AUGUST 2017

AUGUST  2017
FACING DOWN THE RULERS OF WALL STREET A HUNDRED YEARS AGO. THEY ARE BACK.

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Friday, April 30, 2010

GIVING HUMANS THE BIRD

I have a horrible feeling that somehow we’ve gotten this whole endangered species thing wrong. Yes, we continue to carelessly destroy habitats, introduce alien species, and randomly dump industrial waste and spill oil, and that’s all bad and we should stop it. But I’ve been eating dolphin safe tuna for almost fifty years now and the darn dolphins are still not safe. I thought these aquatic mammels were supposed to be so smart! Meanwhile, nobody tried to protect the Northern Pike of Lake Davis, California: Quite the opposite.
Some idiot released a couple of Northern Pike into the small and until then very placid Lake Davis back in 1991, because they thought Pike would be fun to catch. Unfortunately Lake Davis already had a stocked population of game fish, Rainbow Trout, which are not only a popular game fish amongst tourists but are also an easy meal for the voracious Northern Pike.
To the California Fish and Game Department the worry was, that once these piscatorial carnivores had finished off the trout in Lake Davis, they would swim downstream into the Feather River, into the Sacramento and then upstream to devour the Delta Salmon fry populations, which Fish and Game had just spent tens of millions of dollars re-introducing. So, beginning in 1997 California Fish and Game declared war on the Pike. They began by dumping 16,000 gallons of liquid poison and 60,000 pounds of powdered poison into the lake. They posioned the water supply of the little lake side community of Portola.  But the Pike...not so much. Next the humans ropped off sections of the lake where the Pike tended to congregate, and tried to electrocute them. Shockingly, that didn't work either. Over ten years California Fish and Game spent well in excess of $30 million trying to kill off these finned invaders, and that effort didn't prove to be fun for anybody, except possibly the Pike.
The Northern Pike of Lake Davis were poisoned. They were electrocuted. They were shot, netted, hooked, cornered, dynamited, starved and suffocated. The state even drained the lake. For over a year the nearby human population couldn’t drink the water, it was so full of piperonyl butoxide. It was like trying to control flys with a fly swatter. 
These Franken-Pike refused to die. They weren't on any endangered species list, they’re on the ten most wanted list. They’ve had more people gunning for them than Osama bin Laden, and with about as much luck. When nothing else worked Fish and Game tried stocking Lake Davis with oversized Trout fry, thinking they would be too big for the young Pike fry to eat and the Pike would then starve to death or be eaten by the baby giganto-trout . In response the Pike began growing nine to fourteen times faster than normal. They became super-Pike fry-enator babies: big nasty Pike babies that had no trouble swallowing the Trout babies of unusual size.
Six hundred Pike were caught in Fish and Game sample nets the year after the lake was poisoned. In 2004, after the electrocution and draining and the shooting,  the catch was 17,635. In all, something over 65,000 Pike have been pulled from Lake Davis since humans began trying to eradicating them, and God knows how many sacrificial trout. But however many it was, it wasn't enough.
In May of 2005 the Pike were caught trying to find a way around the Pike screens on the spillway. When stopped the Pike explained, "Somebody told me I could us this exit." And in 2006, after a winter of heavy snow pack and spring rains, Lake Davis came within inches of overflowing the spillway entirely, and releasing the un-eradicated Pike directly into the Sacramento River system. That year, still not willing to admit he had been beaten by a mere fish, Steve Martarano of California Fish and Game gamely insisted, “We’ve gotten better at knowing where the Pike are.” Yeah, Steve: they’re in the water.
Well, in January of 2007, Fish and Game announced plans to try it one more time. In the fall of 2007, as part of yet another $12 million "new" program, about 48,000 acre feet of “rotenone”, a commonly used and “safe” pesticide, were dumped into the lake and, this time, upstream as well,, in the lake's tributaries. And this,  Fish and Game assured everyone, would finally kill off "the-Pike-that- wouldn't-die" without killing the people or the local economy...again. Nobody would know for certain if it worked until spring. The ice over Lake Davis was still 12 to 24 inches thick, but under that ice 31,000 new Eagle Lake Trout were re-stocked, ranging in size from 8 oz.to 3 lbs. And down there, in the dark water, unseen by human eyes, the battles were occuring that would decide the fate of many a naturalist at Fish and Game. As spring of 2009  approached they poured in another one million trout. And every human in California had their fingers crossed. The last word (as of 2010), on the Fish and Game web page for Lake Davis containes this cautiously hopeful message; "Currently, the reservoir area is open and restocking with rainbow trout has begun." But I've got to tell you, that to me the tale of Lake Davis reads a lot like Mary Shelly's monster story.
