Nordic Heritage Museum Vanishing Generation Interview with Arvid Kangas

  • By Curtis Jacobs
  • Posted 9/23/2004
  • Essay 5765
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This Nordic Heritage Museum Vanishing Generation Oral History Project interview of Arvid Kangas by Curtis Jacobs took place on July 27, 2000 in the Seattle neighborhood of Ballard. Arvid Kangas (b. 1916), of Finnish Heritage, talks about hopping a freight train from Minnesota to Seattle's Pioneer Square in 1940. Living in Ballard since 1948, he describes his work building the sea wall at Shilshole Bay and wooden piers on the downtown waterfront.

Today is the 27th day of July. I'll be interviewing Arvid Kangas; that's A-R-V-I-D, K-A-N-G-A-S. We are at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Kangas in the Crown Hill neighborhood of Seattle. My name is Curtis Jacobs.

What I'd like to do is start with when you came in to Ballard and where you came from. Maybe you could --

Oh, well, I came from Minnesota in 1940, but then I really didn't get settled until I got married and I moved to Ballard in 1948.

When did you get married?


That's 1948.

And -- but even before that, my line of work was pile driving.


And -- well, I did start on the whole well while I was married, but then I had to retire on account of my asthma. And I think it was from creosote, working with creosote. And also the medication caused me to have diabetes.

Is that right?

Yeah. But then, before -- well, I worked on shore jobs most all the time on -- that was on the waterfront and --

Was that locally here in Ballard or --

No, downtown. My local jobs in Ballard was the sea wall down at Shilshole Bay. And another job was at -- outfall at West Point.

Was that seawall, was that the original seawall put in down in --

Yeah. That's the one that -- no, there was no other seawall before that.

That's when they put the canal in perhaps?

Yeah. Oh, way -- well, they put the canal in long time before that.


Then this here's a other job was at -- West Point. It's what you call an outfall.


Outfall is a better one. Well, then Ballard --

How old were you when you came to Ballard?

Well, for 32 when I got married in '48 then, and so '49 we bought the house.

Mrs. Kangas: Yeah, but he says, "How old were you when you came to Ballard?"

Well, that's right after I got married, you know, when we bought the house.

Oh, I see. You were born in '17 and you moved to Ballard in '49.

Mrs. Kangas: Born in '16

In '16, yeah.

Yeah. Yeah.

So that was -- you were roughly 22 years old.


Mrs. Kangas: No. No. No.

No, older than that. I was in the Army. Well, that ain't got nothing to do with it, but I -- in Japan and New Guinea and Philippines.

And this was during the Second World War?

Yes. And well, I liked Ballard, but --

Why did you come to Ballard?



Well, we were looking for a house, and our -- it's just -- we happened to run across this -- well, real estate -- house buyer.


So he sold us this house, you know.

Sure. But you left Minnesota when you were 32 years old. Why did you leave -- why did you leave there.

Well, there was still Depression on.

Oh, I see.

I had two sisters over here in Seattle, and they told me that there was a lot of work over here. Well, I did find work for the railroad first, you know, until I joined the pile driver's union. And that's what I did for 30 years, you know, worked as a pile driver man. And we had -- oh, some of my jobs were in -- in local, Seattle. You know, I was -- been in Alaska. I was there three times, you know. But it doesn't -- I got tired of roaming around, so I got married and settled down.

Mrs. Kangas: I think he came to Ballard because I had lived here, see, before, when I was a child. And so that's why we looked for a place in Ballard rather than a different area.

Well, where did you meet?

Mrs. Kangas: Where? We met at the old Swedish Club.

In Seattle?

Mrs. Kangas: Yeah.

Oh. Okay. So you were members of the Swedish Club?

Mrs. Kangas: No.

Oh, you weren't?

Mrs. Kangas: No. But that was a public dance there.

Oh, sure.

Mrs. Kangas: And so everybody could go there, you know.

Well, I enjoyed the Nordic Museum. We used to go 12 or 15 years ago. I don't know if you've got the record or not.

No. No.

Ever since they started, you know.


I don't know, when did they start ? About 15 years ago?

No, it's more than that.

Maybe ...

I think it's -- I think 20 years. I think this is their 20th year.

Oh, all right. I think I've been a member there 19 years then.


