A complaint about access

Indulge me for a moment while I vent a consistent frustration of mine… and probably one experienced by historians (professional and lay alike) everywhere.

This past weekend, I took a trip up to Oklahoma to see if I could spot the remains of historically significant sites. Specifically, I was seeking the Oklahoma historical marker, placed in 1958, for Nail’s Crossing, a stage stop on the Butterfield Overland Mail and Stagecoach route. I was also seeking the possible remains of the Wapanucka Academy, a boarding school established for Chickasaw girls before the Civil War. During the war, the school acted as a temporary hospital.

Wapanucka academy possible ruin

I’m not saying this aerial image (from Google Maps) depicts the old Wapanucka Aademy site; I’m just saying I’d like to have the opportunity to find out.

I was thwarted in my endeavors on both accounts. For one, there were no posted indications at all that anything historic was in their respective vicinities. Not only that, but when attempted to access the places after my careful research to pinpoint their locations, I was met with “no trespassing” signs. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t like getting shot, so I heeded the warnings and left the road trip “empty handed.” I was disappointed, to say the least – especially because Google Maps indicated that these sites were, in fact, close to country lanes. These roads no doubt have been taken over by land owners and are now considered private.

Nails Crossing possible site

Notice how Google Maps has Nail’s Crossing Road going all the way to the Blue River? Well, access is restricted past the last driveways on both the southeast and northwest sides. The red circle is where, I surmise, the crossing took place. A bridge was erected there before the Civil War.

It bothers me greatly that important historic are tucked away for only a select few to access. For example  rivers (and their shorelines) and cemeteries are both considered public lands. Yet consistently, I find my access to both restricted. I cannot access the Nail family cemetery at the Blue River, nor the Colbert family cemetery near the old ferry crossing and toll bridge on the Red River. Just getting down to the Red River beyond the obvious access points is a feat in itself.

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The old Nail’s Crossing road can no longer be traversed.

While I love Oklahoma, I must point out that this state is particularly bad about historic site preservation and access. Although mid-century historical committees urged restoration and upkeep of historical sites and continued placement of historical markers, often their advice was not heeded. Instead, the intrepid explorer continually finds herself having to use historical maps and anecdotes to find sites that have been already surveyed and documented previously. The land owners that allowed access to one group may restrict further attempts at visitation, or the descendants/new owners are simply not interested. While I do not mind the research I invest in finding the sites, I do mind that I cannot visit their physical remains.

Nails crossing what the committee wanted to do

http://digital.library.okstate.edu/Chronicles/v036/v036p446.pdf

Here’s a description of what the historical committee recommended for Nail’s Crossing in 1958. Nothing came to fruition, however. To read more about the 1958 effort to document the Butterfield Overland Mail & Stagecoach route in Oklahoma, read this.

History should be as readily accessible and as much documented as possible. It helps the academic, the genealogist, and the community, as historic properties can bring tourist dollars and lend prestige to an area.

And, it helps me. Who wouldn’t want that?

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Hobby for nosy people

I took up a new hobby last year – estate sale shopping. Like my “hobby” of ghost town collecting, this new pastime does not require amassing a large collection of finds that I have to find storage for, however. Going to estate sales is, for me, simply another way to satiate my nosiness.

But I have to make myself clear; I’m not nosy about other people’s possessions. Rather, I like to go inside houses to savor, comment, critique, enjoy, and marvel at their architecture. And the older the house, the better. At the Dallas-area estate sales I frequent, I have the opportunity to visit early and mid-century homes that had been owned by one family for decades. After the last of the parental generation dies off, their possessions go on sale and the house itself is also up for grabs. Often, that means that the house will no doubt become bulldozer fodder as the new homeowners wish to transform geographically desirable addresses into fashionably designer homes with the latest accouterments. I could pretend to be understanding in their desire to tear down the older homes to build more modern ones. It’s their money, right? And everyone wants the latest conveniences, right?

lamar county log house front.jpg

Not a modern house.

