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Post Haste

June 2024
19min read

The urge to move documents as fast as possible has always been a national pre-occupation, because it has always been a necessity. Fax and Federal Express are just the latest among many innovations for getting the message across.

Reaching out and touching someone hasn’t always been easy—especially if it was necessary to hand that person something in the process. Yet there have always been Americans who absolutely and positively had to have it the next day, week, month, at any cost, and this in turn has always drawn others with the dollars and determination to make it happen. The history of the race with time to physically transfer documents—business or personal—constitutes a key element in the two-century communications revolution that has drawn together our sprawling nation, tying the two coasts and everything between in a network of rapid communication. The continuing drama of a need that was as powerful and important a century ago as it is today may best be captured by tracing the successive ways an urgently awaited document or package has been raced across the country, from a century and a half ago until the present day.


It has always been a highrisk business, both physically and financially, but not simply a matter of venture capital and entrepreneurship. And the U.S. government itself has consistently played an important role as a customer, subsidizer, or partner, or, in the case of the earliest air-mail service, the principal actor. Indeed, there has been a sense of mission about the challenge. As far back as 1794, Postmaster General Timothy Pickering wrote, “Half the post offices in the United States would be broken up, if the postmasters were not influenced by motives other than those of a pecuniary nature.”


The best part of the story begins in the 1840s, when the vast Southwestern and Western territories added by Manifest Destiny and the Mexican War transformed the Republic into a transcontinental nation, and the discovery of gold in California sent thousands scurrying toward the Pacific. It was a “gold rush” indeed, for the principal aim of these migrants was to get there as fast as possible. While many literally walked the distance, by far the fastest means was by sea. Some sailed into the Gulf of Mexico, struggled across the Isthmus of Panama, and reembarked by packet to California. The most dramatic route was around Cape Horn and all the way up the Pacific coast of South and Central America to the United States.

This was the way of the clippers, the massively oversailed seaborne racers that were the first in the line of American priority-cargo carriers. Their narrow hulls, sharp lines, and towering suits of sails made them specialty vehicles, frankly aimed at getting a select bill of lading to its destination as fast as possible.

The romance surrounding the clipper ships disguised their inadequacies as reliable links between East and West. Not only were they expensive to operate, but their sailors tended to jump ship and join the gold rush upon arrival, stranding a number of clippers along with hundreds of other packets in San Francisco Bay. Worst of all, despite their speed relative to other vessels of the time, they were still too slow a means of getting mail and other information back and forth —thanks mainly to the distance around the Horn (the longest domestic trade route in the world). In 1854 the storied Flying Cloud ran from New York to San Francisco in an unprecedented eighty-nine days and eight hours, and the same year Comet made the return voyage in seventy-six days. That was not nearly enough; a shorter path was clearly needed.

The obvious alternative was the trans-Isthmian route. As a means of encouraging it, Congress provided operating subsidies of approximately three hundred thousand dollars per year to both the United States Mail Steamship Company, which plied the Gulf of Mexico, and the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, its West Coast equivalent, while stabilizing postage rates at a nominal ten cents per letter. The completion of the Panama Railroad in 1855 added considerably to the safety and speed of the route, bringing the total time of passage down to around thirty days. Yet only one in five of those emigrating to California between 1849 and 1859 passed this way, primarily because even with the railroad the Isthmian crossing exposed passengers to a variety of often fatal tropical diseases. So it remained a low-volume cargo operation dedicated to the movement of the mail and gold dust.

Clipper ships were specialty vehicles for moving cargo such as mail as fast as possible.

The eagerness with which the Pacific Mail steamers were awaited in San Francisco is hard to overstate. When one of these ships was expected, a continuous watch was placed on Telegraph Hill with a semaphore to signal the arrival, inevitably leading to a stampede on the post office. Just how great a part of San Francisco life this semaphore became was illustrated one night at a local theater during the performance of a tragedy. One of the actors, standing against a curtained backdrop with his arms outstretched, uttered the line “What does this mean?” He was answered from the audience, “Side-wheeled steamer,” instantly bringing down the house.

