FRED REED: Vendetta Over Alabama

America,Art,Crime,Culture,FRED REED,Kids,Music,Race,Relatives,The South


Fred remembers barefooted boyhood, Red Ryder BB guns, pocket knives; shooting water moccasins and making homemade ordnance; teachers who taught the Three Rs, history, the sciences; gin made the right way, the occasional paddle, but no crime, and dulcet Southern speech that flowed slow and sweet like Karo syrup


In the mid-1950s my family arrived in Athens, Alabama, I being eleven, my father a mathematician working at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in nearby Huntsville. Athens was small, the county seat of Limestone County. The town square had the courthouse in the middle with the statue of a Confederate soldier and a Baptist church. The library was a frame building with many books and, at least in memory, a musty smell and there was Athens College, now grandiosely Athens University.

The age was politically fraught after Brown, though I didn’t know it. The South was then under siege, isolated, ingrown, defiant, idiosyncratic, tightly segregated, and determined to keep it that way. It was what it was and liked it–a land of guns, NASCAR, hot rods, dogs, and defined sexes. Dixie was the only pungent, culturally distinctive part of the country outside of New York City. An American Sicily, it shaped American music. Gospel, Southern blacks. Blues, Southern blacks. Cajun, Southern whites. Zydeco. Dixieland jazz, Southern blacks and whites. Bluegrass, Southern whites. Country, Southern whites. Rockabilly, Southern whites. Rock, Southern blacks and whites.

There was a regionalism, the attachment to the battle flag, a profound locality which amounted to “Fuck you and the horse you rode in on,” a residual, hopeless rebelliousness against the crushing power of the North.

The times were looser then, less hectored and watched. Rules were few because people knew how to behave without them. Athenians supervised their own lives and it seemed to work. The dog went out in the morning, visited such places as she thought fit and came back when it suited her. Nobody cared. It was what dogs did. We kids went barefoot, supporting the minor agony of the first week until our feet hardened to leather. In summer nothing seemed hurried. Barefoot and BB-gunned, we went forth on glowing green mornings to see what adventure offered.

Small boys carried pocket knives everywhere because no one could think of a reason why  not. There was no telling when you might need to sharpen a stick or put notches on a spool tank for traction. Teachers ignored pocket knives, though they waxed wroth over the passing of notes. BB guns were part of our anatomy, like an extra arm. There were two varieties. The plebeian Red Ryder, plain, dark brown, and functional, for four dollars, and the patrician Daisy Eagle, with plastic telescopic sight, for I think eight. Both were lever-action. They were an accepted part of society. Every corner store sold round cardboard tubes of a hundred BBs which we poured rattlingly into the barrel. Nobody thought twice about this. When you went into Limestone Drug, you left your BB gun in the corner. But more of that shortly.

In Athens in a minor valley there was the appropriately name Valley Gin Company. It was the kind of gin that took seeds out of cotton, not the kind making vodka unpalatable by the addition of juniper juice. It was of corrugated iron, run down like so much of the South, and abandoned except in cotton-picking time. There was much brush around and a creek ran through the valley, crossed by an iron foot bridge.

Here I came on the long afternoons of the Southland to lean over the bridge rail and shoot water moccasins. Actually I think they were harmless water snakes but water moccasins better caught the spirit.  There is such a thing as too much truth.

In the cool and shade of what is now another world, minnows sparkled in clear water and dragonflies flitted in metallic blues and greens. We knew them as “snake doctors,” though elsewhere they were “the devil’s darning needles,” or “mosquito hawks.” They were fast, agile, ferocious looking and I often tried to shoot them, but never with any luck.

The years with a BB gun would not be entirely without benefit. Discharging the shiny little balls against the sky, watching the coppery glint recede through the air, we developed an eye for windage and elevation, that lives later in Marine boot camp would make me the only recruit in a platoon of city kids who could shoot, and this avoided much punitive labor.

The South had not recovered from the Civil War and, along with a middle class like any other, there was poverty. A few kids had teeth blackened with decay and one that I remember had to have his entire dentition pulled. My friend Charlie Cox lived in a shack with a light bulb dangling on a wire. Athens was the county seat of Limestone County and so comparatively advanced but in nearby Ardmore County, if memory serves, instead of summer vacation kids got off at cotton chopping and cotton-picking time.