Meanwhile, a the same time the Pike were swiming rings around biologists in Northen California, other biologists raising endangered California Condor chicks in Sourthern California, were using hand puppets to feed baby Condors, so they would have no positive human interaction before they are released into the wild. But despite these efforts about a half dozen of the first juvenile Condors freed in the wild chose to hang out at the Pine Mountain Club, a condo resort village down the road from Fraser Park, at the Western end of the Tehachapi mountain range between Central and Southern California. And what the Pine Mountain Club Condors seemed to have figured out on their own, is that their razor sharp beaks and talons designed to rip open animal carcasses worked even better on plastic trash bags and kitchen window screens.
One  “naturalist” studying the Condor-condo interaction, returned home after a hard day of remote Condor observing via powerful binoculars only to discover three of the 30 pound birds with their 10’ wingspans, gallivanting about his bedroom, using it as a sort of playroom and free toilet. They had entered via a slit they made in his window screen. One was in his underwear drawer shredding his shorts while the other two were slowly dissecting his mattress with all the abandon of adolescences free from parental oversight. It is tempting to suggest that the birds picked out this guy personally to deliver a message, and maybe they had; "Stop watching us, you eco-papparazi!" Now, the average citizen, like say maybe Russel Crowe, would have gone into that room with a broom and defended his privacy, and he would driven those feathered gangbangers out the way they had come in!
But this guy was a “naturalist”, and he lived by a differernt code. In order to avoid "human interaction" with the feathered truants, this guy retreated until the birds got bored and left on their own. Or maybe they just ran out of poop. The “naturalists” then convinced local politicians that the problem was not the errent juvanile avian trouble makers, but humans. Dutifully the Condo board voted to require residets to hold all trash inside until the morning of collection, and then to place it in locking containers. And at the landfill a bulldozer was kept standing by so the the garbage bags could be immediately covered with dirt.
The thinking was that without an easy food supply the condors would leave. They did not take the hint. Instead in this Condor version of "West Side Story", the plot was much more simple. The Condor "Sharks"  loomed about on the roof of a local restaurant, depressing the hell out of all potential customers. Who wants to eat at restaurant with vultures looming about on the roof? The condors may have looked like comment on the cuisine, but they were actually just waiting for the trash trucks to arrive. They would then use their extraordinary skills at gliding to follow behind the trucks all way to the dump, where they quickly descended on the plastic bags, ripping them open with great vigor. Then they dinned on all the leftover meat, empty soup cans and macaroni and cheese containers, as if they were a dining on a dieing wooly mammoth. The front loaders couldn’t cover the trash bags without the risk of burying a condor at the same time, so the meals could now be eaten at leisure in a sort of Condor outdoor olfactory buffet. Game, set, and match to the Condors.
The biologists and naturalists were horrified because this behavior didn’t fit their image of noble Condors sailing in an empty sky above an untouched wilderness - which is where the Condors almost became extinct in the first place. Need I point out that not a single condor died at the Pine Mountain Club? They ate too many french fries, but none of them died!
The happy ending to this story of rebellious Condors is that once they matured and mated the adult condors didn’t want their offspring growing up in an urban environment anymore than Republicans do. Today, the Pine Mountain Club is condor free, except for a few weeks every summer when the newly adolescent vultures fly in for a sort of avian spring break, a condor rumsringa. They eat spicy food, taunt the humans and stage panty raids on the naturalists. And then they leave. And even the humans have adapted. The Pine Mountain Club now calls their newsletter "The Condor", and guests can drink themselves into oblivian in the "Condor Room" at the club bar. And wouldn't you like to see one of these drunks come staggering out into the morning light to be confonted by a feathered omen of impending death?