The Pacific Mail enterprise remained basically profitable for thirty years, but it was still too slow, and Americans wanted a direct and contiguous link between East and West. At mid-century the land between the Missouri River and the Western coastal ranges was still generally thought to be a “great American desert,” acting as both a formidable obstacle to passage and a persistent reminder that California might slip away from the Union unless it was firmly and directly tied to the cities of the East. But as the decade of the fifties wore on, the vacuum was being pierced at several points, most notably by the Mormon settlement of Utah and the mining developments in the Rocky Mountains, both of which stimulated a considerable trade over Northern trails. Meanwhile, to the east, steamboats had pushed up the Missouri to Nebraska City, where an important wagon-based commerce moved up the Platte River valley and on to Denver.

By 1860 the leading participant, the firm of Russell, Majors, and Waddell, was employing more than five hundred wagons and six hundred men to ship west more than three million pounds of freight. Yet the company would be remembered not as a bulk carrier but as the most daring representative of the express industry that had sprung up all over the country in the forties and fifties to ensure the rapid and safe overland delivery of money, valuables, and important papers. As the nation spread westward, this industry naturally set its sights on establishing a fast parcel service to the Pacific.

This was no pipe dream. By 1860 the railroads had reached the Missouri and were running at approximately five times the speed of wagon transport, making it possible to move a package or document from New York to St. Joseph, Missouri, in under four days. Fifteen hundred miles of largely uninhabited land still loomed ahead. But with this kind of head start the temptation to plunge on was strong indeed.

Once again the national government played a key role, either directly, through lucrative mail contracts, or simply by providing the hope. After several earlier tentative efforts, the U.S. Post Office Department moved decisively in 1857 to sign a six-hundred-thousand-dollar-a-year contract with John Butterfield’s Overland Mail Company, establishing semiweekly mail and passenger coach service from St. Louis to San Francisco. Butterfield’s operation, chosen over six competing express companies, was a credible one, but it was compromised by politics and a fragmentation of purpose. First, Southern sensitivities forced the stipulated route to be drawn in a great twenty-eight-hundred-mile semicircle, dipping toward and even crossing over into Mexico. This was compounded by a requirement that the line also carry passengers, which meant the use of overland stagecoaches, the ponderous Concords of Western-movie fame as well as somewhat lower and lighter “celerity wagons”—both frequently drawn by mules. The result was a twenty-five-day schedule to which Butterfield stuck, but with some difficulty.

The schedule from New York for the physical delivery of a document now matched that of the much chancier Isthmian route. This was not good enough for William Russell, of Russell, Majors, and Waddell; he conceived of a horse-and-rider courier system running as directly as possible from the railhead at St. Joseph to San Francisco. It would be a “veritable telegraph line of flesh and blood,” as the historian Arthur Chapman described it. After persuading his somewhat reluctant partners, Russell moved with amazing energy to set up the pony express in a matter of weeks, spending nearly a hundred thousand dollars in the process.

Its sheer size and complexity were impressive, involving more than 500 blooded horses, 190 stock stations, and 80 young riders handpicked for their horsemanship and knowledge of local conditions. Beginning on April 3, 1860, all were synchronized into a precise equine and human relay that raced back and forth across the continent for more than eighteen months. Because the service lacked subsidies or a mail contract (though these were always a hope), prices had to be steep—five dollars per half-ounce. But the results were spectacular: three and one-half days’ railroad time from New York, then ten days from St. Joe to San Francisco. This cut twelve days, or almost 50 percent, off the most rapid coast-to-coast mail service that had existed before and was nearly six times as fast as the best clippers of a decade earlier.


The essence of the pony express was grit and organization, not technology, and in this it was unique among major American transportation innovations. The moment a letter was taken off the train at St. Joe it was locked with others in tiny containers at each corner of the company’s specially constructed lightweight saddles. Then it was pushed forward by relentless muscle power. In the prairie, riders followed the Oregon Trail, racing against a schedule that demanded that parcels be moved at least 220 miles a day. Relay stations were initially spaced 25 miles apart, but this was found to be too far for a horse to run at full speed, so intermediate depots were established, permitting a rider to change mounts every 10 to 15 miles. Each rider’s stint took him 75 to 100 miles between two “home stations,” where he might rest before riding back with the return mail. It was a lonely, monotonous, back-and-forth existence, which seldom put him in contact with other riders and forced him to change horses so fast on the trail that he barely got to talk to even the stockkeepers. “The only other rider I ever really knew was George Town, who took the mail from me at Seneca,” remembered Charley Cliff, one of the stalwarts of the prairie run.

