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First Black Woman in the Corps of Cadets: Cheryl Butler McDonald Cheryl Butler McDonald

Date of interview: 28 November 1998
Location of interview: sound booth, Media Building at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Va
Interviewer: Tamara Kennelly
Transcriber: Stacie Swain

Part Two

 L-Squadron
Cheryl Butler
Commander of the L Squadron in the Corps of Cadets
1975

[Tape 1, side 2]

McDonald: They would want to know what was going on, and sometimes it would be carried out in the bathroom and stuff, and it was like, no, we cannot have this stuff going on.

Kennelly: Were you in a position where you had to be disciplining that situation?

McDonald: Yes, because I would get the complaints. And the big thing was that you didn't want things like that to get outside the squadron, but of course it did. That got brought up at one of my commanders' meetings, and it was like we were dealing with it the best way we could. We can't get rid of the person just because of their preferences.

Kennelly: Did that ever come up as far as males?

McDonald: Yes, oh yes. It came up once or twice and that was that fall semester the first part of the year.

Kennelly: The policies are that you can't get rid of someone because of their preferences?

McDonald: I don't know what the guys did. I'm pretty sure they had situations like that, but again we were under more of a spotlight than anybody else and because most of the girls that they were dating. They dated somebody in the Corps as opposed to someone outside of the Corps. You have a tendency to talk about stuff like that, particularly if it's upsetting you. So unfortunately a lot of the stuff didn't stay in the squadron.

Kennelly: When you would be talking to the other commanders, would they try to tell you how you should be handling certain things? When you met with your other fellow commanders, was there ever a problem with them trying to tell you what to do?

McDonald: No it was like you need to handle this, and I said, "Okay." Or you need to do such and such, but they never told me how I needed to do it. The Corps image was important to us, so nobody wants to do anything to mess it up--the reputation of the Corps outside of the Corps. So we may have internal squabbles within the Corps, but it would all get settled internally as opposed to being shown to the civilian part of the campus or the town.

Kennelly: What about the civilians saying things?

McDonald: Well yes, we were an oddity, particularly the first year. We had a lot more attention focused on us by the civilians on campus as well as in the town, and the guys did because everyone was used to the male Corps going out and drilling, but they weren't used to the females being out there and drilling.

Kennelly: And then I suppose when you look at some of the pictures, people have all different shoes on in the earlier pictures. It was probably a sight to see. I mean until people figured out what they were doing. But then as a commander then your unit got the Kohler Prize. Could you explain what that is?

McDonald: I'm trying to remember now. It's for precision, for drilling. Once we got the basics down, we were pretty good. And we looked sharp doing it. I guess they expected us to be sloppy because we were females, and females haven't been traditionally doing military stuff like that. And we showed them that hey we could march just as well as they could and stay and stuff. And look good doing it. It wasn't just the fact that we were female. It was because we knew our stuff.

Kennelly: What was most satisfying to you as commander?

McDonald: Well, anytime we marched in at the football games and got it right which was quite often, and we brought credit on the unit that was really satisfying to me because I wanted L Squadron to look good. That was my goal, and I wanted a good atmosphere in the squadron, and to treat people like people. We were really close, L Squadron was. Particularly the people who came in the first year. We lost a few, but after the freshmen got turned and they became regular citizens as opposed to being rats, L Squadron was closer than any squadron or company in the Corps, because we were isolated. We were in that dorm all by ourselves, and we were all female, and we all had the same pressures on us, because of the fact that we were all female, and we just learned how to make our own fun. We did a lot of things as a group. I'm not sure the other squadrons and companies did quite as much as we did as a group. Like go out on outings, and go out, and we had our part of the dormitory. The first year we only had half a floor. We had half of the first floor so that caused another problem with the fact of civilians running in and out and stuff. It would be nothing for us to be out in the hallway and have all kinds of get togethers and stuff. I don't know if the guys did that as much. I'm pretty sure they did some of it.

Kennelly: There would deliberately be limited chairs in the unit meetings so that the upperclassmen would sit in chairs and the underclassmen would have to sit in the floor. Was that a discipline thing?

McDonald: Yes, that was part of the rat system. The rat system you were kind of degraded at the beginning, and then you built your confidence up throughout the rest of the period. So as a freshmen coming in you were treated like dirt. You were the slave population for the rest of the unit. You always had people yelling at you and telling you did something wrong, but then we tried to give a little praise for doing stuff right.

