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Continuation of Dennis Stones memories from Autumn 1956.
As I now recall, we spent our first few days at RAF Bridgnorth wearing green denim overalls and rather scared faces. Blue berets, webbing belts and boots soon completed the external appearance. This attire would transform us from the temporary conspicuousness of our civvies into something more akin to military. The denims covered us like boiler suits and fastened with large industrial type press-studs up the front, at the ankles and at the cuffs. They were also sized to cover us completely even when in battle dress, so when we changed into our PE gear, some of us looked like Andy Pandy rag dolls.
Amongst the other recruits, and in spite of our denims, we were still unquestionably Sprogs. Our hair cuts had removed one level of untidiness, so that we were beginning to conform with 'real' airmen. Uniforms, both best blue and battledress had been sent to the tailors after a 'fitting'. One can only delineate this latter operation as a technique of dexterity better seen than described. Nevertheless, an expert craftsman with obvious flare for fashion confronted each of us in turn. Grabbing a fist-full of uniform in the general vicinity of the buttons and navel, he proceeded to rapidly draw around his knuckles with a piece of yellow crayon. This high level Saville Row precision would ensure that our uniforms would conform with our particular profile, irrespective of how much weight we were soon to sacrifice. My battledress jacket had enough room around the middle to ensure that it would still fit me when I was 65. Looking down now at my 78 year old spread, I wasn't far wrong either.
I seem to recall that within a few hours of our arrival at Bridgnorth, we had been introduced to our drill instructor, a friendly enough but frozen faced little man by the name of Corporal Kleiser. With a name like Kleiser, I had become even more apprehensive, and soon began to realise why his face was frozen. He was one of two instructors for the duration of our confinement, and for several weeks, this little man with strong fatherless tendencies encouraged us to develop a distinct hatred for him. It was a hatred more than anything or anyone I had ever hated before.
Of course, the behaviour of these two DI's was all part of the ubiquitous plan to brain wash us. It was their duty to get us to obey orders precisely and at the double; to become extremely fit and healthy; to have sixty airmen behave like a clockwork machine; but most importantly, this process was designed to reduce us almost to tears. For some, except those still hiding under their greatcoats, I suspect that this latter intention may have succeeded.
The first time we met an officer was when the Wing Commander (or was he only the Flight Commander?), came to give us our first address. We had been assembled in the large Mess, just like in the movies but without any maps of enemy targets. The moment he arrived we all leapt to attention. Well sort of. "At ease!" he called, as if he had a mouth full of plumbs, largely of the unsweetened variety. We all sat down again.
The talk he gave us must have been like a broken record for some of the regular personnel. I remember his well-worn joke about being away from the comforts of home and therefore the type of letters which would be sent home about life in the RAF. I'm somewhat reluctant to repeat it here, except for the fact that I was still naive and not very comfortable with bad language.
'Dear Mum,' he began, mocking the poor (imaginary) airman who was so homesick.
'Dear Mum, Life's a bastard', the airman had written. I cringed.
'Later, back came a letter of reply from his mother.', the officer went on.
So are you'.
I cringed even more, having noticed that there was a lady mopping the floor at the back of the hall. The officer had said the word 'bastard' loud enough for her to hear.
It was through times like these that my vocabulary improved immensely. My sense of humour was sharpened and tested, along with an improved independence compared with my original rather stifled or narrow minded outlook on life. And, with an introduced question hanging over my own ancestry, I began to develop a far greater respect for authority. There was no right to reply on any topic, we just had to swallow hard and keep going. Many a bloke who has not been in the services has suggested to me that 'I wouldn't put up with that sort of treatment without a fight'.
How was it possible to explain?
The enigmatic 252 seemed to be the most powerful weapon that could be brought to bear on us, and certainly encouraged an inferiority complex. Of course it wasn't. They had many other means of persuasion, drawn from a permanent stockpile of provocative insults.
That aside, and as a means of minimising the possibility of any of us developing bubonic plague, foot and mouth disease, or the dreaded lurgy, we were marched around to the gymnasium for - no one knew what.
From what little I do remember, we were ordered to remove clothing thus exposing our upper torso.
We shuffled slowly along leaning slightly out of line to watch as one or two of the biggest of our flight began to turn white and fall over like skittles in a bowling alley.
