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October Tales: Spooky or Inexplicable Events – Part 2

Directory Assistance

Toward the end of my teen-age stint as a writer for DC Comics, I took a part-time job washing dishes at a restaurant.

It wasn’t that DC wouldn’t give me all the work I could handle and fill every minute of my time—the fact is that working for Mort Weisinger was killing me. His abusive keep-the-creators-under-his-thumb editorial “style” had worn me down.

Early on, when the big, important man (said he) called me from New York to yell at me about every little flaw and mistake in my latest script I felt terrible. After four years of this, I’d finally figured out that DC wouldn’t keep sending me checks if what I did wasn’t any good, and Mort’s rants about what a moron I was for misspelling a word or some such became just noise. Grating, irritating noise. Mort still made writing comics a pain, an ordeal—even if he no longer had the ability to make me feel bad about myself.

I found myself less and less interested in the work, less and less enthused about doing something, that at first, I loved. My productivity fell off steadily.

So I looked for something, anything else to do to make some money for my family. Options are limited when you’re eighteen. So, that year, and for several years after quitting DC, whenever any creative work I got wasn’t steady enough, I took various less glamorous jobs.

Washing dishes at the Viking Restaurant in Banksville, just through the Fort Pitt Tunnel and down the road a ways from Pittsburgh, I met Sam, a fellow kitchen grunt. We became friends.

At one point, I needed in the worst way to make a long distance call and had no money for the pay phone. Sam gave me his last five bucks with days to go till payday. As long as I live, no matter what I ever do for Sam, there’s no way I can ever repay that five bucks. You can’t give more than all.

Anyway….

After a while, I noticed that the owner was shorting my paycheck. Sam showed me his. Same thing. Sam, no math whiz, probably never would have noticed.

I complained.

The owner stopped deducting non-existent taxes from my check (Pittsburgh had no city income tax), but counting on Sam’s ignorance of such things, she kept screwing him.

We decided to quit. We waited till Saturday, when there was a big event in both the upstairs and downstairs party rooms, a full bar and a crowd in the main dining room. We let the dishes pile up, and when the owner came to shriek at us and demand we do the dishes, Sam flipped her his towel and said, “You do ‘em.” We walked out.

We celebrated by splurging on roast beef sandwiches at the Arby’s down the street. Too much money to spend, really, but….

That was the last time I saw Sam for a long time.

Years later, when I was somewhat more prosperous, I was driving to West Mifflin to visit a friend and for some reason took a circuitous route through an unfamiliar part of town. I saw a Marine hitchhiking.  I rarely pick up hitchhikers, but, what the hell, he was a serviceman. My daddy, having been a soldier, used to give servicemen hitchhiking a lift, if he could. So I pulled over, and the guy got in.

It was Sam! I didn’t recognize him at first. Sam was the cartoon hippy last time I saw him. Now, a Marine?! Sam explained the he had joined up because they said they’d teach him how to be a baker.

Seemed to me there might be an easier way, but, okay….

His mother was sick. Very sick. He’d gotten a 24 hour pass to come and visit her.

Sam was stationed in Philadelphia, some 300 miles away. The bus ride to Pittsburgh had eaten up a third of his time. He’d have only a few hours with her at best before he’d have to catch the last possible bus back.

I drove him to his mother’s house and stayed there with him so I could drive him to the bus station.  To give him the maximum time home with mom.

Time came to leave for the bus. Sam couldn’t do it. We stayed.

Finally, once his mother was asleep and Sam’s sister was there to stay with her, we left. No way to get him to Philly except to drive him, so I did. Got him there around two AM. Late. But he climbed the fence around back, picking his way through the razor wire on top, so he wouldn’t be caught AWOL.

Then I drove back to the ‘Burgh and went to work at my day job—reconditioning cars at McMillen and Baer Volkswagen. That was a long, weary day….

Sam’s mother died very soon thereafter. But at least he’d had a chance to say good-bye.

So, I paid off a couple cents of that five bucks….

I wonder, what are the odds that I would be driving through a strange neighborhood I had no reason being in, that I would give a lift to a serviceman on some whim driven by the fact that my father had been a soldier, and therefore trusted soldiers, and also that I had the time and wherewithal to do what I did.

