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A Journey to the Center of the Mind, Book II

James R. Fitzgerald

(It’s 1980. I now have four years on the Bensalem Police Department. It’s been a tough prior

year, with several deaths of people close to me. I’m back on a patrol squad. Then, the Phillies

come along and win. Then, a certain lieutenant comes along…and I lose. On the same night, no

less.)

Bonus Chapter 33B

If there was one bright spot during this timeframe, a distraction that I and many others

would need to help us get through this tough month-and-a-half, it came in the timely form of the

Philadelphia Phillies baseball team. As I had been a Phillies fan all of my life, it had been very

rewarding to watch them make their way through a great season and then advance far into the

baseball playoffs en route to their first World Series appearance in decades. Despite a very

difficult last few months for many in the local law enforcement community, certainly to include

me, it was a nice reprieve to alternatively focus on the successes of our very own Boys of

Summer. And for the first time in my life, the most successful team in baseball that year was my

hometown Phillies.

However, even that much anticipated championship couldn’t go smoothly for me. Not on

the very night they won it all, anyway.

You see, the night the Phillies became Major League Baseball champions over the

Kansas City Royals would be a night I would remember for the rest of my life for reasons above

and beyond just my team winning the Series. This celebratory night, during which I happened to

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be working an extended 3P-11P shift, resulted in a one-time-only event for me which had never

happened before nor would happen again during the rest of my thirty-one year career in law

enforcement. I did something, or more accurately, I did NOT do something that night, which

resulted in me being on the receiving end of a formal disciplinary action. I would be suspended

for two days without pay for something I didn’t do. And I mean that quite literally. Actually,

first I did something, then I didn’t do something, with praise coming for what I did, but then

punishment coming for what I didn’t do.

I’m afraid it won’t make much more sense even after I further explain it. It still doesn’t

to me and others who knew the score that night. But I’ll try.

On October 21, 1980, I was scheduled to work a 3P-11P shift. Everyone in the area who

followed baseball, or basically was alive and breathing at the time in southeastern Pennsylvania

and Southern New Jersey, knew it was the sixth game of the Series that evening. The Phillies

were up three games to two over the Royals, and if they won that night they would be crowned

the baseball champs. It would result in all sorts of region-wide celebrations as my hometown

and its environs had been starved of a sporting championship of any kind for more years than we

locals cared to admit.

In view of these potential celebrations, those of us who were working the 3-11 shift were

asked, make that told, by Sgt. Bob Eckert that we would be working a few hours overtime that

evening if, in fact, the Phillies did win. If any subsequent outdoor celebrations took place in

Bensalem which turned too rowdy or dangerous, it was determined that having the 3-11 squad

stay over for a few extra hours would be the prudent thing to do. None of us could disagree. I

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would unfortunately not be able to watch the game on TV, or now even the end of it, but I did

have a portable AM-FM radio with me so I could listen to most of it during my shift. And I did.

As it played out, the final pitch of the 1980 baseball season was at 11:29P that night,

when Phillies relief pitcher Tug McGraw (father of years-later country singer Tim McGraw),

struck out the Royals’ Willie Wilson to end the game and this now-championship season. I

heard most of the play-by-play on my trusty little radio too. I didn’t miss much of the action that

night except during a few early false alarm calls and a minor traffic accident to which I

responded. Otherwise, the citizenry of Bensalem that night seemed to be rather preoccupied

with the big game, resulting in very few calls for its police officers.

I mean, if you’re from the greater Philadelphia area, who among you would NOT be at

Veterans Stadium, at your own or a friend’s home, at a bar, or anywhere else with a working

television, watching this very important game?

Well, how about a couple of burglars who may have been interested more in baseball

cleats than an actual baseball game on TV that night? These guys, whoever they may be, were

ultimately responsible for that one dark mark on my permanent (sort of) record. But a few others

played a role in it too. Yes, to include me, I suppose.

Here’s how it all went down, pitch by pitch, if you will….