Now, I’m not suggesting we try protecting endangered species with dynamite or by raising their cholesterol levels, but it does seem that the animals we’re protecting are all in trouble while the ones we’re trying to exterminate are experiencing population booms. What can we learn from this? Well, first, that there are six billion humans on this planet at present and more on the way. And baring a natural disaster or WMD we are not going anywhere. And if we do, so are the Condors and most of the Pike and Trout. Modern Condors, searching for dinner while soaring above the wilderness are going to see a lot more humans than dead deer. And Pike and Trout are going to meet a lot of little fish with hooks in them. So why not “humanize” them, teach them what every mentally retarded urban pigeon already knows; the fries are better at Burger King, don’t drink the yellow water, never trust a politician in an election year and don’t go swimming in Lake Davis unless you want your talons bitten off.
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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

BUYING SWAMPLAND

“Politics have no relation to morals”
Niccolo Machiavelli - “The Prince” - 1513
I would say that 1835 was, like most years, a revolutionary year in America. Inspired by gringo emigrants, Texas rebelled against Mexico. In Boston, five thousand bigots broke into a meeting of the Anti-Slavery Society, and dragged abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison through the streets at the end of a rope. In South Carolina 36 slaves and one 60 year old free-black carpenter were hanged for trying to organize a slave revolt. Down in Florida the Second Seminole War broke out when Native Americans refused to surrender their freedom and their homes. And along the shores of Lake Erie, free whites did their very best to start a war over possession of 268 square miles of swamp and prairie, known as “The Toledo Strip”.
In truth, the Great Black Swamp was what filmaker Alfred Hitchcock would call a Magoffin. It was not what people were fighting over, even tho it was what people were fighting over. It was not even much of a swamp by Louisiana standards. It was great only because it occupied a swath of land, 40 miles wide and 120 miles long, in the northwest corner Ohio – which was a little far north for a swamp.
It was really a collection of ponds and marshes interspersed with hillocks, filled and drained by the 130 mile long Maumee River, which fed into Lake Erie. It's only claim to fame was that it formed a natural barrier between the state of Ohio and the territory of Michigan. The Black Swamp was certainly not desirable  farmland, but it provided a bumper crop of mosquitoes each summer, and they, and the malaria they carried, made life difficult for any intrepid surveyors who might set up their theolodite upon such soggy ground.
“Princes and governments are far more dangerous than other elements within society.”
Niccolo Machiavelli – “The Prince” – 1513
The first real attempt to draw the border was made in 1817, when Michigan Territory hired surveyor William Harris. According to the “Harris Line” the mouth of the Maumee River was in Michigan, below the swamp. In 1818 Ohio responded by hiring John Fulton to survey the border, which he found five miles further north, avoiding the swamp by going above it. Taken together the two lines bracketed the Great Black Swamp. And while the desire of a surveyor to avoid all those mosquitoes was understandable, the residents of Ohio and Michigan were confused. They appealed to Washington. But abiding by the political rule that whatever you do will make somebody angry with you, the politicians decided to do nothing. After all, nobody would fight for ownership of a swamp.
Then in 1825 the Erie Canal opened, connecting the port of New York with the Great Lakes. It proved to be such an economic revolution that plans were immediately drawn up for a port at the mouth of the Maumee River, and a canal up the river to Fort Wayne, Indiana (statehood granted in 1816), where it would connect to another canal down the Wabash River, to the Ohio and thence to the Mississippi. Those canals would make the port of Toledo (which was established by Ohio in 1832) the hub of transportation for the entire center of the continent. A Toledo lawyer, John Fitch, noted that already it was the general opinion that “no place on the lake except Buffalo will rival it.” The politically active residents of Michigan Territory became convinced that Ohio politicians were trying to steal Toledo from them.
The politics finally solidified when hot headed 23 year old Stephen Mason became Territorial Governor of Michigan. He was a gift from President Andrew Jackson, a man who appreciated hot heads. And under pressure from other hot heads in the territory, Governor Mason issued the “Pains and Penalities Act” of February 12, 1835, making it illegal for a non-Michigan resident to enforce the law in Toledo, Michigan Territory.
The Cleveland, Ohio newspapers called the Michigan claim to Toledo “as absurd as it is ridiculous.” And on February 23, the defiant Ohio General Assembly, playing to their own base, voted to “run the border” of the Fulton Line, meaning to mark it again as Toledo, Ohio, with stone posts that clearly said so. On April Fool’s day Michigan held local elections in the Toledo Strip. On April 6th Ohio held competing local elections in the Toledo Strip. Somebody was going to have to disappoint their supporters..