The Limestone Drugstore was on the town square, and still is, across the courthouse and the statue of the Confederate soldier. It had the usual things one has in a drug store but also several marble-topped round tables and accompanying chairs, a soda fountain with pimply soda jerk, and a large rack of comic books. The Limestone was not a Northern chain, impelled by cutthroat acquisitiveness from corporate in New Jersey, and so was relaxed. The owner, or so we thought he was, was an old man in his seventies we all knew as Coochie, with frizzy red hair. He liked little boys. Not lasciviously as would be suspected today. He just liked kids.

I think Coochie used the comic rack as bait. Probably in all its years the Limestone never sold a comic book, or tried to. We came in, a legion of eleven-year-olds, and piled our BB guns and fielder’s mitts in a corner. It wasn’t a rule, but have you tried to read Plastic Man while holding a BB gun, baseball glove, and cherry coke? We grabbed several comics, by now crumbling and settled in. We spent hours deep in Batman, Green Lantern, Superman. It probably improved our reading, but I don’t know. I can still name Superman’s girlfriends, Lois Lane, Linda Lee, and Lana Lang, as well as Jor-El and Lara, and three different colors of kryptonite. Don’t tell me we wasted our time.

Athens Elementary, where I went to sixth and seventh grades, was not yet integrated and so had none of the problems that would soon come. The teachers were college-educated women, these not yet being siphoned off into biochemistry. They believed their job was to teach the Three Rs, as did teachers all across America then, as well as history, the sciences, and so on. There were no discipline problems to amount to anything though the Board of Education, a substantial paddle, existed to ameliorate the aborning ardor of adolescence. I once fell afoul of this instrument. It didn’t come to much.

The South did not know what to do about the Negro. His dark face loomed over everything. Integration was coming, and people knew what it would do. It did. Segregation couldn’t last, but integration couldn’t work. This left few possibilities.

At the time, virtually no contact between races existed. The water fountains on the town square said White and Colored, the bathrooms in gas stations, Men, Women, and Colored. It the movie theater, known to us as the “pitcher show,” blacks sat in the lower right-hand seats. I barely remember seeing Negros and to this day I don’t know where the black school was. About this time Emmett Till was beaten to death by Klan wannabes in Mississippi. Most people were decent. Some weren’t.

Crime did not yet exist, though it does now. Children could roam wild until late on summer nights with no hazard. A favorite haunt was the Kreme Delight a soft ice cream stand in the style of, who would have thought it, the Fifties. On summer nights yellow neon buzzed and so did bugs attracted by them and children attracted by the ice cream, though we didn’t buzz. Kreme Delight is still there. We got spiral swirls of chocolate or vanilla and felt independent in the night though of course we weren’t. If Annette Funicello had appeared and asked for a double malt, she would have fit. Young studs in their late teens drove around in fitty-six Ford convertibles, hair slicked back in tidal waves, cigarette dangling from corner of mouth, approaching manhood, well aware of it, and maybe trying to hurry things a little. Hopped-up mills, bad-ass V-8s, idled potato potato potato maybe, not really hopped up but with a hole in the muffler but it was close enough. Nothing is better than driving around the gathering point with your best girl and a noisy motor and hoping you look like Elvis. With me it was Hojo’s in Fredericksburg, Virginia years later, but the principle doesn’t change. Or if it has, we’ve lost something.

The South had much on its conscience regarding the Negro. One day Northern cities would have sprawling, semiliterate, segregated ghettos where there would be thousands of blacks killed every year, poverty, drug addiction, phenomenal crime, but these were in the future. Now it is the North that does not know what to do. Some Southerners might say, let them choke on it.

Having no more orality than is good for a small boy, I figured out how to steal twelve-gauge shotgun shells from the country store near our house by putting them in the center of a roll of toilet paper and buying it. I do not know what disease the store’s owner thought might afflict my family. We then cut the shot charge from the shell with a Buck knife—as mentioned, small boys then routinely carried pocket knives with no ill effect, unless you were a twelve-gauge shell of course. We then put the powder charge on the end of a BB gun barrel , shot the primer, and–fwoosh!—a most satisfying spray of sparks erupted.