For the rider the pony express was a giant treadmill designed to grind the life out of both horse and horseman. But the mail moved steadily forward, night and day, over rutted ground that might break a man with the slightest misstep, through mud flats so slick that horses actually skated across, and into Indian country, where a rider’s only protection was the fleetness of his mounts—some thoroughbred, others just wild. “A good many of the horses we had,” noted the rider Gus Cliff, “were half-broke—some of the best of them, in fact.”

But this was tame in comparison with the mountainous portion of the almost 2,000-mile run. Here the required distance dropped to 165 miles a day, but the riders faced blizzards, rock slides, and sheer cliffs. The worst part of the entire course came virtually last, the notorious run through the High Sierras, a route where a single turn up the wrong canyon might leave a man as hopelessly lost as the tragic Donner party had been just fourteen years before. Here freakish weather conditions could pile snowdrifts twenty feet high or turn quiet streams into raging torrents in a matter of hours. Yet unfailingly the riders of the pony express pushed through on mustangs chosen for their agility and climbing ability, racing past Placerville and down the western slope to Sacramento. This was as far as the horses went. The final run down the river and across the bay to San Francisco was made by steamship.

The overland-express industry sprang up all over the country in the 1840s and ’50s.

Just under two weeks would have passed from the time the parcel left New York, and if romance, excitement, and sheer human effort are considered, the service was a bargain. It was also of some significance to our political history. Special pony-express runs raced both the news of Lincoln’s election and the text of his inaugural address to the West in record time, helping cement California’s place within the Union. But profits mattered more, and after losing approximately two hundred thousand dollars the pony express was suspended, on October 26, 1861—just two days after the completion of the transcontinental telegraph.

Not a dollar in federal subsidies or mail contracts was ever provided. The pony express was essentially a technological anachronism that Darius the Great, king of Persia, or the Roman emperor Tiberius could have approximated, had they so desired. The future of America now lay with electric impulses and steam power, and it was through these channels that the U.S. government henceforth directed its largess.

The telegraph’s capacity for instantaneous communication may have pushed the pony express over the edge, but an important market remained for the rapid transport of documentation. And it was the railroads that filled this need.

The completion of the transcontinental railway, in 1869, was a dramatic and important event and, ironically, one facilitated by the fame of the pony express. Coast-to-coast traffic was now reduced to seven days and was soon to do even better. In the next thirty years, as tracks spread to every nook and cranny of America, they knitted together an economic mechanism that drew resources from and distributed products to every quarter of the land. This integration by rail made industrialism on a national scale possible and may be said to have created modern America.

Subsequent developments in transportation have, of course, cut travel time dramatically, but if all our cars, trucks, and aircraft were suddenly to disappear, leaving only the railroads, something approximating contemporary existence would still be possible. In a time of unparalleled technological change, this is a remarkable testimony not just to the importance of the railroads but to their durability and longterm significance. So it is not surprising that from 1870 to 1920—a full half-century—the rails remained absolutely unchallenged as the best and fastest means of transporting a document from coast to coast.


The importance of the railroads, and the pressure on them for ever-greater speed and efficiency, are summed up in a lyrical passage that Postmaster General John Wanamaker wrote in the Post Office Department’s annual report for 1890: “The swiftest mail is not fast enough. … We strain every muscle and nerve trying to gain an hour or two on this collection or that delivery. We worry the railroad with importunities for new trains or faster ones that shall save perhaps three or four hours. … The priceless privilege of communications by post is maintained though every other channel of intercourse is closed.”

The zenith of American railway development was probably reached around 1905. By that year the track network had expanded to around 216,000 miles, over which ran more than 48,000 locomotives, almost 40,000 passenger cars, and more than 1,700,000 freight cars, all valued at $11,950,000,000 (uninflated). Enjoying a period of unprecedented prosperity, the railroads were rapidly replacing their rolling stock. In large part the intent was to boost speed and shorten schedules. As the English authority Sir Neville Priestley noted at the time, “the one idea in the mind of American railway men is to ‘get there’ and … ‘get there’ by the shortest and quickest way possible.” The key was locomotives, an all-time record 6,300 of which were ordered in 1905.

