Chapter 6: The Long Journey To Los Angeles

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by Dr. Sydney Ellerton

So the great adventure of the year in America began. It was indeed exciting for me, for I had never been out of Britain before and here I was, travelling at 25 miles per hour day and night for nearly a week, realizing the immensity of the Atlantic Ocean. Travelling to the land everybody had heard about, the land of Hollywood, skyscrapers, vast prairies, mountains and deserts. The land, too, where the infamous Al Capone and his mates were busy shooting up, and being shot at by, their rivals in Chicago. What would the reality be like?

There were some lingering partings, especially with Lilian of course and then back as always to railway journeys. This time it was to London, to go to a theatre show with friends Beth and Arthur, to stay overnight in a hotel and next morning to go to Waterloo to board the crack boat train which went non-stop right to the Southampton quayside, above which towered the huge black wall of the ship’s side. Then came the wait in line to go up the gangway and the search for the cabin.

The Ministry of Agriculture had paid my fare, third class. I somehow learnt that it cost then £30. The third class was no hardship, indeed it comprised most of the ship’s accommodation. The public rooms were fine and the meals excellent. The cabin was rather small and shared with two others, but they were agreeable companions. In those days, when the alternative of air travel did not exist, many young Americans travelled to Europe in this way. Very few young Europeans were so adventurous or so well-heeled as to be able to go to America on a holiday trip. I even met my first live Indian aboard. She was not at all as portrayed on the ‘westerns’, but a rather prosperous-looking young Cherokee. The white invaders of North America were not noted for their kindness to the native Indians. Most of them were moved on to reservations in poor and apparently useless country and this was true of the Cherokees, who were moved to Oklahoma. What the U.S. Government of the day could not have known was that there was a rich oilfield below!

The ship belonged to the Cunard Steamship Company and was called the Berengaria. Compared with the biggest boat in my previous experience, the Liverpool to New Brighton ferry, it was indeed enormous. During the voyage I was able to visit the engine room, now oil-fired though built originally for coal. I well remember the four gigantic propeller shafts, turning slowly and silently with a fateful inevitability, turning the giant screws which left their quadruple wake all the way to the horizon and beyond.

The Berengaria looked pretty new, but of course all such vessels had expensive re-fits from time to time. A bit like the faces of the Hollywood stars, by all accounts. In fact, it had been built in Germany in 1912 and called the Imperator. It had been seized as reparations after the war. Over 52,000 tons and nearly 1,000 feet long, it really was one of the big ones. The search for prestige had some strange effects. At the time, one way to impress travelers was to have as many giant smokestacks as possible. The Berengaria had three, but the one at the back was a dummy. Its wind resistance must have led to enormous extra fuel consumption, all for the sake of prestige.

I did not know it at the time, but the ship was not to make many more journeys. It went on fire in New York Harbour in the following February and soon afterwards succumbed to the scrapman’s torch.

After leaving Southampton and sailing close to another form of transport of the day, an Imperial Airways flying boat, we headed for Cherbourg. There, a tender came out to us and passengers from continental Europe came aboard. Then we set off for New York.

We left on Wednesday, September 22nd 1937 and arrived at the Ambrose Channel Lightship the following Tuesday, after 5 days, 17.5 hours, so said the log. It wasn’t the smoothest crossing, two of the five days being noted as having a ‘strong breeze, rough sea and swell’. There were no stabilisers then and attendance in the dining room dropped off sharply. In a letter home I said that I was surprised to find myself a good sailor, for I had no trouble with seasickness. In the same letter I remarked about the medical examination. It consisted of ‘going up to the ship’s doctor, declaring your nationality and having your landing card stamped on the back’.

I was to make two further trips to America by sea in later years. Comparing them, one striking difference was that I saw whales spouting not far away from the ship on quite a few occasions, and also little ‘flocks’ of flying fish, but the whales were certainly scarcer in later times. The greatest impact was the view of the huge Statue of Liberty as we passed, and of the unique skyline of Manhattan.

One advantage of the Ministry of Agriculture’s sponsorship was that my visa was marked ‘Government Official’, which put me at the head of the queue for disembarking. Wonderful, except that my cases had no such priority and I had to hang about on the quay for ages, waiting for the last one to arrive. I had brought with me, apart from ordinary luggage, a trunk full of my wheat research material, which could not be imported without all sorts of special official papers. Even then, the plant quarantine people in New York could do nothing about it and a special official of superior rank had been sent up from Washington D.C. to see it through.

