A chilly, foggy morning view in my yard.

A winter sunset in the Ballard County river bottoms.

The stories and commentaries on this page are, for the most part, the most recent ones. The categories on the left side of the page serve as archives for older stories I have removed from this page.

Suzzanne Kozma and Joe Culver at Lester headstone in Roselawn Cemetery, Bardwell, Ky.

Are you sure you’re who you think you are?


June 11, 2019


          It’s surprising to learn that you are not exactly who you thought you were. Not necessarily a bad surprise or a good surprise, but definitely a surprise.

I lived for almost 75 years proud of the fact that my several times paternal great grandfather came to this continent by boat from England in 1635.

          Because of Ancestry.com, I learned that wasn’t true. If the family tree information shown on Ancestry is correct, my several times paternal great grandmother had been here for 23 years before Edward Culver or Cullver or Collver or Colver the Puritan arrived to be one of the founders of Dedham, Mass.

          I am suspicious of the information about place of birth, but if it is correct my great grandmother times 12 was Anne Lewes, reportedly born in 1613 in James City, Va.

          Submitting DNA to a service such as Ancestry.com can help you learn much about your genetic history. In some cases, what you learn may be shocking. In my case, I learned that my biological father wasn’t who had always been my daddy. I was almost 75 when I learned that. Now, I feel as if the Culver side of me is only a third instead of a half. I have discovered a biological third that I never expected. That third belongs to the Lester family.

          I learned that my maternal biological line is indeed the Crice family through my mother, Jessie Lee Crice Culver. I learned that J.D. Culver was and remains my father in every possible way … except biologically. I learned that the biological father was a man named Douthitt Lester, a resident of Bardwell at the time.

          Here’s the story of how I learned about a new side of me.

          My sister Jeanne Culver Thorpe is very much into genealogical research. In fact, she has a couple of books about the Culver family available through Amazon.com.

          She sent her DNA sample to Ancestry, and eventually I did too. It became very interesting to see the eight relatives’ matches that were changed every couple of days.

          I started noticing a match to someone shown by the name of suzzannek1. This match stood out because it was at the same relationship level as Jeanne. Jeanne and I talked about it and exchanged e-mails, trying to guess how I could have such a close match who didn’t show up among her matches. We guessed every way except the right one.

          Jeanne eventually made contact with suzzannek1, whose name is Suzzanne Kozma. She is the daughter of the late Douthitt Lester. The only way we could have been related so closely is that we had the same father. And that’s what it was. Douthitt (Les) Lester is my father and hers.

          I have looked at Lester history and I’ve decided that I’m happy to have a third family tree. There have been some impressive Lesters, and, yes, some maybe who could be overlooked, especially the two who murdered two men.

          I encourage you to use one of the DNA services. I know of two, Ancestry.com and 23 and Me. You may find information you should pass along to your children. I did.

          J.D Culver lived to be 93 and Jessie Lee Culver lived to 87. I thought that provided good odds for my descendants. But then I learned about the Lester side.

          The best I can figure, I have already lived longer than any of my direct male ancestors among the Lesters. This gave me a good basis to tell my children, especially my sons, to mind their health.

          Here’s why. My father, Douthitt Lester, died at age 49. My half-brother Bill Lester was dead at 43. My grandfather Clyde Lester, who was principal and superintendent of Bardwell schools and served as a state representative, fell dead at the dining table at age 50. (His wife was Ethel Douthitt Lester, who taught school in this area.) His father, Dr. William Henry Lester, lived to age 70, but his father, Dr. Sterling Henry Lester, lived only 25 years. Sterling’s wife, Anne Cole Davis, married him when she was 14 years old, gave birth at 15, and died when she was 16.

          Sterling’s father was Fountain Claiborne Lester, who died at 40. According to a newspaper story, he sliced a man’s throat during an argument. That didn’t prove fatal so he stabbed the man in the throat, and it worked that time.

His father was Fountain Lester, who lived to be either 74 or 75. I haven’t found the date of his birth so I don’t know which is correct. Fountain’s father was Henry Lester, who made it to age 74. Bryan William Lester was his father, and he lived to be 65.

They were preceded by a series of Richard Lesters. Richard IV died at 54, Richard III died at 67, Richard II lived only to age 35, and his father, Richard Andrew Lester (being the first, he didn’t need a number), lived only to age 23.

Thomas Lester, who would have been my 12th grandfather, or great-grandfather, lived to be 64. The ancestry tree says that he married Anne Lewes, who was born in James City, Va., in 1613. She lived until 1635.

There were a lot of early deaths. I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t know about the Lester family until I was nearly 75 or I might not have lived this long.


Me at Guantanamo Bay, 1974

Christmas column from Guantanamo Bay


June 7, 2019


          You can credit – or blame – my sister Jeanne for these posts of columns I wrote in times long past. She found them in a box in daddy’s carport shop where he worked on radio and TV sets. Apparently he had saved most of the columns I wrote for The Oak Ridger and other publications.

I posted two from The Oak Ridger, the daily newspaper in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a few days ago.

This one is from the Guantanamo Gazette.

I served in the military in both the Army and the Navy.

I was a public information specialist (71Q20, I believe, was the MOS number at that time) in the Army. I served in headquarters of the 4th Missile Batallion, 417th Artillery, in the Panama Canal Zone. One of my duties was to publish a battalion newspaper, or perhaps it would be more accurate to call it a newsletter. To the best of my memory, we typed it onto mimeograph stencils using manual typewriters and printed copies by turning a crank by hand.

The Navy called me a JO2 (journalist second class, E5), and later a JO1, journalist first class, E6. I was the editor of the Guantanamo Gazette at our Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It was at that time, I was told, the Navy’s only land-based daily newspaper. We typed onto sheets of paper, probably using IBM Selectric typewriters, and sent them to the base print shop, where they were printed.

This is a Christmas column published on December 24, 1974. It is an example of how a writer can write to his or her audience, expressing what might be an emotion that may resonate with many of the readers but not necessarily something felt by the writer.

Here’s that column from almost 45 years ago:


A Christmas prayer

Christmas spirit works its miracle


We live in a time of one crisis and shortage after another.

Imagine for a moment that some great scientist discovered we had a “day crisis” …there just weren’t enough days to go around anymore. We were ordered to reduce our 365 day year to just two weeks, and there was a great national election to determine which two weeks we wanted to preserve.

