Ava Ahmadbeigi and Gary Hovatter
DescriptionGary Hovatter (67) tells his StoryCorps conversation partner Ava Ahmadbeigi (26) about his upbringing in Yuma, time in the military and connection to the events of 9/11.
Subject Log / Time Code
Recording LocationYuma Art Center
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00:03 Can my name is Gary hovatter. I'm 67. Today's date is Monday December 2nd, 2019. We are in Yuma Arizona my hometown and the name of my interview Partners Ava and she is my interview partner. My name is I am 26 years old. Today's date is Monday December 2nd 2019. Where in Yuma, Arizona the name of my interview partner is Gary hovatter and he is my interview partner and new friend. So welcome to the Bruce Perry super. Yeah. Thanks for being here. We're new to you, But you've been here for a while my grandfather my paternal grandfather homesteaded here in 1904 from West, Virginia.
00:59 So you grew up here are your whole life and what what decades were those that you're going to be born in 52 and then the 50s and the 60s went off to Arizona State University in 79 was on was going on. So I was in ROTC Arizona state was laying grant school. So you started out in ROTC went in the Army after graduation and then I got back and forth to Yuma on leave during the thirty years on this. I was in the army.
01:35 Yeah, I think everybody if you're if you're lucky everybody idealizes their use them in the home of their in many respects Yuma was like a cocoon it was it was very much like a 50s Family TV show that your respects. It was a small town song about 17,000 people everybody knew everybody one of the best examples of that. My mother didn't tell me this too many years later, but when I went down to take my driver's test she knew all the men who worked at the dry and women who worked at the driver's test. So she went down and said, you know Siri doesn't pass his driver's test and can't get his license for a while. That would be fine.
02:19 So everybody knew where we were sitting right now is this was the heart of Yuma then if you've walked around here probably seen this a bit of a struggling area now, but this was this is where everything was my dad's business. He was a partner in the Studebaker dealership just probably about two hundred yards from here you it was very much a every every friend of your mom and dad was Uncle or Aunt so-and-so. We had a lot of family here. Then my family was mostly Farmers on my mother's side. My dad's side were farmers and then he became a mechanic and so are we had a neighborhood I grew up on the street just outside of the city limits of Yuma and it was she got home from school. Mom. I'm going to go play you ran out. We ran the ditch Banks and like wild Indians of just the neighborhood boys and girls are where people we grew up together with their kids. I started and I went through every
03:19 Free and head on in homeroom every year from kindergarten to senior year of high school. I did it was it was remarkable for not being remarkable in in many respects as I've learned to look back on it. It's it's even more remarkable. It was a place where you felt safe. You felt loved you felt like the community was there for you a lot bigger and it's a different Dynamic now, you move is still very much an agricultural town in the 50s and 60s. It's now much more egg is still the the the the gut the core of what you may is and its economy, but now Yuma doubles in size in in the winter time to go to about a hundred twenty five thousand or more winter visitors. It's all so different demographic. It's
04:19 Yuma is in the summer and the offseason I guess trust is a majority Hispanic town which is fitting this is this has been a Border Town as whole history in the winter. It's a it's a majority of angle European community and I do think that that causes it to be a different town way. So we don't really spend a lot of time thinking about I think looking back on Yuma there were things weren't visible to me at the time. I never remember Yuma is being an issue having an issue with the with racial issues.
05:02 Yuma high school was about all about 20% African-American about 30% or more of Hispanic and then the rest was I'm a freshman Asian Pacific for the rest was mostly what we normally call. We guess if the Caucasian side and we played together they were my Playmates. They were my partners in school. We shirt we were on the same basketball and football teams together.
05:33 I know now talking to some of my friends going to high school reunions that you might had its racial fault lights. They just the town. I don't think it was by Design but that you bet they weren't visible. They weren't they weren't something the kids had to invest in and get and get into but it what it did have its racial and Fulton device having said that some of the principal businessmen and economic powers in town have always been a Hispanic or African-American.