"What's all the fuss about?" I thought, while getting 'flash-backs' of my experience as a three year old in the doctor's surgery. As my turn approached, I discovered that we were getting four inoculations simultaneously. Two in the upper arm and two in the forearm. It was too late to write back, declining the OHMS invitation. I was thus appropriately processed like all the others while managing to remain standing. There were several blokes, even big toughs whose legs gave way when they were confronted by the prospect of this treatment. Maybe they had experienced much worse than I when they were small.
Back to the billets we were marched. This time the DI's became as masochistic as the medics, threatening bad things if we didn't swing our arms up to the regulation shoulder height. I'm sure they marched us the long way round.
Strong dialogue was the primary tool for encouraging the weaker ones to crack-up and to provide some entertainment for the corporals. To be accused of being a 'Nig-nog' was common place and comparatively gentle really. One was expected to acknowledge both the description and to demonstrate respect for the NCO.
"You're a Nig-nog! What are you?"
Once, in a drill hanger, we almost died from constraining our laughter, when one bright young lad, challenged by the DI in this way, came very close to a 252. He changed the intonations and emphasis of the word 'Corporal', in such a way that it implied that he was in fact himself - "A nig-nog-corporal".
This was the best example of not-so-dumb insolence that I have ever heard. The DI was lost for words and many of us felt that the airman had at last scored one up for 'the lads'.
One DI, who was actually RAF Regiment, used to ride his camp bicycle between us when we were in 'open order file'. There was just enough room for this member of the opposite sect to pass around us. His primary intention appeared to be that he wanted to intimidate us. Some of us planned to nudge him off balance just to see what a commotion we could create, but no one was ever game enough to try. Perhaps the thought of a 252 was pretty scary.
Part of understanding our fire-arms involved knowing about the .303 calibre rifle. It became the job of this same DI on two wheels to tell us about raising the back-sight to adjust for target range. There were numbers clearly marked on the back of the sight which corresponded with the distance (in 100yds) of the target from the weapon. We could feed the chap with any bit of rubbish so long as it sounded like a range number. He didn't at first, seem to know we were trying to extract the Michael, feigning indifference by sucking through his teeth. To get his own back when he finally tumbled to the fact that we were trying to fool him, he had us lying on the concrete floor in the drill hanger with our rifles at the ready. We were supposed to lie on thin mattresses but for a variety of reasons several of us including myself ended up with nothing but cold, hard, concrete.
Try lying on concrete for an hour in denim with your elbows pointing downwards and your hands up near your chin. In our case we were also holding our .303 rifles in the firing position. The DI wandered slowly around the half circle of bods, kicking rifle butts or stamping on them. When it came my turn, it felt like either the concrete or my elbows had chipped under the sharp blow of his foot stamping on the muzzle.
As a bit of relief from all this stuff, I should relate about other things which for me at least, were transpiring simultaneously.
Prior to the arrival of the brown envelope invitation, I had embarked on learning to play the clarinet, and it seemed like a good idea to continue. Clarinet practice was, to certain entities, the opportunity to make humorous comments, especially when a wrong note was blown. For the reckless player, this instrument is readily primed for producing a distinct squeal rather than anything which comes close to being musical. For other bods in our hut, it was something much more and I was delighted one day, when one of the blokes whose home was close to Bridgnorth, brought in his tape recorder, the first I had ever seen at close range. He set up the mike and I began to record a section of the lead clarinet part of Mendelssohn's 'Hebrides Overture', the sounds of which would have had Mendelssohn wondering why he ever scored for clarinets when there would be people like me to wreck his work.
Included in my clarinet tutor book were both the first and the second clarinet parts. Having recorded the 1st Clarinet part, we rewound the tape and began to replay it while I played 2nd Clarinet. Clearly, the intention was to produce a type of duet. The sound of two clarinets has, for me, a very pleasing sound, being surmounted only by clarinet and 'vibes' (vibraphone) when playing modern jazz. What came out of our first attempts however, was ghastly.
For some initially unknown reason, the replay from the tape recorder was running at a different speed which caused the pitch emanating from the machine to be about a semitone to a tone higher, and was certainly nowhere in tune with my clarinet. In hindsight, I would suggest that there was a voltage drop during the recording process, causing the 'wheels' to turn more slowly. The solution was to lower the tone of the clarinet by gradually extending the top end to just about the limit. By replaying the tape several times, we could just begin to get the two in tune before the clarinet came close to falling into two pieces.