But I’d be lying. I LIKE the older homes. I think pink, tiled bathrooms, with built-in toothbrush holders, are awesome. I cannot contain my enthusiasm when I encounter a vintage metal kitchen, often painted in a cheery yellow. Massive brick fireplaces with wooden mantles, built-in corner china cabinets, transoms, stained-glass windows, arched doorways, crystal door knobs, telephone nooks, linoleum, shag carpeting, scuffed wooden floors, decorative plaster… I’m a big fan.

Estate sales offer the rare opportunity for me to see these hidden gems before they’ve been demolished, and without having to employ a real estate agent, either. Visiting these sales is like capturing a small moment in time, before the future obliterates the past.

Published in: on January 13, 2016 at 6:20 pm  Comments (1)  
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What historians do

On my website, Red River Historian, I haven’t often written about controversial topics in history because I tend to shy away from confrontation. Since my readers are mostly U.S. Americans from the South, there are certain historical events and themes that may be deemed safer if “buried in the past.”

However, I made a resolution to change this – I decided to not be timid anymore. I’ve finished a short article on Dallas’ segregated cemeteries and another one on the Colfax Massacre of 1873. Soon, I’ll be doing a lengthy piece on lynching in the Red River Valley, as for a while, the area had the dubious distinction of being one of the most violent places for African Americans in the United States.

Historians occupy an important role in our society; they confront the present with questions and observations about the past. It’s like they hold a mirror up to us so that we can question our own  prejudices and assumptions. Through their research, they challenge the way we view the nation. I think this is the most important task a historian has: to make the present ACKNOWLEDGE the past. And the past in the U.S. is fraught with all sorts of uneasy topics. Racism is BIG component, of course, as are other -isms like sexism, nativism, nationalism, capitalism (meaning, an economy built on slavery) and more.

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Here’s nativism, racism, and eugenics conveniently packaged in one illustration inside an early 20th century academic journal.

Acknowledgement is something Americans are really good at, even if pundits believe the opposite. History has shown that in the U.S., misdeeds do get remembered and controversial topics are eventually brought to the surface. Recent examples are acknowledgement of what happened at Wounded Knee in 1890, South Carolina removing the the Confederate flag from the state house, and uncovering the complicity of US academe in the eugenics movement of the early 20th century.

In the U.S., the truth isn’t hidden for long. I like to think it’s because we’re a nation of seekers. Americans have certain freedoms, and responsibilities that come with those freedoms, that allow for the hidden past to become known. This is done through memory, research, and recording. Though the interpretation of the past might be faulty, all that the wrongness does is to create a dialogue; instead of censoring, we debate, negotiate and adapt.

Acknowledgement does not mean atonement, however. Often, being confronted with the bad parts of history makes people defensive and  dismissive. Denial is one of the five stages of coping, and sometimes, people get stuck in that stage. So, the only thing a historian can do is continue to expose the past… and help students of history eventually acknowledge it.

Published in: on January 7, 2016 at 8:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Death Divided

I love strolling through cemeteries – the older and more overgrown, the better, of course. I’m not particularly ghoulish, though. I just enjoy the underlying history that cemeteries provide. Some of that history is relayed in tomb stones and monuments. Often, however, the history is contained beneath more subtle contexts: the layout of the stones, the level of ruin within the cemetery, the innocuous placing of a fence…

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See that fence in the background? It denotes the racial divide at Pleasant Grove Cemetery in Ladonia, Fannin County, Texas.

… that’s right – the South, which my website Red River Historian documents, still contains the remnants of segregation inside many of its cemeteries. Because even in death, the powers that be insisted that races had to remain separated.

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The cemetery in the ghost town of Cannon (Grayson County, Texas) became segregated after the Civil War. The segregation was denoted through a road that divided the two burial grounds, which is visible in the background. Before the war, enslaved people were sometimes interred with their white masters, but their graves were marked with wooden stakes. After the war, the first African American burials were also marked with wooden markers.