Sam needed me, and there I was, however unlikely, however it came to pass.

After that, again, for a long time, Sam and I fell out of touch.

Years later, in 1976, I went through a traumatic breakup with a woman, JW, I really, truly loved. My fault. I let it slip away. When it was finally over for sure, that night I couldn’t sleep. Lying awake at four o’clock in the morning, I decided to go to the office. Do some work. Try to force out the hurt by focusing on something else.

I arrived at the Marvel offices around five AM, as opposed to my usual 7 or 7:30. For some reason, I sat down at a desk out in the big editorial room, rather than in my own office. The phone on the desk I had randomly chosen rang.

If you called Marvel in 1976, you reached the reception desk. At 5 AM, with no receptionist present, you would have gotten no answer. You could dial a staffer directly, if you knew the extension.

So who was calling the person at whose desk I was sitting at that hour?

I answered.

It was Sam.

Sam was out of the Marines by then and worked at a bakery in Tulsa. I asked him what made him call at 5 AM. Well, he said, he’d just gotten done making the donuts and was thinking about me, so he gave me a call.

But it’s 5 AM, I said. How did you know…? What made you think I’d be at work? For that matter, how did you know I worked at Marvel Comics?!

There was no way he could even have known I’d moved to New York!

Sam had no idea it was 5 AM my time. I don’t think he knew or cared much about time zones. He knew I wrote comics, so he called Marvel. Is there some other kind, he asked? He didn’t know Marvel was in New York. Anyway, he thought he’d call, and, sure enough, I was there, right? So…what’s wrong with being right?

I asked him where he got the number he’d called. Directory assistance, he said. He didn’t have anything to write it down with, and he was afraid he’d screw up dialing it, but nope.

Directory assistance would give you Marvel’s main number, I said. How did he get this particular extension? “I don’t know,” said Sam.

So, he asked me what was wrong. Not, what’s doin’, not how are you. What’s wrong? I told him.

Sam may be math challenged, and he might not grok time zones, and he thought joining the Marines might be a good way to learn how to be a baker, but in a very fundamental, common sense way, he’s the wisest man I’ve ever known. After listening to my sad tale he said these words: “She didn’t love you enough.”

Well…all righty, then, there it is, isn’t it?

It didn’t make it all better, but…it sure gave me a new perspective. True. And better to find that out sooner rather than later. The first step to getting over JW.

So we talked for a while, promised to call each other and maybe visit sometime. Never happened for one reason or another.

I needed Sam, and there he was, however unlikely, however it came to pass.

It’s weirder than you think. I scoured the place after I hung up, to make sure no one else was there who might have answered the receptionist’s phone, known somehow which extension I was near and transferred the call. Nope. Nobody there but me.

Furthermore, Marvel Comics extensions had a different exchange than the main number. I don’t know why, but apparently that wasn’t an uncommon thing back then. So, the number directory assistance gave Sam was off by the three exchange digits as well as the four numbers that followed. All he got that was right was the area code.

I looked Marvel’s number up in the Manhattan directory just to be sure that the number Sam called wasn’t there for unfathomable reasons. Nope. I called directory assistance myself to see what numbers for Marvel were available. Only the main number.

And, oh, by the way, not that it made any difference, but there was a one-digit error in Marvel’s number in the phone book! A misprint! The book and directory assistance gave you a non-working number! Call that number (I did) and you got that screechy “We’re sorry, the call you made cannot be completed as dialed.”

I reported that to the financial guy who oversaw HR and other office management functions. Apparently, no one had ever checked.

I haven’t heard from Sam since.

As I said at the beginning of this personal X-Files series, I stated that I don’t believe in anything the existence of which has not been proven to my satisfaction. Not miracles, not ESP, not magic, not flying saucers, not ghosts….

And yet…some irrepressible notion in the back of my mind tells me that if, someday, Sam really needed me or I really needed him, there I’d be or there he’d be.

Absolutely true story.

My Girlfriend’s Dead Aunt Comes to Call

It happened one October night years later, 1992, to be exact. My girlfriend, let’s call her SF, and I were staying at her place. Sometime in the wee hours, we both suddenly, simultaneously woke up.

There was silence.

Then we heard someone in the hall outside the bedroom.