Other refreshing distractions from rifle drill, square bashing and avoiding 252's, included the respites when we could race to the 'Sally Anne' refreshments van and treat ourselves to sticky, cream and jam donuts with hot tea. In the open air, lying on well-kept lawns, was a delightful break from all the radical masquerades in which we were expected to take part.
The effect of square bashing and the open air had one very conspicuous benefit. We were all tremendously fit.
Without exception, those were the times when I was certainly at my fittest. I began to join in with a group who were into Judo, and in our spare time we would head down to the gymnasium to practice throws and falls. Steve was our unofficial instructor, but why he bothered to learn the art was surprising because he was a massively built bloke, looking more like a Japanese wrestler. He taught me several ways to fall, especially the break-fall which usually meant that in slapping my arm hard on the mat, I would somehow hit my elbow in the process. We also learned several ways to bring an opponent down by getting them off balance or on the wrong foot. The stomach throw was the most spectacular, irrespective of whether one was on the delivering or receiving end. Through searching this website, I also discovered that the chap who threw me around the mat was none other than Geoff Gartrell, a chap who, when we were kids, was in the same primary-school class.
From my own experience, Judo is not recommended to be used on anyone unless used correctly or, as a last resort in self defence. In the billet I almost broke a chaps arm when I grabbed him by it and pulled him in the wrong direction. He wasn't too pleased with me for some time after.
These lessons in martial art came to an end either due to the pain in my elbow or because square- bashing was over. I still remember some of the things we were taught, and thankfully, I've never needed to apply them.
As the weeks of marching, running, marching, running, changing clothes, and rifle drill progressed without a single 252, our hatred of Corporal Kleiser and some of the other NCO's intensified.
We were however, unaware of the real changes which were taking place. Perhaps, when we did get a minute, we were too busy licking our wounds or 'bulling' the toes of our boots to reflect much upon the intended purpose, or even the miniaturised reflection of our faces in our boots. More especially, the apparent stupidity of it all. We knew intimately how to remove and replace the important bits of our rifles, how to use the little pieces of four-by-two (inch) cleaning rag (and the pull-through concealed inside the rifle butt) to get our rifle up to scratch. We knew how to pull a Bren gun apart for cleaning and how to carry it, and we knew how to fire a few hand weapons, including the cheaply made, pressed-metal Sten gun.
While we were still very much the novices, several techniques for bulling our equipment and uniform developed. Gradually, our combined expertise and personal preferences gave rise to methods of bulling toe -caps to that highly glazed condition. It was quite surprising really, that in spite of the need for total conformity, our boots came in two or three types of leather, each of which required special attention to achieve the desired result. For those who received boots with stippled leather toe-caps, they elected to iron the leather so that the stippled finish was removed. I was one of the more lucky ones because my boots had smooth leather toe-caps. Could it be that they were second hand, or second foot? From this point onwards, it was a case of applying layer upon layer of boot polish until there was a very smooth surface. During the application of each layer of polish, and with a similarity to French polishing, a glazed finish was produced. By spitting on the rag or the toe-cap and, with small circular strokes, the polish would harden into a high gloss finish in which you could literally see your face. This technique may have been the origin of 'spit and polish', whereas in my case, polishing mould steel in the toolroom I had left behind, drew a distinct parallel.
The hairy, felt-like texture of our blue uniforms tempted some to shave the cloth until it began to resemble the cloth of the officers uniforms. This seemed an unnecessary chore to me and potentially fraught with problems like shaving the material too thin or worse, collecting a 252 for damaging the uniform.
Another trick a few tried was to turn the trousers inside out and smear a thin line of glue along the front and back creases. Turning them back the right way round and ironing the creases produced a nice (mostly permanent) crease. There were one or two of the blokes who had little experience of using an iron, nor perhaps having much imagination about the use of any domestic implement. The results they produced can be imagined. I suspect that several had to buy new because they had burnt the originals.
As the group photograph of Hut 25 shows, my battle dress was a very poor fit, and eventually the trousers became really baggy at the knees. Regardless, unlike many pairs of trousers which I have worn out between the legs, my uniform trousers lasted until I was 'de-mobbed'. Perhaps in wearing several other forms of clothing like denims and KD etc., and the fact that I had lost all my puppy fat was responsible.