We were probably dangerous. At least I hope we were. We took bicycle spokes and pressed match heads into the cavity, followed by a piece of birdshot, and held a match under the ensemble. A satisfying snap! Followed. I think this an important chapter in the history of American ordnance. There was a way, too complex to explain here so it will be lost forever, to turn a clothes pin into a gun that will shoot a flaming kitchen match for at least three feet. Do not think that we misspent our time.

My family first lived in a big decaying house on Pryor Street, near the country store. I was for some time known, mostly in jest, as the “Dam Yank on the corner,” until I learned the soft Rococo accents that God meant us to use. People didn’t like Yankees. I guess I still don’t if it means morally pretentious New Englanders. Hitchhiking years later in the humid stillness of the Mississippi Delta, where speech flowed slow and sweet like Karo syrup dripping on busted China, I decided the language had reached its pinnacle of dignity and humility. But Alabama was close.

My parents were Cavalier Virginians from Southside and knew participles from gerunds. My mother once asked one of my friends whether he would like to lunch with us. With curtsey native to the state, he replied, “No, thank you, Ma’am. I has done et.” She was horrified. Other elocutions were, “You ain’t got the sense god give a crabapple,” and, “do that again and I’ll slap the far outa you.” Fire. Sometimes it was “slap the livin’ dogsnot,” but that is rude, so we will omit it here.

A high point of my young life, or at least a point, was the discovery of the science building of Athens College, where my father taught chemistry as a sideline. The building wasn’t locked. In the library of the college in the encyclopedia Britannica I found the formula for thermite, a fearsomely high-temperature incendiary. (If interested, powdered aluminum and iron oxide. It proved  effective for burning Tokyo should you ever need to do that.) Anyway, I found the materials in the science building. Perry James, son of the college president, and I put some in his mother’s prize frying pan, thinking if immune to high temperatures. The resulting hole caused…well, it caused.

Being something of a mad scientist, I made rockets that didn’t work with zinc, sulfur, and stolen potassium permanganate, invented the mnemonic prometanatel, for prophase, metaphase, anaphase, and telophase. This has not materially furthered my trajectory through life, but neither has it done harm. Free access to a science building has much to recommend it.

Athens was a monoculture and so at peace with itself. The kids had names like Jimmy-jack ‘Callister, Sally-Carol Jenkins, Johnny Loggins, or Billy-Joe Faulkner. There were exceptions, such as Sanders Dupree and my buddy Don Berzette, but these were few and, I think Protestant like us. Athens was in the Bible Belt and everyone took it seriously or at least went with the current.  The parts about fornication may have received less intense attention than others among teenagers but I don’t know because I wasn’t one. But I suspected. All were white. There is something to be said for this.

Ages later, on a mountain side in Peru while working as a journalist, I ran into a National-Guardplatoon from Athens. Did they know Don? I asked. Yep.

My family left Athens after a couple of years. Sputnik had gone into orbit and was saying beep beep humiliatingly. This couldn’t be tolerated. Desperate effort had gone into getting a Jupiter C rocket also into orbit. My family went to Redstone Arsenal to see a celebratory mockup. It was wickedly cold and a determined patriotic model in bikini stood grimly by the exhibit. Sputnik had the salutary effect of raising salaries for mathematicians and my father, a loyal son of the South, got a better deal at Dahlgren Naval Proving Ground, as it was then know, in rural Virginia. I have ever since thought well of the Russians.

Read Fred’s Books! Or else. We know where you sleep.


FRED REED describes himself as [previously] a “Washington police reporter, former Washington editor for Harper’s and staff writer for Soldier of Fortune magazine, Marine combat vet from Viet Nam, and former long-haul hitchhiker, part-time sociopath, who once lived in Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac River from the Yankee Capital.”
His essays “on the collapse of America” Mr. Reed calls “wildly funny, sometimes wacky, always provocative.”
“Fred is the Hunter Thompson of the right,” seconds Thomas E. Ricks in Foreign Policy magazine. His  commentary is “well-written, pungent political incorrectness mixed with smart military commentary and libertarian impulses, topped off with a splash of Third World sunshine and tequila.”



Killer Kink

Hardboiled is back! (The exclamation point is to arouse wild enthusiasm int the reader, a boiling literary lust.) Gritty crime fiction by longtime police reporter for the Washington Times, who knows the police from nine years of riding with them. Guaranteed free of white wine and cheese, sensitivity, or social justice.