SF kept the bedroom door closed out of habit, left over from when she had an apartment mate in the second bedroom. The door latch, however, was broken, the legacy of a violent boyfriend who had once tried to kick in the sturdy, metal door to get at her, but only succeeded in damaging the latch hardware and hurting his foot. Good. Anyway, the door closed, but the taped-over latchbolt no longer held it closed. Push the door and it opened.

Ordinarily, adrenaline carries me to a state of fearlessness or extreme stupidity, depending on your point of view. Ordinarily, I would have quickly found a heavy item to hit with and gone to find out who or what the hell was out there. But this time, though my heart was pounding, I was frozen.

Irrationally afraid. So was SF.

We were clinging to each other like scared little kids.

The door swung open. A little light came in from the lights outside illuminating the apartment complex grounds. We could see that there was no one at the door.

But it felt like there was. Hard to explain, seeing nothing but knowing that someone or something is there.

The someone or something moved to the foot of the bed. Walked to the foot of the bed. We tracked its progress step by slow step in unison.

It stood there for what seemed like forever, but was probably only seconds.

Then it was gone. And, just like that we were no longer afraid. More than relieved, in fact. Comforted. We quickly went back to sleep.

In the morning, SF told me that two years earlier, on that very day, she and her boyfriend at the time had gone to visit her aunt, who also lived in Manhattan, and found her dead.

The aunt never liked that boyfriend.

SF told me that a year earlier on the anniversary of her aunt’s death, she had also awakened suddenly during the night and felt scared. It passed quickly. She was alone at the time.

She thought it was her aunt checking up on the kind of company she was keeping.

I guess I passed muster. I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t.

MONDAY: ULTIMATE COMICS – All-New Spider-Man #1 Dissected and Analyzed

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23 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    Hi Jim: Great Blog! It's an honour to be able to read "your voice" and hear your stories like this. While my "strange coincidence" story is not on an equal with yours and Sam it too defied rational explanation. My wife and I were on vacation in the summer of 1998 traveling around Vancouver Island with no real destination, just going where the road took us every day. After a couple of days we found ourselves approaching a small community called Bowser and realized we knew a couple that lived there. I will call them Pete and Naomi. We were not good friends but we knew them well enough to drop by and see if they wanted some company. We made a couple of stops in Bowser but could not see them (and had no address, no phone number) so continued on north. A couple of miles up highway we realized there was no real community until Courtney, which was about thirty miles away and was not a place we wanted to go to. Looking for a place to turn around we spotted a small community called Deep Bay and turned off the highway. A block into town I spotted a fire hall with a large driveway so used it to turn around to head back on to the road. On the way out of the driveway we were blocked by a passing SUV driven by Naomi!
    Turns out we had been misinformed. She and Pete actually lived in Deep Bay (we never would have found them in Bowser) and the friend she was coming from was one she had not visited in more than six months and had only dropped by on a whim. Her place was much farther in town and we never would have found her if she had not been driving by at that precise moment!
    Tenzil Kem (aka Kevin)

  2. Dear Matt,

    I sought work writing comics to help my family. My mother always called my successfully selling that first script to DC her "miracle." The money I earned kept us afloat. My father never said much about it. It wasn't till later that we had much of a relationship. My dealings with Mort were my dealings. No interference from parents, little involvement by parents. I didn't talk about Mort's nastiness much. Schoolmates knew I wrote comics but it was no big deal. No one cared. To the extent anyone knew about it, it was just some weird thing I did after school, cool only in that I made money at it.

  3. ToB

    Great stories – thank you for sharing them. And "He knew I wrote comics, so he called Marvel. Is there some other kind, he asked?" Touche.

  4. Johnboy

    These things happen to people sometimes whether it is explainable or not. Just today, my wife woke from a nap with a smothering feeling, and then got a call her mom's lungs were accumulating fluid and they were going to have to be drained in the hospital. In your case, one thing is obvious – your soul has a connection with Sam that runs deep.

  5. Crazy stuff. I'm 100% scientifically oriented myself, and my response to such tales is: according to the laws of probability, the very improbable *has* to happen sometimes. It would be even more improbably if it didn't.

