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I nearly got caught in a tornado on the 4th of July in 1969.

We were living near Cleveland, in a little suburb called Middleburg Heights, in one of those spanking new suburbs that had sprung up during the 1950s to serve the burgeoning families of the Baby Boom.  It was a comfortable, very average lifestyle, with the house, the dog, Mum, Dad, and me.  We barbecued in the summer, spent time watching TV and talking in the family room in the winter, and generally lived our lives.

That particular 4th of July had been a lovely day, with high temperatures and bright sunny skies.  Around 7:30, my folks and I had just finished eating and were about to head over to the neighboring town of Parma for their big fireworks program when the TV cut from the local news to a weather alert:  there were tornadoes in the area, and despite the date, residents of the Greater Cleveland area were advised to stay close to home.

I was only seven, so wasn't quite sure what was going on.  All I knew was that the sky had turned sulfur yellow, and Mum was very pale, and the winds were suddenly higher and colder than they had any right to be.

And then there was the funnel cloud on the horizon.

Needless to say, we stayed home.  

Middleburg Heights, as is turned out, was fine, and so was Parma.  But the Cleveland lakefront, where upwards of 20,000 people had gathered for a fireworks display, was slammed by a derecho, a line of killer storms sweeping across Lake Erie from Michigan.  Hundreds of smallcraft on the lakefront were destroyed, two people were killed in Lakewood Park by the high winds, four boaters drowned and another had to be rescued by the Coast Guard, over a foot of rain sheeted down overnight....

It was terrifying, possibly the most frightening thing I'd ever experienced.  Long after the danger had passed, I refused to go to bed, certain that if I closed my eyes the tornado would come and kill us all.  I think Dad finally picked me up and carried me to my room around 3:00 am, but by then I was so tired and so scared that I'm not sure I would have known my own name.

Despite this traumatic experience, the 4th of July has always one of my favorite holidays.  It's not simply a day off and enjoy barbecue, fireworks, and friends, wonderful as those are.  No, for me at least, the 4th of July is an opportunity to take a moment to reflect on just what happened in Philadelphia in early July of 1776.  I always take time to read the editorial page of the Boston Globe, which like many local papers devotes itself to reprinting the Declaration of Independence in full, odd spellings, knock against Native Americans, and all.   This country started out as an attempt to put an idea into reality, and as much as we've fallen short of that idea over the centuries since a handful of men gathered on a hot, steamy day to commit treason against their anointed king, always take time to consider that, as far as we've fallen short, in many ways we've come farther and done better than anyone could have predicted 237 years ago.  

And it's all because of the ordinary citizens, the men and women of all races, all religions, all genders and ethnicities, who make up this grand and glorious mess that we call the United States of America, that we are still here.  It's because of people famous and infamous, unknown and legendary, rich and poor and everything in between.  Our goals may not be the same, and we fall flat on our faces as often as not, but we're Americans, which means that even when we face impossible odds, we strap on our pink Mizunos and give it our best.

Today I'd like to tell the story of an ordinary American, one of the millions who've contributed to the ongoing saga that is the United States.  Born in Pennsylvania 90 years ago, he lived a life of quiet but not extraordinary accomplishment like so many others.  He's long since gone and cannot tell his own story, but thanks to his own talent with a camera and the research skills of this chronicler, the story of the crucial years when a smart, handsome boy from a middle class family became a man can now be told.

He was born in the Roaring Twenties, raised in the Great Depression, and was a college sophomore when he received his induction notice to help fight the Axis.  He spent two years in the military, from 1943 to 1945, and though he won no medals and stormed no beaches, his work, like that of so many other Americans during that dark and dangerous time, helped destroy a regime of such unspeakable evil that it's hard for modern minds to comprehend.

His name was Walt Evans.  This is his war.

Walter Bishop Evans, Jr., was born in September of 1923 in Edgewood, Pennsylvania.  This genteel little suburb on the North Side of Pittsburgh, once home to inventor George Westinghouse, was a perfect place for a middle class family with aspirations to something better to settle, which is exactly what Walt's father, Walter Bishop Evans, Sr., did.  Walt Sr., a bookkeeper for one of the big oil corporations headquartered in Pittsburgh, was doing well enough that by 1940 he owned a fine house with all the modern conveniences worth $8,000 and was pulling in over $5,000 in a year when the average salary was around $1300.  