Shortly after they started. And well --

But you've always lived in this area here?

Yeah. Fifty years.

Fifty years?


What, in this same house?

Same house, yeah.

At 7753 19th Northwest.

Yeah. We were members of the Our Redeemer's Church over here. I'm a member of the . . .

Mrs. Kangas: VFW.

Right. Yeah.

Mrs. Kangas: That's the Masonic Lodge.

What it is (inaudible). The Eagles, I've been there 55 years.

Oh, is that right?

Yeah. Yeah.

Mrs. Kangas: Aerie Number 1. Not the Ballard Eagles.

Well, I can't think of anything else. But I've enjoyed living here, and I've enjoyed going to the Nordic Museum, but I can't go there any more because I can't walk. I have to -- if somebody took me over there, I'd have to have somebody push me with the wheelchair.

Sure. That's understandable.

See, I can't walk far. I can walk to the kitchen and around the house here. And going to the dentist and the doctor's. That's all. I can get down the steps all right.

Sure. Well, when you were in Minnesota, what kind of work were you in there?

Well, I worked in Minneapolis about five years. I was working at installing bake ovens, not the revolving kind, but the flat kind. But they're obsolete now. And they went into a modern revolving ovens, and I didn't know enough about electricity. There was so much electricity involved in them that the salesmen kind of took over. And so that was kind of the end of my job there. It was hard to find jobs there until -- well, it was good after I left, because the World War started. There were big factories started making war supplies, you know.

Mrs. Kangas: Then you always said that, you know, he would have to climb in the ovens on the weekends, so they were still pretty hot. But he was so used to taking the heat in a steam bath that he -- that didn't bother him.


Oh, yeah. Well, I repaired the bake ovens on Sundays because they'd cooled down to about 150, and I didn't -- that didn't bother me because I crawled in there to recemented the tile, you know.


So, anyway that's --


Mrs. Kangas: Got a free steam bath, huh?

Yeah. It was just like a steam bath.

But the work ran out, so that's one of the reasons you left and came here to Seattle.

Yeah. Better jobs. There were better jobs. Then the war had started, so ...

Did somebody suggest that there was work out here in Seattle?

Yeah, my two sisters were here.

Oh, your two sisters were here.

Yeah. They told me that they want loggers, you know. And of course, I never went to the logging camps. But they -- they're altogether different here than what we -- back east I worked in logging camps in Michigan. But it's different altogether, the logging industry here, you know.

So, did you get into logging at all?

Well, the only time I got in it -- well, I was getting deferments, deferred from the Army for two years, and then I went to a logging camp in Vale, Washington. That's out of Olympia. But then, there was a draft board. I guess they looked at "Well, he's not a logger. What's he doing in a logging camp?" They didn't understand. I could -- I could do the work, you know.


But they didn't understand that. So that's when I got what they called "Greetings," you know.


"Greetings from the President."


So then -- well, like I said, go around the world anyway.


That was educational. And --

What year was that, do you remember?

Well, I got talked to -- it was in '44. January 2nd, '44, and I got out in it was April '46.

Mrs. Kangas: Yeah. When did you -- well, it must have been 1943 then, that you worked in the woods for the logging. If you got drafted in January 1944, you must have worked the logging in 1943. Yeah.

Yeah. End of '43. Yeah.

But you didn't -- you weren't involved with any of the mills here in Ballard?



No. But that was -- I remember the -- Hattie's Hat is a restaurant over there; you probably heard of it now.


But that was we called Old Home years ago. And all of these sawmill workers did go in there and cash their checks, you know. It was a real busy place, you know.


That worked at Seattle Cedar, you know. That was a big sawmill in Ballard. And it burned down.

Do you remember when that burned down?

Yeah. Yeah, we watched the fire. I went on top of the -- I took the neighbor boy, and we drove on top of that hill up there and we watched it for a couple hours, you know. It was really some --  all that cedar. And cedar burns ...

Do you remember what year that was?


Do you remember what year that was when that burned down?

No, I don't. No, I don't. That must have been about '52.

It must have been in the '60s.

Mrs. Kangas: I don't know. Did we have the kids then? We must have had the kids, yeah.

Well, they were pretty small.

Mrs. Kangas: So it was probably in the '50s.