In a state of great exhilaration about having reached the promised land, it was an eye-opener to see the old warehouses and run-down tenements down near the piers, with their obviously poor and mostly black people. This was worse than I had ever imagined. Soon, however, things improved. My taxi-driver found me a hotel and I walked out and had my first lesson in the American way of life. I was beginning to get hungry and I nipped into a little food shop and asked for some sandwiches, thinking of the dainty little things which graced afternoon tea tables in England. The guy looked at me and said, ‘better try one first’, and I was introduced to the Great American Sandwich.

Not knowing anything about costs in America, or how far my grant was going to stretch, I took advice from other young people on the boat and moved next day into a new Y.M.C.A. hostel in the city. It was exciting, being in New York. I walked at night to Times Square to see all the lights: great advertising signs heaped one above the other and ever-changing. One advertisement even puffed out smoke (I suppose it was really steam) from a giant cigarette. I travelled on buses and subways, to the Metropolitan Art Museum and to the top of the 80-storey R.C.A. building, down to the southern tip of Manhattan to the Battery and the zoo. It was all safe in those days, except perhaps for walking in Central Park at night, which I was warned against.

The highlight of all this was a trip round Manhattan Island in a boat, quite the best way of getting a general picture of New York City. The boatman gave a commentary and he was very good at quoting the phenomenal cost of major buildings, bridges and other structures and in saying that this or that was the largest of its kind in the world. I remember him pointing up the Hudson River and saying, apparently with pride, that the prison in the distance (Sing Sing) was the largest anywhere. I don’t know whether he had included the U.S.S.R. in his calculations.

The next task was to get a rail ticket at the enormous and palatial Grand Central Station, with its high, cathedral-like foyer and to travel on the B & O, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. New York and Washington look so close together on our maps, but they are about 250 miles apart and the train did the journey in just over four hours. Having arrived, I found a cheap hotel and reported next day to Dr Harry V. Harlan. As it turned out, being introduced to ‘Doc’ was one of the best things which ever happened to me.

Washington D.C. is monumental, at least part of it is. Everybody sees pictures of the White House and the great sweep of green lawns passing and surrounding the Washington Memorial and continuing to the Lincoln Memorial in the distance. At that time the government buildings on either side were not entirely full of administrators and politicians, as they seem to be today. The Department of Agriculture still had many of its scientific staff there, with their laboratories and, across the river in Arlington, Virginia it had field plots. These latter were on the very land on which the Pentagon was later to be built, so now the plots have gone and the scientific work too.

Harry Harlan headed the U.S.D.A. barley breeding project and he worked right there in Washington for part of the year. When I went to see him he welcomed me warmly. We chatted a bit and then he took me out some five miles through autumn-tinted parkland to his home. On the way we picked up his son Jack, we had dinner and afterwards went to see a game of American football. The local team was the Washington Redskins. I was far from understanding the niceties of the game and they still mystify me. With all the armour worn by the players, it looks more like a military operation than a game. I was intrigued with the little committee meetings which the players engaged in from time to time, stopping the game meanwhile. The Americans don’t understand cricket, so they can hardly expect others to understand their strange rituals. One surprise was seeing an armoured van, come to collect the takings. We had not yet needed such a precaution in Britain.

I continued to be looked after right royally in Washington, both at work and at play. ‘Doc’ soon discovered that I was staying in a cheap hotel and found me a guest room in his club, at the phenomenal price of $1.25 (then five shillings or 25p) a day. It was the Cosmos Club, the gracious former home of President Monroe, in the little square right at the back of the White House. Membership was for people eminent in science of the arts and I was able to meet and talk to many of them.

On the first weekend I went with Jack about 70 miles south to a house in the forest on the shore of Chesapeake Bay. It belonged to his girlfriend Jean Yocum’s father, who was botany professor at George Washington University, and about 15 students were there. It wasn’t all botanising. Swimming in the warm waters of the Bay and yarning round the campfire was great fun. Many strange plants were there: wild persimmons, native grapes, Virginia creepers climbing up many of the trees and very much besides. On the way back I went with Jack to see a cypress swamp, with the breathing ‘knees’ standing out above the water level.