By 11:30 that night, once the game was officially over and the Phillies had won the

World Series, while driving around in my patrol car with the driver side window wide open, I

could hear people yelling, pots and pans banging, firecrackers exploding, and if they happened to

be in a car driving somewhere, their horns were beeping. These were all positive reactions

coming from the many long-devoted fans and the many nouveau-followers of the home team. I

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even flipped my police car siren on and off for a few seconds when I saw a bunch of teenagers

on a neighborhood street. They could tell I wasn’t trying to chase or harass them but just to

celebrate with them. They appreciated it. Everyone I came upon shortly after the game ended

that evening seemed to be in jovial moods. There were no criminal or threatening issues at all

anywhere in my sector area, or certainly none of which I was aware. For the most part that night,

at least in Bensalem, from what I could see and hear it was a sincere but relatively subdued

celebration taking place. The dispatchers and we cops were ignoring the usual noise complaints

and just making sure the celebrants didn’t turn matters into anything more problematic.

Shortly after midnight, having already worked over nine hours, and with the 11P-7A

squad members slowly picking up the few scattered police calls that were coming in, I decided to

pull my car into an empty lot on the northeast corner of Street Rd. and Mechanicsville Rd. It

was earlier hinted that our squad would be let go around 1:00A if no major problems developed

before then. So, I thought I’d just wait it out at this intersection and, if nothing else, look for cars

running the red light and/or drunk drivers at this usually high-volume and accident-prone

intersection.

As it turned out, there was still a fair bit of traffic on the roads at this time. The game-

watching and celebrating was mostly over and if people didn’t take in the night at their own

residences they were now apparently in the process of driving back to said residences from other

locations. So, with my driver’s side window still wide open, my plan was to spend the last forty-

five minutes of my almost ten-hour shift sitting in the car and watching the drivers proceed

through the intersection, and hopefully in a safe manner.

As I would come to observe that night, a few drivers were still pushing down on their

horn buttons as they drove by, sometimes trying to outduel the car next to them in attempting to

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show who was the most celebratory between them. Other than these random horn-blowing

cacophonies, which were slowly diminishing as the hour wore on, the other festivities in

Bensalem had pretty much come to an end. That was fine with me, as it was almost time to go

home.

But not quite yet….

When the horns finally stopped beeping, my somewhat strained auditory senses picked

up something else from outside my vehicle. It seemed to emanate from some distance away but

as I visually scanned my immediate horizon I couldn’t see anything unusual or out of the

ordinary in the distant darkness. What was it…a police car siren, chimes, or bells of some sort?

Perhaps it was just someone celebrating with a loudspeaker-type device on one of the local

streets and simply letting the rest of the world know of their baseball championship-related good

mood. But I realized in less than thirty seconds that something just wasn’t right about it. I had

heard this muffled noise before, somewhere, but with the distance involved and the traffic still

whizzing by on Street Rd., I just couldn’t fully identify it or localize it.

To better determine what it was I was hearing, and if it was anything of significance, I

shut off the car engine and opened the door. I got out and walked to the front of my car. That’s

when for the first time, as the half-dozen or so cars caught a red light on Street Rd., I could more

clearly hear what it was. It was a burglar alarm. I wasn’t one hundred percent sure from where

it was originating, but it seemed to be coming from the L-shaped strip mall, the Showcase Plaza,

located diagonally across the intersection from me, on the southwest corner.

Well, I better get over there and check it out. It could be just another false alarm, which

happens all the time, but you never know, maybe it’s the real thing. Of course, I’ll call it in over

the police radio too and get some other cars responding. Hey, you never know.

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I got back into my patrol car and grabbed the mic and advised the dispatcher and my

fellow officers there’s a “10-90” (alarm) emanating from somewhere around Street Rd. and

Mechanicsville Rd., possibly in Showcase Plaza, and I’m en route from just across the street.

The dispatcher responded, “10-4.”

As I ended my radio transmission, I heard a few additional “10-4s” from several not-too-

far away patrol cars and I got ready to drive over there myself. As such, I did what I do dozens

of times per shift. I turned the ignition key. But, this time, much to my surprise, there was

nothing in response. My car would not start. I tried again, and again, but while the starter

dutifully grinded away, the engine itself would not kick over. Hmmm…that’s strange. The car

had shown no signs of any mechanical problems earlier that night. Why all of a sudden wouldn’t

it start now?

