out another place.

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I was crawling along, when out of nowhere--a man jumped out on me. I fell off a small cliff. I guess it was a ten foot drop, but the ground was soft and it didn't hurt me. He jumped off after me. I took off running. He wasn't gaining any on me and I finally got my gun turned around, so I stopped him. He didn't get close enough to me to give me a long point.

I was out about a week and I run out of anything to eat. All I had to eat was what I got off of them soldier boys which wasn't nothing but black bread and wine. I made it into an infantry kitchen at about four o'clock one morning. They was eating breakfast. The cooks wouldn't feed me. They called me a bum! I says, "Who's a-running this outfit?" I found out he was a new man, but I didn't know he was the same captain that had trained my company for so long. He had the door of his cabin barred, so I kicked on it. He says, "Who is that?" I said, "This is one of your crazy soldiers. Get up from there and let me in!"

He opened the door and when he saw me, he wanted to know what had happened. I says, "I've been out there fighting. All I got to eat in the last four or five days was what I took off of them dead Germans. Your outfit won't feed me!"

Boy, when I said that, he jumped up and put on his boots. When we got up to the kitchen, he wanted to know why they wouldn't feed me. They says, "We just thought he was a bum." The captain says, "Bum?--Hell! He's a soldier and good one, too!" He fined the first cook and the mess sergeant. He told another sergeant to take them both between the lines, dig up some rocks and keep them over there three or four days. He didn't care whether they were fed anything or not.

He told me, "You get in the kitchen and if you find anything you want to eat, get it! Take enough with you for your dinner and when you're done, go out here in the brush, roll you up a bunch of pine boughs, lay down and go to sleep and then come to me. I've got a job for you."

I got in the kitchen and found a pound of Star Tobaccer. I stuck it down my shirt. I got into their stuff that they got from the United States--canned stuff was hard to get over there. I done what he said, then I went to him. He says, "I want to send you up on that mountain up there. They's forty German pontoon boats loaded on wagons up there and they's been three men went in there and they couldn't find them." He give me a map and said that they was forty teams that would be waiting for me.

The next morning, we went up there. There wasn't no timber on it, but there was big timber all around. There were some pine trees that were about a hundred feet high or higher, and they had crow's-nests up in them with rope ladders to climb up to them. I was in front. I had the front team. I halted and I said, "Now, you boys stay right here. I'll be back directly." I followed the map and I barely went a hundred yards into that timber till I run along into them wagons. They were just crowded in there. The boats was loaded on running gears of wagons, bottom side up. They was forty feet long. I went back to the horse teams and told about three of them to take care of the horses and the others to come on down. I says, "Every wagon has got a pole ax on it. Get them axes and go to cutting this brush. You other boys go to pulling them out."

We finally got all the wagons hooked up. The captain had told me, "Now, when you go, don't come back. When you get down that hill, go east of here. You'll get to a road that goes about a mile and a half to a little town. The road'll go right through there. I'll be there."

I drove up and hollered. He says, "There's a boy! You can figure on him to get whatever he goes after." The colonel says, "He's pretty good."

Well, they sent me on to the river to launch them boats. While we was launching the boats, they was fighting hand to hand, and they was shelling over a mountain, just shooting them up and letting them fall right down there in the river bottom. After they unloaded me, I got out of there and I tot under a bluff. I knowed there'd be an interval--always are in a barrage. This fellow run in the bluff and give me a cussing. I says, "Just quiet down. I got in here first. I'll get out directly when we get a little interval." He give me a cussing but he got knocked down by a tow sack full of dirt that fell on top of him.

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When a fella got wounded, we were taught to cuss him, rile him up and get him mad so he'd live maybe till they could pick him up and take him into the hospital. I got a-hold of him and he grabbed me by the wrist. He says, "I'm dying!" I says, "You, S.O.B., you ready to die?" I called him everything I could think of to get him mad, but he died with a death grip on me. I had to put my foot down on his shoulder and take both hands to pull him off. It was a bad experience.

I had a captain I trained under one whole year, day and night learning how to kill a man. Then I got called in to the captain because I shot at a German airplane. The captain said, "They tell me you caused quite a dissatisfaction out on the front last night. You shot at an airplane, didn't you? .... Yes, sir," I says, "I shot at the propeller!" The moon was a-shining that night and it don't get dark over there like it does here. If I could've hit the propeller, it would've flew all to pieces. Some of the boys brung two or three planes down that-a-way and I says, "Listen, Captain, you trained us to kill a man. Now, you want me to come over here and sit down, let them pour out an ammunition dump on me and never make a move?" He says, "How'd you know it was a German plane?" I says, "They was throwing out grape shot and bombs about every half a mile. I knew I could hit them. It didn't look to me like they was over two hundred yards high." He says, "Don't worry. You're right as a rabbit." It looked kind of funny to me. A fellow is trained how to kill a man and I knowed it was the enemy or else he wouldn't have been throwing off them grape shot along the line or wire fence.