I imagine that the majority of voters would pick the two weeks prior to and including Christmas Day, for what other period is as important to us as these few days.

It is during this handful of days that we live as we should live all year. Everyone is our friend. We have a hearty “Merry Christmas” for those we meet on the street, in stores, in our jobs and in our homes. We tend to forget that we don’t like this person or that person; we remember only the good times.

Family differences are forgotten as the kids crowd around the Christmas tree, shaking their presents in vain attempts to decipher the contents.

We hear Christmas carols on the radio, and maybe we even hum a few of them while we work.

We remember all the friends who are – or were – so important to us, and we send them cards to show we remember. We think of those who are no longer with us, think of them with a tough of regret that they are not able to enjoy this season with us.

We temper our joy with nostalgic sadness as we think of friends who are gone, or Christmases of the past, which also are gone.

But these moments of sorrow – or perhaps, respectful love – are an important part of the holiday spirit, a part which is overwhelmed by the happiness.

The real miracle of Christmas, and a miracle it truly is, is that the spirit of the season becomes a part of each one of us and causes us to live more nearly the type of life dictated to us by the man for whom the holiday is observed.

I remember a lot of Christmases. I still think about my own childhood Christmases when I would be up before the sun because I couldn’t wait to see what Santa had brought during the night. I remember the excitement of having Christmas dinner with all the family: aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents. I remember the thrill and the chill of the snows which had a way of falling on many Christmas Eves.

Today, like most parents, I relive those memories in the excitement of my own children, who also are awake before the sun rises and whose faces mirror the joys I once felt. In fact, I still feel those same joys as I watch my children.

But, as wonderful as the joy of Christmas is, we shouldn’t devote all of it to Santa Claus and the pleasures purchased in stores by the money we earn. We also should remember the reason we celebrate the holiday – the man who was born to die for mankind on a cross.

We should remember that this is a religious holiday, and a time for prayer. For that reason, I offer to you readers this Christmas prayer of my own.

My Christmas Prayer

          God, we don’t talk very often, and I guess that’s my fault since You’re always ready to listen anytime I decide to talk with You. Usually I don’t think about talking to You unless I’m in trouble or I need something. That’s selfish of me, isn’t it? I’m surprised that You’re still willing to listen when I call for You.

          Today, I’m not asking for anything and I don’t have any problems. I just want to talk with You as one friend to another.

          First, thanks for being there when no one else could help, or everyone else was too busy to listen.

          Thanks for the wonderful family You’ve given me and for the many friends who mean so much to me.

          Thanks for what You do to mankind during this time of the year. I guess it’s too much to ask that this same spirit fill us all year long. That would be a big job.

          Thanks for the joy I see in the faces of the little children as they recite the story of Your son’s birth, and for the tears they shed when they read about His cruel death.

          Thanks for the love I’ve had from my parents and from my wife and children.

          And thanks especially for sending Your Son into this world to make it a better place for all of us, and for the hope for eternal happiness that His death gave us.

          God, that’s all for today, and I’ll try to talk to You more often, but if I don’t remember You before next Christmas, please don’t forget me.


From left, Herman Tilley, Pod Tilley, Jessie Lee Culver, J.D. Culver

“Back home” will never be the same again


June 6, 2019


A few days ago I posted a nostalgic column from 1985, when I was managing editor of The Oak Ridger newspaper in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

I never kept clippings of stories or columns from my newspaper days, but my sister Jeanne found it in a box in daddy’s shop where he worked on radio and TV sets. Jeanne said he would sometimes sit in the shop and re-read articles he had clipped from the newspaper. Jeanne said it looked like he kept everything I wrote.

She posted two of the columns into my family tree on Ancestry.com.

This is the second of the two. It is from October 1992. At the time, I was no longer working at the newspaper but I continued to write a weekly column. I was the manager of the public affairs (outreach) program for the Martin Marietta Energy Systems Office of Technology Transfer in Oak Ridge. That was before Martin Marietta merged with Lockheed to become Lockheed Martin.

It tells about a trip back to Ballard County for Aunt Pod’s funeral. Pod and Herman Tilley lived in the house that I own now.

Here’s the column:


          I’ve lived in Tennessee, mostly in and around Oak Ridge, for almost exactly 16 years but I still think of myself as a Kentuckian.

          When I have a chance to go to Ballard County, I say I’m going “back home.”

          Today, I wonder if there is a “back home” any longer.

          I grew up in Ballard County, went to school there, lived there as a married man, as a father. What really made it home, though, was the strong feeling of family associated with the process of growing up. Parents, uncles and aunts, cousins. Family. People with the same bloodlines. People I enjoyed being around, playing with, laughing with.

          One reality of growing up in the country or in a small town in a rural county is that the rural environment, despite all the intrinsic rewards it offers, tends to evict its young adults.

          Small towns are small because few people live in them. Few people live in them because there are few jobs. If there were lots of jobs, there would be lots of people.

          Some of the young people are able to remain in their small towns because of the ongoing human rotation – people grow old and rotate out of jobs, young people rotate into them – but young people always outnumber available jobs. Always.

          Some young men and women want to leave, of course. Others, and I suspect this group includes most of us who grew up in rural settings, would stay there if we could.

          But we can’t. We want to earn money, more money than we can earn by staying at home. Society does this on purpose, I believe, to guarantee that the factories of the world will have an ample supply of reliable small-town labor. We do make good workers.

          So we are thrown out of our small-town refuges and we go into the larger towns and into the cities and we look forward to those few times a year when we can go “back home” to where we really belong, to our family, and tell trumped-up accounts of how well-off we are in our brick houses on our surveyed city lots with our fine neighbors on both sides.

          But year piles atop year, and one day we look around and we realize – brutally and sadly realize – that there isn’t much family waiting to greet us. The new generation has grown up without us; we are strangers to each other, and even the blood-bond we share can’t change that fact. We have become different families within the larger family.

          My latest trip back home was also my saddest. Judy and I and our children drove home last Friday. My sister Jeanne and her daughter rode with us. Mother and daddy had gone a day earlier. The family gathered Friday afternoon at the Jones Funeral Home in La Center.

          Pod had died Tuesday evening. Pod Tilley, one of mother’s sisters, and her husband, Herman, had returned to their home in Monkey’s Eyebrow from Gary’s house. They chatted in the car like high school kids, Herman said.