“Before all else be armed.”
Niccolo Machiavelli – “The Prince” – 1513
Two days later a Michigan Country sheriff and an armed posse of 40 men rode into Toledo to enforce the Penalities Act. Several men snuck into the home of Benjamin Stickney, who was an “Ohio patriot” and a major in the Ohio militia. Now, even allowing for how little humanity knew at the time about dysfunctional parenting, the level of strangeness displayed by Benjamin Stickney is staggering. This respected member of the community named his eldest son “Number One” and his younger son “Number Two”. Stickney also had a daughter, but for some reason we don’t know what he called her. I suspect it might have been “Light Sleeper”.
When the girl was awakened by a noise that night, she stepped into the hall to investigate. A creeping Michigan deputy clamped a hand over the startled child’s mouth, and held her silent, lest she shout a warning to her father. Alas, Benjamin Stickney was not at home. So two of his house guests were arrested and taken north for arraingment. Two days later they were released on bail.
In handbills and letters to Ohio newspapers Major Stickney inflated the posse to 300 men “armed with muskets and bayonetts”, claimed that the deputies had tried to goug out his eyes and had “throttled” his daughter. He urged his fellow buckeyes to “turn out en masse to protect their northern border and restrain the savage barbarity of the hordes of the north.” Ohio Govenor Robert Lucas, aother Jackson Democrat, sent 40 men to guard his surveyors and ordered the 100,000 members of the state milita to assemble in the tiny town of Perryville, Ohio, just down the Maumee River from Toledo. Only 10,000 actually turned up and most of them never got to Perryville, because they got lost in the swamp.
Meanwhile a Michigan posse, 30 strong, caught the Ohio “line runners” relaxing in camp on Sunday, April 21st . Most of the buckeyes broke for the woods, but nine of the protecting milita were caught in the open. When the Michigan posse fired a volley over their heads they wisely surrendered. All seven were arrested for violating the “Pains and Penalities Act”, and on Monday morning six were granted bail and two were released after a warning to behave. The only Ohioian who remained in jail was Jonathan Fletcher, a hot head who refused to post bail “on principle.” In the annals of Michigan this encounter was memorialized as the “Battle of Phillip’s Corner”, since the encounter had occurred in a field owned by Eli Phillips, who supported Michigan.
“The distinction between children and adults, while probably useful for some purposes, is at bottom a specious one, I feel. There are only individual egos, crazy for love.”
Niccolo Machiavelli – “The Prince” – 1513
The smell of gunpowder had brought a degree of sanity back to Governor Mason, and in the spirit of good will he suspended enforcement of his Pains and Penalities Act. But now it was the Ohio legislature’s turn to appease their base. Kidnapping was already illegal in Ohio, but buckeye politicians felt it necessary to pass a new law providing hard labor for kidnapping anyone from Ohio. And they made Toledo the capital of a new county.
In Toledo one observer noted “Men (were) galloping about – guns getting ready – wagons being filled with people and hurrying off, and everybody in commotion “ The little town of just 1,250 citizens had become a magnet for every nut case, political hot head and pugnacious drifter in the midwest. In July, two Michigan deputies tried to hold an auction of property siezed for non payment of Michigan taxes, and a gang of Ohio “patriots”, led by Number Two Strikney, broke up the auction. So, on July 12th a Michicgan arrest warrant was issued for the son-of-a-patriot, for disturbing the peace. Number Two, upon learning of the warrent, sent a message to the Michigan sherriff to stay out of Toledo, if he wanted to live.
That threat set Governor Mason off again. He ordered 250 men into Toledo, under Deputy Sheriff Joseph Wood, to arrest Number Two and his gang. Most of the Ohio “patriots” ran safely for the river, but Number Two didn’t make it. Sheriff Wood physicaly grabbed him and Number Two pulled what in Ohio was called a pen knife and in Michigan became a “dirk”. “Two” stabbed the sheriff in the leg and dissappeared across the Maumee. The wound was minor and the sheriff was able to ride back across the border that night, having paused to arrest Number Two’s father, Major Stickney, and drag him back to Michigan, tied to the back of a horse. But before leaving town the Michiganders also smashed the offices of the pro-Ohio Toledo Gazette, behaving, claimed the paper, worse than an “Algerian robbery or Turkish persecution.” It seemed the residents were even running short of hyperbole. What was left but gunpowder?