I notified dispatch right away that my car was disabled and that I was essentially dead-in-

the-water for the time being in the empty gravel lot at Street and Mechanicsville Rds. I further

advised that I needed duty-tow, one of the township contract tow companies which was on-call

that night. My car needed to be taken to their garage. Once the dispatcher 10-4’ed me on that, I

then got back out of my car and with the radio mic in hand I began directing the two responding

officers onto the scene. In the meantime, I was keeping an eye on the shopping center the whole

time and could see nothing unusual. There were no flashlight beams shining out of any store

windows, no people lurking around, and no suspicious cars driving in front of or behind the

place.

Without consciously thinking about it at the time, I nonetheless made a mental decision

to stay with my car for the next few minutes. I tried to start it a few more times, but to no avail.

As the car had a clearly visible and loaded twelve-gauge shotgun mounted vertically to the

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passenger-side dashboard, I felt leaving it alone at this secluded and very dark location may not

be the smartest thing to do at this point. I had an excellent vantage point of the whole front and

sides of the strip mall, so this may be the best overall spot, for now, to observe and further advise

my responding colleagues. Also, I should add, the intersection at which I was parked was not

readily designed for street crossings by foot. Yes, there was a traffic light, but there weren’t any

marked pedestrian lanes or overhead lighting of any significance. Quite frankly, very few people

walked around this particular intersection. There were not even any sidewalks in the area.

With me only hearing an alarm and not observing anything at all of a suspected criminal

nature across the street in any of the stores in the shopping center, and with marked cars just a

minute or so away, I stayed in place. I was no doubt consciously, if not subconsciously,

cognizant of what happened to my friend Officer Bob Yezzi only about nine weeks ago on a

darkened highway less than a half-mile away. Thus, I remained in place. From there I directed

the responding officers from my mobile, actually make that presently immobile, command post.

I could see the whole shopping center, at least the entire front and sides of it, and I took charge of

the responding vehicles as they arrived on scene.

After just about one minute, the first car showed up at the strip mall and as directed by

me via the police radio, drove up the narrow service driveway behind it. He claimed he too

heard the alarm and it was getting louder for him as he drove along the alley behind the various

stores. The second patrol car drove into the front parking lot as so directed by me and he stated

he could also hear the alarm now. Right about then is when the officer in the rear of the building

got on his radio and stated that he found a back door wide open, the alarm ringing right above it,

and upon closer inspection it appeared to be a sports shoe store known as “Sneaks n’ Stuff.” As

the other officer in the front of the store shined his light through the store’s plate glass windows,

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he could see a few sneaker boxes on the floor in disarray, as if one or more people had been in

the place looking for something and/or actually stealing merchandise. The officers went inside

the store shortly after their arrival and found no one inside, but they said it looked as if it had

been ransacked and there were some items definitely missing.

Alas, it was a confirmed burglary.

So, to recap here…I had initially heard the audible alarm, although just barely as the

alarm mechanism itself was located in the rear of the store. (For some reason, the security

company did not notify the BPD police dispatchers as they were supposed to do.) I called it in to

dispatch on my police radio as soon as I heard it and could figure out what it was and from where

it was emanating. I then tried to drive my patrol car there to respond, but it wouldn’t start. I

instead did the next best thing, or at least I thought I did. I monitored the scene from a short

distance away, saw nothing or no one at all from my viewing point, directed the responding

police cars into the scene over the next two minutes, and stayed with my own disabled car so

nothing would happen to it at this lonely intersection. And no, I didn’t walk across the four-lane

Street Rd. in my dark colored uniform with yelling, horn-blasting, and no doubt some drunken

Phillies fans still on the roads at the same time. Perhaps my survivor instincts had kicked in

here, based on some very recent realities in my life.