          While Herman was opening the house door, he heard Pod fall. Herman kneeled to help her, but she made one sound and she was dead.

          Pod was the force that kept the family coming back home to Ballard County. When you went back home, where you really were going was to Pod and Herman’s.

          The family gathered at the funeral home on Friday and again at the cemetery with Pod for the last time. We visited and talked, laughed at times, but we also cried. We cried deeply. We hurt. We hurt for ourselves as individuals and for ourselves as family.

          The preacher, who grew up just down the road from Pod and Herman, hurt too and had trouble finishing the service. He described perfectly what Pod meant to us.

          Six of us nephews were the pall bearers. Our generation has served our grandmother and our uncles and aunts in that capacity. The casket is a heavy burden, particularly when it carries the extra weight of family, of love.

          After the funeral, we went to Pod and Herman’s house. The table was loaded with food prepared by women from Pod and Herman’s church. It was almost like to used to be, but probably will never be again. We ate, visited, changed clothes and drove back to Oak Ridge.

          I keep asking myself is there still a “back home” to go to without Pod, and I don’t know the answer. I do know it will never be the same.

Aunt Nina with my sons Jesse Mallard, left, and Jubal Drake, right.

Remembering with Aunt Nina


June 3, 2019


          My sister Jeanne Thorpe, who lives in Knoxville, was opening some boxes the other day, boxes she retrieved from our parents’ house in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a few years ago and just now got around to opening.

          She was really surprised by the contents of one of them.

          Our daddy apparently clipped almost everything I wrote back in my newspapering days. The box she opened was in the shop at the back of the carport, where he worked on radios and television sets. He was, in my opinion, one of the best at fixing a troubled set. Jeanne said he would sometimes go to the shop and pull out one of the articles or columns and re-read it. I teared up when she told me and I choke a little now as I write this and think about the pride he felt for me.

          I looked at my family tree on Ancestry.com a few minutes ago and discovered that Jeanne had scanned in one of the columns daddy kept in that box, and she posted it to my family tree on the ancestry site.

          The column was written probably in 1985, when I was managing editor of The Oak Ridger newspaper. I wrote a column each week.

          There is one particular paragraph of which I am proud as I read the column nearly 35 years after it was published. It starts with these words: “For Aunt Nina, the distance is mostly of time.”

          Because I believe that old column may capture the feelings many of us have after we move away from home for one reason or another, that reason often being to find better career opportunities, I am going to share the entire column with you.

          Here goes:

          Aunt Nina called Friday night while I was washing dishes.

          She was feeling lonely, maybe a little sorry for herself, and also didn’t want to miss an excellent opportunity to lecture me about the bad manners I’ve acquired since I moved from Western Kentucky.

          I didn’t mind suffering through the lecture. For one thing, I deserved it; for another, any excuse to stop washing dishes is welcome.

          Aunt Nina, you may recall, lives in Paducah, Ky., where she has retired from her job as an operator with the Bell telephone system, or whatever name it goes by in these confusing days.

          She grew up outside Wickliffe, Ky., in the old Jones homeplace just across the yard from where my dad built the house where I did a lot of my growing up. Later, we tore down the old homeplace – and a lot of memories at the same time – and I built a house there.

          Isn’t it strange how the cycles work? My dad built beside the house in which his mother – Edna Jones was her maiden name – raised him, then later had to move to Oak Ridge for job considerations. We tore down the original house, and I then built beside the house my father built, only to desert that home myself when a marriage went bad and I had a daughter to raise. That’s when I came to Oak Ridge to live close to my parents.

          Aunt Nina – Virginia Jones is her real name – never married. She had to leave home for work, too. There wasn’t much to do around Wickliffe in those days except go somewhere else. She was working as an operator for the local phone company – that was in the days when you cranked the phone and told the operator, “I want to talk to Fran,” and a lot of the time you didn’t have to give a last name because the operator knew who you meant – when she was given an opportunity to move to Paducah and work for Bell.

          She took it. She really didn’t have much choice. She was unmarried, jobs were scarce around Wickliffe, good jobs were unheard of, and she might not get another chance at a good job.

          There wasn’t much around Wickliffe or Ballard County that would make you want to live there … unless you were raised there. In that case, it’s home and it will always be home.

          Aunt Nina, for instance, has lived in Paducah for 30 years or more, I suppose, but Wickliffe, and specifically the old homeplace, is still home to her. And I think that’s the reason she called Friday.

          “Joey,” she said – she always calls me Joey, calls this column Joey’s Place – “I wish I could get in a boat and go down the Mississippi River.” She had her geography misplaced a little bit, I suspect, since it’s the Ohio that flows past Paducah, joining the Mississippi just below Cairo, Ill., and then the two merged rivers go past Wickliffe, although it is, indeed, called the Mississippi at that point.

          Then she reminisced about how her only brother, Walter, who has been dead for several years, swam across the Mississippi when he was a young man. I pointed out to her that the river wasn’t as wide in those days, but that really was irrelevant to the point, if not irreverent to her mood.

          She was suffering the same ailment which attacks me regularly, and in growing intensity, these days; some call it homesickness but I prefer to think of it as the disease of distance.

          For Aunt Nina, the distance is mostly of time; she lives only 30 miles or less from the memories that are simultaneously sad and happy, but she lives more than 30 years from them.

          For me, the span is mostly geographical, some 300 or more miles between point present and point past. I have been in Tennessee for about nine years, so there is also starting to be a time factor for me, too.

          A lot of what I want to go back for is no longer there. Time and circumstances erode reality, but not memory, so it is possible to want to return to something you know doesn’t exist. For instance, when Aunt Nina was talking to me on the telephone, for just a few moments I was that little boy searching for baby frogs in the pond near the old homeplace while she watched me. God, that was a long time ago.

          I could hear my Me-Ma Culver reading me the poem about Hiawatha, and laughing so happily at something I had said or done.

          I was back in the woods that I camped in, hunting in, thought in, hid from unseen woods monsters in.

          And I know that Aunt Nina sees her own memories, hears her own laughters, smells in her mind the odors that were so much a part of growing in the old home, where there was baking and frying and coffee percolating.

          And even as I long to go back to those memories, I know that the things I remember – the smells, the laughter, the buildings – are not there, and I know that if they were and if I could drive home and walk into the old house, it would not satisfy the bittersweet homesickness.