Each morning after breakfast, but before the morning parade, there would be a kit and a hut inspection to check the level of 'bull'. 'Bulling' everything in sight was necessary in order to escape the eagle eyes of either the NCO's, and/or sometimes the visiting Duty Officer. Therefore, each night was spent attending to every solitary item of our kit until they were immaculate.
Besides boots to clean and uniforms to press, there were buttons, belt buckles and brasses, cap badges etc. which needed a complete rub over with 'Brasso'.
During the earlier part of our training, I became briefly popular, having acquired a few sheets of 'wet and dry' polishing paper which we 'illegally' used to remove some of the metal pattern from our cap badges. Anything to minimise the original nooks and crannies and speed up the bulling process. I probably flogged off the sheets for a few cigarettes, or maybe a tanner (sixpence) or two.
The NAAFI sold tins of the requisite blue Blanco which made a nice job of our belts, providing we put in lots of our own 'elbow grease'. Each weekday morning we had to be up early for breakfast, ablutions and to make a bed-pack. This latter exercise combined the two sheets and all but one blanket, into the mandatory shape and pattern. So diverse were the initial results, that they were often ripped apart and tossed aside by the Inspector of Bed-packs. The remaining blanket covered the bed and was 'boxed' at the bottom.
It was at this stage that I made the radical decision to abandon my Rolls Razor and any future wet shaving. Instead, I went all electric, thus saving myself the extra mess, and several minutes each day.
The floor of the billet had to be dusted and polished and, one afternoon a week, the 'Bull afternoon', we had to clear all the beds so we could bull the floor with a pleasant-smelling floor polish and a weighted buffing 'mop' called a 'Bumper'. This was sometimes a good occasion for a billet brawl when, first one and then another would join into a total free-for-all of wrestling and general rough and tumble. Several vaccination scabs have been knocked off during such mad moments, including mine. This behaviour was a form of release from being ordered about all the time, and is another recollection of my fitness. After all the fun, we would clean up the place and get it looking great again. We were getting used to the bull!?
Bull can be summed up for those not `in-the-know' by the following words :-
"If it moves salute it."
"If it doesn't move, paint it."
We, the `Last of the Brylcream Boys' (National Service was soon to end), didn't quite get to that, but it was not far off.
Then there was the FFI parade, about which most humour is directed in those movies which depict the drafting of personnel in more ways than one.
'Free From Infection' parade required us to be dressed only in underpants. Hundreds of us would be marched up to and ordered to stand on low exercise benches in front of several short-sighted medical officers in white coats. Upon command we would drop our pants and have our protrusions and orifices scrutinised, presumably for whatever could be attached or embedded therein. I'm not sure if this was also the occasion when our hearing was tested. It was an interesting test anyway, and I can remember wondering why the bods further up the line couldn't hear the whispering. It was only when my turn came that I couldn't hear a thing while some nitwit rapidly waggled his index finger in my lug 'ole. Perhaps it was to determine how I would go with aircraft-engines throbbing nearby.
Another rather masochistic experience to which we were all subjected, involved a little wooden shed perhaps 15 x 15 feet square, suitably positioned next to a large sports field. We must have been divided into groups of about twenty (perhaps by hut numbers), although how that was achieved without the other forty getting to know what was happening, I can't recall. In spite of this, we were ordered by an NCO to enter this little shed, to form into a circle around the walls, and to stand facing inwards. Each one of us having been given a gas-mask to wear, not unlike those distributed during and just after WW2. In the centre of the room, the NCO, also complete with gas mask placed a tin lid on the floor in which were some crystals. Ordering us all to 'face right' he applied a flame to the contents of the lid. The inside of the shed began to fill with smoke as we were ordered to begin marching around the shed, with our hands on the shoulders of the airman in front, and to sing :- "I love to go a-wanderin". A big laugh for small minds.
"Remove gas-masks", came the order, "and continue marching and singing". He didn't remove his mask which was rather suspicious. It was tear-gas!!! Had we been aware of what we were to be subjected, we could perhaps have held our breath and kept our eyes closed but, with lungs and eyes full of tear-gas we all began to cough and choke. They, whoever 'they' were, flung open the shed door and with tears pouring from our eyes, we stumbled or fell from the shed in our attempts to get to some clean air.