Walt Jr., a bright and promising child, was raisedunder the loving eye of his mother, Nettie Hancock Evans.  He was given every advantage his parents could afford, from summers at Conneaut Lake to riding lessons, and in 1939 he and his family even took a trip to the World's Fair in New York.  Walt Jr., something of a camera buff, chronicled all of this, and soon showed a fine eye for composition.  He later went on to become a ham radio operator, build his own hi-fi set, and even attempted to set up a primitive computer, so clearly the bright new technology of tomorrow was something that attracted him.

Alas, all good things must end, and so it was with Walt's childhood.  He was in his first year at the University of Ohio when war came to the United States in 1941, and by the spring of 1942 he'd registered for the draft.  His father died of pneumonia in January of 1943, and scarcely had Walt and his mother recovered from that blow when he received his notice to report for Basic Training.

His mother was proud of her soldier-son, but still terrified - what mother wouldn't fear for her only child?  Walt, cocky as only a twenty year old could be, seemed more proud of his uniform than aware of the dangers he faced.  He was smart, well educated, and he had his camera, and what else could one of the warriors of democracy need when heading out to show the Axis what-for?

Alas, showing the Axis what-for didn't happen right away.  First there was Basic in Alabama, where Walt watched Frank Capra's masterful Why We Fight propaganda films, learned to march and fire a carbine, and cleaned up the barracks.  He was assigned to the 66th infantry, called the Black Panthers for the supposed resemblance of a good infantryman to these sleek, stealthy cats, and was sent for more training to Lincoln, Nebraska, despite being almost skinny enough to qualify for a hardship discharge as an animated toothpick.

He and his buddies milled around Lincoln, posed for photographs both alone and with friends, and got more and more frustrated that they were stuck in Lincoln freezing their collective khaki-clad posteriors off while the rest of the service was advancing in Italy and France and over in the Pacific.  

Finally the call came for overseas service, and in the fall of 1944, over a year after being drafted, Walt Evans went off to war.

Like most regiments headed for Europe, the Black Panthers would board a troop ship in New York and head at top speed for England.  The Panthers wouldn't be on one of the true speedsters that could outrun the U-boats without an escort (the Queen Mary could and did make the journey in five days, always in a zig-zag pattern to confuse the enemy), but the George Washington was fast enough, and after a few days in the Queen of Cities, Walt and his buddies boarded their ship, said good-bye to the Statue of Liberty, and headed over to join the fight at last.  

They arrived in December of 1944 and spent a few days in London, where Walt, who loved jazz, went to at least one of the legendary, dangerous, smoke-filled jazz clubs in Limehouse (and possibly to a private party hosted by one Veronica, although I have been unable to confirm this).  He also took time to visit his mother's relatives, and since they had their own smokehouse and and some chickens, was treated to a fine breakfast that would have used up any other family's ration points for most of the year.  

It was then time to board the troop ship for France, where the Panthers were assigned to root out the Nazis remaining in a pocket around Lorient and St. Nazaire.  One of the transports, the Leopoldville, was hit by a torpedo in the English Channel just off Cherbourg and almost 800 members of the regiment were lost on Christmas Eve of 1944.  I've been unable to determine if Walt was on board the Leopoldville, but given that he still had his camera, and all the pictures he'd taken in New York, London, and with his family, he was most likely was on the Cheshire.  Regardless, he almost certainly knew some of the men who died, and it must have been a sobering experience for the 21 year old.

The 66th relieved the 94th on December 29th, barely giving the Panthers time to mourn their losses, and by New Year's Day Walt's regiment, now part of the 12th Army Group, was busy containing and suppressing the remaining Germans around St. Nazaire.  The fighting was sporadic but hard, and by the time the desperate Germans made their last stand in April 1945, Walt had been awarded the Combat Infantry Badge, given only to infantrymen who'd faced enemy fire.  

He also earned his second Good Conduct Medal, acquaintance with Veronica down in Limehouse notwithstanding.