Returning to Washington, we saw anchored in one of the waterways off the Bay a great fleet of ‘mothballed’ destroyers of the U.S. Navy. These were the ships destined to be ‘lent’ to the British after the second world war had broken out in 1939, supposedly for convoy protection duties.

Each weekday morning I walked round the side of the White House, across the lawns, past the giant obelisk of the Washington Monument, to the Agriculture Building. In 1936 and 1937 the ‘Yearbook of Agriculture’ consisted of chapters written by the head of each section on plant breeding in America as it then was. Thanks to ‘Doc’ I was able to spend at least half a day with nearly every one of those people, talking about their work. They gave their time generously and I still don’t know how they managed it for the likes of me, for I spent very many hours with section heads, not with juniors. Sometimes a visit included a trip to the field plots across the Potomac River at Arlington, Virginia. One day I turned up and the Department was nearly empty. Everybody had all been called out to Arlington, it was said. When I got there the mystery was solved. The miscreants were listening to the radio, to the final of the ‘World Series’ of baseball matches. Americans are still prone to get a little cross if told that their beloved baseball and basketball are both girls’ games in Britain, called rounders and netball!

On another day I went out to the U.S.D.A. building in Beltsville, Maryland, not many miles away. It was then comparatively small and unimportant, but has since, like a giant black hole, drawn into itself all that was agricultural in Washington and Arlington. It has become massive.

‘Doc’ had a sense of humour. He found out from me about Lilian and wrote to her saying that I had already gone native, chewing gum all day long and sticking it under chairs. He said I was developing a talk-through-the-nose New Jersey accent, ate peanuts and popcorn, and he asked her if she held him responsible for this terrible degeneration. Later he sent her a present of ‘something typically American’, a tin Mickey Mouse on horseback, made in Japan.

There was time to fit in visits to the Smithsonian Institution to see the American Indian exhibits, to George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon and to the Federal Capitol. The latter I thought to be very impressive on the outside and an architectural shambles on the inside. There was another Sunday trip with the Harlans. Through Gettysburg, where Lincoln made his rousing speech during the Civil War, on to a forested area of Pennsylvania. There to see the woodlands in their autumn majesty. Red oaks, bright yellow tulip trees, deep copper dogwoods and contrasting dark green, evergreen hemlocks. Not the hemlock taken by Socrates, of course, but giant conifers. There were forests spreading from horizon to horizon.

By now ‘Doc’ had planned the visits I was to make on the way to Berkeley. Some of them strictly scientific, visiting research stations, and others like a visit to New Orleans, to broaden my experience of America. The two objectives got nicely mixed up at times, like the fortnight in Sacaton, Arizona. There was a small cotton breeding station there, which provided me with a scientific excuse, but ‘Doc’s’ main idea was that I should have the experience of living on a reservation with the Pima Indians.

Train journeys again, of course, but on a quite different scale. Leaving Washington at midnight on Tuesday 19th November and arriving in New Orleans, after 31 hours, at 7 a.m. on Thursday. Huge, black steam engines and Pullman sleeping coaches with a central gangway and upper and lower bunks just like the films! These ingeniously folded away in the daytime to make ordinary seats. Covered in olive green leather to match the outside of the coaches, these had a faint but characteristic smell. The stations had very low platforms if any, so that the trains looked even bigger than they would otherwise have done. There was always the traditional black train conductor, shouting ‘All aboard’ as we clambered up the steps into either end of a coach.

We passed through Kentucky, Tennessee and other south-eastern states and then across Lake Pontchartrain in the early morning light to New Orleans. This was fascinating, but there was the unavoidable disappointment that many hours of the journey were through the night and nothing could be seen. But before it went dark I was able to note the quaint wooden houses, often in dire need of repair, in the valleys, and fields of maize and my first ever cotton fields. The tobacco had all been harvested, but in some places it was still possible to see the leaves hanging up to cure in slatted sheds.