Kennelly: You had to just come in and just try doing that stuff to people? Was that difficult to assume that role?

McDonald: I'm not that much of a yeller at people. That was kind of tough. Some people got into more than others, but it was a little tough. But we had to focus on the fact that we had to teach them the rules, so it was a challenge because you couldn't be their buddies. You couldn't be their friends. You had to treat them like they were an entirely different class of people. You couldn't associate with them unless you were doing a squadron function or trying to teach them something or being in a role as their superior, but you couldn't be their friend. If someone was crying, you couldn't be that sympathetic. You could listen to them, but it all boiled down to I am still your boss. It was difficult in the fact that if your leadership style is not to yell, it's hard to force yourself to get into someone's face and say you're doing something wrong as opposed to just quietly disciplining them. And the Corps way was you get into a rat's face and you tell them what low lives they are and how they don't know anything and how they can't do anything and they'll never get turned. I've seen freshmen guys crying because their sophomores were so tough on them. Their squad leaders were so tough on them.

Kennelly: Did some of the girls end up crying too?

McDonald: Yes, and you felt bad, but you're trying to teach them to be tough. But you don't want to intimidate them so much that they are going quit and never come back. We were not in the business of trying to make L Squadron members quit. We wanted to keep as many girls as we could because we knew we were small and we were trying to build something here and not tear it down. We lost a couple of freshmen, but we really did try to keep the unit together the first year--a lot harder than we did the second or third year.

Kennelly: Was the regimental staff supportive?

McDonald: Yes, they were in a distant type of way. It was amazing. The squadron side of the Corps was a lot more helpful than the company side of the Corps. Maybe because we were named a squadron instead of a company. The squadrons were mostly air force ROTC as opposed to army ROTC. The air force was maybe more used to dealing with women in a more equal role than the army was because in the army most women were either secretarial or cooks or nurses. That was about all they did, whereas the air force was at that time was letting women do more "combat" related things. They didn't have any pilots or anything, but they were letting women go into career fields that were not administrative. When I got out I went into an operational career field as opposed to an administrative, and the army wasn't as advanced, and they fought it for a long time to get women into operational roles.

Kennelly: What did you do when you got out?

McDonald: I became an air weapons controller, it's kind of like an air traffic controller. I control fire airplanes.

Kennelly: Was that in the United States?

McDonald: I did Korea and Alaska which Alaska was considered overseas even though it was state side. But most was state side.

Kennelly: There was just a little split in the staff as far as the kind of support?

McDonald: Yes. Some of the regimental staff was really good, and they tried to help us out a lot, and I think if the regimental staff hadn't been as supportive as they were, we wouldn't have made it after the first year. If the regimental staff didn't accept us, nobody else before was going accept us, because that was the Corps leadership. Then the PAS and the commandant--their staff supported us.

Kennelly: What was the PAS?

McDonald: He was the professor of aerospace studies. And then the army PSI, he was I think MAS which was military studies or something like that. They were the service advisors. And the commandant was over them, and then there was a commandant staff.

Kennelly: Is there anything that they might have done differently that might have helped?

McDonald: If they could've had more things planned out before we got there, I think it would've helped a lot. Because we were still trying to formulate an identity for the squadron when we first got there as opposed to just concentrating on being in the Corps and being Corps members.

Kennelly: For example the uniform....

McDonald: Yes, if the uniform issue had been settled before we got there, that would've helped, but everybody had this general idea, but no one had specifics, so we had to get the specifics nailed down as opposed to again Corps issues and in addition to doing the Corps stuff.

Kennelly: I saw a picture of Pie Day, did you participate in that or did you get pied??

McDonald: No, I did not. I was very pleased. People got pied for various reasons. The people that were most hated got pied. The commanders would get pied. Some did; some didn't. I didn't get pied. If someone was just a fun person and you knew they would take it in good stride, they'd get pied 'cause they'd get nominated. You would come up with the grossest pies. It was pretty inventive. It was a way of relieving stress and just the Corps having fun.

Kennelly: You were glad you didn't get it?

McDonald: Yes!

Kennelly: Did you pie anybody?

McDonald: No, I was more of a spectator 'cause I thought someone might want to retaliate.