Well, the boy next door, him and I went up the hill and watched the fire. And some of the fishermen, they were way up there by Vancouver Island, and they seen the fire and they said that the only thing that would make a big fire like that is Seattle Cedar. And they were right.

Is that right?


Well, I was wondering, I lived on Magnolia after we were married.


And we moved there in about '62, and I thought I could remember the fire then.

Mrs. Kangas: Oh, maybe it was. Maybe it was, sure.

Yeah. '62. Well, the kids were kind of --

'62-'63? I was just wondering if I was remembering the date correct.

Yeah. My brother-in-law married my sister. He worked over there, and then I seen him and I told him "Go out there and see if you can find a -- I need a belt about that wide." There's always a lot a belts in sawmills.

Oh, yes.

So he got me a belt 32-feet long, and I dug my basement, went from there to there, you know, the length of the house. I used that -- made a conveyor belt out of that belt. So it was a good thing they all burned down.

So anyway, that's -- I can't think of anything more. But I did ...

You said you belonged to the Masonic Lodge?


You're a Mason?

Yeah. Yeah. That's a -- I'm a life member of the Masons. It's the Maritime Lodge, you know. And it's the Occidental Lodge in Ballard. But I was in the Totem Lodge, but then --

Where was that located?

It was in Fremont.

In Fremont.

And it got so that there were the same members had to go through the chairs, so we merged into the Maritime Lodge. Of course, I haven't been to a meeting for ten years, because my health kept me away. And then, the Eagles, well, I joined the Eagles about 55 years ago downtown. Of course, now they're in Georgetown.


And we don't seem to get up there, either, because it's -- she has a little hard time walking besides myself, you know. So anytime we go someplace, you got to find a place to park, and then it's too far to walk. I had to cancel that, too. Well, but I enjoy staying home watching TV and baseball tonight, too.


They're playing Toronto.


We lost. But we're high up now.

Oh, yeah.

We have a good team. Do you go to baseball games?


Oh, you don't care much for them. Well, that's a --

I do watch it, yes.

Yeah. Any kind of sports?

Uhm, yes. Fly fishing -- and golf.


Oh. Some people they like soccer or a soccer game.

No, no. Did you play any sports?


Did you play any sports?

Well, no, I really didn't --

Mrs. Kangas: Too busy working.

Then in grade school, I'd up and play a little basketball and baseball, but then -- oh, we were -- we played baseball but didn't have very big area to play, you know.


No, it was -- in the past there too many -- if you hit a home run, you didn't dare to go get the ball because there was mad bull looking after the cows, you know.

Sure, oh, yeah.

You had to leave the ball there.

Yeah. But that was back in Minnesota.

Yeah. Yeah. Oh, yeah.

But you weren't into any sports here?

No, not in Ballard, no.

What did you do for transportation when you were going back and forth to work?

We had a car.

You had your own car at the time?

Oh, yeah. Always had a car. Well, one time we had two cars for awhile. And yeah, I had to leave at seven o'clock to get to work by eight, you know.


It took -- it would take longer now with the traffic.

Oh, yeah.

The traffic is terrible.

Yes, it is.

Mrs. Kangas: But you were -- we were in the parents' committee for Troop 101, and you used to go with the boys out to --

Yeah, we were in the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. We went down here to Golden Gardens, you know. And one time, well, we went there for dinner. There was a fellow from the P.I. came over there and asked them "What are we having for dinner?", you know. So we -- he said, "It's boiling there." It was a (inaudible), so he took the cover off, he said he thought he was going to see bunch of meat and carrots boiling. All it was, was a bunch of cans, was cans, through Nalley Valley, so --

And then, we went out on a few overnights, yeah. We went on overnights. And it was -- we wasn't supposed to take any kindling along, you know, for the fire. But I filled my trunk anyway with nice wood, you know, because them kids, they wouldn't have never got that fire going, wet wood.

Yeah. Did you come from Minnesota by yourself?

Yeah, oh, yes.

How'd you get here?

Freight train.

Freight train?

Yeah. Oh, that's how we traveled them days.

Tell me how you did that?

How I did that?

Yeah. Did you sneak aboard or --

Oh, there was so many. Boy, we waited till the train in -- the train got little bit out a ways, you know, maybe half a mile. And everybody just run and grabbed the bar, steps, you know, and climbed on top, you know.