New Orleans was in the ‘deep south’ of course, and the French and Spanish influences in its history still showed. It was very warm, even in late October, and humid too. Many of the trees and even some of the power supply poles and cables were draped in long pendant festoons of greyish Spanish moss, not really a moss at all, but a flowering plant. The old city centre, the ‘French Quarter’ had narrow streets with French names and rows of old-style houses with overhanging balconies. They had ornate and original cast iron balustrades and supporting pillars. The central square was dominated by the St. Louis Cathedral, where some services were still being held in French. The gardens in the square had palm trees and bananas and other sub-tropical plants. I lunched at Antoines, one of America’s famous restaurants. A sign of the extent to which times have changed is that a splendid lunch of southern specialities cost $2, or 40p.

In taking a bus to see the broad and muddy Mississippi River, I came across a feature of the south in those days. I was asked to change seats, because the one I was sitting in was for ‘blacks’. I was already getting a little used to seeing black and white waiting rooms at the railway station and rows of four public toilets, male and female, black and white. The experience shocked me, though, for I was quite unprepared for the kind of segregation which existed in the South in those days. It was very clear that the intensity of the prejudice was greatest in states which had a high percentage of blacks in their population, which suggested that it was a manifestation of fear. In the north and west there was more than enough prejudice, but it did not show in the same glaring way. It is just as well that times have changed in this respect.

Next stage was to take the night train to Houston, Texas, and the branch line to College Station, where the Texas A&M (Agricultural and Mechanical) college was situated. Such colleges were set up under a special Act of Congress and one of the conditions was that the students took military training. I saw many of them out squarebashing and somehow got the idea that the training was traditional rather than up to date.

My mission, however, was not to join the U.S. Army but to see the cotton breeding work going on there, the first plant breeding on my programme since leaving Washington. Cotton did not exactly fit into Prof. Engledow’s definition of a cross-fertilised plant, but is one a few (field beans are another) which sometimes behave that way and sometimes self-fertilise. I spent some hours with the cotton and in the evening went to a cinema. After a few hours sleep in student accommodation, I got up to catch a train back to Houston in the dead of night, arriving there for breakfast. Then came another long train journey, 31 hours once more, westwards on the Southern Pacific.

First of all it was across the rest of Texas, through San Antonio to El Paso. Now the place names were often Spanish and indeed many of the people looked as if they could be Mexican. El Paso is on the Rio Grande and the opposite bank of the river is Mexico. There, in the railway station, was a Mexican train, with an engine, still of American appearance, labelled ‘N. de T.’. It was dwarfed by ours.

El Paso was the last stop in Texas and now a new thrill was crossing the desert of southern New Mexico, the first desert I had ever seen. The strange vegetation, of which the most striking plants were the Joshua trees, and the bare mountains rising abruptly out of an almost level plain made a deep impression.

Then the route went into Arizona, still desert of course, and I stopped off in Tucson to see something of the grass breeding in the university. The next hop was a short one, to a tiny little station (we should call it a halt) outside the small town of Coolidge. Rail travel became very informal west of the Mississippi and here was a crack express, the Golden State Limited, not only stopping on request to set me down, but also waiting for the conductor to check that I was being met out there in the desert. I was met though, by Mr. King, the director of the experiment station and his wife and daughter. Top people again – amazing!

The experiment station community formed a small island of white people in the middle of the Pima reservation. There was a very simple but quite pleasant little guest house, which I had all to myself for two weeks. There was a pomegranate tree just outside the door, hummingbirds buzzing around in their lovely, darting, colourful way, and a few six-inch long geckos running up the walls, not all on the outside. Apart from the Kings, there were three or four young fellows living a bachelor life and also Mary Martini, a jolly fifty-year-old who was Doc Harlan’s assistant. She used to say that she was the typical American, with eight great-grandparents from eight different European countries. It was pure chance that the Italian one had given her surname.

We had entertainment. There was a tennis court, too hot to use in the daytime most of the year, but equipped with floodlights so that we could play in the cool of the evening. Some of the Pimas used to watch the game and laughed uproariously when one of us slipped and fell. Not in a nasty way, it was just funny to them! There was a billiard table too, American style with a blue cloth and no pockets, but this was left alone after a few days. A skunk had got in under the floor and left the room just about untenable. A disturbed skunk is certainly memorable. What I liked best though, were the evenings. The dust high in the desert sky gave rise to wonderful sunsets. We would watch the sky and when it faded (as it did all too quickly), we could light a fire for a barbecue, listening to the sound of the coyotes in the distance.