Kennelly: It looked like fun in the picture.

McDonald: It was fun because the Corps did have fun, but it was a structured type of fun.

Kennelly: Was there anything that felt to you like a turning point in your career in the Corps?

McDonald: For the squadron, I remember we were marching, I'm not sure how we ended up off the campus, but we did, and we were marching, and some of the town applauded us. That was our first year too. That was great. It was like they finally recognized the fact that we're here, and they're proud of us. It was a great feeling to have them clap; that was super. And at the end of the year when we did the marching at the commencement ceremony for the Corps and everything went like clockwork, and everyone in the stands cheered, that was like this was cool, and they are really glad to see the women in the Corps. That was when I felt like we were a part of the Corps. Again my year we still had problems working out some things, but I think they knew we were here to stay cause we went through that first year, and we keep the unit pretty much intact, and we lost a couple, but we kept the unit pretty much intact. And we did it with, I think, poise, and we didn't impact the Corps as much as they thought we would on their standards. We looked good, and the community accepted us. Outside the Corps we were accepted, and it made the Corps look good. So to me the first time that someone was appreciative of us was really the turning point for me feeling accepted into the Corps. It was something that happened from people outside of the Corps. From inside the Corps, the Corps put on plays and stuff, and we came in like second or third place out of all the different units that put on skits. I think it was called skit night. That made us feel like we were part of the Corps for the fact that our peers judged us to be better than a lot of the units that put on stuff.

Kennelly: So that was judged by your fellow Corps members?

McDonald: Oh yes!

Kennelly: That must have been a major thing that they had to acknowledge that you were doing a good job.

McDonald: Yes. And we thought we had the best skit, but we came in second or third, but it was a lot higher than we thought we would place because of the fact that we were females, but we did a good job, and they recognized that fact.

Kennelly: Was that your first year?

McDonald: I think that was my senior year 'cause we did a skit based on the Wizard of Oz. No, it was the year I was a commander I think.

Kennelly: So you went from being, you were a commander your junior year, and then your senior year you were.....

McDonald: I was the administrative officer which was another senior position.

Kennelly: Is it difficult to go from being a commander to being an administrative officer?

McDonald: In some ways it was kind of tough, but again we had a whole summer to do the transition, and we had a new freshmen class coming in, and we still had a lot of the upperclassmen that were there. No, because I roomed with the commander my next year.

Kennelly: In what ways was it tough?

McDonald: Keeping my mouth shut and not offering advice when it wasn't needed could be tough sometimes. But we talked a lot of stuff over, but we did it within our room. We didn't do it out in front of the rest of the squadron.

Kennelly: And then you have to accept being commanded by another person? I believe that person was a junior, or younger, or in a different grade?

McDonald: Yes, Emily. She was a junior, and I was a senior. No, the fact that she was a junior and I was a senior, that wasn't any problem at all. It was more of the fact that I was the ex-commander as opposed to if I was a regular junior with no special rank in the squadron and a junior took over for my senior year, and if I didn't want to be the commander, I wouldn't have had any problem with that at all. One year of commanding was enough.

Kennelly: Everybody had one year. Was that the idea that one year is enough?

McDonald: Well, yes, because traditionally your commander is a senior. They graduate at the end of that year, and you get a new senior to come in and take their place.

Kennelly: And what would the administrative officer do?

McDonald: I was responsible for handling all the paperwork, like filing demerits, and making sure that if people had stuff in their rooms right, posting orders, if Corps regs came down. We had a bulletin board that had to be set up just so and stuff, and I would brief people on the changes. It was a little _____exy after being the commander. Not as much responsibility and stress. It was an amazing year.

Kennelly: Have you followed the news about the Citadel and VMI? What are your thought as you see what's happening in those schools from your own experiences?