          For what I truly want, what Aunt Nina truly wants, is not really to go visit those places today, but to go back in time and relive them as they were, as they are in the memories, when we were children or younger adults.

          That’s why you can’t go home. Home is not the place; rather, it is the place at a point in time. The place may remain, but the time is gone forever.

When you don’t call your own shots


May 3, 2019


Addiction must be a terrible thing.

That statement represents an assumption. I’ve never been addicted, so I don’t know firsthand how difficult, how almost impossible it is to sever the bonds between a person and a substance.

I have, however, seen and lived through direct evidence of the toll on a person when a substance is calling the shots. The person isn’t making the decisions, the substance is making them.

I have two sons in the Ballard County jail. One has a problem with alcohol, the other with drugs. I have a daughter who has struggled with drug issues for a few years, but it seems that she finally is on the right path after a year-long residential treatment program. I’m proud of her for the turn-around. I have another child who has had problems stemming from drugs. And I learned recently about a half-brother of whom I was unaware, who also got into drugs and apparently couldn’t get out.

Regionally, it doesn’t help that we suffer from druganoia (that’s mixing the word “drug” with the word “paranoia”). We may have good reason for it. It seems that almost every day we read in the local paper about someone being arrested for possession or manufacture of crystal meth. I can’t tell if our authorities look upon use as being the equivalent of making the drug and making a living selling it.

I do see two aspects of the drug trade – and I include in that term “trade” the manufacture, distribution, sale, and use, along with the law enforcement – that bother me.

One is that, in my opinion, it encourages police officers to create reasons to stop vehicles they suspect of containing drugs, reasons such as failure to signal a lane change. How many times have drivers failed to signal a lane change in the view of a police officer but weren’t pulled over? How many other such offenses are used as excuses? We read about the times drugs are found and we see those really awful mugshots of the people who were arrested. How many of those types of stops do we not read about because the officer didn’t find any drugs?

The second is that the reaction to drug use frequently is to jail the offender. Jail doesn’t treat the addiction. An addict can be in jail for a year, two years, and still have the craving for that to which he or she is addicted.

Which brings me to my son’s appearance in court this morning. He had filed a motion written by pencil on a sheet of notebook paper asking for shock probation. I’m not sure what falls under the term of shock probation, but he had been in touch with Emily Garrison, the alternative sentencing worker in the Department of Public Advocacy in Paducah. Ms. Garrison is the most responsive state employee I’ve encountered, by the way. Without a couple of days, she had found a faith-based, long-term (one year as a resident) rehab program which agreed to hold a bed for my son. I believe that would have been the best opportunity he’s had to sever that bond with addiction. I sat in the courtroom in an optimistic mood.

My optimism was unwarranted. The focus was on my son’s record, not on the opportunity he had to escape the jail environment and perhaps reach his potential as a productive free member of society. Perhaps. No guarantee, I concede. The several certificates he had earned for programs he completed to help prepare him for success outside of incarceration carried no weight. The letters from officials who were impressed with his efforts to change didn’t amount to a hill of bean. I deliberately wrote “bean” instead of the plural “beans.” The past overwhelmed the possible future. I guess that’s not a surprise. The past is a fact, while the future is only a possibility.

I was surprised that the commonwealth attorney was not prosecuting. I asked someone to tell me who the woman prosecutor was. It turns out she was the commonwealth attorney’s wife, who is the assistant prosecuting attorney. Both appear equally ruthless, wanting the harshest outcome they can get. Must be nice for a family to have two nice state salaries.

I learned today that my son’s unwillingness to waive a right was held against him.

And I learned that a jailer’s spelling error in writing his name also became a negative issue. It became an alias, an alias of the jail’s creation, not his.

Live and learn and weep, I guess.

I am disappointed, but realistically, not surprised.

As long as we cringe in fear over drug use, as long as pot-smoking officers arrest pot-smoking civilians, as long as property seizures enrich law enforcement agencies, as long as local jails are paid to house state prisoners, as long as we prefer incarceration to rehabilitation, that’s how it will be.

I wish we could find a solution that would eliminate the criminal aspects of drug use, that would be a disincentive for organized crime and for trailer-based meth-cooking operations. It should be clear to everyone that our decades-long “War on Drugs” is a war that can’t be won.


Quirks along the way home


November 20, 2018


As my now 11-year-old daughter Bella and I drove home on Sunday after attending my brother Jeff’s memorial service the day before, at least three quirky things caught my attention.

At the Shoney’s restaurant off the Harriman exit on I-40 (the worst breakfast experience I have ever had at a Shoney’s, by the way), the server came to our booth midway through the meal and asked, “Did you find everything ok?” That’s not the first time I’ve been asked that, usually in a department store, but it was the first time that it struck me this way: I wanted to ask her, “Why, have you hidden some of the breakfast items?”

Same restaurant as we were leaving. A diner was standing, getting ready to move toward the breakfast buffet, and the server asked her what she wanted to drink. She said, “I will have water because ….” I didn’t hear the rest of the sentence, but it made me wonder why she thought she had to justify her choice of water. I am pretty sure I have done the same kind of thing.

And somewhere along Tennessee State Route 79 as we neared Adams, Tenn., I saw a small sign just off the road, and it read, “Keep your eyes on Jesus.” I smiled and thought, “Yes, and then you are quite likely to meet him face-to-face.”

Phonetics and Phlesh


November 11, 2018


A couple of interesting things to report from my visit today with an ophthalmologist.

First of all, he said everything looks good. That’s important information for diabetics.

I asked him the proper pronunciation of his speciality: OPH-THALMOLOGY or OP-THALMOLOGY. He said OP is correct. He said the H is silent. I wonder why that is.

I used his restroom. Old men with enlarged prostates never risk passing a restroom.

The restroom had one of those Xelerator hand dryers. You probably know the kind. They dry hands quickly with a powerful stream of air.

I’ve noticed every time I use one, the powerful air flow sends waves wrinkling through my hands. When I finish drying the hands, I always check to make sure the dryer didn’t blow my skin off, leaving me with flesh and bones.

The image is blurry. It shows Jeff and Smoky near the road.

Reflecting on baby brother’s death


November 9, 2018


          In a perfect cycle of life, children would outlive parents and younger siblings would outlive older ones.

          We don’t live in a perfect world, and our life cycle is far from perfect. Both the cycle and the world are flawed. And there’s nothing we can do about it.