Many of these were a new type known as the Atlantic. Ever since May 1893, when a specially modified New York Central & Hudson American model (the famous No. 999) claimed a world speed record of 112.5 miles per hour, there had been considerable interest in improving the top speed of the tall-wheeled locomotives specialized for hauling passengers and mail. As a result of experiments that turned the Camden—to—Atlantic City Seashore Flyer into the fastest regularly scheduled train in the world, a newly configured locomotive was developed. It had extremely large drive wheels for speed and an extra-large firebox for power, the weight of which was supported by two added wheels below the cab. Named after their original destination, these Atlantics were routinely capable of pulling trains in excess of 80 mph, and speed-conscious Eastern railroads rushed to put them into service. In 1905 both the New York Central and the Pennsylvania line were able to begin eighteenhour service from New York to Chicago. On the Penn’s inaugural run its Atlantic No. 7002 reputedly hit 127.1 mph.

These speeds could not be duplicated in the West; there the predominance of single tracks, less-substantial roadbeds, and the necessity of using slower, more robust Pacific locomotives over the mountains made for more leisurely schedules. Nonetheless, times from Chicago to San Francisco fell steadily from ninety-four hours in 1883 to eighty-five hours a decade later and to around eighty hours in 1905, making a transcontinental run in four days possible with the right connections.

The pony express was an anachronism; the future now lay with electricity and steam.

While these developments were primarily motivated by passenger-service demand, an important component was rapid mail delivery. The very high speeds were limited to a few crack trains, most of which included mail cars. (U.S. policy dictated that the mail must be carried on the fastest trains and that they must be given the right of way.) Although the relationship between the railroads and the Post Office had been a stormy one, the federal government consistently encouraged changes that would speed the mails; the railroads, which were well paid for their services, cooperated.

The first key innovation was the dedicated postal car, which allowed mail to be sorted in transit. This was not an easy task. Postmaster General Thomas L. James recommended that a postal clerk must “not only be proficient in his immediate work, but he must have a general knowledge of the entire country. … He must know no night and no day. He must be impervious to heat and cold … catching his meals as he may; at home only semi-occasionally.”

The efforts of postal clerks —and their use of an automatic pickup device that enabled speeding trains to grab pouch mail suspended from trackside stanchions—made the so-called fast-mail trains possible. The service, begun in 1874 by William H. Vanderbilt on the New York Central, with twenty-four-hour New York-to-Chicago delivery, captured the public imagination so effectively that by the turn of the century roads like the Chicago and North Western and Burlington were racing each other through the night to bring the mail to Denver and Omaha. By 1905 fast-mail trains consisting of sixty-foot all-steel postal cars pulled by Atlantics moved the mail virtually as fast as any passenger could have hoped to travel aboard a crack Pullman.

Still, if you “absolutely and positively” had to have a document transported coast to coast in the shortest possible time, the express companies were probably the best bet. By 1890 American Express, Adams Express, and Wells, Fargo had basically carved up the United States, each establishing a corner on its sector, arranging with the railroads to charge whatever the market would bear—a tariff considerably higher than the regulated but still highly profitable rates set by the federal government.

Like mail cars, express cars were attached to fast passenger trains; yet unlike mail cars, they made a high profit that entitled them to priority treatment. This was critical in moving a document from New York to San Francisco in a time approaching the four days that had become possible. Although all mail was equal once attached to a speeding train, some mail was more equal in terms of making rapid connections at rail junctions, particularly Chicago. It was not for nothing that this was remembered as an era of monopoly and big business, and the wise shipper acted accordingly.

As efficient as the rails were in 1905, they were just a few years away from the beginning of their long slide into neglect. A new competitor in the transcontinental sweepstakes—one destined to cut coast-to-coast travel times down to a matter of hours—was waiting in the wings.

The meteoric rise of aviation in this country is generally recounted in terms of pioneering pilots and epochal aircraft, yet it was government subsidies and air mail that not only brought American commercial aviation to life but nurtured it through its infancy. In 1911, only eight years after the Wright brothers’ first flight, short experimental air-mail runs were conducted on Long Island under the auspices of local postal officials. The next year the Post Office Department urged Congress to appropriate funds to launch an air-mail service. Four years passed before the skeptical legislators were convinced: then, in 1916, they voted fifty thousand dollars for this purpose. World War I intervened, but before its end Congress raised the airmail budget to one hundred thousand dollars, both for the establishment of experimental air routes and for the purchase of planes to fly them.