The Pimas were a settled, agricultural tribe dependent on a water supply from the Salt River. Historically they had often been raided by the war-like Apaches. They raised their food crops and some of them also worked part-time as labourers at the experiment station. Their philosophy was simple. When short of money you work. When you get your wages you just laze about until you need money again.

Some of the Pimas were great artists, though. They made beautiful baskets in traditional designs, all without any kind of written pattern, so that no two were quite alike. The wearing parts of the baskets, the base and the rim, were made of ‘devil’s claw’, black, hard strips split from the long, curved claws at the end of the pods of a desert legume. The soft parts were white, of cottonwood, and in the white areas the black pattern was woven. Some of the baskets were shaped like vases and were so perfect that, after being soaked, they could be used as vessels in which to boil liquids. The method was to build a fire on a flat stone, scrape it away when the stone was hot enough, and place the basket on it. Mary Martini was a great expert on Pima baskets, knew the weavers of the day, and got them to make examples specially for her. Traditionally, the Pimas had not made pottery, hence their use of baskets, in some cases in unlikely ways.

This facility for making designs without any written pattern was quite a feature of the Indians. There was a school on the reservation, run by the government Indian Service. I was shown some of the drawings done by the children, entirely from memory. There were drawings of groups of horses, realistically full of action, and of all kinds of other desert scenes. Mrs King did some dressmaking, using the usual paper patterns. She also got some domestic help from an Indian girl. The Indian just couldn’t understand the need for a pattern when the shape required was just stored in the head. Mind you, some of the Indian’s dresses didn’t fit too well.

For work, there was cotton breeding, cotton being a crop that presented some rather peculiar technical problems. Sacaton had produced the famous Pima cotton, an American Egyptian variety with long fibres, which could be woven into high quality cloth. My first visit to the plots held a surprise for me. From the middle of one patch of cotton came an ominous rattling. I knew what that was without being told, but did not see the snake. Apart from the cotton there were citrus hybrids and also some date breeding. After the war I re-visited Sacaton and the experiment station had gone, though some of the Indians I spoke to remembered the Kings and some of the other staff members.

A visit to a nearby cotton gin also held a surprise. After the seeds had been separated from the lint, they were crushed and then put into a steam press to extract the valuable oil. There was layer upon layer of crushed seeds, separated by mats. The mats were made of Chinamen’s hair. It seems that there was no better substance to have their pigtails cut off for a pittance.

There was a store on the reservation, selling everything and looking like the old stores you see in films of hillbilly country. I talked to a couple of young Indian boys there. They seemed excited and they said they had been to a circus in Phoenix, their first ever. What did they like best? They said with delight that they had seen some real live Indians! What they meant was that they had seen some Indians all dressed up in traditional style, with body painting, eagle feathers, the lot, doing traditional dances. The Pimas, a sober lot, did none of these things and wore blue jeans.

At the time the Indians lived in rectangular adobe huts. Although the desert rarely has a rain, when it does rain it can be sudden and torrential. Over the years the sides of the huts could be partly washed away, becoming more and more concave, so that they finally became unsafe and had to be rebuilt. The Pimas were superstitious in various ways. I was warned not to take their pictures, as it would distress them. The belief was that it would take part of their spirit away. I was allowed to take pictures of one family where a daughter had, uniquely, been to high school. It didn’t look right, though, as they had all dressed up in their Sunday best and looked not at all like the other, everyday Indians. It would have been all right if the dress had been warpaint and feathers, but it was nothing of the kind.

Sacaton at this time, as far as the Indians were concerned, was not so very different from what it had always been. I was able to go back there several times in later years. The adobe huts had been replaced by inelegant houses of  modern materials, often with an air-conditioning apparatus fitted into a window. There were old, battered cars parked outside many of them. The store had become a modest version of a supermarket and the Indians had posted advertisements along some of the roads, aimed at attracting visitors to buy their duty-free cigarettes (there are no sales or federal taxes to be paid on the reservation). As for taking pictures, there was no objection anymore, but some Indians were quite up to asking for a dollar fee for the privilege.

