380 Horses

“Those birds are pretty dumb. Why don’t they get out of the way?” We are bouncing down a narrow two-track road, headed to the north side of the island for a walk along the shore. I’m guiding two clients, who came to the island to take photos of puffins and Arctic foxes. We’re driving slowly, because there are lots of fledgling Lapland Longspurs and Rock Sandpipers on the road, and I’m trying not to run over them. “Well,” I explain patiently, “they’re young birds and they’re just learning how to fly. Some of them might not even have all their flight feathers yet. The road is smooth and is a good runway for them to practice taking off and landing. See how thick the vegetation is, off to the side? That probably looks like a wall, a big forest, from their perspective. Maybe they’ve never seen a car before. We don’t drive out here very often. They don’t know what a car is.” I stop the van at one point, get out and chase a fluffy Rock Sandpiper chick down the road for a bit, and am able to catch it and set it gently off to the side. Otherwise, it may have kept running down the road ahead of us until it exhausted itself, or we ran over it. “Sorry, little one,” I whisper to the chick, as I release it from my big paws. “Take it easy, and watch out for foxes!”

The birds aren’t dumb. Their reality is simply different than ours.

Last week, a cruise ship visited the island. I rode along in the bus with the visitors, on the way out to the seabird cliffs. Neon, one of my co-workers and a local who grew up here, was driving the bus. The cruise ship people asked me questions. One of them was: “How do people make a living here?” Sometimes I feel funny, answering questions about the locals (since I am not one), so I yelled up to the front of the bus, “Hey, Neon! How do people make a living here?” He answered, “We fish, and hunt reindeer, and order groceries from the internet.” The cruise ship folks looked puzzled, so I said, “People work for the Tribe, the City, the airport, the grocery store, the clinic, do construction, fish for halibut…” But I was smiling inside, getting a kick out of Neon’s answer. “How do you make a living” to him means “where do you get your food.”

On my day off, I stop in at the civic center, where the Pribilof Islands Aleut Community of St. Paul Island holds language classes. I’m interested in learning some Unangam (Aleut), especially words for birds, plants, and animals. When I open the door to the Arctic entry, there are lots of shoes and boots lined up. I slip off my shoes and leave them with the rest. Reaching for the interior door, I see a small poster showing two Native Alaskan women, dressed in traditional clothing. They are hugging a Holstein calf. The poster says, “Don’t Kill Baby Veals!” and across the bottom, “Be aware of cultural differences.” I laugh out loud, which goes to show that my attitude has changed since I was a kid, when I had a baby seal poster on my bedroom wall. Yep, humans’ interactions with animals are complex; as a cornfed mid-westerner who drinks milk and eats a lot of cheese, I probably shouldn’t judge those who use animals in different ways. If anyone offers me a baby seal shoulder at the Labor Day barbeque, I will definitely try it.

Cultural sensitivity. Is it learned? Can it be taught? I think so, but, unless there is behavior occurring that’s negatively affecting the wildlife or the human community members here, I’m not sure being the teacher is necessarily my role this summer. As a guide, the clients are my customers, and I feel uncomfortable correcting them. Most of the clients are lovely, or at least okay to be around. But occasionally I find myself gritting my teeth and faking my laughter. Some clients tell stories like this: “I was in a village in ______ (names African country). The people there live mostly in a state of undress, and I mean that literally. One woman was flirting with me – at least I think she was – and asked me how many horses I have. I told her I had three-hundred and eighty: they’re under the hood of my Lexus! Heh heh heh! She was impressed. And I don’t think she even knew what a Lexus is.”

I’m certainly not perfect, but I try to be aware of others’ perspectives and my own errors, and learn from my mistakes. When I was seventeen, a friend and I took a road trip to the East Coast, and eventually ended up in Charleston, South Carolina. We were walking through a market and crafts area, and I took a photo of a woman who was sitting and weaving a basket. She yelled at me. “What’s wrong with you, taking my picture without asking? I’m not on display here!” I was mortified, and a little scared, and shamefacedly walked away without apologizing. But now I’m glad she taught me that lesson. I never made the same mistake again!