The guiding hand behind the inauguration of aerial postal delivery was Second Assistant Postmaster General Otto Praeger. He had set his sights not only on establishing the airplane as a dependable long-distance carrier but also on attracting private capital to create a new commercial industry. Before this could take place, the Post Office was thrust into the role of pioneer, operating its own planes and blazing trails across the sky. Its progress was remarkable. After a year of mail flights between New York and Washington, Post Office aircraft headed west. On short hops of several hundred miles the planes of the day were hardly faster than train service, but at transcontinental ranges real time savings were possible. The Post Office opened the last leg of the first coast-to-coast air route on September 8, 1920. Although the planes flew only in daylight, air mail still cut thirty-seven hours off equivalent train time, delivering the mail in fifty-seven hours.


Regular transcontinental flight time was nearly halved in February of 1921, when an experimental night-and-day relay made the run from San Francisco to New York in thirty-three hours and twenty minutes. The feat cost one flier his life and sent the De Haviland pilot Jack Knight on an epic journey across the darkened Midwest with only an occasional ground fire and a road map to guide him. “I happened to be the man on the spot,” he told reporters later, “but any of the rest of the fellows would have done what I did.” These were noble sentiments, but probably exaggerated. Somehow Knight made it, but it was apparent that day-night service, the key to really fast times, could not work flying blind. It was just too dangerous, and pilots knew it. “Sometimes a flyer will not fly,” testified the Air Service superintendent in 1921. “They are as temperamental as a lot of chorus girls, and about as easy to handle.”

The Post Office’s solution was to put up a chain of searchlights and acetylene torches, which by 1926 had extended a band of plane-guiding lights across the entire country. Meanwhile, the Post Office was maintaining a regular schedule of twenty-nine hours and fifteen minutes eastbound and thirty-four hours and twenty minutes westbound, at twenty cents per letter ounce over the full route. Yet the U.S. government’s successful career as an air-mail carrier was nearly over, while Otto Praeger’s dream of privatization was soon to be realized.

Postal officials were trying air mail only eight years after the Wrights flew.

It had been understood that the Post Office operation was a temporary expedient and that once the feasibility of long-distance air mail had been proved the emphasis would shift to commercial carriers. This became official with the Air Mail Act of 1925, known as the Kelly Act, which transferred responsibility to private contractors. On September 1, 1927, the last Post Office mail flight landed, completing a record of more than thirteen million miles flown and more than three hundred million letters delivered. Infancy was at an end.

Largely because of the controversial Republican postmaster general Walter Brown, the U.S. government now adopted a policy of favoring a few large air-mail carriers and subsidizing them handsomely in order to create a stable base for the industry. In April 1930 Brown engineered passage of the McNary-Watres Act, which eliminated competitive bidding and subsidized air mail to such an extent that it not only made passenger transport financially viable but paved the way for the extremely rapid improvement of commercial aircraft. By the end of 1930 almost half a million Americans were flying the airlines yearly, and letters were being delivered across the United States for five cents apiece in as little as twentyeight hours. By 1932 the basic transcontinental routes of four of America’s most important airlines—United, American, Eastern, and TWA —had been mapped out.

Scandal intervened, however, as the public learned the extent of Brown’s manipulation and the airline subsidies. Before the dust settled, all domestic air-mail contracts were canceled, and in early 1934 the Army Air Corps began a disastrous experiment with delivering the mail that resulted in sixty-six forced landings and a dozen fatalities. Within four months the air mail weis reprivatized.

Brown’s policies may not have been fair, but they worked. Not only were commercial carriers more efficient, but his subsidies brought forth a revolutionary generation of new aircraft. Its arrival was dramatized the day before the Army misadventure began, when, as a protest, TWA’s Jack Frye and the air ace Eddie Rickenbacker flew the last of the commercial mail in the brand-new prototype Douglas DC-I from Los Angeles to Newark in a record thirteen hours and four minutes. One New York newspaper wrote at the time, “This plane has made obsolete all other air transport equipment in this country or any other.” These were prophetic words, and the plane’s production version, the DC-2, was destined to become the first modern airliner. By August 1934 it was operating transcontinentally.