In the pre-Civil War period, segregated burial places were not needed, as blacks – most of whom were enslaved – were either buried without so much as a tomb stone, or were interred amongst their masters. There were some designated “slave cemeteries” in a few select locations – such as near large plantations or in the cities – but most of these burial places are no longer visible, as time, neglect, and outright disrespect have taken their toll on them.

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A wooden marker, most likely for an enlsaved person, at Kentuckytown Cemetery (Grayson County, Texas).

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This enslaved woman was interred with the white family at Vittetoe Cemetery (Grayson County). However, her tomb does not commemorate her name – it simply denotes what she was to those who owned her.

The few free people of color often confined their cemeteries within their church yards, such as St. Augustine Church near Natchitoches, Louisiana.

st augustine church grave

A brick tomb at St. Augustine Church cemetery, which was founded by Creole families in the early 19th century, in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana.

In the period after the Civil War, which historians call “reconstruction,” Southern whites were unwilling to see their former slaves as equals. Cities and communities set aside portions of burial grounds for blacks, but these “Negro Cemeteries” (often deemed “Freedman Cemeteries”) were completely separated, usually by fences, or hedges, or pathways. With little money for upkeep and many African American families leaving the South due to racial violence and economic discrimination, their cemeteries became less maintained. Eventually, many of these boneyards were razed by construction projects or were just simply ignored.

Dallas Greenwood Cemetery Sanborn

The “Negro Cemetery” near Central Expressway in the State-Thomas area of Dallas was bulldozed in the 1960s to make way for the expansion of US 75.

History is lost this way. Of course, that may have been the reason behind the neglect and disregard.

Yet, especially in smaller communities, the “Negro Cemeteries” are still extant and active. Black cemeteries are extremely interesting to me, as their very existence lends an aura of defiance against the southern U.S. social structure. Though the tombs may not be as elaborate as those designed for affluent whites, black graves are just as loud – they serve as the final and eternal stamp on the world, indicating that the person buried there mattered as much as any other man or woman.

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While simple, this grave of a black man in Tatums, Carter County, Oklahoma, makes sure to commemorate the person interred within. Tatums is one of Oklahoma’s historical all-black towns.

I plan on visiting and documenting many more black cemeteries. The southern, segregated graveyard is a fascinating aspect of history that tells a lot about not only the people interred there, but about the community in which they’re buried.

An historic Death

In the US, death of history is frequent.

I’m not talking about historical events today, even though they have their own share of death and destruction. I’m referencing historic preservation, or to put it more bluntly, the complete and utter lack thereof.

I found myself driving through southwestern Arkansas just this past week, filled with the peculiar anxiety always reserved for the things I hold most dear – old, abandoned buildings that have historical significance but have been neglected and forgotten for new and shinier places. Each time I re-visit a ghost town or some abandoned place that I’ve previously chronicled, my nerves get edgy, as I am scared to discover that another piece of history may have been destroyed.

My fears were confirmed in Fulton, Hempstead County, Arkansas. I have a major soft spot for this little town, which has so much history behind it. It sits right alongside the Great Bend of the Red River, and its levees are still tall and sturdy. Since its inception, Fulton served as a major crossroads. First, it was the river crossing for people headed to Mexican Texas. Then, it was mentioned as the terminus of the first proposed transcontinental railroad (Cairo & Fulton RR). By the 1920s, the Bankhead Highway cut a path right alongside this once very important town.

The lone commercial building that still stood in Fulton, Arkansas…

There are only a handful of reminders that point to this hamlet’s history. There’s the railroad bridge, rebuilt after the flood of 1927. Then there’s the water well, now ensconced in a derelict wooden building. You can still see the steamboat docks and moorings on the eastern bank of the Red River, too. And lastly, a lone commercial building, probably built around the turn of the 20th century, stood in a dilapidated state across from the post office.

When I visited Fulton in August of 2015, I discovered that this beautiful old building had been razed. The facade, with its tin cornice, was nowhere to be seen. All foundations, bricks, wood, shingles… everything had been bulldozed. All that sits there now is an empty, gaping maw.