          When my cell phone quacked (I have a mallard duck ringtone) about 15 or 20 minutes before 3 o’clock on the morning of November 7 and I saw my sister Jeanne’s name on the caller ID, I knew either she had butt-dialed me or she was calling with bad news. I wasn’t sufficiently awake to speculate about what the news might be.

          I certainly wasn’t expecting her to say something like, “I hate to call you at this time of day but Jeff died this morning.”

          Daddy, who died at the age of 93, and mother, who lived half a year past her 87th birthday, left behind six siblings. That was part of what would have been a perfect life cycle. Daddy, being older, went first, and then mother followed about three weeks later.

          I should have been next. I’m the oldest. The line of succession should have been me, then Jeanne, Jerry, Jeff, Julie, and Janie. Our births spanned a period of nearly 23 years. Jeff was fourth. I was born in 1943, he came along in 1959.

          I wasn’t around Jeff very much. He was only a couple of years old when I went off to college, and then I went off to marriage, and fatherhood, and work. I saw him mostly on visits.

          He was fun to be with. Smiling, inquisitive, quick to come up with nicknames for people. For some reason, he called daddy Lamp.

          Mother and daddy moved from Wickliffe to Oak Ridge, Tenn., in the 1960s. Jeff went to school there. From very early in his life, he participated in sports at the Boys Club of Oak Ridge, and later, he coached kids in basketball, football and baseball.

          I moved to Oak Ridge in 1976 and saw him more frequently than before, but we had separate lives and I can’t say we were close. I wish we had been closer.

          Jeff had significant health issues in recent years, due in part to his work in nuclear clean-up at the Department of Energy plants in Oak Ridge. He had to wear oxygen all the time. He knew his time was limited because of breathing problems associated with COPD and other issues, but I don’t think he or anyone else expected that his life would be snuffed out by a heart attack. A heart attack. He was more than a month shy of his 59th birthday. People that young should not be stolen from us by heart attacks. In a perfect world, people that young would not be taken by any condition.

          There probably are other, better stories that Jeff’s contemporaries can share. I can think of three.

          The earliest one was from a time I was still living at home, or not long after I left. Jeff was in diapers and playing in the front yard of our home alongside Beech Grove Road outside of Wickliffe. I had a Chesapeake Bay Retriever, name of Smoky, that I had bought from Clint Boyd. Daddy advanced me the money, $20 I think, and I was supposed to pay him back at the rate of a dollar a week. I don’t know if I did, or if he and I forgot the payments. If Jeff toddled too close to the road, Smoky would either grab him by the diaper and pull him away, or get between him and the road.

          Another memory was when I was visiting them in Oak Ridge and was playing catch with Jeff in the back yard. I was in my tobacco-chewing phase back then and I had a twist of home-cured tobacco from uncle Herman Tilley. Jeff wanted to try it, probably because many big leaguers in those days chewed tobacco and spat upon the baseball diamond. That was a decision he regretted after he took a couple of chews and turned a different shade. I suspect that was his last attempt to chew.

          There was a greenbelt – a wooded area – behind the Oak Ridge house. Either I had a tent or there was one at the house when I was visiting. We decided to put up the tent in the woods and spend the night there. Jeff was a bit worried about bears. “Joe, are there bears in these woods,” he asked me. I told him I guess a stray bear could be there but it was unlikely. After a while, he asked his second question: “Joe, will bears hurt you?” I said that they might but they probably wouldn’t if left alone, and if they got too close, you could hit them on the nose with something. He ruminated on that for a bit and then, seeking some assurance of his safety and believing I might be able to provide protection, finally asked, “Joe, can you whip a bear?”

          I can ponder the unfairness of Jeff’s death without a lot of pain. It’s when I see pictures of him and ponder that unfairness that it hurts the most. He has entered a state of peace that his friends and siblings won’t find right away.

          Friends and family will gather for a memorial service at the Boys Club, which was practically his second home, on November 17. He told Jeanne he wanted to come back to Ballard County to be beside mother and daddy. A graveside service will be held at the Wickliffe cemetery at some later date.

          I don’t like going to cemeteries to say goodbye to family.

(NOTE: An exchange with my friend on Facebook today – August 21, 2018 – reminded me that this story is one of many that I did not transfer from my old website to this newer version. It’s still a good story and I hope you enjoy it.)


A bucket of water and a baloney sandwich


March, 2007


          One of the best meals I ever ate was a soggy baloney sandwich about 30 years ago. (NOTE: Make that 40 years ago in 2018.)

          I was in law school at the University of Tennessee at the time. One of my best friends in law school was Lee White, who grew up in Elizabethton in upper East Tennessee’s mountains. He remains a good friend to this day. He gave up practicing law a few years ago, opting to drive a semi truck across the country, hauling large boats.

Up there in Lee’s mountains, a couple of drops of rain can cause flash floods. That’s not what it’s like in Ballard County where the Ohio runs into the Mississippi. Here, it takes lots of rain to raise the river level.

          Lee and I started law school at the University of Tennessee at the same time. We both were hunters, his experience coming in the pursuit of whatever critters ran around the mountains, while mine was mostly with the game you would find in a river bottoms environment. Duck hunting was my favorite, and at that time I usually went back to Ballard County each winter for at least one duck hunt.

          Lee had never been duck hunting, so I invited him to go.

          We launched our 14-foot johnboat at the landing close to the old pottery in Wickliffe, Ky., just south of the confluence of the two mighty rivers.

It was in November, maybe around Thanksgiving, and it was one of those days duck hunters like to remember. It was raining fairly hard, the wind was gusting, the temperature was falling, and the boat was overloaded with Lee and me, guns, duck and goose decoys, hip boots, hunting clothes, a tent, and a big cooler full of food and soft drinks.

          We headed downstream to a sandbar island that had some trees and grass growing on it. The outboard probably wasn’t big enough for the load, but I was confident we would be okay.

          By the time we got to the island, we were both wet and chilled, which made it important to get the tent pitched.

          Did you ever try to pitch a tent in the wind, when the pegs have to be buried into the sand well enough that the tent doesn’t blow away? It ain’t easy.

          We fought the weather and the dropping temperatures and the sand and finally got the tent up. We were exhausted, far too tired to try and build a fire in such damp conditions, so we crawled into the tent and opened the cooler.