“A wise ruler ought never to keep faith when by doing so it would be against his insterests.”
Niccolo Machiavelli – “The Prince” – 1513.
It was at this point that Andrew Jackson finally stepped in and on August 29th , 1835 removed Mason as governor of Michigan Territory. Jackson also let it be known that Michigan would only be allowed to become a state after they accepted that Toledo was a town in Ohio. It was a hard pill for the rabble to swallow, particularly after all that rabble rousing, but as a sop for hurt feelings, the federal government granted Michigan the additional territory known as the Northern Pennisula. Michigan was finally admitted into the union, sans Toledo, on January 26, 1837.
So Ohio won. The canals were dug, and the buckeyes benefited from the taxes paid by the port at the mouth of the Maumee River. In 1842 1,578 barrels of flour and 12,976 bushels of wheat were shipped through Toledo, Ohio. By 1852 the totals were a quarter million barrels flour and almost two million bushels of wheat. But Toledo did not become the transportation hub for the region, because canal technology was superseded by railroads, and Chicago superseded Toledo; none of which the Ohio patriots predicted in 1835.
Meanwhile, in 1844, a party of surveyors was marking out the second place prize for Michigan, the Upper Peninsula,  when they found their compasses spinning wildly. This was caused by one of the largest concentrations of iron ore ever found on the planet, the Marquette Range, which was surrounded by one of the largest concentrations of copper ore ever found on earth. Beginning in 1847 and continuing over the next one hundred years and fifty years, over a billion tons of iron and several billion tons of copper were removed from those hills. None of the Michigan patriots could have predicted that, either.
The truth was the future contained a bounty beyond the imagination of the patriots who willing to kill each other in 1835, all for possession of a swamp – and not a great swamp at that. Does that make any sense?
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Sunday, April 25, 2010

AMAZING RACE: PART VII - INTO THE VALLEY

I would say there are really four truly amazing things about Cal Rodgers’ transcontinental flight of late 1911. The most amazing thing (to me) is that Cal smoked 19 cigars a day during the 49 days it took him to cross America: that's 931 cigars in total. Where did he get them all? How was he still breathing when it was all over, after inhaling all those engine exhaust fumes and all that tobacco smoke? The second most amazing thing is that he burned 1,230 gallons of gasoline to cover 3,220 miles, for an average of 38 miles per gallon; not bad! Detroit couldn’t match that a hundred years later. The third most amazing thing about the flight of the “Vin Fiz Flyer” is that during those 49 days Cal had been actually airborne just three days, ten hours and four minutes of actual flying time, giving him an average air speed of about 53 miles per hour. That means that he was “grounded” for forty-five days, sometimes because of bad weather, but mostly because of mechanical problems and crashes. And that brings me to the fourth amazing thing about Cal Rogers’ flight. Despite all the bandages he had adorning his body and the leg cast he was wearing after his crash in Arizona, Cal had survived. He even survived when his engine exploded less than 200 miles from the finish line.
It happened on November 3rd, the day after Cal’s brief meeting with Bob Ward in Arizona. Cal had just left a refueling stop in the desert at Imperial Junction, California, (meaning he had crossed his last state border!) and was climbing out over the expanse of the Salton Sea. Without warning the Number One cylinder in his Wright engine exploded catastrophically. It blew out the entire left side of the engine block, and Cal’s right shoulder and arm were peppered with shrapnel. Screaming pain tore at his consciousness, and Cal’s right arm was almost useless. Somehow, he executed a banking turn over the salt waters and glided the “Flyer” back to Imperial Junction. He managed to land safely, again, with just one arm: Cal had become quite a pilot. After two hours of surgery a doctor was able to remove most of the metal from Cal’s arm.
The engine was destroyed (above), but the “Vin Fiz Special” carried a spare, which “Weggie” was able to install. It took a little longer because the crew was short handed. The master mechanic Charlie Taylor had left the "Vin Fiz Special" train back in Texas and gone ahead to California.