When VE-Day came, the Panthers heaved a sigh of relief.  No longer needed in St. Nazaire, they went to Koblenz for occupation effective May 20th...and then, in a change of plans so abrupt it only makes sense in the military, they were sent to Marseilles less than a week later to begin perhaps their most unusual assignment yet:  feeding, housing, clothing, and processing the combat troops who would be retrained and redeployed to the Pacific Theater for the final assault on the Japanese home islands in November.

That meant a lot of hard, non-combat related work, like setting up tent cities and all the fun accompaniments like latrines.  The Panthers lived like the men they served, and Walt, for reasons still unknown, ended up snapping a series of picture of his buddies engaging in such valuable recreational tasks as reading newspapers and engaging in what Walt termed "continuous hobbies."  Walt himself, who played the trumpet well enough that he later worked his way through Teachers' College at Columbia playing in a dance band, preferred to have pictures of himself taken next various unit signs, possibly in hopes of fooling his buddies into thinking he'd inspired a popular song.  

And there was time to explore the wonders of Europe that hadn't been bombed to powder by Allied bombs, from the sights of Marseilles, Nimes, and Avignon, to Salzburg and liberated Paris.  He even got as far as the famous Zeppelinfield in Nuremberg, where the Nazi Party rallies had been held before the war. There was also time for fun and sun on the Riviera, both alone and with some lissome mademoiselles who showed their gratitude to their liberators by posing for wholesome and uplifting photographs on the beaches.

Best of all, Walt took a curious series of photographs at Hitler's mountain home in the Alps, near Berchtesgaden.  The town, which had become a favorite retreat for senior Nazis, had been well and thoroughly bombed by the RAF, and Allied troops were invited to see how the biggest Nazi of them all lived.  Walt, always on the lookout for something that would be interesting and/or amusing, snapped photos of what was left of Hitler's home, the remains of his private movie theater, the shattered wreck of his bathtub (complete with graffiti courtesy of an enterprising GI from Titusville, Pennsylvania, who'd managed to liberate a grease pen), and what is very clearly Hitler's personal toilet bowl.    

That these might well be the only surviving photos of these fascinating relics seventy years later probably never crossed his mind, but despite French beauties, the jazz clubs, and the stink and horror of combat, Walt was still a good enough boy that he labelled the photo of the toilet "Also Hitler's" in his distinctive, spiky handwriting, almost certainly as a way to avoid offending or upsetting his long suffering mother.

In the middle of all this hard work, hard play, and hard other things I won't mention in a family diary, word came from Japan first of the atomic bomb, then of unconditional surrender.  I have no idea what Walt thought of the former (like most soldiers facing eventual deployment to what would have been a brutal, bloody campaign, he probably had no problems with it), but he surely was happy to hear of the latter, since it meant that he could, at long last, go home.

And so he did, in October of 1945.  He had to leave behind somenew friends, his favorite Jeep, and of course his burgeoning career as a combat cot photographer, but he'd done his time, served his country, and now was headed back to Edgewood to pick where he'd left off over two years earlier.  Still slender, but now wiry and seasoned instead of emaciated, it's clear that whatever else had befallen him in Europe, Walt Evans was now an adult, not the eager boy who'd sailed from New York the previous year.  

After the war, Walt went back to the University of Ohio, finished up on the GI Bill, and got the aforesaid M.Ed. from Teacher's College.  He taught math, then worked as a  college administrator, a realtor, and once again a teacher over the thirty years remaining to him.  When he died in 1975, only 51, he left behind a widow, a teenage daughter, and a cache of photographs chronicling his days as a soldier, whether on post in Alabama, touring the glories of France, or preserving the graffiti another soldier had left to mark the Allied triumph over the funny little goose-stepper with the most notorious mustache in the world.

Walt Evans was my father.  This was his war.

Happy 4th of July, everyone.

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Thu Jul 04, 2013 at 09:31 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight and Genealogy and Family History Community.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Wonderful tribute, Ellid (15+ / 0-)

    Hope you're feeling much better.