          We mashed some soggy bread, baloney, sliced cheese and sand together into sandwiches. (With sand, they would be just wiches.)

          We each took a bite and agreed it was the best food we’d ever tasted.

          Meanwhile, as we tried to hunt, the rain continued, the temperature dropped some more, the wind was creating white cap waves in the river, and we weren’t having a lot of luck. Ducks had enough sense not to be out. Apparently, we didn’t.

          We had pulled the boat onto the island when we arrived and tied it to a tree. When we woke up the next morning and the river had risen enough that our boat was floating, though still soundly tied to the tree, Lee began to rant about how I was trying to drown us. I tried to reason with him that it took a lot of water to cause the river to rise enough to cover the island, but he was frightened.

          We agreed to return to land.

          This time, we were going against the current. The waves were higher than our heads as we sat in the boat. The small outboard was struggling against the current. One wave swept over us as we slid into a trough and filled the boat with water.

          Lee gripped the sides of the aluminum boat hard enough to leave finger impressions in the metal. “You’re wanting to die and take me with you,” he accused me.

          I tried to reassure him that we were okay, even as both of us dipped water out of the boat to lighten the load enough that the motor would push us against the current. I wasn’t all that sure either that we wouldn’t sink.

          I told Lee that if the boat did sink, we should each grab a couple of goose decoys for flotation.

To Lee’s surprise, and maybe a little to mine, we did make it back.

As we loaded the boat onto the trailer, I said, “Lee when we get the boat loaded, let’s drive into town to the restaurant. We’ll park the truck and walk in. We’ll be wet and cold, but they’ll let us in because they serve lots of duck hunters. The waitress will seat us. When she comes back with the menu, I’ll say, ‘We don’t need a menu. Just throw a bucket of water in our faces and bring us a baloney sandwich.’”

It wouldn’t have been the same. You never can quite duplicate the conditions that caused that great meal to be as great as it was.

(NOTE: Today, some injuries, and perhaps age, have forced Lee into retirement. I am happy to report that as of today, he is alive and mostly well in his hometown.)

But … But … Monkey’s Eyebrow?


June 26, 2018


You have to read all the way through so you can get the rest of the story.

My friend Mary Helen Hicks sent me the editorial page from the Paducah Sun-Democrat of Friday, Feb. 20, 1959. The mail was delivered today.

It included a column by the late Hal Boyle – remember him? – and the syndicated “Test Your Horse Sense,” which I remember by grandmother Edna Culver and her brother Russell Jones looking for every time it appeared in the Sun-Democrat (no longer a Democrat, now just the Sun).

But the reason she sent it is the “From Hall Allen’s Notebook” column, which told about the time football coach Dr. Jock Sutherland was found on April 6, 1948, walking along a Ballard County road near Monkey’s Eyebrow. Apparently he could remember nothing but his name. He said over and over, “I am Jock Sutherland.”

My grandfather Robert Crice was the jailer at the time and his son Billy Bob Crice helped out around the jail and the courthouse. Billy Bob, 20 years old at the time, heard the sheriff interviewing the man, who kept saying his name.

Billy Bob, who was the paper’s basketball correspondent at Wickliffe, phoned Allen and asked if Sutherland wasn’t a “big football coach.”

He was, in fact, a “big football coach.” He had been head football coach at the University of Pittsburgh and was head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was taken to St. Mary’s Hospital in Cairo.

The Associated Press refused to accept the story because the identification wasn’t positive enough.

When a positive identification was made, teletype messages back and forth between Louisville’s AP bureau and Pittsburgh caused newspaper men in Pittsburgh and New York to begin phoning the Sun-Democrat for the story.

I am going to quote the exchange between Allen and the big city reporters, as Allen wrote it in his column. I love this part because it would probably be the same today.

Here’s how Allen wrote it. I hope I have managed to use single and double quote marks correctly.:

“I explained that Dr. Sutherland had been found wandering along a road in Ballard County, Ky.”

“ ‘Near what town?’ I was asked.”

“Monkey’s Eyebrow.”

“ ‘What?’ ”

“Monkey’s Eyebrow.”

“ ‘ What do you mean by Monkey’s Eyebrow?’ ”

“That’s the name of the town which is located in Ballard County near where Dr. Sutherland was found.”

“ ‘ But it sounds like you said Monkey’s Eyebrow.’ ”

“I did say Monkey’s Eyebrow sir.”

“ ‘Look, couldn’t I just say in Ballard County, Ky.’ ”

“As you wish,” I told him. “Only you asked for the name of the town.”

“ ‘Couldn’t you give me the name of another town?’ ”

“Certainly,” I said, “but you wanted the name of the town where Dr. Jock Sutherland was found and I merely told you. The town is –”

“ ‘Never mind.’ ”

Isn’t that a wonderful exchange?

A plane was sent to Paducah and Sutherland was flown to Pittsburgh. He was diagnosed as having a brain tumor. He died on the operating table the next night.

And now the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey used to say on the radio.

Mary Helen sent the page to me by way of the post office. It seems that it was just about as difficult now as it was back in 1948.

The manila envelope was initially addressed to me, as far as I can tell, at 2306 Monkey’s Eyebrow Road, Bandana, Ky. Someone with a black marker or black crayon marked through the road address and wrote “PO BOX” in large letters. That, in turn, was marked through and someone re-wrote the road address and added Kevil 42053 beneath it. The Kevil name and zip code were later marked through and La Center, Ky., 42056 was added. Monkey’s Eyebrow is on the La Center mail route so that final change worked.

This entire article I’ve written makes me think of the “Who’s on first?” routine.

That sort of thing is one reason it’s so much fun to live at Monkey’s Eyebrow.

Friends and neighbors gather at Arivett’s Store at Monkey’s Eyebrow in 1952. People in the photo are Johnny Minter, Woodrow and Morris Minter, Ples Arivett, William Gross Hayden and Claude Holt.

Why the name? What’s the name?


September 14, 2016


          Several people claim they know the real story about why Monkey’s Eyebrow has its name. I mention a few of those “real stories” on the home page of this website. Undoubtedly there are some other “real stories” I haven’t heard.

          But there’s a perhaps bigger question than why is the name.

          What is the name?

          I write it as Monkey’s Eyebrow. That makes grammatical sense to me. And I think that’s how I saw it back in the late ’40s or early ’50s when I would visit Pod and Herman for a week or two in the summers.