"Round the field - at the double!" yelled another (by this time) invisible man. Round the field we streamed, looking anything but like a military force. Some of us, including me must have unwittingly cut the corners of the field in our blind confusion, because, as we arrived back at the shed the order was - "Round again, and don't cut the corners this time!"
It took a few hours before the stinging, burning sensation was completely gone from our lungs. I have often wondered what long term effect this treatment would have on so many of us, especially we - `the smokers'. (My smoking habit started around 1954-55 and ended in July 1960.)
Towards week six or seven of RAF Bridgnorth square-bashing, several strange things began to happen. Corporal Kleiser and his NCO partner whose name has long since gone from my memory, began to introduce us to progressive drill. This unique form of marching and rifle drill, which can be a thrilling experience to both participant and spectator alike. Well I think so.
At first, various drill routines were both demonstrated and then practiced, and which went slightly beyond our normal, well practiced but simple marching abilities. Gradually, they got us to couple together several of the routines until finally our group of sixty or so airmen could go through what seemed like a ten minute routine from just one command.
Suddenly, this was the stuff which began to make us realise that we weren't doing too badly after all. At one hundred and twenty beats per minute, the deep sounding, clickety thump of our heels on the MacAdam parade ground, or wherever else we marched was finally getting through to us. When we halted, it was a beautifully coordinated single 'CRUNCH', as the steel capped heels of our boots seemed to dig into the surface within a micro-second. I must admit that this level of co-ordination and the encouragement we were getting, was beginning to give me a distinct buzz.
We had become a marching machine!
From now on, we could take on anything put before us with an enthusiasm and skill to match any military body.
Late one afternoon (about tea time I think), the mysticism of Corporal Kleiser's seemingly mindless military attitude and stony dead-pan face was, for me, blown apart forever. Someone in our flight had heard the sound of a piano coming from the NCO's Mess which in this case was alongside the Airmen's Mess. Some of our flight had sneaked a look around the door. It was, after all, 'Out of Bounds' to us. "Come and look at this!" one said. Up on the stage seated at a grand piano was Corporal Kleiser, playing some beautiful classical piece and without music. No longer was he the very demanding cretin I had taken him for, but an extremely clever actor performing a leading role as a fatherless DI.
Looking at him back on the parade ground, I no longer had the hatred for him which I had developed over the past month and a half. I could even read a faint smile of pride on his face as he watched the results of his efforts at being the swine he had needed to be.
"Ept, ite, ept, ite . . .!"
And "Good, lads, keep it together. Ept, ite, ept, ite . . .!"
He was keeping us to the pace of 120 steps per minute.
The day of our passing-out parade had arrived, and by now Kleiser was allowing his stony face to relax and his words of encouragement to become clear. There were several other flights of the same intake taking part in this parade, all of which had been accurately positioned around the perimeter of the parade ground. Earlier, a level of competition had been introduced between flights and which had further heightened our desire to be the best. On the parade ground, our other corporal was slowly walking up and down in front of us, and with the trust and camaraderie which had developed, was growling in a stage whisper, last minute instructions and words of encouragement.
"Do yer best lads! Show em what yer made of!"
It was a really great feeling.
There was also the realization that soon we would be clear of all this, even if it had produced the intended results, ie. to warm our insides and boost our ego's. When our turn was called, we proudly marched into the centre of the square and waited to be put through our routine. Unfortunately, it had begun to drizzle with rain and our gear, including rifles and bayonets were becoming perceptibly greasy.
At the command 'Slope arms!', we knew how to flick our rifles from their resting place low at our right- hand side, to a position where the muzzle was level with our right ear. Our left hand had to streak across catching the rifle in exactly the correct position. The movement was to be virtually imperceptible, almost as if the rifle had just changed places like magic. From interminable practice, we could carry out any of these standard movements with similar precision.
In the split second after the command 'Slope arms', instead of gripping, I felt my fingers sliding up the wet and greasy wooden stock of the barrel. Nothing was happening to the rifle. My grip tightened as I fought to avoid the catastrophe. In the event of a failure of this magnitude, we had been instructed to 'hit the deck before the rifle' if we should ever drop it. An action which was to imitate collapse or fainting. Luckily, the moisture was expelled as if my finger prints were like the tyre of an off-road vehicle. My grip held and the rifle thudded into position against my shoulder exactly where it was supposed to go. Later, I was to discover that my ordeal with the rifle was not unique. Others had experienced similar complications. Impeccably, we got through the rest of our parade without incident.