In my defense, what experiences had I had up to that point in life? I grew up in a mostly-white, suburban community. I was the photographer for the yearbook, and my schoolmates were used to having me around, snapping photos. I’d been to a few living history museums, and Disneyworld and Epcot Center, and the Renaissance Festival, where hired performers act out traditional crafts. And my mom is a basket weaver, so I was genuinely interested in the work that the Charleston lady was doing. I felt too shy to actually speak to her. So, I hid behind my camera. But I didn’t hide quite well enough.

Now, I could say that she was a big mean black woman who yelled at me and didn’t understand my culture or respect where I was coming from, but that would be absurd. I was in her town, invading her privacy, and had behaved badly. That’s how she saw it. And she was right.

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Freedom Is In the Freezer: Subsistence Fishing for Halibut

Here’s a link to my essay “Freedom Is In the Freezer: Subsistence Fishing for Halibut,” published in the summer 2017 issue of Edible Alaska. The essay originally appeared on this blog back in October 2016, in slightly different form.

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Evacuation Day

A single drumbeat, loud as a cannon shot, shakes the room. Everyone jumps, and a framed picture falls off a shelf. “We’re here!” somebody says, and we all laugh. With that powerful opening beat, and amidst the echo of laughter, they start again, and begin drumming, singing, and dancing: nine women and four men, dressed in Unangan (Aleut) finery. Three of the women, the younger generation, wear seal skin dresses, pieced so the different colors of fur are in a block pattern showing tan, dark brown, and black. Beaded head-dresses cover their hair. The men wear colorful bentwood hunting visors and carry carved wooden kayak paddles. Gold embroidery decorates the high stand-up collars on their off-white shirts, with additional adornments made of fur and bone. Two big frame drums keep the beat, and the women rub together seal scapula scrapers to add another percussive layer to the rhythm.

They share a Memory Song, a Harvest Song, a Song for Walking, and a Song About Unangan Values. Ugunuǧnaaǧnaagnaǧulux, ataqakun, an’gixtalix. It’s impossible not to tap your foot to the beat.

“Commemorating is not performing. It’s about keeping our story alive,” says Aqualina Lestenkof. “Today, when we walk down to East Landing, we are re-enacting the story.”

On Sunday, June 14, 1942 – seventy-five years ago today – the U.S. Army Transport vessel Delarof arrived at St. Paul Island in Alaska’s Pribilof Island archipelago. Interrupting an island baseball game, the authorities told the people: “You are being evacuated. You have one hour. You may bring one suitcase. Then you’ll board the ship at East Landing. Better get packing.”

The United States had been at war with Germany and Japan for just over six months. In early June 1942, Japan had attacked the Aleutian Islands, bombing the American military bases at Dutch Harbor, and invading Kiska and Attu. Forty-two residents of the village on Attu had been taken as prisoners of war, and transported to captivity in Japan. It is not a stretch of the imagination to say that the safety of other Aleutian and Pribilof Islanders was at risk. And so, the four hundred and seventy-seven St. Paul islanders packed their bags, their cardboard boxes, their flour sacks, and walked down to the ship.

“People didn’t have suitcases; they didn’t go anywhere,” says Aqualina, at today’s commemorative ceremony of the 75th Anniversary of the Evacuation. “Imagine that: taking one bag and carrying it down to East Landing. Getting on the Delarof, looking back, maybe for the last time, leaving this place that you love.” She has to pause for a moment. Tears spring to everyone’s eyes. “How do we grasp that story? It’s so big.”

The people boarded the Delarof, destination unknown. They spent eight days at sea, then landed at Admiralty Island on Funter Bay in Southeast Alaska, where they moved into an abandoned cannery. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was in charge of the camp, and the St. Paul islanders were wards of the state. It may as well have been a different planet: giant trees, a rainforest environment with salmon, bears, and Sitka black-tailed deer. Unfamiliar surroundings, weather, plants, and animals.