But others write it as Monkeys Eyebrow, which sounds like more than one monkey. I don’t think monkeys share eyebrows so I don’t believe that could be correct.

And quite a few folks write it, and probably say it, Monkey Eyebrow. That one doesn’t make me feel comfortable. I suppose it could be right but it lacks the rhythm of having an “s” at the end. If I saw a community named Monkey Tail I wouldn’t even blink. There’s no reason I can think of to change it to Monkey’s Tail. Certainly I wouldn’t agree to Monkeys Tail. There is one big difference. A monkey has only one tail. If a monkey has eyebrows, I feel confident they would come in pairs. That may sound like a trivial difference but it shouts out to me that it is a major difference. That leaves out the plural form, as far as I’m concerned.

It’s fascinating that a community could have such an odd name and so many stories about where that name came from. It’s a name that has persisted for more than a hundred years. Well, maybe it’s not a name, but one or more of the three names have persisted for more than a hundred years.

Another interesting aspect to the community is that even though it has no city limits, its boundaries expand regularly as more and more folks from the vicinity say they are from Monkey’s or Monkey or Monkeys Eyebrow. Some of those residents live quite a distance from where the highway marker used to be placed to mark the edge of Monkey’s Eyebrow. We no longer have a highway marker. One reason is that it was something people liked to steal. The other reason is that the business and residential community is no more.

Now, houses are scattered between corn and wheat and soybean fields. We no longer have any dairy farms.

My house wasn’t actually in the town of Monkey’s Eyebrow. The town, anchored by Arivett’s store and gas station, was a few hundred yards away.

Everyone needs to be from somewhere so we and neighbors have always said we live in Monkey’s Eyebrow. To be honest, I’m proud there are getting to be so many of us. I think you live in Monkey’s Eyebrow if you say you do. As if by default, most of the folks in this area have said for years that they live in Monkey’s Eyebrow.

One who has gotten lots of attention most recently is up-and-coming country singer Kelsey Waldon. As her father told me today, she spent her first 13 years here, and is proud to let folks know that Monkey’s Eyebrow is her homeplace. I don’t know her but I’m sure that other Eyebrowers or Eyebrowians or Eyebrowites who know her and knew her back in those formative years are very proud of her. I hope she becomes one of the major country stars. Ballard County needs the recognition that would follow her stardom.

I plan to go to the county court clerk’s office one of these first days and dig through old deeds to try to pin down just how the community’s name was written in the earliest years. It should be an interesting bit of research.

Meanwhile, if you are anywhere in the vicinity – Paducah or St. Louis or Nashville or any other our other suburbs – drive by and maybe even stop and say hello. And be sure to check out the Ballard Wildlife Management Area, and the Barlow House in Barlow, and the Cross at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in Wickliffe, and the Wickliffe Mounds, also in Wickliffe.

All of us would love to see you.

Monkey's Eyebrow in 1954 when there were a store and residences

The Arivett Family of Monkey’s Eyebrow

And Other Settlers of the Area


June 2010


(Note: This is based on conversations with Evelyn Hook Arivett and Leroy Arivett on May 21, 2010, and on some e-mails from Evelyn and her daughter, Wilma Hook Romatz, who lives in Michigan.)


          Ples and Irene Wildharber Arivett and Ples’ brother Brad weren’t the first people to own a business at Monkey’s Eyebrow, Kentucky, but their businesses and their presence in the area are inextricably linked to the history of this small community that sports one of the most unusual names in the United States.

The name is frequently featured in atlas listings of unusual names; it has been the subject of at least two features on National Public Radio, and is featured in two books by author Mark Usler, who came to Monkey’s Eyebrow on May 21 to launch his new book, Hometown Celebrations.

The Arivett name itself is also a bit unusual in that it is consistently spelled Arivett, but is pronounced three different ways within the same family. Most of the members of the family and the people who live in the area pronounce the name as Everett, but Evelyn Arivett Hook, daughter of Ples and Irene, pronounces it as it’s spelled, Ar-i-vett. Evelyn’s younger brother, Leroy, who lives near Chicago, pronounces it Ar-vett, without the “i” sound.

          Evelyn Arivett was born at Monkey’s Eyebrow in 1920, the first of four children born to Ples and Irene. Horace, who ran a store at Bandana and who died in Bandana a few years ago, was next. Then came Leroy, and finally Harold, who lives near Atlanta.

The family’s roots in Monkey’s Eyebrow stretch back into the 1800s.  

          The Wildharbers and Goodleys, Irene Arivett’s family, came to Ballard County in 1903 from Henderson, Kentucky. Ples Arivett’s sister, Maude, told Evelyn that when their great grandfather, Jesse Beeler, came to Ballard County from Tennessee in the early 1840s it was nothing but wilderness. For many years, he and his children all lived in houses along what is now called Monkey’s Eyebrow Road, or state route 473.

          “Maudie was quite a colorful character too,” Wilma Hook Romatz, Evelyn’s daughter, remembers, “chewing snuff and spitting into a Calumet baking powder can. She had coal black dyed hair, and a huge diamond ring and red-painted nails.  Her language was equally colorful.”

          According to Evelyn, “Aunt Maudie said she heard that her grandpa had a whole trunk full of confederate money and her grandma kept trying to get him to change it. He refused, and lost everything after the Civil War was over.”

         John William Arivett, Ples Arivett’s grandfather, was born in Virginia but moved to Ballard County in the 1860s. He lived to be 98 and was married three times. He lived in Wickliffe when he died in 1940.

The business history of Monkey’s Eyebrow goes back to before the Arivetts opened their first business, which was a gristmill. A man whose last name was Ray had Ray’s Store at the bottom of the hill, down in an area which some folks call Old Monkey. Later, Guy Borden ran the store. Ples and Irene Arivett lived in a house near that store, on the south side of the road. There are no buildings there today. The area is covered with trees.

Several families lived in the area. Before the road was paved, the old road made a 90-degree turn to the north, opposite what is now Palmore Road, then it curved back toward the west, behind where Jim and Jean Meadors live now. The Arivett Store and most of the residences were northwest of the Meadors’ house. The buildings are no longer there.

Charley Waldon lived across the field (no paved road then) south of the store in the white house where Imogene Alexander lives now.

A family of Beelers lived down the road. Evelyn’s grandfather, John Wildharber, at one time owned the farm due east of the old road, a farm later owned by a Graves family and then by Herman and Pod Tilley, a part of which is now owned by Joe Culver.