In any event, by making the above series of observations, notifications, and decisions,

and in the sequence that I made them, all in three minutes or less, I paid the price a month later.

If only my hearing hadn’t been so good….

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One of the 11P-7A squad officers who responded after I called in the alarm took the call

and handled the eventual burglary report. He even thanked me via radio for calling it in. I

responded, “10-4, no problem,” back to him.

Before long, the tow-truck showed up and put my car on the hook. Beforehand, the

operator/mechanic tried to start it himself a few times but stated right then that it was most likely

the starter mechanism which had gone bad. He’d have one of his shop guys fix it the next day or

so. I then rode shotgun, literally in this case, with the tow truck driver as he took me to police

HQ where I took my briefcase, my AM-FM radio, my flashlight, and yes, my actual shotgun, and

went inside. I locked the weapon in its secure cabinet, finished up my paperwork, put it on the

sergeant’s desk, and started out the door to go home. A decent day at work, I surmised. And,

hey, how ‘bout dem Phillies?

But wait. I wasn’t done. No celebrating for Jim quite yet.

As I was about to walk out the door that night at 1:00 and get into my own car for the

short drive home, I was stopped by one of the BPD’s brand new patrol lieutenants. His name

was Ron Traenkle. He was in his early 30s, about 6’2”, with a not-small paunch hanging over

the front of his holster belt. He had been a patrol officer with maybe three years on the job

when I first started, but in the last few years or so he went from patrolman to sergeant to now

lieutenant in short order. A rather rapid rise up to the ranks of mid-management some would

say. Maybe too rapid, some would also say.

I had only worked occasionally with either Officer or Sergeant Traenkle through my first

four years on the BPD. It seems perhaps for a week or so when the shifts were re-aligned

temporarily we may have responded to some calls together, but bottom line, I just didn’t know

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this guy very well, either professionally or personally. He was one of the few, if not perhaps the

only, full four-year college graduates on the BPD from before my generation of cops was hired

in ’76 and ’77. I believe his degree was in engineering or something like that. He was born and

raised in upstate New York. With this academic and geographical background, I never was quite

sure how he ever found his way to the Bensalem Police Department, but whatever, he was here

in his present rank and I was here in mine, and the two of us were about to clash.

I really didn’t know at the time if Traenkle was a card-carrying member of Team Zajac

(the BPD Acting Chief) or not. He seemingly was promoted fairly and legitimately in separate

rounds of competitive promotional exams over the last two years, just barely meeting the time-

in-service qualification to go from sergeant to lieutenant. In any event, I didn’t question how he

got his rank, nor did I really care. He may have risen too quickly from sergeant to lieutenant,

with perhaps never mastering the former rank whilst in it for only the minimum two years. But

that wasn’t really for me to say.

Regardless of how he ultimately got there, Lt. Traenkle was the supervising officer that

night in the BPD. And, in that role, just as I was about to exit the building to go home, he

stopped me to ask a few questions. His questions and my answers went something like this:

Traenkle: “Fitz, what happened tonight with that burglary at Sneaks ‘n Stuff?”

Fitzgerald: (I verbally and respectfully recounted to him, in summary form, what is

written above.)

Traenkle: “Yeah, I know your car was broken down but why didn’t you cross the street to

check out the alarm yourself?”

Fitzgerald: “Well, I felt I could do as much from my side of the intersection watching the

entire front of the shopping center and the two points of egress from the rear while

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directing the responding patrol cars accordingly. Plus, I didn’t want to leave my disabled

vehicle, with a shotgun on full display, there on the darkened lot and cross the still busy

and dark highway with the still celebrating and semi-nutsy Phillies fans.”

Traenkle: “So, that’s why you didn’t respond to the scene?”

Fitzgerald: “I WAS on the scene, just across the street from it. I called in the alarm,

remember? I guided in the responding cars. Is there a problem of some sort here?”

Traenkle: “No, no, not necessarily. I’m just curious. Okay, Fitz, have a good night.”

Fitzgerald: “Uh…yeah, thanks. You too.”