  6. KintounKal

    William,

    If I had to chose only one issue as my favorite comic from 1994, it would be The Origin of the DEFIANT Universe #1 hands down. I'm proud to say I've memorized a sizeable chunk of the sentences within. I particularly like Jim's assertion that "There are exactly as many things in Heaven and Earth as are dreamt of in our philosophy. But, blind to much of reality, we live in this world unaware of all that is in it."

  7. Thanks for sharing those stories with us, Jim!

    When you talk about your days as a young writer, and working with Mort Weisinger, I often wonder what your parents thought of you getting a job writing for a comic book publisher. Even if the industry itself wasn't given a lot of respect by most people back when, I would think that your parents would have found it somewhat impressive that a teen-ager was working professionally in any field.

    I also have wondered, what did your family think of Mort Weisinger? Was there anytime that one of your parents confronted him about how he treated you, or did you let them know about it? And what did your friends think of you writing for comic books?

    — Matt

  8. "As I said at the beginning of this personal X-Files series, I stated that I don’t believe in anything the existence of which has not been proven to my satisfaction. Not miracles, not ESP, not magic, not flying saucers, not ghosts…."

    Well, it would seem that there are more things in heaven and earth, Mr. Shooter, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. 🙂

  9. One interesting serious of events was a day at work when no one was cooperative. More and more demands were being piled on my plate. People were coming up to me with the most ignorant requests and when I explained to them why their solution was impossible, it was countered with even more ignorant responses. I was quite honestly ready to quit my job. I was extremely angry and at one defining moment I thought to myself "This WILL end. I'm NOT putting up with this anymore." In that moment, it felt like a flash of energy leaving my body and going out in all directions. Immediately after, every person who had been a roadblock changed their stance and got out of my way. They went from being unreasonable to overly cooperative. I can't explain why dozens of people I'd been communicating with in isolated encounters changed their mind, disposition and attitude in a flash or why it felt like a burst of energy left my body. All I know is that my annoying day ended in that second. Adversaries became cooperative. I was able to finish the things I needed to do.

    Millions of years ago there was a world full of life forms that had no eyes. At some point, life forms developed eyes and a whole new "sense" came to exist. I'm sure if you were the first person to see food and pursue it, you be criticized greatly by all the blind people who were silently listening for food to get within reach. There was a really cool TV show about the evolution of the eye. It made me realize there could be more senses we have yet to discover. The only way to tap the next stage of progress is to be open minded about it. Otherwise, you are the blind guy waiting for opportunity to come to you.

  10. Urk, that reminds me of something that I believe the character Ray Stantz once said on The Real Ghostbusters cartoon. It was something like, if he sat in one place for the rest of his life, he would eventually meet everyone he ever knew in his life again as they walked by.

    It's interesting to consider that if you picked the right spot, you might be able to meet everyone you've ever heard of, let alone everyone you ever knew. Are there certain cities that almost everyone's been to in their lifetimes, certain sights within those cities most people have visited, certain highway exits or transportation terminals almost everyone's traveled through at some point?

    A neat science-fictiony idea to consider is that some spots on the planet have more "psychic residue" than others, based on how many different people have passed through that same point.

  11. KintounKal, I wonder if Jim ever told the story about why Sam joined the marines to Larry Hama. Maybe Roadblock's bio isn't as coincidental as it seems. 😉

  12. That story about Sam was a great one, Jim, one of the nicest pieces of writing you've done here to date. When it comes to the supernatural, however, count me as a Doubting Thomas. I like stories like this not because they hint at the supernatural, but because they present a puzzle to be solved. I would argue that the term "supernatural" is something of an oxymoron. I believe only in the natural that we understand and the natural that we do not understand. To prove that something is truly supernatural is to prove that it CAN NEVER be explained by science, which is an impossible feat.

    I believe there's a scientific explanation for everything, whether or not it's within our current collective capacity to conceive of one. Throughout our history, whenever unexplainable events occur, humans tend to imagine fanciful explanations for them. We didn't understand the solar system for a while, so we said the sun was a god. And so forth.

    If every coincidence was a supernatural event, then we wouldn't have coincidences. It's tempting to think a divine hand was guiding you when a coincidence occurs that has a positive effect on your life. But a fair analysis would also need to consider the coincidences that had negative or neutral effects.