McDonald: I think they are going to have a lot harder time integrating because there is no civilian populous. It's just all Corps at those two locations. They don't have anybody at the school that is not part of the Corps that's looking at them and judging their behavior. The Corps are going stick together at those locations, and they have a long tradition and long history and plus the fact that they were all male schools. It's a lot harder for a female to break into that. And they know they are females, and they want to make them adhere to the same rules, and I'm not sure that's a good idea. In some regards it's a good idea, but in other ways, they don't allow for the individuality and the fact that there are legitimate differences between males and females, and that's going hurt them in the long run that they need to look at the service academies I think to look at the integration there. I was talking to one of the L Squadron members last night, and she was saying that when VMI decided to pursue this they came in to talk to her and they talked to the rest of the members of the Corps about how we did it, and all they took was the negative stuff. They didn't take any of the positive stuff at all. So it's like they really don't want to do this and until you change the attitude of the Corps, it's going be awfully hard for women to find acceptance in either one of those two places. And to do that you have to change the attitude of the leadership. And if the leadership is not willing to change their attitude and enforce it on the Corps then it's never going happen.

Kennelly: When you say leadership, do you mean regimental?

McDonald: Regimental and higher.

Kennelly: And the leadership here when you came in for the most part.....

McDonald: They were resigned that there were going be women in, and then they realized that we weren't going hurt their precious Corps standards. I think they accepted us a lot more. But the regimental commander, George Welsh, was kind of laid back kind of guy. His XO Barry Coon was a jerk, he was a lot more chauvinist than the commander was, and he was very opinionated about things, but he wasn't the commander.

Kennelly: Would he let people know that was how he felt?

McDonald: Yes.

Kennelly: In what way?

McDonald: He would just kind of look down on his nose at you, like oh no, here come the women again. And he did that about the squadron side of the Corps too, because he was a company guy, and it was like nobody could ever be as good as his unit. There was even a step between the army and the air force even before the women even got in the Corps. The army was the "macho" side of the discipline side. They were the green berets type. The fly boy side, the air force side, they weren't quite as strict in a lot of the stuff they did. And then they bring women in, and the air force don't have a big problem with it. The squadron side of the Corps didn't have the problems that the company side had, the battalion side had. There was a lot of difference depending on if the people were air force or army ROTC as to the way we were treated. That was another tension within the Corps. You didn't even have to see the guy's emblem. You could figure out just by the attitude of if he was a group or a battalion.

Kennelly: By their attitude towards....

McDonald: Women.

Kennelly: Because it would seem that the whole unit would assume this attitude?

McDonald: Yes.

Kennelly: In all these things, was it always more the question of being a woman than rather being a black person?

McDonald: Yes, oh yes. For me it was because I was female.

Kennelly: Did you feel like you were a pioneer because you were a black female in the Corps?

McDonald: No, not until I got out I think. To me I guess 'cause I was used to being black it was no big deal. I wanted to be in Corps. It didn't matter that my skin was darker than anybody else's to me, and I don't think a lot of people saw that as a problem either. I really don't. I never had anyone come up to me and say, "I have a problem with you because you're black." It's more like you're a female and you're lowering our standards as opposed to you're black, and you might have some impact on our standards. It was more a question of the fact that I was a female.

Kennelly: When you got out of the Corps, did the racial aspect make you more aware of what you had done?

McDonald: Yes, I think I was.

Kennelly: When did you become aware of that?

McDonald: Probably when I went down South. I got stationed down South.

Kennelly: Were there other black female officers down there?

McDonald: There were a few, yes.

Kennelly: So it was like talking to other people.

McDonald: It was looking at Virginia Tech stuff and going back and looking at pictures and stuff and keeping in contact with some of the girls in the squadron and realizing I was the first black female to graduate. No, actually someone said that to me, and it was like oh, yes, I guess I was, and I hadn't really thought of it before that. I hadn't even thought of what that would mean. At the time when I was going through, I didn't think about that at all. We had one other black female cadet the whole time I was there. She didn't stay past her freshmen year.

Kennelly: She didn't come in when you came in?

McDonald: No, she came in the year I was a commander. And I'm not even sure she made it past the first semester. She didn't stick with it.

Kennelly: It was more.....

McDonald: It wasn't because she was black of course. It was because she didn't want to be in the Corps. It wasn't something she wanted to do. It was a big shock. And she had absolutely no experience with the military before she came into the Corps, so it was a culture shock for her.

Kennelly: I just wanted to ask you again talking about the VMI and Citadel, the fact that there was a civilian population did that make a big difference?

McDonald: Oh yes, it has to. The Corps is an entirely separate entity from the civilians, but still we have to go to classes with these people. The Corps was our way of life, but we still had our individual studies and still had friends outside of the Corps that we were close to. The Citadel and VMI don't have that. They're responsible only to themselves.