"I've knowed animals all my life and I know a good one from a bad one. My favorite animal would have to be cattle. I've worked with cattle the most. I used to trade with them and buy and sell them big. I first started trading cattle a lot when I was a youngster. I once made a big sale on fifteen big steer calves. One fellow told me he'd give me a nickel a pound for them. He asked me what I thought they weighed. I said, "I believe they'll weigh a thousand pounds a piece." He give me three hundred dollars for ten of those steer calves. Lord, if that wasn't a give away...that ain't nothing. When I got older, I always made sure I got some good ones." Photo by James Heck.

That's how come me out there. We would string wire up along the front trenches. I took a three gauge out there for the wire. It had stickers on it every four inches. I had three big rolls and I was rolling them off with a pole. One of my horses was running backwards, fell into that wire and was shocked with electricity. He pulled in and pulled the wire in under his shoe. I had a pair of rubber pliers I could use without getting electrocuted. I cut it off on the inside and on the outside and jerked him back. I was getting into that kind of a deal all the time. How I ever escaped...I can't figger it, but I did.

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We were on our way home and headed for New York. We come within fifty yards of the Statue of Liberty, and I said that was the prettiest woman I'd ever seen, I can tell you that.

1912--At the age of twenty-one. "I've worked with horses ever since I'd been big enough. I like riding horses and good work horses. Boy, I like to see a big team just get down and tear the ground up." (Old photographs courtesy of J. W. Lawson.)

When we got in St. Louis, coming back home, the Captain come around and he says, "Bill, I'll make you a sergeant as soon as you get in Camp Funston. I'll buy you a new suit of clothes and give you thirty days leave if you'll take it. All you need to do is sign up for two years." I knowed the reason, too. They had a hundred of them old horses that needed to be broken. He says, "I'll tell you, you're the only man that can really drive your horses, go somewhere and get back. You're worth about ten soldiers. We'd like to make you a sergeant as soon as we get into camp." I says, "I believe I got about all I want of it." They come back later and told me they'd do the same if I'd just sign up for one year. I never did go back, but I've wished, though, lots of times I'd signed up another year. They would have raised my pension when I got old enough to draw it.

1945--Mr. Lawson's daughter, Nita, took this picture in Webb City, Missouri, in front of an old mansion they were living in. Mr. Lawson, who never liked having his picture taken, had just bought a new suit and wanted to remember it in this photograph.

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I believe there will be another war. The time has come where other countries can't get along with one another. It looks like this may be the last one if we get into it. I believe it'll be the bombing age of war. It'll be settled. It'll be in one place. I don't think we can spend too much money on our defense, because we need the best. I believe in fighting for this country. A man ain't ?or nothing if he ain't willing to stand up for his country. I knowed before I went overseas we'd be hemmed up, and I knowed another thing. I'd fight to the last breath to keep them from a-killing me and that's exactly what I did. I think that a soldier ought to be trustworthy and learn the best he can--how to fight and how to protect himself.

I was glad to get home. I don't know about boys from other places. I only know what soldier boys come back from the war out of our township around Hartville. There was two of us that didn't get wounded bad or killed--me and a Long boy. The rest of them got killed or wounded till they up and died after they got home.

I was luckier than most. I came back to the country where I growed up. I married and raised a family. I'm ninety-one years old and I'm still here. I growed up on a farm about fifteen miles north of Mountain Grove. We was a big family and I was the oldest. I had seven brothers and five sisters. My oldest sister was an invalid. She had polio and never did walk a step. I had to run her to school in a little wagon.

My school days were pretty hard, I'll tell you the truth. I went to a little one-room country school called the Lawson School. My dad give them the land to build it on. School started the first of August and run over in November. Only four months of school. It didn't last long. I was' six years old the seventh of April when they started me in school--I didn't know my A B Cs--not a one of them.

It wasn't hard to get teachers to teach for three or four months. They swarmed after you! My first school teacher was an old man. He was the best teacher I ever saw. I never did know him whipping a kid, and he played all kinds of games with us outside. He had me get up and say the multiplication tables by heart on the last day of school. I was in the second reader and had only three months of school.

I remember one time, there was a little girl in my class, who was about six years old. Her mother bought her a fascinator to put over her head when it was cold. One night, it come up short. She couldn't find it and none of the girls didn't know nothing about it. The next day, that old teacher said that he was going to find out who stoled Louisa's fascinator. He went out in the woods and cut a hickory 'bout the shape of a 'Z'. He lined up all twenty girls and says, "Now, I'm a-going to throw this stick. It'll hit the one who's got her fascinator right in the top of the head." He begun waving that stick, drawed back--there's a girl dodged. He says, "Where's that fascinator at?" She said she took it out in the woods and put it in an old holler tree. They went out there, and she showed him. Sure enough, it was up there, stuffed in a hole.