    Irony takes a worse beating from Republicans than Wile E. Coyote does from Acme. --Tara the Antisocial Social Worker

    by Youffraita on Thu Jul 04, 2013 at 09:47:13 AM PDT

  •  I Was On the Lakefront for That Storm. (17+ / 0-)

    Great story about your father. My late father was in at the same time, eventually sent to be a radio man at a base station in the Phillipines. He came back to work in the aerospace industry and then a NASA manned space engineer during the Moon landings and Skylab era.


    I was at Edgewater Park around west 67th st or so on the Cleveland lakefront for the July 4th 1969 storm.

    This was a month or so after the Cuyahoga River infamously burned, which was a precipitating factor for the Clean Water Act and contributed to the first Earth Day.

    Around 3 in the afternoon the barometric pressure made a huge, unprecedented drop. One of the sailmakers in the region had the tracing chart on their wall for years afterward. Nobody knew what to make of it since nothing meteorological happened at the time. But I think the water level in the marinas jumped up a couple feet.

    The weather was muggy and unsettled all day. The water was a bit choppy and there were storm warnings out, so by 7 PM there were fewer boats than usual out to watch the fireworks.

    I was in a car with my girlfriend when the opening thunder-shot of the fireworks display was fired. I don't think they ever got a 2nd shot off.

    The storm front winds blew in at over 70 knots, maybe over 80, so hard that with our car facing across the wind direction, spray blowing in the passenger window was blowing out the driver's window with both only halfway down. The car shook hard. At the yacht club just to the east, a sailboat was on a trailer up against the shelter of a garage at the edge of the breakwater, but the top 10' of its mast was exposed to the wind. There were 5 people hanging on the edge of the boat to keep the top end of the mast from kicking it over.

    Hundred year old trees in western suburbs of Rocky River and Lakewood, many along Lakewood's Clifton Boulevard, were toppled, in some cases with the roots turning an entire yard vertical. It took several days to clear all the roadways enough for efficient travel.

    The next day there was a debris field coming out of the mouth of the Cuyahoga River that filled much of the seawalled Cleveland Harbor and extended half a mile out into the lake or more.

    Just a few weeks later with pockets of debris still cluttering the beaches, breakwalls and marinas, we watched Neil Armstrong step out onto the Moon.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Thu Jul 04, 2013 at 10:00:02 AM PDT

  •  Beautiful tribute! (10+ / 0-)

    So glad you're feeling much better.

    A weapon that is also a treasure is certain to be used. Hero for Hire

    by wonderful world on Thu Jul 04, 2013 at 10:07:09 AM PDT

  •  This was lovely, Ellid (9+ / 0-)

    Thank you for sharing.

    Yeppers, I was in Parma Heights that 4th and remember it.  Funny thing is I thought about that storm earlier today for some reason.  Maybe it's because the air is a bit thick and it's partly cloudy.  

    I also found this online.  Proving, yet again, that the cat WILL come back.  (You have to read the news story 'til the end.)

    Women hold up half the sky.

    by Powered Grace on Thu Jul 04, 2013 at 11:36:03 AM PDT

  •  Thanks for the great story. (6+ / 0-)

    And I'm glad yer well enuf to share it with us.

    "Ronald Reagan is DEAD! His policies live on but we're doing something about THAT!"

    by leftykook on Thu Jul 04, 2013 at 12:02:17 PM PDT

  •  I had to do a double take (9+ / 0-)

    Because my dad is Walt Evans, Jr. as well and who at 82 is still kicking but was too young to serve in WW 2, though he did in Korea.

    All that's different is the middle names.

    My condolences on the loss of your Walt Evans at such a young age, it's just way too young to pass on at 51.

    Thanks for posting a wonderful diary, had there not been that name between us I may never have looked.

    •  Good heavens! (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      subtropolis, RiveroftheWest, Dave925

      You aren't from Pennsylvania by any chance, are you?  That's wild!

      So glad you enjoyed it!

      •  No, California (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        RiveroftheWest

        But I'm the only one. I've traced my Father's line through his fathers. We're all descended from an Evans who came to Maryland in the late 17th c. All the individuals we are directly descended from stayed in Maryland until one did well for himself in the war of 1812 and was given a nice tract of land in Missouri.