21 thoughts on “FRED REED: Vendetta Over Alabama

  1. Cakeeater

    Vernacular is almost lost. Enjoyed reading some of your recollections. There was crime in rural areas but it was dealt with immediately such as in lynchings. My mother grew up on a farm in northwestern Minnesota during the Great Depression. One Sunday morning, her younger brother and her were left home while the family went to Sunday Mass. A farm hand, probably one of the hobos who regularly roamed the country in search of a meal, went “off” on them. He took an ax and tried to break down the door. My mother grabbed her younger brother to escape and ran to the next farm for help. They didn’t have shoes on and snow was on the ground so stopped at a haystack to thaw their feet for a bit. They made it to safety. The adults and the sheriff assembled a posse for the rogue farmhand. When he was found, he was delivered to the Otter Tail County line and told “git, do not ever come back.” Justice was served.

  2. Michael Hill

    What could be better on a cool rainy Sunday morning than to have another Fred Reed piece in the mailbox? Fred is a unique wordsmith, having been seasoned in the most unusual places. I greatly enjoyed his latest piece, a wonderfully concise but rambling narrative on Athens. It evokes something close to nostaligia. I say that not because I spent childhood in the south, but because I first became exposed to these north American cultural gems at the age of twelve, after walking off a ship in Montreal in the spring of 1964, having come from the land of the Beatles. But I digress. Thanks Fred, and thanks to Ilana for publishing these gems.

  3. Jonathan B. Horen

    I got there late — early-1974, to Columbus, GA’s Fort Benning, then stayed for Columbus-Tech. Friday/Saturday nights at Phenix City’s “Jocopa Club”, lazy Saturday afternoons at Flat Rock Park (Columbus) and Sunday afternoons at Idle Hour Park (Phenix City) watching the Columbus Astros (Atlanta Braves farm-team). Pritchett’s Kitchenette, where I first ate hush-puppies and catfish, washed-down with Mason jars of sweet iced-tea. People will tell you that Satan’s greatest trick was convincing people he didn’t exist; we know better — it was convincing Northerners that anyone with a “Southern accent” was dumb.

  4. Quartermaster

    That’s the south I recall quite well. Some of it even survived well into the 60s. Too bad it’s gone with the wind.

  5. Preston Lester

    Fred has always been my kind of a man, I’m older than he is though , I’m 94 , born in april 1928 i Sanderson Texas,I grew up much like Fred, Red Ryder B Bguns and always a pocket knife even now!
    Searching for adventure all the time , and finding it in my every day life at that time, we had no blacks, we had plenty of Mexicans though , and we didn’t mix , we did work together though,. working cattle and sheep, in fact that was about all there was there except the rail road from San Antonio to El paso I loved it there though , I had five cousins all boys who’s father was an engineer on the railroad. we would cover the rocky and bare country and kill rattle snakes for their hides skin em out and dry the hides an d sell them for 50Cents. sometimes get a dollar for a six footer or better. We had a movie theater so went to see a movie on Saturday for15 cents,usually tom Mix or later Hop along Cassidy, we stayed plenty buisy ,never bored for sure

  6. paul g

    Mr. Reed,
    Thank you so much for sharing this! I wish I could have been there to see it! Given the in-your-face hatred of all-things-Southern at every turn, it’s soooo nice to read something from someone who still loves her!
    God save the South!

  7. A.N. O'Nymous

    Old friend, I have to post anonymously because a person of Massively Northern extraction married my niece. Over the span of their marriage our family has mostly learned that one dares not to give voice to any comment that could lead to political controversy in his vicinity. I am unable to list a single occasion that he has missed an opportunity to turn an idle conversation into a tense standoff, sternly challenging any assertion inconsistent with his views, made within earshot.

    It’s possible his response follows from living among the dread yahoos of the south, the descendants of those benighted curs who initiated hostilities precipitating the late discommodious events many in these precincts still style the war of northern aggression. Despite living hard by the Leftward-hurtling academics of the institution where he passes on his skills to the next generation, it seems he still sleeps with one ear listening for the sound of a cross being set ablaze nearby.

    Some folks with extensive training in assessment of and, well, ministering to persons of disordered perception, cognition, communications, or response to their companions and environs, might fall back on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders seeking appropriate descriptive language for his status.