With this date used as a benchmark, it is possible to reconstruct an appropriate flight plan by which we might transport a document from New York to San Francisco in the shortest reasonable time. The DC-2 was capable of cruising at 190 mph over a range of 1,000 miles. The first 800-mile leg to Chicago would have taken under five hours. The next stopping point would have been Omaha, after around three hours. After a halt for fuel and a change of crew, the flight would resume with an 800-mile run to Salt Lake City, taking roughly five hours. The last three-and-a-half-hour hop to San Francisco would deliver a document in the scheduled eighteen hours, including layovers.

Today a modern jetliner can travel the same distance nonstop in six hours, and this capability has become the cornerstone of the modern express-mail business. In 1971 Fred Smith, as a graduate student in business school, came up with the idea of creating an airline designed to deliver mail. “We’re a freight service with 550-mile-per-hour delivery trucks,” the president of Federal Express likes to say. Basically the system works by the simplest possible device: routing every package to and from anywhere to a huge five-hundred-thousand-square-foot “super hub” sorting facility in Memphis, Tennessee, and then reshipping from there. This enables the company to keep close track of every item and to guarantee overnight delivery without the need for a complex system of interconnected routes.

For packages the Federal Express system remains state-of-the-art —along with other express companies offering very similar services—but for written material that’s now slow. Today with facsimile transmission— or fax —which became widespread in this decade, it takes virtually no time at all to send a document from sea to shining sea.

Ironically, fax has been with us all along, at least potentially. As far back as 1842 Alexander Bain, a Scottish philosopher and inventor, grasped the principle of transmitting an image over wire. And less than two decades later the completion of the transcontinental telegraph provided the wire. But the two remained unmarried for more than sixty years, held apart by intractable problems of image quality and cost. While many different facsimile designs have been put forth over the years, almost all were founded on the concept of scanning a document one segment at a time and then representing the appropriate shade or tone with a specific amount of electricity. The resulting current sequence could then be transmitted by a variety of electronic technologies.

Facsimile transmission became a reality in 1925, when AT&T successfully introduced a commercial process for sending news photographs by wire. A year later RCA began transmitting images internationally by radio. The equipment upon which these technologies depended remained highly specialized, cumbersome, and very expensive. Moreover, facsimile reproduction remained relatively slow, requiring five to seven minutes to transmit a single image. Meanwhile, the most convenient potential transmission medium, telephone lines, remained subject to imagedistorting interference and therefore was seldom used. For approximately three decades this situation did not fundamentally change.

But as the 1950s ended, there was renewed interest, some of it in the United States but more in Japan, where having an alphabet containing thousands of characters gave the nation’s innovators considerable incentive to find ways of transmitting the written word more efficiently. By the 1960s they had reached a stage where documents sent over regular telephone lines were reasonably legible and the speed of transmission was steadily improving. Finally, by the early 1980s, Japanese manufacturers had developed machines cheap and reliable enough for the mass market.

There are now 1,200,000 Americans who own personal fax machines and more than 10,000,000 who use them regularly. For the user the cost is essentially the price of the phone call, and the transmission time ranges from twelve to thirty seconds. A letter moves from New York to San Francisco—or across the world—nearly instantaneously.

Every time a faster way to move documents emerged, it rapidly became a necessity.

Indeed, there seems no end to the convenience of fax. The latest wrinkle is the battery-powered mobile fax. And this is not just a matter of being able to fax from a car, using a cellular phone. A recent Washington Post story cites the case of one Keith Gronsbell, who successfully faxed a message from a plane flying at twenty thousand feet. A recent Mount Everest expedition faxed back daily progress reports, using a satellite link. The question now is not where one can fax but where one can hide from instantaneous document communication. Already there are those who complain of piles of waxy junk mail and who guard their machines’ telephone numbers like a wartime code.

Where have a century and a half of effort, adventure, and ingenuity in delivering documents in the shortest possible time brought us? Instantaneous visual and oral communication—as well as the incredible speed of air transportation —is now a part of our birthright, one we all take for granted. Indeed, every time a faster way of moving a document has become available it has rapidly become a necessity, and we have managed to find a pressing need for something even faster. If one thing has remained constant, it is our unremitting itch of dissatisfaction with the current technology. And there is one other thing: the impossibility of predicting the next breakthrough to which that itch will drive us.

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