I then went home, watched the recap of the game and the related festivities on TV, and

eventually went to bed. I didn’t give a second thought to my earlier shift, the alarm, the

burglary, or my brief talk with the lieutenant then or at any time the next day.

I should add here that my regular Sgt. Eckert was working earlier that night, but he was

relieved at the end of our regular shift hours. In other words, he wasn’t required to stay past

11:00P. Just the patrol officers were requested to do so, me being one of them. So, the only

supervisor I directly answered to that night after 11:00 was Lt. Traenkle.

I don’t believe it was the next day when I went into work, but perhaps the day after that,

on a Thursday, my last 3-11 shift of that tour, when I came in to work and found a plain white

envelope with my name typed on it in my time slot. I had no idea what it was or what it would

represent. So, of course, I opened it.

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It was from Lt. Traenkle, to me, with today’s date, and in the “Subject” line of the memo

was written, “Dereliction of Duty; Failure to Respond to a Required Police Action,” or words to

that effect.

Huh? What the heck is this? Was this meant for me or someone else? It can’t be for

me…can it? Whose name is on this envelope?

I double-checked. It was my name.

As I read the memo, I could see it was definitely meant for me as it laid out an account in

about two pages of what I allegedly did wrong that recent night by NOT responding on foot to

the burglar alarm across the intersection. The alarm that I discovered and I called in, and for the

various reasons listed above, I handled as I deemed fit. What I did and how I did it was

apparently not good enough for the brand new lieutenant. And on the very last line he listed the

recommended punishment.

I was to be suspended without pay for two days because of my purported error in

judgment. Geez, all this before I even stood at roll call for my shift that day.

This was a first for me. And from a guy, Lt. Traenkle, with whom I had no previous

problems and who I thought was aware that I was a decent and hardworking cop. I would have

expected this from my managerial-challenged former Tactical Squad sergeant, or someone

officially on the Zajac campaign trail, but not this guy, and more importantly not for this action,

or non-action, or whatever it was supposed to be on my part. But, there it was, in black and

white, in memo format, laying out what I did wrong, how I did it or didn’t do it, the departmental

charges by name and number, and oh yes, my two days off without pay.

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I’d have to figure out just how to address this. There was no precedent in my four-year

career thus far for this. I know there are methods of appeal within the BPD. But, is it worth it?

Is this friggin’ job even worth it at this point?

Yes, I was angered and frustrated by this disciplinary punch in the nose. But, do I

counter-punch? Or do I just take the hit?

I really wanted to talk to my dad about this situation, but alas, he was no longer with me.

I would have definitely asked Bob Yezzi what he thought of this development, but he was no

longer with me either. So, I looked way down my mental list and found the first substitute I

could come up with. It was a poor one, at that.

I saw Lt. Traenkle when he came in to work later that evening. I asked if I could meet

with him in his office. He said yes, and I went in and closed the door behind me. I showed him

the letter and of course he knew what this was about. I think I simply said to him, “Are you

really serious about this?”

He responded in his most officious tone, between drags of his almost always present

cigarette, “Yes, I am. Upon reviewing the situation I firmly believe that you should have ran

across the street and responded to the alarm.”

I reminded him the officers that night only KNEW of the alarm because while on patrol I

heard it, I located it, and within a minute I called it in. No one would have known of it until

much later that night or perhaps even the next day if I didn’t initially hear it and report it as a

result of my self-initiated police action.

Wouldn’t you agree, Lieutenant?

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The lieutenant was forced to agree that it was good police work on my part which led me

to hearing the ringing alarm in the first place and then calling it in. “However,” he started to

say…

Without letting Traenkle continue his statement I went on to remind him that the burglar

or burglars were already gone by the time I even heard it because no cars were seen taking off

and no one was seen running from the rear of the strip mall area. And because of my police

vehicle’s starter failure (later re-confirmed by the garage mechanic) at the exact same time I

initially heard this alarm…this is the result? A two day suspension?

“I’m afraid so,” said the lieutenant, who quickly added in still officious-mode as he was

putting out his cigarette butt in the ashtray, “You can always appeal it, you know.”