Kennelly: So that can make a difference with how they deal?

McDonald: I think it would because they don't have a civilian among us looking at them. Everybody that goes through VMI goes through the Citadel, they're Corps. But here you got the Corps as a very small part of Virginia Tech. We got all these other outside influences from the campus itself and from our peers on campus that the VMI and Citadel will never have, unless they open up their membership to non-Corps, and I don't think they will be likely to do that. If you think about it, they're reputation is built on the fact that they are a military school. That's they're identity. And to have civilians on campus and nothing besides a supporting role like professors, janitors, or administrative staff--that completely changes their identity. Whereas we went through that transition one hundred years ago, whenever Tech decided to switch over to civilians. Then they didn't have to worry about women in the Corps because there were no women in the military.

Kennelly: So, you think with all the changes, the way it happened at Tech was much more gradually?

McDonald: Yes. And the climate was right. Back in the seventies women's lib was very, very big, and there were a lot of social changes that were going on throughout the country, racially as well as sexually, and people were willing to change then. And now the emphasis isn't there. Everyone is more accepting of what's happening right now. You don't have all the movers and shakers and stuff, and people being radical about their views and trying to change things. You just don't have that now.

Kennelly: Did you get involved with women's lib?

McDonald: I was a proponent of it. I didn't do any marching or anything. I was definitely for the rights of women and for opening up different opportunities for women that weren't opened up, as well as civilian and military life.

Kennelly: So that was something that was important to you at that time anyway?

McDonald: Yes, and I swore when I went to college, I wasn't going go to college to learn "traditional female roles" like becoming a teacher. I wasn't going go to home ec. I never took a home ec. class in my life, and I never will. It was for me that I wanted to be an individual, and I wanted to be challenged, and I wanted to do non traditional female stuff. And maybe it was because my dad was in the military, and I just saw all the fun and neat things that were available, even though they weren't available to women. It was like I would like to fly a jet. I would like to be able to have that opportunity to do that. And even though I really didn't want to fly a jet because I flew a simulator once and to me I didn't like it that much. But still a person should not have their sex held against them in whatever type of career they are going pursue. If they are physically and mentally prepared for doing it, it doesn't matter if they are male or female, black or white, they should be able to be allowed to do that. I think that was another reason I joined the Corps was because I'm an individual, and there are certain things I want to do, and I want to push the boundaries where I can do something that is non traditional. I don't want to get married right away and have kids. I don't want to be a secretary and do all of the traditional female stuff. I want to do something that's challenging. And when I went into the military, I went into an operational field. They only had, I think, seven operational career fields open to women at the time I came in, and I said well I'm going be one of those, and I enjoyed it.

Kennelly: When you were in the military, did you feel that being a woman held you back from pursuing something's you would've liked to pursue?

McDonald: Not really, it was amazing. They were still trying to get used to women, even when I went in, and women had been in for a while, they were still getting used to women being in the military. I remember I had just gotten my clothing. I hadn't even gone on active duty yet. I was at Langley, and I was picking up some stuff, and I actually had a sergeant tell me that I was taking a job away from a man because I was in the military.

Kennelly: And what did you say?

McDonald: I just told him well I have to live too. It was just amazing some of the attitudes still. The fact over a female was joining the military.

Kennelly: You went in as an officer then?

McDonald: I went in as a 2nd lieutenant.

Kennelly: Did that happen a lot, beyond that sergeant?

McDonald: No, not really. But that just really stuck out in my mind that he would say that because I had never had anybody say something like that to me before. There may have been rumblings before, but you could tell that some people weren't happy, but there wasn't someone who was going tell you to your face that here you're taking the role away of a breadwinner because you're taking away a man's job by being in the military. In some ways it was like being in the military and being female, you were kind of on display, particularly in the officer role because there weren't that many of us. And if you were halfway competent of what you were doing, it was like oh here is our little token female that's going be here, and she's doing this. In some ways it was good, and in some ways it was bad because it was like I had more uncles and fathers and people trying to give me advice when I was in the military, particularly starting out I was a 2nd lieutenant, as I had ever imagined.

Kennelly: And those were mostly white men, black men?

McDonald: It was all types. It was like they were trying to take care of me. And I'm a grown person, and I'm an officer in the military just like there are other officers in the military that are my same rank and I don't see you trying to take care of them, so don't take care of me.