    But he is no statistical outlier. My decade spent working in Silicon Valley showed me that there are vast herds of humans with like tendencies, grazing the mild coastal hills of the San Francisco Peninsula. Not wishing to be mean-spirited in sharing my observation, except that it was confirmed as normative by innumerable repetitions over the span of my sojourn in their precincts: The people inhabiting the former village of Yerba Buena, are about the nicest folks you could hope to meet, until the instant they determine you are not fully in agreement with their views.

    Yet, we share the planet, and must make accommodations for each other. One hopes they will eventually see the wisdom of doing so.
    I have spent half my life away from the Southern states that comprised the Confederacy: New Haven, NYC, Boston, Chicago,Ventura County, San Francisco, foothills of the Sierra Nevada…Sorry to say it, but the most widespread, casual, unconsidered, unembarrassed, reflexive, open, sneering, arrogant bias, prejudice, bigotry and intolerance I have ever witnessed has been from Northerners.

    It is supremely ironic that while race relations have improved markedly in the Old South, the migration of WWII to the manufacturing centers of the Northern states have had the two-fold effect of (a) revealing the reflexive bigotry of Northern communities, and (b) Reviving the political power of the Democrat Party, which had spent a century imposing segregation and 2nd Class Status on the slave population and their descendants.

    Now, that same party promotes their reduction by championing ABORTION, which has killed a hundred times the number of blacks as all the centuries of slavery on the North American Continent. And the Democrat Party also has embedded itself as both Promoter and Controller of a VAST Welfare program, giving them easy constant access to many Trillions of taxpayer dollars. This flowing river of gold guarantees them legitimate power to distribute those funds, creating a VAST WEB of employees, managers, and subsidiary services fully indebted to the Party that decides who gets hired and paid. Even ignoring funds irregularly diverted to invisible off-shore accounts, and slush funds distributed in communities as “Walkin’ around money,” The revived Democrat Party sits atop the most lucrative scam in human history.

    Bless they pointy little heads.

  8. Jack Bowers

    Great Gobs of Green Bugs, Fred! You paint some Great word pictures and stir a lot of memories for me growing up in Nashville in the 1940s and 50s. I think I was involved with all your endeavors in my neighborhood except some of your chemical concoctions. You didn’t mention wearing capes and trying to fly. I ended up as a Navy carrier pilot but I am indeed lucky not to have tried jumping off a garage roof with a cape fully expecting to fly in those early years. My God! Those were Good Times!
    America has indeed Lost all the Great things you write about. God Bless you! Please keep up your good work and painting those word pictures for our memories.

    Where will this BS of today end? God help us!

    Jack Bowers
    Lebanon, TN
    Captain USN (ret)

  9. Joseph Rush Wills

    Ah, the good old days when America was America! My father was from Central Florida, I grew up in Rahway, NJ but had a BB gun and played in the creek alongside our home. Visited the chicken farm near our house. Always had a pocket knife with me.
    Went to college at Jax State, former Marching Southerner. Didn’t agree with segregation, didn’t have it in Rahway. Had classmates who wore home made clothes, had only just gotten electric on their farms (1964).
    Miss America…

  10. JungianINTP


    Last line, 3rd paragraph from
    bottom :

    “But I suspected.
    All were white.
    There is something
    to be said for this.”

    Aristotle knew.

    Read Aristotle’s warnings ( from his “Politics” ) :

    On race-mixing: “Another cause of revolution is difference of races which do not at once acquire a common spirit; for a state is not the growth of a day, any more than it grows out of a multitude brought together by accident. Hence the reception of strangers in colonies, either at the time of their foundation or afterwards, has generally produced revolution.”

    On bad democracy: “[T]he last form of democracy . . . [in which] all share alike . . . [and] the leaders have been in the habit of including as many as they can, and making citizens not only of those who are legitimate, but even of the illegitimate . . . This is the way in which demagogues proceed. Whereas the right thing would be to make no more additions when the numbers of the commonality exceeds that of the notables and of the middle class,—beyond this not to go . . . [these] measures taken by tyrants appear all of them to be democratic. Such a government will have many supporters, for most persons would rather live in a disorderly than in a sober manner.”