Greg, who was a child during the evacuation, tells us what it was like: there was no fresh water supply. No cooking facilities. No beds, or partitions for privacy. No sanitation – people collected any kind of cans or containers they could find to use as honeybuckets. But soon their ingenuity took over and they built an outhouse over the tide zone so when the high tide came in it could take away the waste. They put together pipes for water, hung blankets for privacy, made beds out of chicken wire. “They built things, helped themselves.” The pride is evident in his voice. Greg quotes his mother-in-law, Mary Bourdukofsky, “Don’t forget who you are. Come together and work together.”

The St. Paul Islanders were interned at Funter Bay for two years. One out of ten died there, of measles, tuberculosis, flu, exposure, malnutrition. And yet, the fur seal harvest, a U.S. Government for-profit venture, continued even during war time. “They came and took the men back to the island to harvest seals in 1943, despite the dangers of Japanese attack, and left the women in the camp. If anything had happened to the men…” He shakes his head. “Let’s not let it happen again,” says Greg, quoting Mary B.

Jason, also a child during the evacuation, recounts a different part of the story. “The Tlingits [Native Alaskans] of Southeast Alaska brought fish to the Aleuts. Taught them how to fish and hunt in that area. Taught the St. Paul Islanders that we have freedoms that we didn’t know about. Even today, the Juneau dancers sing an Aleut song …about the birds flying… the Aleuts gave the song to them, gave them permission to use it.”

Aqualina tells us that those lessons about freedom came back to St. Paul Island when the islanders returned home. “Not only was it about the hardships, but when they returned they were a force to be reckoned with. They worked for four or five decades to gain the freedom that we have now.” Mary Bourdukofsky’s name comes up again and again. The island matriarch, her tireless work inspired many. “Might as well make use of myself,” she once told Aqualina. Carrying on the tradition, two younger women have taken over the planning of the annual commemoration event. “They are like this,” says Aqualina, interlocking her fingers in two loops, like links in a chain. The links go back in time, connecting us to the past, taking us into the future.

After the commemoration, we all walk together down to East Landing, carried by the drumbeats from Barbara and Aqualina’s big frame drums. Father John from the Russian Orthodox church gives a blessing at the commemorative plaque. Some of the people walk to the landing and place flowers in the water. There is grief and an honoring of the dead, as well as an acknowledgment of the strength of the survivors. Even under the weight of history and through the tears, there is a sense of pride. Music, laughter, playfulness, and lots of hugs balance (and even overwhelm) any lingering sadness.

At the end of the ceremony someone shouts, “Play ball!” In memory of that long-ago interrupted baseball game, the islanders go back to the playing field and pick up where their ancestors left off, all those years ago.

“What happened to us shouldn’t have happened to anybody. Maybe it helps to remind people. Americans need to stand up for each other.” — Mary Bourdukofsky, from a February 28, 2006 interview with the Seattle Times.

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Walking (and riding) down to East Landing together.

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Aqualina, with her drum and her “one packed bag.”

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East Landing.

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Father John gives a blessing.

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The people who died at Funter Bay are still buried there. This plaque, located near East Landing, serves not only as a historical marker, but also as a memorial.

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Mary Bourdukofsky, who later became a leader and matriarch figure in the community, was a young mother and only eighteen years old when the evacuation occurred.

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Interpretive sign showing the routes of the Aleutian evacuations. St. Paul Islanders were not the only people to go through this experience. Note the arrows showing Attuans’ journey to Japan as POWs. (Source unknown.)

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Clifftop

No cloud touches the sky.
Instead of summer fog and driving wind, the Bering Sea gives diamonds.

Pup-sized, sun-bleached seal scapula lies at the top edge of the cliff.
Bones go to the earth
To the sea
To the animals and birds
To the plants
Death, rebirth, death again, birth again

Puffins dive, orange feet glowing underwater, sleek bodies gliding down, down for 38… 28… 27… Two puffins, two quick breaths on the surface, then diving together again.

Fur seals roar, moan, moo, growl, huff. Surf breaks over shining rocks, rhythm and motion. Crested auklets bark. Kittiwakes squeak. A fox yips five times, high lonesome sound. Five more. Five again.