Now we were airmen! AC1's in fact.
During the next few days after our 'pass-out' parade and prior to leaving for trade-training, our elation and ego's were largely defused as we were put onto fatigues. Fatigues usually meant the cookhouse first and then to be sent either to the tin room, potato room, or any other menial task which hardly required thought. Sometimes, depending upon the duty cook, it also meant gorging on leftovers. It was here during the period of fatigues that I was to break the record for eating the largest number of sausage. One for each of my twenty one years. That's not quite true but I certainly shifted about fourteen. Nowadays, I wouldn't touch a single sausage having, for several reasons, become a vegetarian almost forty years ago.
Dressed in denims, we would be faced with some fatigues which were enormously messy, especially those in the tin room. The majority of large cooking utensils ended up here after each meal, and there was only one thing to do and that was get stuck in and clean the lot. After all, it could easily be my food which was to be cooked in them. In my zest for cleaning, I chose to commence scrubbing the large, blackened, flat trays upon which were fried hundreds of slices of bacon, scores of eggs, oh!, and miles of sausage. One of the cooks saw me scrubbing away, and let out a loud exclamation.
"Your not supposed to scrub those!" he yelled, "It takes us months to get a surface on them like that!"
Do you think I minded not scrubbing large greasy tins?
Not all the fatigues were in the heat of the cookhouse. First thing one cold, wintry morning, (it was October by now) having been sent on fatigues to another Wing of the camp, I was directed by the Duty Flight-Sergeant to -
"Jump on that bike and ride around the parade ground and remove whatever is dangling from the top of the flagpole!"
"Oh good!" I thought, my time in the boy-scouts and sailing the Norfolk Broads would really pay off here because I knew all about knots, ropes, how flags were attached to halyards by special clips, how to make flags 'break' and unfurl at the top of the pole, etc. This was going to be a cinch. It was no big deal as I rode around the square to the bottom of the flagpole, taking care to keep to the perimeter of the square. To ride across the square could have meant either being shot before a firing squad or worse still, an arm-full of 252's. Propping up the bike, I walked over to the flag pole and proceeded to untie the rope and lower the object. At the same instant of untying the rope, the wind gently blew just enough for me to realise that hanging up there was nothing of a military nature but a woman's upper garment. A brassiere. Not just the chilling wind cooled me down at that moment, but still being rather a reserved kid at heart, women's underwear was an unmentionable subject. Worst still, upon looking around as I worked at the rope, frantically speeding the scanty garment earth-wards, I saw that there were dozens of faces of cheering airmen at every window all round the square. Faster I pulled on the rope to get the 'thing' down, and rapidly stuff it out of sight into my pocket. It's softness was something I imagined, although the embarrassment was very real.
There were also several broad grins from the guys in the Flight office when I delivered the object and the bike. I might have even risked riding across the square to escape as quickly as possible from the ordeal. Thankfully, there were not too many incidents like that.
The short course of fatigues came to an end as we were split for ever from some of our friends. We had been given our new postings!
Prior to induction, I had become deeply interested in electronics, so it was only natural that I should elect to do one of the radar or radio courses in trade training. We had been invited (another invitation) to nominate in order of preference, five trade disciplines for which we would like to be considered. I nominated for ground wireless fitter, radar fitter, ground wireless mechanic, radar mechanic, and something else which I can't remember. "Courses for fitters are thirty two weeks." I was told. Why should I mind? It would get more of my 730 days over, and I would have more experience to show at the end of my time. Fortunately, 1956 was a Leap Year, and since my induction was in July, I didn't accumulate an extra day.
What actually came my way as far as trade-training, was to be placed on a twelve week GWM course. In other words, I was to be trained in my current hobby of electronics as a ground wireless mechanic. Along with several others, this was a posting to #1 Radio School, RAF Locking near Weston-Super -Mare.
Thus, without collecting a single 252, I bade farewell forever, to 'glorious' RAF Bridgnorth and sadly, many of the friends I had made.
Copyright © 2013 by Dennis Stones.
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