        Families were large in those times if they had the good fortune not to loose a lot of members, both children and adults to disease. These Evans' were a hearty bunch as most of these families in each generation was pretty large. For time reasons, I can't trace each individual that's in the orbit of the direct line to me and my Dad. So, it's quite possible that early on one of these went to Pennsylvania where there were lots of Welsh coming in to work the new mines. Welsh are famous as miners so they were in great demand in the coal fields of Pennsylvania.

        That being said, I can see where certain family names came into usage and why. For instance, my dad and granddad's middle name was from granddad's grandmother's first name. I still haven't gotten a clue where Walter came from though. It wasn't used ever anywhere else in the line, just my dad and grandad sported it. My grandad was born in 1905 in Oklamoma, he was the first generation born there and my dad the second. Before that there was a quick stop in Texas and before that, around 50 years in Missouri and lastly, around 130 years in Maryland.

        What do you know of your family line? Anyone come from Maryland?

        •  No Maryland as far as I can tell (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          RiveroftheWest

          My father's great-aunt did the family genealogy many years ago so she could join the DAR, and the entire family was from Pennsylvania, primarily Western Pennsylvania from the second generation onwards.  They got here around 1750, and for the next century intermarried pretty much exclusively into the Welsh-American community near Pittsburgh and Union County; there are surnames like "Morgan," "Thomas," "Griffiths," and "Phillips" in the family tree, and first names like "David" and "Cadwallader" and "Thomas."

          The first hint of non-Welsh was one James Robison, evidently Scotch-Irish, possibly from West Virginia, who married into the Evans line sometime around 1840.  After that there are more non-Welsh names, like my grandmother Harriet "Nettie" Hancock.  My mother, who was German-American (family came from Baden-Wurttemberg, where they seem to have spelled their name "Bashoor" instead of "Bashor"), evidently was the first person who wasn't of British descent in my direct line.

          If I had the time and money, I'd definitely do more research on this.  It's fascinating stuff.

          •  Yes it is fascinating (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            RiveroftheWest

            And there are resources available relatively cheap on line. Not to promote the site but Ancestry.com is amazing in its available records (it's a lot of fun to pore over the 1810 census and subsequent ones too) and for appx. $70 every 6 months I think it's pretty fair.

            The next step for me will be to flesh out the lines and finish both my grandmother's lines- for some reason they proved to be very difficult to trace and then? Well, I do know the town in Wales the Evans' came from but not the Jones' although through a long lost cousin who found me on Ancestry looking for the same individual as she was, has given me her line which matches my Grandfather Jones' line precisely as her grandfather was my grandfather's youngest brother from. Having seen clients of mine in my business who are retired and have the time trace their lines in the British Isles get all the way back to William the Conqueror's time, I'm itching to do the same although I'm years away from even considering retirement.

            It's interesting you should mention when non-Welsh began appearing in your line- it's about the same in mine. I wonder if there was some event that caused that or that just enough generations had passed that the Welsh were comfortable with others. Talk about an insular people! They went generations here before marrying outside their ethnicity which is amazing because we really don't see that outside of "Scotch-Irish Borderer" settlements which were often isolated and that accounted as much for their marrying among themselves as anything, I'm sure.

            The Borderers weren't well known for their traditions and customs in any case as drunken carousing and fighting really aren't expressions of culture but more one of their hot headed natures and codes of honor. The Hatfields and McCoys are the preeminent example of Borderer behavior for instance. If you haven't read up on the Borderers there are some recent theories regarding these outcasts and how much influence they actually had in the formation of the American character. When one says they're "Scotch-Irish" the chances are great they have at least a little of the Borderer in them.

    •  You and Ellid Should Shake Your Family Trees (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RiveroftheWest, Dave925

      A common ancestor might fall out.

      Readers & Book Lovers Pull up a chair! You're never too old to be a Meta Groupie

      by Limelite on Fri Jul 05, 2013 at 07:27:34 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  It's not as if "Evans" is a rare surname (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        RiveroftheWest, Dave925, Limelite

        But I already found that at least one of my third cousins is also on DKos, so it's possible!

        •  Among we Welsh (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Limelite

          Evans is pretty common, I think it's in the first 5 most common along with Jones (my mom was a Jones) and Williams.