According to Evelyn Hook, Wildharber came here from California, lived here two or three years, and then went back. He played in a band, When he came here he built a box that his bass fiddle would fit into. He put the box on the back of the car and brought it here with him.

The house where Charley Waldon’s family lived – where twin brothers Dot and Tot were born – was previously occupied by a family named Moss. Evelyn remembers playing with their daughter, who was about her age.

Some other families who lived in the area were Redferns, Crabtrees and Yanceys. “And there were Turners who lived down there. They used to sell watermelons. Sand Ridge grew the best watermelons,” Evelyn Hook recalls.

“There used to be some Laniers who lived down there. Judy Magee was a Hayden, and when you go by the game reserve entry there and you go on down to that curve, the Haydens lived in the house just on that curve. That’s where Judy and her sister grew up,” Evelyn said.

There was a small school “right over there in front of where that antenna is,” Evelyn said, pointing to the WPSD TV tower. “There used to be a building that was still there. I don’t know if it still is, I haven’t been down that road for a while. The building was still there even after they built that antenna out there.

“It was called Graves School. I would say 25 or 30 children went there. It had been built for a two-room school but we used only one of the rooms. If it was good weather we’d play outside, but if it was bad we could go in there, in the other room, and play games or whatever.

“The teacher that we had was real good to read to us. We used to have box suppers and she would use the money that we made from the suppers and other activities to buy books and things to entertain the kids. I love books still, and I’m sure I got it from her. Her name was Laura Lee Holt.”

The Monkey’s Eyebrow children went to high school at Bandana. There were no school buses then, but Howard Owsley, Joe Owsley’s dad, took a two-ton flatbed truck and converted it into a bus. It was closed in, with benches around the walls and a bench down the middle. It also had windows.

“He charged us 10 cents a day,” Evelyn recalls. “He would take us to Bandana and then pick us up at the end of the day. There were 15 or 20 people who rode it. He started at Needmore and drove all around the area picking up children.”

Before he built the gristmill which he and his brother Brad ran, Ples Arivett worked in California twice. He also worked on Dam 53 when it was being built, when Evelyn was about four or five years old. The Arivett family lived at the bottom of the hill then, in a house just past Ray’s Store.

Leroy Arivett recalls that his father would get up very early in the morning and walk the five miles to where they were building the dam. Because he left before daylight, Ples would carry a lantern. Evelyn said he would walk down to where the wildlife refuge is now, cross a lake and go over to where the dam was. Evelyn says she was born in 1920 and that would have been around 1925.

“And then we went to California in 1926,” Evelyn remembers. “My dad and my uncle were working out in the oilfields. I guess the oil company owned houses and rented them to the people who worked for them. We lived out there in a mountainous area and my dad wouldn’t let me go to school because he said you’ll have to ride the bus and there’s all those winding roads. He was afraid for me to ride the bus. So I didn’t go to school until I was seven years old after we moved back.”

They lived in Paducah for about a year or so and Evelyn’s first year of school was in Paducah. After that, she finished grade school at the Graves School at Monkey’s Eyebrow. That school remained active until it was consolidated with Bandana.

She went away to college at Murray State in the fall of 1938 and I didn’t move back.

The Arivetts did some farming in addition to running their businesses. Wilma taped a conversation with her uncle Horace a few years ago when he talked about the time they raised acres of sweet potatoes during the depression, thinking that they could sell them and make a little bit of money.  They found it was going to cost more to ship them than they would get, so they brought them back home and ate them all winter. Horace said he still couldn't look at a sweet potato years later.

The Arivetts’ first business enterprise at Monkey’s Eyebrow was a gristmill operated by brothers Ples and Brad. Evelyn says she was always fascinated with the machinery at the mill. They had a tractor chassis in the back part of the mill. It had a big drive shaft that went all the way across and the motor would run an assortment of pulleys and belts. It had a crusher that crushed the corn and there was another grinder that made meal.

“The mill made a lot of meal,” Evelyn says. “My dad usually did that. The Yopp Seed Company in Paducah would buy bags and let my dad fill them up with meal and they would take them back and sell them with Yopp’s name on the bags.”

About a year after they built the grist mill they started putting groceries in the front part. When Evelyn was about 12, in the early 1930s, the Arivetts built a frame building to house the store, separate from the mill.

There was a set of scales between the store and the mill.

Farmers would weigh their loaded trucks before the corn was ground. They would weigh them again when the trucks were empty. The difference was the weight of the corn.

Evelyn remembers that the store had about anything that you would want to buy, except meat because there was no electricity to run a cooler to keep meat.

Later, after the Arivett brothers dissolved their partnership, Ples tore down the frame building and built a new store of blocks in the same location as the first store. Those stores were on top of the hill, a location some people call “New Monkey” to distinguish it from the Ray’s Store that stood at the bottom of the hill. With the advent of electricity, that store was able to sell meat.

The Arivetts ran that store until around 1955 when they retired and moved to Bandana, where Horace already had a store.

By the time the uranium enrichment plant was being built near Kevil in the 1950s, there were 14 people living beside or around the Arivetts’ house and store in Monkey’s Eyebrow.

When the state of Kentucky acquired several of the lakes in the area, Ples fixed up rooms to rent to hunters. “He was always looking for ways to make more business,” Evelyn says.

Evelyn moved away in 1938 to go to college at Murray State. She married Harold Hook in 1942, and they lived in McCracken County, but came back to Monkey’s Eyebrow often to visit her family.

She and Harold had a store for about three years in Camelia, where the road from the Paducah Airport intersections with Highway 62.

Ples Arivett died in 1975, and Irene lived until 1999. She was 96 years old.


Comments from readers

          Here are some comments from people who have read this article:

          Billy Lanier: “The Laniers mentioned in your article were my grandparents, Wallace and Alice Lanier. New Hope Baptist Church sits on land given by my granddaddy.”

          Mary Helen Hicks: “The Barnhill family are the ones who lived closer to Monkey’s Eyebrow and raised watermelon, right in front of Mrs. Redfern. Their son is my brother-in-law, married to my youngest sister.”

          Ava Magee Siener: “How nice. I go to read about the Arivett family and come across a mention of my mother, Judy Magee.”

          Jeanne Culver Thorpe: “This is a great article. I love the genealogy.”

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