I had to stay out of school after I was ten years old to work. My parents would keep me out to sow wheat, cut corn and even to get wood. Everything was my job! Everything! It stayed that-a-way until I was fifteen. Whenever I was away for two or three days and came back to school, why I'd be way behind and that ain't no good. I got tired of getting behind. I had one brother and he'd help me, but he got to go to school more than I did. I could've been a real scholar if I could've got a half-chance.

The most important thing that you can give a kid is an education. After I had kids school age, I seen that they went to school. I was a director at their school and I got a vote in state aid. We didn't have no money and three or four months of school was all we had, and that ain't no good. I told them I had a bunch of kids that I didn't want growing up ignorant like I did.

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"I can shoot at a mallard at seventy-five yards and get him. I'd draw ahead of him. They're fast. A lot of people wouldn't believe it, but they're one of the fastest birds on the market. They really get up speed. Photo by James Heck.

When I was about fourteen I started to hire out and help people. I give my folks the money. It was a long time there that I made the biggest part of the living. My dad was raised with a widow woman and never did learn to do nothing. Later on he got disabled. He really didn't know how to work on a farm. I'd work for all the farmers around there in the hay, wheat, oats and corn, and I really learned how to do the job. I worked for some good farmers. They learned me how to plow up the corn without having to stop and pull my plow out to keep from plowing up a hill of corn. I bet I made more steps than any man in Wright County.

After the war I married a woman that I went with ten years. She wanted to marry and I didn't. I knowed I was going overseas and I didn't want to marry and leave my wife over here. I told her to do whatever she pleased. So, she married another man. After I come home, she wrote me a letter and told me her man was dead. He had some kind of operation and it killed him. She had a baby on her hands that was a year and a half old. She told me to come over and go to church with her that night--she wanted to see how I looked. I rode over there horseback and then we walked to church. She says, "You're going to marry me." I says, "I can't marry you." She says, "You can! I'm going to support myself--I am!" I thought if she was that damn big a fool, I said, "I'll take you." She was the best girl I ever went with. Everyone else I went with, I caught them in a lie or something, but I never caught her lying. She'd tell me the truth, whether it was right or wrong to me. I lived with her fifty-four years.

For my first farm, I got a-hold of a hundred acres. Then I bought about 260 acres at about five dollars an acre. ! bought some of it and sold some for taxes. It was rough, most of it, but it had lots of good timber on it. I've bought and owned a dozen different farms in my life.

I had six children. I have five of my own, five girls. Later on, we moved to Mountain Grove where we could send the kids to school and let them get a high school education. They learnt good --too good sometimes. They'd get above in their class.

I was always very strict with my children. One of them might have asked me something, to go to a party of something. I'd find out who else was going. If I said "No," that was it. I didn't think I was too strict, but if I felt something was going to happen that I thought was wrong, they was out of it. I was pretty well knowed for the way I disciplined my kids. There were a lot of people who thought that I was too strict. I never did beat around on them or anything like that. I think I raised a good bunch of kids. If I had to raise my kids over again, I'd do it the same way. They honor you when they up and get away.

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Things sure have changed since I was a kid. Back in my days, people had to go without money and a lot of times, food. They had Relief, but it didn't amount to much. Welfare is all right if it's put at the right place. It's really needed and necessary for some people, but for the people that get welfare and then use it to buy things that they really don't need--I don't believe in that.

I feel that when people have kids, they have a responsibility. If they have to have kids, I believe they ought to take care of them and send them to school and to church like any other human. When the children get older and on their own, they should be willing to take care of their parents, if they're able. I guess there are a lot of parents that couldn't help their children and can't help themselves.

I raised my family to be religious. I made sure they went to church and if I live long enough to get baptized, I'll have my part done. I promised the Lord that I'd do better and I ain't went back on it. Both of my parents have been baptized and they both went to church. I believe there are lots of good people in all the different churches and then there are a lot of those hypocrites. They get up and make up a big story on how they feel. Then they go out and get drunk and leave their wives sick in bed. I believe in a fellow for being what he thinks and what he's supposed to be according to his beliefs.

All in all, I've had a good life--worked hard. Well, I guess if everything was the same as it was then, I would probably make the same decisions I made then. I guess some people have done worse. I think I've coped real well all my life. Oh, I've lived a pretty good life, I reckon.

At the age of ninety-one, L. W. Lawson fulfilled his goal of being baptized. In the fall of 1981, he was baptized in a river near the Cedar Bluff Baptist Church in Fairgrove, Missouri. Here he is shown with the Reverend Mitchell Wright as they came out of the water. Photo courtesy of his daughter, Nita Boyer.

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Copyright 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.


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