… is now gone.

I don’t know if anyone in Fulton cried when it went away, this last vestige of a once-important town that the interstate unceremoniously bypassed. But I did. I cried bitter, bitter tears over this death.

The building was in a horrible state, for sure. The back had caved in, and its crumbling walls – whatever was left of its walls – exposed the interior to the elements. But the front part of the building was in good order. It could have been sheered off and then braced. It could have been simply a gateway that stood to frame the levee… anything rather than just some other damned hole in the ground.

You may wonder, what if the property owner didn’t have the money to do all this? The building was a hazard and could have well exposed the owner to lawsuits if someone trespassed. These are all good arguments. But, here’s the thing – we cannot keep letting private property rights and obligations get in the way of historic preservation. This country, these states, this town need programs that allow for the reclamation of history. Let eminent domain take over, if it has to. Compensate the owner and then preserve the building, through federal and state grants. Don’t tell me this country doesn’t have the money, either. We’re the richest country on earth. We just allow our wealth – oil wealth, coal wealth, manufactured wealth – to remain in the hands of the oligarchy who provide mere snippets to the rest of us plebeians,and that’s why we think our country is bankrupt. Believe me, we’re not. If we were, we wouldn’t be able to fight all these wars over which our plebeian sons and daughters get killed.

We’re a nation that loves private property. I get that. I also get that it has been, historically, a detriment for most put-upon people. Native American tribes understand that all too well. So do African Americans, whose ancestors were forced into perpetual slavery and were not even considered fully human. Women get it, too – for centuries, they were their husband’s property and as married women, could not rightfully claim property of their own unless it was specifically bequeathed to them.

And you know what else is put upon? Our heritage. That little building in Fulton was a fantastic link to the past – our shared past, warts and all. And we simply have to stand back and watch our history get destroyed, one building at a time, because we’re not allowed to own that past. And then we scrape up all the money we can to visit Europe, so that we can marvel at their old buildings. Am I missing something here?

Published in: on August 8, 2015 at 8:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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A Memory

I decided to get away from the mundane humdrum that is my life (and, to be honest, to find something else to do besides clean the house), so I visited my favorite cafe. It’s small, has really good chicken sandwiches, is owned by a lovely lady, and it’s attached to the public library. My friends recommended coming to the cafe to visit with each other weekly, and now, this little place has become a very nice hang out.

The other reason I like it so much is that their playlist turns to my two favorite bands time and time again: Dire Straits and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. They are my road tripping soundtrack. I was sitting inside this cafe today, writing one of those sanctimonious blog posts that no one really reads anyway, when suddenly, Mark Knopfler was telling me with his velvety voice that “You’re so far away from me.”

I love when good music rushes in good memories. I distinctly remember the time I played this song in the CD player of my little Jeep. My son was sitting next to me, smiling, with his hand surfing the wind outside the open window. The wildflowers were in bloom. A few white, fluffy clouds danced in the sky. We were discovering traces of the Chisholm Trail in Montague County and had just paid a visit to the marker at the old Red River Station Crossing. It was a perfect day… I even got to watch a cowboy use his pick up truck to round up some errant cattle.

So as I was sitting in the cafe, eating my Doritos, the song gave me the opportunity to  appreciate how dear these snippets of memory are. Memories aren’t made deliberately, and memory-making moments aren’t recognizable until long afterwards. Silly things like Dire Straits crooning in a cafe can take me back to a place and time where happiness just existed, next to the blue of the sky and alongside the yellow of the daisy and amid the red earth of the river.

red river montague county

I distinctly remember taking this photo of the Red River on that beautiful, memorable day.

My life isn’t so humdrum after all.

Published in: on June 10, 2015 at 11:06 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Ruins Tell Stories

Lots of the pictures I post on my website, www.redriverhistorian.com, tend to be of ruins – disused buildings and such – and sometimes, I’ve been accused of worshipping “ruin porn,” as if I am some voyeuristic pervert.  I find that such an obnoxious term, and wonder if the same people who tell me this also insult people who visit and take pictures of the pyramids in Egypt, Mexico, or Guatemala.