“Yes, I know. Thanks for the legal advice, counselor.”

I said goodnight and walked out of his office.

I debated over the next week or so how to reconcile this matter. I had ten days to file my

appeal. I discussed it with my wife, and various friends and colleagues on the PD. My

coworkers were mostly in favor of me fighting it as knowing the exact circumstances of that

night, some who were actually working with me that night, they felt that I should not have been

disciplined for what I did, then didn’t do. I even ran into Chief Larry Michaels (now only the

titular head of the BPD, with Lt. Zajac having usurped his position) one afternoon when it was

by chance just the two of us together in the roll call room. After some general small talk, I

mentioned to him about my suspension memo, and that I was debating as to whether I should

appeal it or not. He reminded me in a semi-fatherly way that it was certainly my choice to do so,

but then offered that they are rarely overturned in the BPD, and it may involve hiring a lawyer,

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spending more money than the actual loss of two days’ pay would add up to, etc. I thanked him

and we left it at that.

In the next few days, I was notified that IF I was not going to appeal and take my

suspension, it would be in November, the two days before Thanksgiving. Hmmm…even though

I would be docked the pay for those missed shifts, I wouldn’t mind a few extra days off around

this festive holiday.

At the same time, coincidentally, one of the senior guys on my squad had a connection

with a Bensalem new truck distributorship. This business would occasionally hire BPD officers

to drive these brand-new flatbed trucks, just shipped from overseas but customized at a facility in

Bensalem, to various customers around the U.S. When doing so, the driver would get paid so

much per mile, for meals and other related expenses, and then flown back to Philadelphia via

commercial airliner. When this officer heard of my possible upcoming suspension days, he

offered me a deal to drop off a truck to a customer on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving to, of all

places, Wooster, Ohio. It would be over one long day, but when I did the math regarding my

rate per mile, (it was approximately 460 miles, one way), I figured I would make more money on

that one day than if I worked both the regular days with my squad.

In view of this, and I suppose also based on what Chief Michaels had advised, I decided

not to contest my suspension and instead do the road trip to Wooster. It would be an adventure

in and of itself and put me a geographic distance from Bensalem, even if just for twenty hours or

so. Maybe I needed this short-term break and this not-so-short distance between me and the

BPD, even though I would have preferred doing so without a suspension on my record.

So, it was two days off without pay, an uneventful but very long drive to beautiful

downtown Wooster in a new twenty-foot panel truck, and a routine flight back from there

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through Pittsburgh to Philadelphia. That’s the price I paid for hearing an alarm, identifying it,

localizing it, calling it in, and directing the subsequent patrol cars to their respective locations.

But, in choosing to not resemble a character in the Frogger video game, I did not cross the still

traffic-y intersection of Street Rd. and Mechanicsville Rd., in my dark uniform, on the night the

Phillies won the World Series. Thus, my ledger was tarnished forever. Or, something like

that….

After all these years, I still feel miffed about this action taken against me. I can’t help but

be reminded of it every time someone on TV or in person brings up the Phillies first World

Series championship. Every time I see the replay of the forever young Tug McGraw jumping up

and down on the pitcher’s mound after his game-ending, series winning strikeout pitch, I recall

that just about forty-five minutes later I did and then did not do something for which I was

subsequently accused and punished. It resulted in the only official disciplinary blemish on my

record in a 31-year and three-month career as a law enforcement officer. Although there would

be numerous attempts to stick it to me coming up in just a few years during the all-out political

wars in the BPD, this happened to be the only disciplinary action which ever actually stuck.

Damn! Maybe I should have appealed it.

In closing to this chapter…

The Sneaks ‘n Stuff burglary was never solved. I believe less than a dozen pairs of

sneakers, including, somewhat ironically, baseball shoes/cleats, were stolen that night. Needless

to say, I do wish I could have caught the perps in the act. I came close, but not close enough. If

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so, it would have resulted in a one hundred percent unblemished personnel record after all these

years. But alas, it was not meant to be.

Anyway, how else would I have ever gotten a paid trip to Wooster, Ohio?

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