          But the Welsh are a small group that have been here for the most part so long they've been assimilated to the point few Welsh-Americans know much beyond just being that. Their ethnicity is an abstraction if anything to these Welsh-Americans.

          There were two great areas of migration, into Pennsylvania to work the mines and the other into Georgia, transported as prisoners of the crown who once their debt to King and country was paid through their labor remained and settled there and in surrounding colonies.

          •  Exactly. Most of us think we're actually English (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Limelite, RiveroftheWest

            Where's your family from?  Obviously I'm from the Pittsburgh area - you?  

            And oh, if you're somehow related to an 18th century Revolutionary War veteran named "Evan Evans," we are most definitely related :)

            •  I'm not certain about (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              RiveroftheWest

              Any participation in the Revolution though there is a "hero" (seems he shot a redcoat General in the Battle of King's Mountain) of sorts in the Jones' line. I haven't had a chance to integrate my cousin's work on the Jones' line into my tree but I plan to soon and that may show our lines crossing. Right now I only know where the Evans line direct to me came from which was Maryland to Missouri to Texas to Oklahoma to California (finally! haha). Like I said in my other reply to you down thread, there were some large families in those first few generations and I don't know where the non-direct individuals wandered off to. Since PA is right next to Maryland, the chances of some of my relatives going there in the first half of the 18th c. are good I'd imagine.

              If you'd like to communicate off Kos so to speak, send me a message via Kosmail and I'll give you my personal email. That way we can compare notes somewhat  more easily. :)

  •  Both parts of this tribute--to an American spirit (7+ / 0-)

    which somehow keeps the best aspects of the country in focus, and to your father's wartime activities and to the rest of his life--are lovely, Ellid. You write with such grace and humor no matter the subject, I am always charmed and impressed. I am so sorry that your father died so young.
    Thanks for posting this diary today. May your recovery continue to be quick and uneventful.

    Some DKos series & groups worth your while: Black Kos, Native American Netroots, KosAbility, Monday Night Cancer Club. If you'd like to join the Motor City Kossacks, send me a Kosmail.

    by peregrine kate on Thu Jul 04, 2013 at 02:02:57 PM PDT

  •  thanks for sharing (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RiveroftheWest, Limelite

    I seem never to tire of reading about, and perusing photos of, the experiences of those who served during WW2. Those photographs of your father's are a treasure.

    Which is why i'd like to offer a suggestion: These pics are awfully teensy, so it would be worth it to re-scan them at a higher resolution. Most scanner software these days will allow one to drag out a selection within the preview screen, and then set the density and size of the output. If i was doing the job i'd go with 300dpi and at least 6 inches (1800 pixels) across so that they'd be ok for printing in a book. But 72-150 dpi is fine, as long as your output will be be a reasonable size on screen. Your local library (or neighbourhood kids) might give you a crash course.

    I hope this advice is received the way i intend. After all, this is just another anonymous comment in the echo chamber. But if you knew how many archival scans i've made, not to mention my enormous interest in the untold stories of WW2 …

    Thanks, once again, for posting.

    All things in the sky are pure to those who have no telescopes. – Charles Fort

    by subtropolis on Thu Jul 04, 2013 at 08:31:04 PM PDT

  •  You Said It Exactly (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RiveroftheWest, Ellid

    In this memoir of your father, a veteran of WWII, you confessed to exactly the same behavior I indulge in on the 4th:  Casting one's imagination back to Philadelphia on that day in 1776 when the Declaration was read aloud in the "back yard."

    I think of the Founding Fathers in that stuffy room, sweaty, exhausted, anxious to be off for home (some had left), anxious about how the gen pop would receive their rather unilateral work, and fearing the worst at the hands of the British.

    Not a few must have believed they'd put the noose around their own necks.

    Then, I like to imagine their exhilaration when they got the news from Yorktown five years and three months later.  Tricorns fill the air!  I have always wondered why we don't celebrate October 19th?  Library of Congress, diary of Gen. Washington, British surrender.

    Readers & Book Lovers Pull up a chair! You're never too old to be a Meta Groupie

    by Limelite on Fri Jul 05, 2013 at 07:42:40 AM PDT

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