Were you by yourself, or did you have a friend?

Oh, there was about 50 of us.

Is that right?

Oh, yeah. Them days, freight trains they were filled with -- filled with men inside and outside. All the way, you know.

Mrs. Kangas: That's how you came to Seattle, huh?


Mrs. Kangas: That's how you came to Seattle?

Oh, yeah. Yeah.

How long did that take?

Oh, about three, four days.

Three or four days? You stayed on the train all the time?

Oh, yeah. But I had to jump off. One day when they had to load the coal, the emission points. They loaded engines -- change engines and change -- they had to load coal and water. So then it was time to run to get something to eat. Cold meat, yeah. Loaf of bread. And so forth, yeah.

A little bit of water?

Yeah. Oh, yeah.

Where did you get off?

When I got here?

Yeah. Whereabouts was that?

Yeah, I think it was at Interbay.

Oh, at Interbay?

Yeah, I think it was Interbay. And we walked. We walked down to Skid Road. They called it Skid Road.


That's Pioneer Square. And that was about -- probably 30 of us got off here

Where did you end up staying?

Well --

You remember?

Oh, we got -- I got a hotel room, dollar a night. I had a suitcase. I got -- Occidental Hotel, that's where I stayed, you know. And, you know, when I got over here, I met lot a guys from my hometown.

Is that right?

Yeah. And we were all looking for a job. And we all got a job --

Well, why did you come to Ballard?


Yeah. Why didn't you stay in Seattle?

Well, we got married.

Mrs. Kangas: Yeah, that's when he came to Ballard was when we got married.


Yeah, we were looking for a house. We did have a apartment for one year until she got in a family way. Then we lived up on Capital Hill --


(Continuing) -- for a year.

So you had --

Mrs. Kangas: Had to move.

(Continuing) -- had children?

Mrs. Kangas: Two sons.

Two sons? Uh-huh.

Two boys, yeah.

Are they -- do they live here?

Yeah. They were --

Mrs. Kangas: One lives in Ballard and one lives up at Queen Anne.

Yeah. The oldest one, he lives by Lockheed Apartments, you know. He -- he's the art critic and he's one that got to Finland twice, you know.


And Japanese -- he just got back from Japan.

What's this?

That was his second trip up there.

Oh, is that right. What's his full name?


Mrs. Kangas: Matthew.


Matthew, yeah. And he's been to China.

Mrs. Kangas: In the Friday paper, he usually has an article in there, "Art Critical."


On Fridays.


Yeah. On Fridays he has article in there.

Were you speaking English then or were you speaking Finn?


When you came to Seattle.

Oh, English.


Oh, yeah. Yeah.

What about the fellows that came with you?

I didn't know them.

Oh, you didn't know them?

Mrs. Kangas: Well, you said that there was a lot of people from your old -- your hometown.

After I landed down in Skid Road.

Oh, okay

Ben Samuelson and . . . There was a lot of people that I knew after I got here, you know. I was all alone.

Mrs. Kangas: But I think they all spoke English.

Oh, yeah.

Mrs. Kangas: They had to do it in school.

Oh, yeah.

At that time, yeah.

Mrs. Kangas: But that's where they learned English in school. See?


Mrs. Kangas: So it wasn't from their folks.

Your parents never came out here?

No, my mother was here.

Your mother was?

Yeah, she come over to -- after my dad had passed away in '45. Well, then because I had gotten out of the Army and I happened to be working at Bremerton, and of course, my two sisters were here, so she came over here with one of her lady friends, you know.


So it was nice seeing her. Of course, we made quite a few trips to Minnesota with the kids and --

Oh, sure.

Even after the kids grew up, we'd take a vacation and we'd go to Minnesota.

You spent most of your working life, though, in the pile drivers industry?

Yeah, yeah, down at the waterfront, yeah. Down all over -- I think I worked on all them piers down the Waterfront.

Is that right?

And there were -- when I came here, I did -- what was it, a huge wall of wood. And that's how they used so much creosote then, that they would last. So then, as time went on, there isn't hardly any wooden piers anymore. They're all concrete.


And then the Port owns most of the piers.


Mrs. Kangas: He worked mostly for General Construction.

Is that right?

Mrs. Kangas: Yeah.