    On how to install bad democracy: ”Fresh tribes and brotherhoods should be established; the private rites of families should be restricted and converted into public ones; in short, every contrivance should be adopted which will mingle the citizens with one another and get rid of old connections.”


  11. Ilana Mercer Post author

    My feelings exactly when Fred sends a new one; it’s the only column I read for the joy of it. A true honor to publish Fred Reed on this humble but quality forum of mine.

  12. Keith Levy

    I haven’t read you for the longest time Fred but you still make me smile. I should purchase one of your books, there are many insects around here that need squashing.
    Much love.

  13. Timothy Denton

    I had a similar youth – similar in spirit that is – in the city of Montreal, in the English -speaking enclaves. We did not know we were white and we barely recognized we were English-Canadian – which term meant in Quebec all ethnicities that spoke the English language. The French-Canadians rigidly rejected people from any other group, even the Catholics of southern Europe. Nothing like segregation to make you appreciate being who you are. We were the objects of the segregation, being protestants, Jews and “English”. We scarcely noticed. Life was as happy as it could be in post war Canada in the 1950s.

  14. Juvenal Early

    And what do I find after reading another fine offering from Ol’ Fred but a collection of reminiscences that said column has evoked. That’s as high a standard as an essayist can attain, surely.

    A region ain’t worth a gob o’ spit unless it’s got a cuisine, and so, remove me from the South and send me to Paris for eternity, & I will still long for fried chicken from a million places (even the chichi restaurants of Atlanta must have their own version of it), & biscuits & barbecue (& barbecue means pork, no offense), a different kind for each state in the old CSA, & collards & hush puppies & cornbread & butter beans & fried catfish & a whole lot of other great vittles, but I’ll just end with a small bag of Planters salted peanuts poured into a 16 ounce Dr Pepper longneck. Now, just you try to tell me the South ain’t the Garden of Eatin’!

    Thanks for the memories, Fred. Glad to see you land here. You & ILANA must have set the record for attracting the most virulent ad hominem attacks from the commenters at Unz.

  15. dearieme

    My father taught us to shoot his rifle on the grounds that next time the Germans might be Russians.

    Boyhood involved not just penknives but swimming in the river (no water snakes but it was wise to avoid swans), beachcombing, and camping in the woods. British broadleaf woodland is incombustible so we could have campfires without any worries.

    When I reached 15 summer became partly devoted to earning some cash to save up to buy a motorbike: there was paid work available around the harbour for a big laddie.

    All that and our school was good too. What a lucky young thing I was.

  16. dearieme

    “Segregation couldn’t last, but integration couldn’t work.”

    As I understand it Lincoln thought that slavery mustn’t last, but integration couldn’t work.

    Had he not been assassinated, what would he have done about that second point?

  17. Doug1943

    Whoa. Another Fred winner.

    I grew up in Houston, Texas in the 1950s … so much was the same. One difference: our BB guns ranged from a single-shot, reload-each-time gun you got when you were six, through those lever-action ones, to a ‘pump’ BB gun for serious work. We had a ‘bayou’ behind our house, with water moccasins … and copperheads. Everything else was the same. All gone with the wind.

  18. Wade Hampton

    DEARIME: ““’Segregation couldn’t last, but integration couldn’t work.’
    As I understand it Lincoln thought that slavery mustn’t last, but integration couldn’t work.
    Had he not been assassinated, what would he have done about that second point?

    Dear Dearie: Lincoln throughout his political career was wholly committed to the deportation of American blacks, free and slave, to Liberia. My recollection was that before his elevation to President he was the head of an Illinois deportation group. The first occasion for blacks to be invited into the White House was Lincoln’s meeting with black divines to encourage them to “lead by example” and encourage their congregations to self-deport to Africa.

    Would Lincoln have been successful? He had no compunction about using Central Government power to oppress the lowly. I expect he would have forcibly loaded American blacks onto ships bound for Africa, the Middle Passage in reverse.

  19. Jokem

    Just picking a nit…

    Linda Lee was the secret identity of Supergirl, cousin of Superman, not his girlfriend.
    I believe you are thinking of Lori Lemaris, Supermans aquatic romantic interest.

  20. Jokem

    Hey Fred! You had an article years ago on ‘Whiteness Studies’. Can you repost that, or at least direct us to a link for it?

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