    For example, I recently bumped into my parents at the entrance of a store halfway between where we live, an hour away from each of us. Each of us probably only goes there a handful of times in a year. Crunching the numbers in a generous way tells me there's a 1 in 500,000 chance we'd meet there in any given year. Yet it didn't take half a million years to happen. This event had no particular negative or positive effect on our lives, but it was extremely unlikely.

    Identifying something as a coincidence is highly subjective. A massive, if not infinite number of unlikely events happens to us in our lifetimes. It's our choice to perceive that some are more significant than others. The fact that we only consider a few of them to be coincidences underscores how much bias goes into our judgment.

    It might be unlikely any two random people in a city will meet each other. But, we see hundreds of random people every day. Each of these passings by are about as unlikely as any other when trying to predict their likelihood in advance. They just don't feel like coincidences because we never try to calculate the odds they would happen. We do that calculation in our heads retroactively when we meet a friend or family member unexpectedly, making only those events seem unlikely to us.

    Another form of bias comes into play when we don't consider all those potential coincidences that did NOT happen. Events we consider coincidental may be individually rare, but it is probably 100% likely that everyone will experience some significant coincidences in their lives. It goes back to that "selection bias." Since a potentially infinite number of unlikely events happens to us every day, it's not surprising that everyone will eventually find significance in some of them. That could be one reason why belief in the so-called supernatural is so common.

    In essence, what I'm arguing is that these coincidental events are only perceived as supernatural because people haven't considered some very reasonable mathematical explanations for them. Compare this to people believing in a sun god because they hadn't considered the possibility of a solar system.

    As for ghost stories and similar supernatural tales, it strikes me as curious that so many of these stories happen at night or while a person is drifting in and out of sleep. Dreams are one area of science that's not particularly well understood. I'm not sure scientists even agree on why we dream. Also consider imagination, memories, emotion and everything else about the chemistry of the human brain that we know very little about. All are possible avenues by which to explain some of these experiences people have that might appear to have no logical explanation.

  13. Urk

    Interesting stuff Jim. I'm interested in & moved by the synchronicity of your contact with Sam. I've had a few of those myself, tho none quite so powerfully unexpected. I did once, on my only visit to New York, think "well, if I walk 50 blocks that way, and then turn right and walk 20 blocks that way, that will take me by St. Mark's Pizza, and that's the last place anyone I know saw Dave, who's squatting & is hard to reach." So, that's the route that I took home from the bar, and there was Dave.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing a well-told tale. Like everyone else here, I'm kind of waiting to see if Sam shows up and leaves a comment.

  14. Dear Marc,

    We heard and "sensed" Dead Auntie approaching the bed.

  15. Wow, wild stuff.

    Outside of your comics biz talk and these totally weird occurances, I'd like to say thanks for sharing about the personal, painful life stuff. Crap jobs, heart-rending breakups (why do us big guys seem to fall the hardest when it comes to women?), etc are things most of us have in common and really, a blog is not a real and honest blog without the writer sharing the human truth of their lives now and again.

  16. KintounKal

    Sam's aspiration to be a baker by first joining the Marines reminds me of Hasbro's filecard information for G.I. Joe's heavy machine gunner codenamed 'Roadblock'. Larry Hama established that "Marvin F. Hinton's dream was to be a gourmet chef. He was working as a bouncer to earn money to attend the Escoffier School in France when an army recruiter convinced him that the army could train him to be a chef. Roadblock joined but found army menus and preparation techniques too appalling. Transferred to the infantry."

    It's good to hear Sam's plans worked out better than that. I'd bet dollars to donuts that you'll hear from him again. 🙂

  17. I have no doubts at all in the stories above. I'd say stories like that are pretty much normal in my life. Again though, most of my stories are a tad bit more personal than I wish to post online.

    I'll never forget driving twenty miles out of my way once asking myself "why do I feel I'm supposed to do this." When I arrived at my destination, the sister of a friend was frantic. She had no transportation and her dad was in the hospital. She asked me what made me stop by. I told the truth and said "I don't know, I just felt I was supposed to drive here." She asked if I could take her to the hospital. I said "Yeah, no problem." She said "You are the answer to my prayer." I've heard that more times than I can remember,

    Even the day my dad passed away, I knew I was supposed to be at the hospital. I was angry with myself for getting distracted and running late even though I had no idea his condition had gotten worse. I showed up before the posted visiting hours, slipped in through the back exit like I always had. I had enough time to see his condition and contact the rest of the family and get them all to the hospital in a rush. Had I not showed up when I did, he would have passed away without any close family around. As it was, everyone who cared the most was right at his side and able to say their goodbyes.