Before I get accused of comparing cultural icons like the Sphinx to a disused gas station in Italy, Texas, hear me out.

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Modern American culture and history are built on commercialism, not ancestor worship (note I wrote “modern American culture” – that means I’m not talking about Cahokia or Spiro). The first European settlements in North America consisted of trading posts and plantations. Religious and governmental structures, like the missions and presidios in San Antonio, were erected to support the colonial exploitation of the continent. And while American children have been taught that the pilgrims came to Massachusetts to found a religious settlement, that intention was secondary; they were part of the Plymouth Colony, the primary goal of which was to send beaver pelts, copper, and timber back to Mother England. (** Please note that Pilgrims and Puritans are both from the Anglican Separatist tradition and only became distinctive as American history was documented in latter years).

Therefore, I argue, the demise of American capitalism is well worthy of documentation. Detroit, as well as the thousands of ghost towns dotting the United States, are all prime examples of the disintegration of a culture based on economic gains. Think about it – the eerie beauty of the abandoned Michigan Central Station in Detroit is directly related to the city’s demise as an industrial center. The same goes for the derelict storefronts in small towns like Gotebo, Oklahoma, because they serve as a very tangible reminder of how corporations have come to dominate and homogenize the cultural landscape.

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Michigan Central Station, Detroit and Gotebo, Oklahoma

What can I say? People who derisively label photographs of American abandonments as “ruin porn” are historically illiterate.

Published in: on June 19, 2014 at 4:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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It’s Here! The Red River Valley in Arkansas: Gateway to the Southwest

The book will appear at stores and online in February 2014! You know you want it.

Now available all over the place!

I am not one for bragging, but when I opened the box that contained my author’s copies of my newest book, The Red River Valley in Arkansas: Gateway to the Southwest, I had to admit that the cover NAILED it. It is so, so pretty!

From the back cover:

“The Red River’s dramatic bend in southwestern Arkansas is the most distinctive characteristic along its 1,300 miles of eastern flow through plains, prairies and swamplands. This stretch of river valley has defined the culture, commerce and history of the region since the prehistoric days of Caddo inhabitants. Centuries later, as the plantation South gave way to westward expansion, people found refuge and adventure along the area’s trading paths, military roads, riverbanks, rail lines and highways. This rich heritage is why the Red River in Arkansas remains a true gateway to the Southwest. Author Robin Cole-Jett deftly navigates the history and legacy of one of the Natural State’s most precious resources.” I blush.

Check out my other books, too: Traveling History with Bonnie & Clyde, Traveling History up the Cattle Trails, and Images of America: Lewisville.

Oh, and while you’re clicking away, don’t forget to visit the origination of all of my explorations: www.redriverhistorian.com

I started my website WAY back in 2002 as a way to share my love of regional history with like-minded people. It’s become a really fun conduit to share information, photos, and discoveries. I now keep up with many readers through my Facebook page, too.

Happy Trails!

Another Red River Historian

When you take into the account the vast volumes of literature that American historians have produced over the last two centuries, what becomes clear is that the Red River hasn’t been discussed much. Like the Thames in England, the Nile in Egypt, the Ganges of India, and the Tigris in ancient Persia, rivers have defined the civilizations that grew around them, and the Mississippi River has been given that honor in the United States. And that’s pretty much how it should be… the Red River isn’t the grandest of streams, after all. Though it figured prominently in the boundary questions between the US, Spain, France, the Caddoan Confederacy, Mexico, Texas, and Arkansas, the Red River happened to become important just as river traffic was slowly giving way to the railroads, and what could have become a major river in American history was instead left to nature.