Just as I had been given wonderful weekend trips out of Washington, so it happened in Sacaton. Mary Martini and a couple of others took me back to Tucson and then south, past the famous San Xavier mission, across the desert to Nogales, just inside Mexico. I didn’t have a visa for Mexico and Americans didn’t need one, so I stayed quietly in the back of the car at the frontier. I was interested, if asked, to say that I came from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where there is said to be the nearest approach to an English accent. Fortunately, the problem did not arise, or I might have added inside knowledge of a Mexican prison to my experience.

Here was a contrast if there ever was one. The American side of a high, wire fence, was desert. People were driving around, as we were, in large American cars, looking prosperous. On the Mexican side, just south of the town, the land improved tremendously. It was rolling grassland dotted with evergreen oaks and carrying herds of cattle looked after by men on horseback. And yet this was the third world and the town looked very much poorer and there were huts clad with beaten-out oil drums and other signs of poverty. We met women returning to town with huge bundles of firewood balanced on their heads and the occasional donkey, similarly loaded. It was impossible not to notice that there was a stratification of society, the poorer people looking much more Indian and the well-to-do minority much more Spanish in type.

There was another aspect of this, however. Nogales was having a fiesta and it appeared that they had many in the course of the year. They were dancing and singing in the streets, decked in bright colours and displaying a vivacity which was not to be seen on the American side. They were having fun in a big way, which must have taken their minds off their day-to-day concerns.

Back in Arizona, briefer visits were to nearby Casa Grande, where there was a multi-storey ‘big house’ built in adobe by the Indians centuries ago, and now a protected ruin. In the nearby town, with the skilled help of Mary Martini, I bought some choice examples of Indian art: a Navajo rug, some silver and turquoise ornaments and so on. The more portable ones were sent home as Christmas presents. The prices paid would make a present-day collector of Indian art green with envy.

On another day I went to Phoenix and to a cattle-packing station, where living cattle were converted into cans of meat on a kind of Ford assembly line in reverse. The Phoenix I remember was utterly different from today’s and I remember mud in some of the streets and some boardwalks, giving the impression of an old cow-town.

Another car ride was a 250-mile trip round the ‘Apache Trail’, first of all crossing miles of desert studded with giant saguaro cacti and other desert plants, and then climbing a steeply winding road, through a tunnel and out into a precipitous mountain canyon. Carrying on through rugged country, with the bright red rocks weathered into weird pinnacles, the road rose to 5,000 feet and then descended towards the Salt River Valley. Here there was a lake created by the Roosevelt dam, but before getting there we turned off to see a prehistoric Indian cliff dwelling. It had survived well, for the adobe buildings were protected from the rare deluges by overhanging rock. Then there was a ride down the spectacular valley and finally out on to the plains and back to Sacaton.

There was one more adventure on the way to Berkeley. This a journey (for once by myself), to visit the Grand Canyon, vast, brilliant and really unbelievable even when standing on the edge of it. I went to Prescott on a branch line and then on by bus. When I arrived in the early morning it was frosty. This was not surprising, for the rim of the Canyon is about 8,000 feet high and it was just into November. Everybody has seen pictures of the Canyon, but even on Cinerama it just cannot have the impact of the real thing. Fifteen miles wide and a mile deep, where the Colorado River has been able to cut down into a vast, rising dome of rock, it is an enormous geological section, with layer upon layer of rock going right back into the Earth’s history. Each layer has its colour, bright red, white or various shades of brown. While there was frost at the top, it would be almost subtropical at the bottom. From the rim the large, rushing Colorado River looked like a quiet little brook, and no sound came from the bounding white water.

Later in the day I went back to catch the train at Prescott, to the junction with the Southern Pacific main line at Phoenix. From there I caught the train again, going westwards, hugging the Mexican border and then northwest through mountain passes to Los Angeles. There I stopped off to see my old schoolfellow Kenneth Mather, who was spending a sabattical year at Caltech, the California Institute of Technology. I was able to meet the great Dr. Morgan, who in 1910, had for the first time shown that genes dwell in chromosomes. I visited his department, famous for its cytology and genetics and spent a little time teasing salivary gland chromosomes out of fruit fly larvae. These giant chromosomes were the ones on which Morgan had first formed his most important conclusion. Mather also took me to see the 200-inch telescope reflector being polished before being installed on Mount Palomar. This was to remain the largest in the world for very many years. The next stop was Berkeley.

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