  18. Kid

    I don't believe in ghosts, but sometimes things happen that make you wonder.

    In the early '70s, my brother came into the living-room one night, frightened out of his wits, saying that a lady in white had passed him on the stairs. We moved from that house 11 years later, but moved back again after 4 years or so. (Strange I know, but too boring to go into the details.) The couple who had lived in the house in our absence told me, unprompted, that one night an apparition had passed through their bedroom wall from what had once been my brother's room and scared the cr*p outta them.

    Anyway, about a dozen years or more after having moved back into the house (which I still live in today), I was in bed one night when I had an impression that a little, wizened old lady in white came into my room and stood at my bedside peering down at me, as if to determine whether I was asleep or not. My eyes were closed, but I had seen her coming into the room as if they were wide open. Then she started to bend her face closer towards mine. Naturally I was petrified, but decided to confront the 'visitor', so I suddenly sat bolt upright in bed and, in an act of bravado, roared right in her face. She seemed to shrink back, and then turn into a glowing ball of white which receded away from me until it had disappeared.

    Had I seen a ghost? Had I dreamt it, and was what I saw merely an 'after image' in my mind, fading as consciousness returned to me?

    I don't suppose I'll ever really know, but, were you to ask me, I'd still say that I don't believe in ghosts. However, I'd add a "but…"

  19. KintounKal

    Speaking of your teen-age stint as a writer for DC Comics, Grant Morrison praised those issues in an interview with comicbookGRRRL dated July 18th. When asked about the shortage of female creators in DC's New 52 lineup, he said "Let's see more comics written by children, for children, for instance. Who cares about child labour laws? There must still be a few Victorian orphans out there who'd give one black lung for a chance to write Blue Beetle. Jim Shooter was thirteen when he started professionally and his work was brilliant!"

  20. nice stories Sam seems like a cool guy it's sad you don't keep in touch with him more often.

  21. Dear Jim,

    I've long been curious about your "less glamorous jobs" in the early 70s as well as your advertising work during that period. Thanks for shedding light on your "missing" years. All our experiences shape us, including the "less glamorous" ones. For example, when I read (in Back Issue?) that you reconditioned cars, a light clicked on in my head. Hey, that's what Star Brand did for a living! I figured you'd have stories to tell about the early 70s, but I still underestimated you. I didn't expect to hear about Sam.

    Stan the Man, meet Sam the Man. We all wish we had a friend like Sam. But would we all be worthy of him? I hope he's doing well, wherever he may be. He deserves the best.

    The extraordinary often turns out to be cliche, but even a skeptic like me is impressed by the string of coincidences involving Sam. What are the odds? I've been in the right place at the right time more than once, so I accept the existence of black swans. Not supernatural, just improbable — yet real.

    As for the visiting entity (aunt-ity?), did you hear it approach the bed, or did you somehow sense its steps?

  22. If you know Sam's surname, you could look it up on the Social Security Death Index (http://ssdi.rootsweb.ancestry.com/) in case he made a ghost call. I use it for many things, among them to find out if people mentioned in vintage UFO and/or ghost stories actually existed. (Most of the time it all checks out.) Otherwise, Sam's call is one of those odd coincidences that you might chalk up to your having needed a bud around that exact time. Call it Karma if you will. Can't explain the Aunt though, although I've had similar things happen to members of my family. Sometimes, the dead do return for a time at least.

  23. ja

    I don't believe in these phenomena myself. It makes for fun reading or viewing of a movie or TV show, but I can't ever wrap my head around the supernatural, as if it were actually a real thing.

    But there have been times when I experience something that I can't explain, that's way too coincidental, that is just plain… supernatural.

    I have tried my best to not get bent out of shape over it. When I dream of supernatural things, it actually awakes me with some discomfort.

    But over the years, I have learned how to deal with these strange instances. I just (metaphorically or not) crap my pants out of fear, and then move on with my life.

    After a change of pants, of course.

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