Trident fish processing plant rumbles diesel. Airliner high up crosses over, Hong Kong to Anchorage.

Bumble bee, fly, spider travel a slower speed, a different dimension. Fox fur and feather float on the silent air currents.

Kelp is washed by the waves and warmed in the sun, iodine fragrance-of-the-sea. A whiff of guano drifts from the seabird cliffs. Foxes leave traces of musk and trouble as they travel along secret lines. Lupine, that sweet, wild pea, flowers with abandon.

Sea salt caresses all.

RFCO_PAAU2

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Rewiring

Thursday, May 18, 2017. It’s 3:35 pm and I am sitting on my twin-size bed in A-Dorm, trying to spend my afternoon off wisely. I already took an hour-long nap. I have been on St. Paul Island for eight days now, and might be out of the first impressions zone… and have entered the circuitry-meltdown zone. Busily rewiring all the connections in my brain, hoping I don’t blow any fuses.

At the beginning of every new job, there is an awkward period when everything is unfamiliar and strange, nothing routine. Gear, clothing, and equipment fit uncomfortably. Actions feel clumsy and uncoordinated. There is no muscle memory yet, and every simple task requires attention and thought. I haven’t figured out yet which items need to go in the backpack for the day’s work, and which pocket each thing fits into best. Where are my house keys? What am I forgetting to bring when I leave in the morning?

Because I will be driving people around to various sites on the island, I have to learn my way around. This week I’ve gotten the lay of the land, all the roads, the place names of hills and lakes, ponds and melt-pools, points and cliffs and shorelines. Where to park, how to approach a certain vantage point, how to walk around wetland edges and sidehill cuts and quarries. Which way is the wind blowing? What is that smaller island called? Is the tide coming in or going out?

There have been a lot of new birds for me. Life birds. Bar-tailed Godwit, Tundra “Bewick’s” Swan, Northern Wheatear, Pacific Golden-Plover, Least Auklet, Parakeet Auklet, Red-legged Kittiwake, King Eider, Common Pochard, Lapland Longspur in breeding plumage, Gray-Crowned Rosy-Finch, Rock Sandpiper (Pribilof subspecies). I’ve learned how to tell the difference between a Eurasian Green-Winged Teal and an American Green-Winged Teal, and if they’ve interbred the offspring is called an intergrade, not a hybrid, because it was two subspecies who crossed, not two species who crossed. What bird species are common here? Which ones are just passing through? Which ones are incredibly unusual and worthy of sending out a rare bird alert?

My eyes are burning, tired. So much wind, sunlight filtered through fog, mist, and salt spray. Constantly focused concentration. Yesterday I worked on the computer for two hours and was out driving and birding for nine.

I get a smart phone with the job – my first smart phone ever – so have had to learn how to use that. I’m required to submit a daily birds checklist on eBird, so have to learn how to use eBird, both as a smartphone app and on my laptop. My photos weren’t turning out very well due to the low light conditions, so Cameron showed me how to reset the ISO and also how to set it to AV, “Aperture Servo,” which means that you can choose your aperture and the camera compensates by picking a shutter speed that will work. At least I think that’s what it means! My very nice Canon EOS Rebel T6 camera is so different than my Canon PowerShot, and also different than my Canon AE1 ever was, so even though I’ve done photography since high school, I have to learn the whole new system.

There are five different tour vehicles; of course, each one is different and has quirks. A Toyota SUV with 208,000 miles on it, windows that don’t roll down, doors and locks that hardly open from all the years of volcanic grit and wind trying to rip the doors off the hinges. Two white vans, one a Chevy and one a GMC, fairly straightforward since I’m familiar with those models. The Mercedes-Benz Freightliner Sprinter van stumps me, though. It’s only a year old but already has idiosyncrasies of its own, some caused by this harsh environment, but some engineered in. First and foremost, all the symbols on the dash board are European, and I have no idea what they mean. I had to download the manual to find out how to unlock the doors. And where is the cup holder? And where is the gas cap, for the love of pete? (Because I didn’t have the manual handy, I had to resort to watching a YouTube tutorial on the hotel computer.) The final monster in the fleet is a massive 22-passenger International diesel tour bus, complete with semi-truck giant steering wheel, tour guide microphone, and mirror to keep an eye on the kids. Each of these five vehicles was manufactured by a different company, so even the most basic stuff – where are the lights, windshield wipers, washer fluid, door locks, window openers, gear shift, parking brake – is different on each one and has to be learned.