The next day Bob Fowler was almost across New Mexico when he ran into his own mechanical problems. A clogged fuel line chocked off his engine near the isolated water station of Mastodon, 16 miles lonely outside of El Paso, Texas. There was no town at Mastadon,  just a water tank where the single rail line and a siding ran between sand dunes, and it was a very lonely place at the time. It still is, especially since the railroad has "moved on". On satellite photographs today it looks like a drawing, all straight lines through a tan background. It was only a little more lonely in 1911. New Mexico wouldn’t even become the 47th state for another 68 days. Once he was safely down, Bob cleared the clogged fuel line, restarted his motor and tried to get airborne again. But the the Cole Flyer couldn’t break free of the sand and sagebrush. Bob Fowler would have to wait for a shift of the wind. Except, it didn’t shift.
Cal didn’t even wait for his wounds to heal. Early on the morning of November the 5th, wearing an arm sling, he made the hop from Imperial Junction through the San Gregorio Pass to Banning, and from there to Pomona, where he made a last refueling stop. And finally, at 4:08 p.m. on Sunday November 5, 1911, Cal Rodgers landed at the Tournament of Roses Park, on the current grounds of Cal Tech. He was met by 10 to 20,000 screaming people, most of whom had paid a quarter apiece to be there. The New York Times reported, ''...a maelstrom of fighting, screaming, out-of-their-minds-with-joy men, women and children.'' Cal was loaded into a car and driven around and around the stadium. And amongst all of the cheering and back slapping, poor deaf Cal kept asking, “I did it, didn’t I? I did it?”
They draped him with an American flag, and posed him next to the “Rubenisque” 1911 Rose Queen, Miss Ruth Palmer . And almost nobody who was in that crowd cheering Cal Rodgers had any idea that a deaf man had just flown coast-to-coast. It was quite an achievement. And nobody was prouder of Cal than Mable, unless it was "Weggie", his faithful mechanic, beaming up at him in the photo below.
Cal’s personal victory came a week later, in the Maryland Hotel, when a representative for Mr. W.R. Hearst , burning from the negative publicity over his refusal to extend the $50,000 prizes' time limit. So he  presented the aviator with a trophy, a loving cup. And Cal turned it down. He still wanted the money. And he wasn’t going to let W.R. off the petard he had hoisted himself upon.
Unnoticed by the press was that the Armour Meat Packing Company had spent $180,000 (including Cal’s fee of $23,000) to support the flight. And they had paid all this to sell a really terrible soft drink that quickly disappeared after the publicity of the flight died down. Then, on November 10th, the "Vin Fiz Flyer" was in the air again. The city of Long Beach had offered Cal $5,000 to actually complete his journey right up to the Pacific Ocean, in their town. This final flight was going fine until half way there, when the engine quit. Cal landed, fiddled with the Wright engine himself, and started again. And again, the engine coughed and died, this time over Compton. And this time Cal plowed into the ground. And this time he did not walk away. He was pulled unconscious from the wreckage, with a concussion, a broken ankle, broken ribs, an injured back and burns. But his lucky bottle of “Vin Fiz” was still hanging, undamaged, from the broken wing strut. Cal must have hated that bottle by now.
Meanwhile, out in the wilds of Mastodon, New Mexico, Bob Fowler was still stuck in the sand and beginning to think he would never get out. Finally, on the 10th of November, a two man Santa Fe work crew appeared over the horizon, pumping a handcar. And Bob had an idea. He talked to the railroad and they agreed to help him out. Using railroad cross ties they fashioned a platform to sit atop a hand car, and struggled to secure the “Cole Flyer” atop the platform. On the morning of Monday, November 13th, the entire contraption was pushed from the siding onto the main line. Bob Fowler clambered into the pilot’s seat. The motor was started. And with railroad workers running alongside to stabilize the wings, the “Flyer” began to move along the track. This was much like the system the Wright brothers had used to launch their orignal flyer, back in 1903. 
And just as the Cole Flyer began to pick up speed Bob looked ahead to see a column of smoke rising from the tracks. Instantly Bob realized he was on a collision course with a steam locomotive, headed straight for him. The two objects quickly ate up the ground between them, heading for the most unlikely collision in either aviation or railroad  history!
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NEXT WEDNESDAY: AMAZING RACE; PART VIII - AN ASIDE

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