Red River bottoms by childress
Certain historians have recognized the Red River, however, and none has done such a good job of it than Dan Flores. Flores, who holds a PhD from Texas A&M and is a native of Natchitoches, has become one of the eminent historians of American West history. His research has focused on the “Old Southwest” (also called the Near Southwest) in many of his books, and what I like best about him is that he emphasizes the past through both geography and art, which allows the reader to obtain a “sense of place.” One of his first projects was as editor to the short but informative Journal of an Indian Trader: Anthony Glass and the Texas Trading Frontier, 1790-1810 (1985). Flores allows Glass to recount his explorations, adding geographic descriptions to create a valuable reference to early interactions between Native Americans and European capitalists. In Horizontal Yellow: Nature and History in the Near Southwest (1999), he again combined geography and history by explaining – very poetically – how the landscape of the Llano Estacado shaped human interaction. He was one of the first historians to offer a thorough treatment of the Louisiana Purchase expedition up the Red River in Southern Counterpart to Lewis and Clark: The Freeman and Custis Expedition of 1806 (2002). As best he could, he recreated portions of the journey himself, and filled gaps with a realistic imagination as so much of the original landscape had been altered over the years.

Carpenter Bluff bridge wide shot tx side
I highly recommend Dr. Flores’ studies on the Red River. Like John Graves did in his classic treatment of the wild Brazos of 1960, Goodbye to a River, Flores makes the Red River a central figure in his histories, and when you read his books, the river becomes as important a figure as any one man or woman. I truly hope that one day, my small contribution to the study of the Red River will be even a fraction as good as his.

Published in: on May 30, 2013 at 4:31 am  Leave a Comment  
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Mapping the Red River Valley

Google Maps have been my constant companion since they were introduced back in the stone ages (okay, a few years ago). I can’t believe I ever did research without them, and I seriously pity the historians who came before me who didn’t have this kind of tool at their disposal.

I should mention that I’ve been a map fiend from way back, and have always used them extensively… but! The satellite pictures on Google Maps (and Google Earth) truly help me understand the geographical context of what I’m researching.

CaptureSpanishBluff

A snapshot of Spanish Bluff, the place where the Custis/Freeman Expedition was halted by Spanish troops in the early part of the 19th century.

History cannot exist without a grasp of the geography where events took place. The location, time, and space are all important factors in understanding why and how things happened. Sometimes, it’s not the easiest thing to picture… landscapes change, after all.

Let’s take at a photo I found on the Texas & Pacific Railway Historical Archive website:

denison tp tunnel

Denison, where this photo was taken, doesn’t look at all like it did back in its railroading hey-day. So I checked the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps to make sure that I am seeing the intersection of tracks correctly, as it seems the T&P tracks are passing underneath the MKT tracks:

CaptureSanborndenison

Using descriptions from the T&P site (behind Crockett and Hull Streets) and discerning the railroad bed from up in the air, I found the disused right-of-way on Google Maps. I made sure it was the right one when I traced it back to Bells.

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And, if you look closer, you can even spot a section of the stone wall from the old tunnel:

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Which is what I photographed when I visited Denison the other day:

Denison wall on old katy right of way

 

Looking at the photograph and the current condition of where the railroad used to be gives me a sense of how much Denison has changed over the years.

Then, there’s the question I had about something I saw from the air in Sherman, between Mulberry and Pacific Streets (south/north) and Willow and Lee Streets (west/east):

CaptureShermangoogle

It looked industrial (that wasn’t too far-fetched) so I decided to see what I could from old maps. First, I checked out the Bird’s eye map:

CaptureShermanbirdseyeCaptureSherman13

And then checked the Sanborn Fire Insurance Map:

CaptureShermansanborn

So, the bases I’m seeing are peanut and cotton oil tanks. Not earth-shattering, but at least I know what I’m looking at when I check out the ruins.

Another way to do this is to check city directories from the time periods, but since I don’t have them handy, I’ll use the maps to figure things out.

This kind of research is what goes on all the time inside museums, archives, libraries, bored people’s laptops at Starbucks, etc. Hey, it’s something to do!

Published in: on March 17, 2013 at 1:45 am  Comments (2)  
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