I’ve met at least twenty people: Barbara, Dennis, Mercy, Jiggs, Samantha, Jason, Thomas, Grace, Cameron, Virgil, Nat, Joe, Gavin, Xavier, John, Neon, Sonny, Charles, Tia, Fabius… I write down all their names and try to remember where each person works, what they do, and match names with faces. In a small community like this, it’s helpful to match people with their vehicles, too, so you know who you’re waving at when you pass them on the roads.

Yes, the people of St. Paul Island do the wave. At least some things are familiar and don’t have to be learned.

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First Impressions of St. Paul Island

May 11, 2017

I’m sitting next to Barbara on the plane. She’s an Aleut elder, grew up on St. Paul Island, and is returning home from Anchorage. She crosses herself before take-off, and again before landing, and points out that one of our fellow passengers is Father John, the priest from the island’s Russian Orthodox church. I’m not sure if I should feel reassured or concerned by all the praying, but decide to go with the former.

A tiny gap opens up through the fog, enough for the pilot to land, apparently, and for a moment I see white-capped water from the plane window. Turbulence makes the plane shake and shudder. The edge of the island is clad in winter-brown grass. Sand dunes remind me of the Great Lakes shoreline, but there are no trees. We touch down. Everyone sighs with relief, and jokes around with the flight attendant and pilot as we leave the plane. As we shuffle down the narrow isle, Barbara tells me that she lives in the senior housing up on the hill, and says, “So, now you have a friend on the island!”

I follow the crowd through a warehouse/garage/storage area with a mothballed firetruck and other equipment inside, and down several hallways to a receiving area and gift shop. Big smiles and handshakes from my new co-workers, Dennis and Barbara (not the same Barbara as my friend from the plane). Everyone is friendly and welcoming. Barbara has a facial tattoo, a line of wave-like shapes across her cheekbones. I see in her face the strength and endurance of generations of Aleut people. People of Sea. People who survive.

Dennis drives me to town, on the dusty main road. In the lee of a building, a little clump of Sitka spruce trees hunker down; they are about three feet tall, and look more like a single juniper shrub than trees. “That’s the St. Paul National Forest!” Dennis jokes. Beyond the buildings, we see the reindeer herd, way back against the hills. Tawny brown to match the dried grasses, with dark velvet antlers, and small calves chocolate brown, they blend into their surroundings surprisingly well. Dennis stops the truck so I can take a look. “You might not see them again for the rest of the year,” he tells me.

Town is dominated by the Russian Orthodox Church up on the hill, and the Trident fish processing plant down by the waterfront. The first has a golden onion-dome on the steeple; the second has four smokestacks. This is an island town, a couple of hundred miles from the nearest land, out in the middle of the Bering Sea. It’s village Alaska. It’s bush Alaska. At first glance, it’s rough around the edges. Rust, broken window panes, piles of stuff – sheet metal, buckets, shingles, plywood, lumber, metal drums, crates, tires – scattered everywhere. Plastic trash (packing material, shrink wrap from palletized cargo, junk food wrappers) blows in the wind, and gets wrapped around satellite dish supports. You can tell how hard and which way the wind is blowing because of the trash. I remind myself that it’s early spring, the “snow on the north side/trash in the yard” time of year. And with no trees, everything is visible. What you see is what you get. There’s nowhere to hide.

I haven’t been here for twenty-four hours yet, and have heard about how the kids will go inside any unlocked space, will take stuff, will vandalize things. How anything that isn’t locked down will walk away. There’s a padlock on the fridge in the tourist hotel; otherwise the islanders come in the back door and help themselves to the beer and wine. There is a safe house in town for women to get away from abusive men. I’ve heard two stories about recent suicides.