Yeah. Divers -- barge that they had -- it's still there, right east of the bridge, down on the Canal.

On the north side?

I worked there, and then I had a little accident, and I lost my teeth, you know. The drill appliance broke, and the drill come along and hit me in the jaw here, and I broke it.

Is that right?

Well, anyway, now after 32 years, the dentist told me that I need a new bridge there. So I got a new bridge after 31 years.

You got that locally here?


In Ballard?

Yeah, Dr. Jones, you know, a dentist, you know. Yeah, I got that about then. It was still -- it was a state case. Or well, it has to go to the State. Then it was a federal case because it was on top of the water. Anything that happens on top of the water is a federal case.

Is that right?

Yeah. But all the longshoremen, they're covered under the federal ...

Federal laws?

Federal law. So anyway, I got to -- I got a new plate anyway. It didn't cost me anything.

Yeah, that's great. Yeah. You say you belong to a church locally here?

Yeah, Our Redeemer's Church.

How long have you been a member there?

Well, maybe about three years after we got married, or moved here. About two or three years.


Our neighbor ladies there, we had two neighbor ladies and they belonged to our -- they belonged to our church, and we visited quite a bit and we wound up going there then.


There is a Finnish church over here on 13th, you know. Well, I haven't been there for quite awhile, but I used to go there off and on, you know.


So I knew quite a few that go there, you know, that I met, you know; same people, they're members of the Nordic Museum, you know, a lot --

Oh, yes.

Quite a few of them there. And they have a sitting room up there, too. You've been in there.

What was that again?

Mrs. Kangas: Where were you working?

I was working for the Port at Pier 66. That truck driver came over there and he was supposed to clean up everything. And I told him, "Don't take that because -- but leave it by my car." It was a gold scale.


It's probably still there.

In the museum?

Yeah. It's -- oh, it's about this long. Then it has a neck and a gauge is on top. You've probably seen it.

That's something you donated?

So anyway --

You donated it?

Yeah. And then I had -- oh, I had long shore hook, you know -- a homemade. And myself, a level -- it's a wooden level, you know. They don't have wooden levels anymore. And oh, what the heck, auger -- auger, you know. Well, it was -- it didn't have the ratchet on it, so it must have been -- oh, it's probably way over 65 years old now.

Was that something you used?

No. There was a lady next door, you know, that gave me all these husband's tools, carpenter tools.

Ah, I see, okay.

And there was more than that. But all that stuff I gave away. And I forget what else it was. It was some old tools, you know.


Mrs. Kangas: What was that -- Van Ermen?

Van Ermen.

Mrs. Kangas: What was her first name?

Yeah. Jean Van Ermen.

Mrs. Kangas: Jean Van Ermen. Do you know her at all?

I didn't, but I worked on a lot of her stuff because it was donated to the museum. And we have --

Mrs. Kangas: Oh, yeah, yeah.

You have to be way out there where the ships -- they draw about 30 feet of water.


Some ships that come in, so that -- especially if it's low tide. They can't hit the bottom, you know. So they have to have long pilings for that.



And you worked on those piers down there?

Yeah, I worked on Pier 58, Pier 58. And then I did a lot of work on the Harbor Island, but they were wood, wood piers. They're probably all concrete now, too, because Todds -- those piers by Todds Shipyards there. And . . .

Mrs. Kangas: It was the creosoted piling, you know. We always figured that that's what gave him asthma, breathing all that poison in his lungs.

Creosote. It was right on top there.


I found out something then. It was that -- when I retired, I started -- I made birdhouses first. And then I got my mother's spinning wheel, which was about hundred years old then, and then I started making spinning wheels, and I made four of them.

Did you?

And I -- I gave one away and I sold one. And I still got two in the basement, you know. I kind of copied my mother's spinning wheel.


So I --

Where did that -- that came from Minnesota?


Where did she get the spinning wheel?

Well, that really came from Minnesota, yeah.


Because my brother was over there to move my mother, you know, to move to town. So then he got the spinning wheel. Of course, she passed away, but then his wife gave it to me.


It meant more to me that to her.

Oh, sure.

Mrs. Kangas: You don't think that that -- spinning wheel was from Finland, huh?