Kennelly: Did you say that at times?

McDonald: Yes, I said that to one of my commanders once. I couldn't make a move without him saying do you need a ride to work, no I don't need a ride to work. If I have a problem with my car, I can call somebody. Yes, you would have to sometimes say that. When I went to my first remote assignment, I was a 1st lieutenant, and I was going to Alaska, and I was going to a site where there were two females, and the rest of the one hundred-odd people were male. Not just me, but for any woman who went to a remote site, they actually sat down and went through a three hour briefing on what to expect, what to look out for, appropriate behaviors. There were problems. And I guess they wanted to make you aware so you didn't just walk into it and not know what could possibly go on.

Kennelly: And you felt they were sort of over doing it?

McDonald: Actually, no, the briefing was pretty good, and when something would happen on the site, it was like, yes, they told me about this. In that way it was good. But some of the other stuff I felt I didn't need their help to do this. I'm an independent person. Don't look at me as a female. Look at me as an officer.

Kennelly: When you switched over to art, what were you thinking of in terms of career?

McDonald: At that point I was looking to graduate. I had a really disastrous semester academic-wise, and it's like I cannot do math and be a commander at the same time. It was just too challenging. I was taking 18 hours, and they were all hard courses. I took one art course, and the rest were either statistics, math, or some type of science program. I only took that one art course, and everything else was just strictly all high level stuff, and I could not do that and be in the Corps at the same time and do work study. Something had to give. I had taken some art courses before that, and I had enjoyed it, and I still took a couple of math courses after that, but my heart wasn't into that because with a mathematics degree I could teach, and I didn't want to teach. I could work in research, and I wasn't interested in going and working with research, so I didn't see an outlet for being a math major either. It was just something that was not traditional and challenging, and I like it, so that's why I went into math to begin with, but after being in there, I didn't know what I would do with that degree. With art I could do other things. I could be a commercial artist. I could teach which I really didn't want to, or I could just be an artist. But I went into the military and really didn't use my art, but I used my math. I used more math than art.

Kennelly: Did you stay in the military your whole career?

McDonald: Yes, I retired back in '94. I enjoyed the military. I liked the travel aspects. I liked the chance to do things that a lot of people will never do. I like just being different I guess. I liked the command aspects of it, because you've got a lot of responsibility that you wouldn't get in the civilian world in a lot of jobs. Which was good and was challenging and the people, the military is really a small community. Depending on the type of job you were doing, you kept on running into the same people from base to base. People you haven't seen in years all of a sudden you are stationed together or they come through on a temporary duty assignment, and you always have friends everywhere you go pretty much.

Kennelly: Did you have children?

McDonald: No.

Kennelly: Did you feel well prepared for your career in the military from your training at Tech?

McDonald: Yes, I knew how to take orders. I knew about the uniform. Even though the uniform was different, I still knew that it was a uniform. I knew about the pay system. I was familiar with the rank structure, and I was familiar being a supervisor which after my first year I became a supervisor in the air force, so the Corps did help prepare me for that.

Kennelly: Is there anything else you would like to bring up. Anything I didn't ask?

McDonald: I enjoyed my four years at Virginia Tech. I learned a lot. I learned a lot more in the Corps than I think I would've by being on campus. I grew up faster too. My freshmen year it was like, oh boy, we're away from mom and dad. It's our year to find ourselves. Discipline wasn't there. You didn't have to take responsibility for yourself as much as you do in the Corps, so I think the Corps was a good experience in that it helped everyone grow up a lot faster. Even though you had the rules and regulations, you still had a lot of responsibilities and a lot of pressure that you wouldn't have outside of the Corps, and they were pressures that shaped you. It was a good way of shaping you as opposed to not having those pressures. The Corps definitely makes an impact on a person's life, and it is so entirely different than being a civilian and going through school. There was such a big change between my freshmen and sophomore year as to what I did academically as well as mentally and physically. To me it was a good change. The Corps teaches you to focus if you are kind of scatter brained. I was during my freshmen year. I was more interested in boys and new experiences, and going to class was fun, but I wanted to learn about life, and the Corps made me focus on my studies, made me focus on discipline and growing up and being responsible.

[End Tape 1, side 2]


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