And this place has a history of slavery. The island was uninhabited until the Aleut people were brought here by the Russians to harvest fur seals. When they purchased the Alaska Territory from Russia in 1867, the US government then took over the seal industry, and kept the Aleuts enslaved. Kids were sent away to boarding school, not allowed to speak their native language. Everyone was forcibly evacuated during World War II – “twenty-four hours’ notice, only allowed to take one bag,” Dennis tells me – and sent to an internment camp in Southeast Alaska. People died. During this time, some of the island men enlisted in the US Army and were off fighting for America, while other US military men occupied the island. When the islanders returned from the war and from the internment, their houses had been trashed by the military. It’s a dark past, a vicious history, and an enduring legacy of injustice.

And yet, the strength of these people, and of the land itself, shines through. I see it in Barbara’s beautiful tattooed face. I see it in the Church, glowing up there on the hill. I see it in the agile, joyful kids playing basketball across the street from my house. I see it in the hunter who walks along the top of the cliffs. I don’t know what he’s after, but the community’s subsistence foods include sea birds, sea lion, seal, halibut, and reindeer. Life is persistent. Against the wind and the surf, only the strong survive.

And the birds? So far, I have caught glimpses from afar, without my binoculars, on the drive into town. Shorebirds and a few gulls in the lagoon. Grey-crowned Rosy-finches right outside the dorm where I will be living. Auklets and snow buntings. But I have been busy unpacking, getting settled, trying to process all this. I feel a bit like a fraud. If I was a real birder, a real guide, the first thing I would have done is get my ass out there to see what there is to be seen. After I go to the store and have lunch and unpack a bit more, that’s what I’ll do.

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A Summer on the Bering Sea

The packing is done, the plane and hotel reservations have been made, and now I just have 24 hours to simmer in my stew of excitement and nervousness until it’s time to take off. Where to, this time? I feel like there should be a drum roll, after a four-month-long emotional roller coaster ride also known as The 2017 Job Search. But, without further ado: I will be spending the summer in the Pribilof archipelago, on the Bering Sea.

Unless you count open oceans as places, as many of my sailor and fisherman friends do, these islands are way out in the middle of nowhere. This five-island archipelago is made up of two larger, inhabited islands (St. Paul and St. George) and three smaller, uninhabited islands (St. John, St. Ringo, and St. Pete.)

No, not really. Just checking to see if you are paying attention. St. Paul and St. George were named for Russian Orthodox saints, not Beatles. And the three smaller islands aren’t named after Beatles, either, but after rock-star animals: Sea Lion Rock, Walrus Island, and Otter Island. I’ll be stationed on St. Paul, and may not get a chance to visit any of the others, although I will certainly take the opportunity if it arises.

For the first time in my life, I am going to work as a full-time tour guide. The Tanadgusix Corporation (TDX) owns and operates the St. Paul Island Tour company for whom I will work. TDX is an Alaska Native tribal corporation, created in 1971 under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Even though the Pribilofs are part of the state of Alaska, and thereby included in the United States of America, the Aleut (Unangax) people will be my boss. I bet it’s going to feel like a different country.

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The Pribilofs. If you’ve never heard of them, you probably aren’t a birder. Hyperbolic phrases such as “Galapagos of the North” and “Mecca of Birding” come up if you do a quick internet search. The National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, which includes all kinds of accidentals, rarities, and vagrants that might be seen anywhere on the continent, lists 990 species. For St. Paul Island, a checklist generated by eBird shows a whopping 302 species. Birds that you might normally only find in Asia, the Arctic, on a pelagic cruise, or in the far west Aleutian Islands – the Pribs have ‘em all. Human visitors to the islands, unlike the avian kind, travel there with focused intention. They pray for bad weather, hoping the wind will carry in rare birds.

I will be taking groups of people out to explore the island, driving them around in a little bus and stopping along the way to set up a spotting scope. We will go out after breakfast, after lunch, and after dinner. The days will be long, and the season lasts until mid-October, so I reckon my life list will be pretty well-padded by the time I come home.

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