I think it was, because what I remember hearing that that spinning wheel, people came from Finland or lot of other nationalities, they didn't like it in this country. So they went back to Finland, or Turkey, or Germany. But then they didn't want to take the spinning wheel, you know. They had enough stuff, you know. The Cuban ladies were -- so that's how my mother probably got it for $20.or something like that. Some of them spinning wheels, like in New York City, they sell for $750.

Oh, yes.

Antique, you know. Well, I got her -- I still got her spinning wheel. But I got in a glass case, you know. I don't know what's going to happen to it when --

Mrs. Kangas: You made a cabinet for it.

Is it?

(Continuing) --when I leave, I hope they don't throw it to the garbage can. Because the kids, they don't have no value for something like that.

The museum might like to see it.

Yeah, they -- yeah. They do have some there.

They do?

Yeah, they do.


And, you know, that has sheep -- they had over -- they had so much sheep, had too much wool, so I got a big box full. But I had to wash it. You have to have special kind of soap to wash that wool. Well, I washed it, and then I carded it. I had a -- carding tools, you know what they are?


I carded them after -- you have to dry them first, you know.

When was this?

Oh, this is only -- oh, 25 years ago.


And so, I -- I dried it out naturally. I had -- figured everything at this table here. I had wool drying all over it. But you have to rinse it, and rinse it, and do a good job. And then I had to start carding it, you know. And I didn't have much trouble carding it. And I got one more box of carded wool down there. And if anybody buys that, I'll give them the wool.


You know, I'll give them the wool. But you know that wool is expensive.

Oh, yes.

If you go buy it.


It costs like -- they got all kinds -- different kinds of wool. So I got -- oh, and of course, I had -- I made all kinds of things, you know, after that, you know. But I got them in the basement. And I made lamps, you know.

Mrs. Kangas: This is the last of the coffee.

You can see it when you go out.

The Ballard Bell Tower.


Where is that located?

Well, it's right on 22nd and Ballard Avenue. It's right in that corner. And it's -- it's about 30 feet high. Yeah, you ought to see that.

Well, why did you make a copy of it?

Well, I don't know. I didn't have anything else to do. So I says -- you can see it when you go out. I had that on Market Street there for about three months. That shoe store.

On the --

It was on the window, yeah. And then, ex-Senator Peterson, you remember him?

No, I don't.

Well, we met him, and he -- he liked that. That was his idea to build the Bell Tower in Ballard. That bell was from the city hall, right next to the Bell Tower.

Mrs. Kangas: When Ballard -- when Ballard was a city.

So anyway, he -- I told him that I had a replica.

Yeah. When was that Bell Tower built?

Mrs. Kangas: Oh, good grief. Who knows?

Twenty years ago?

No, the original. The one --

Oh, yeah, 20 years ago.

Mrs. Kangas: Oh, no, the original, probably 1890, or something like that. The original city hall, Ballard City Hall.

Oh, City Hall.

Mrs. Kangas: Ballard City Hall.

Oh, yeah. Oh, 1880, or something like that. Yeah. But the bell is from that -- I understand that the bell fell off when we had that earthquake.


And then it was down there, you know, down to the -- it was over there, you know where Louie's was?

Mrs. Kangas: Oh, Firlands?

Firlands, for awhile. So then, from there it went down to the Locks. They donated it to the Locks, where they signed a bunch of government papers.

You're talking about the bell itself?

Yeah, the bell itself.


Mrs. Kangas: Want sugar and cream?

So now, when they wanted it back, they still had to go through a lot of papers to get it back from the government. And that's what that bell is now. And it's way up there about 30 feet high. Drive by there.

Mrs. Kangas: They rebuilt -- they rebuilt this little area, so it's like a momento of old Ballard.

And you built a replica of that?


And it's on your front porch.

Oh, yeah. Yeah.

How big is the bell?  I mean the tower?

You can see it when you go out.

Yeah, but roughly how big is that?

Mrs. Kangas: Oh, three feet, four feet.


Mrs. Kangas: Three feet or four feet, yeah. Your replica.

Oh, it's -- let's see --

Mrs. Kangas: Four feet?

Oh, four or five feet high, to the top.


About five feet high.

Mrs. Kangas: And then he made the table it sits on.

Uh-huh. Yeah.


Audio cassette interview of Arvid Kangas by Curtis Jacobs, July 27, 2000, Nordic Heritage Museum, Seattle.

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