06:05 We had a we are high school basketball team. We had a tournament at the high school tournament in Anaheim, California. So we stayed with family since it was me and four of my black teammates were saying with one family. And so we went out to just walk in the neighborhood and
06:26 I walk fast always have and so I'm walking I can bring a comfortable walking. So so I'm walking and they are scrolling behind me about 30-40 Arts all at once red and blue police lights. Come on.
06:40 And the police pull my four friends over there talking to him. No hands were laid on anybody notice put up a car nobody's first, but they were talking to him and
06:51 I didn't want to talk to me. I walked up and I realize they were stopping them because they were blacks in the in the neighborhood and Anna. I was outraged.
07:02 And I just I wanted to raise the roof in this we started walking the police figured out who we were and let us go they turned to me and they said let it go. It's the way things are and it's the first time I'd I'd heard about it. I've been a part of the world. We had all of the issue and Martin Luther King was somebody that we all knew about the issues that arose in the summer of 68 and things like that world something we knew about but it happened somewhere else. It's a first time I really saw that
07:36 And stuck with me. I also two people are very close to me in high school. I found out since they're they're gay had no idea. I like to think I would have acted then the way I feel now about that, but that's not the times we were in I don't know they were one was a guy who asked a girl. I was really fond of out on a date. I was jealous of him going to run into him at the 45th for Union and he just says well, you know, I am gay and we had a conversation about that and then another good friend of mine age killed him about 25 years ago, but he was someone has stuck in my head Phillips Sibley was the first real Act of of personal courage I ever.
08:28 Witnessed. We were I didn't know felt couldn't hear. Well, I should have
08:33 And so we're sitting on what was called the stone bleachers. Anybody's got a Yuma high school and go to the stone bleachers were the bleachers were made out of concrete where you watched baseball games and we're sitting here and people are talking and Phyllis trying to keep into the conversation. And so he goes keep saying what what when he misses something and finally one of the guys said Philip if you say what one more time I'm going to deck you if it got this big grin on his face and it looking right now and said,
09:03 What if and
09:08 It was it was it in nothing happened. It was everybody just kind of broke up, but it was stuck in my head.
09:18 All all all my life that calm kind of collected attitudes for it's a threat there were things that that were not visible. I don't like to think that that was a shilling from reality that probably was in our interest think it was good for us to not have to to a confront that the way I think people have to confront so much today is the times so you think that people growing up in Yuma going to get my high school now, they don't have that same shielding. I don't think they do again. This was the heart of town.
10:06 Now the neighborhoods that were pretty mixed neighborhoods. This part of town now tends to have a very heavy much heavier Hispanic play when I take part of this cuz there's a lot of the older housing. The older housing is a bit less expensive. And so I think folks gravitate to hear a lot of this a starter homes for a lot of people. I still like the feel of Yuma. I've still feel it in the air when I run into folks of any any group here in town. We also everybody seems approachable, but I don't think it's the same.
10:47 The same sense of of confidence that you had that the future was your whatever you wanted to make of it, and I do think that's the times.
10:59 Can we talk a little bit about the time you spent away from Yuma sure, so.
11:06 I know that you went to Universe was at the University of Arizona State can't make that mistake in Arizona. If you later went to my eternal shame, I went to University of Arizona for my Master's Degree, but I went to ASU first what happened after Vietnam was going on. So I was in ROTC 73 I sign my contract to go in the army for four years and the war the war largely ended the draft ended and suddenly everybody who could with leaking and I liked what I learned about leadership in the balance of those are the people we had were all many of them fresh out of Vietnam combat. They were us some people that I really respected and admired. So I went in and when I fall graduation, I went into the army went to
12:00 To Fort Benning Georgia, home of the Infantry. That was the branch. I wanted and liked what I did and kept like units in the Army seem to like the way I did my job. So I stayed in for 30 years and then can you tell me about what you remember of night 11 9/11 was a Tuesday Tuesday morning. So I in August of 2001. I left I was assigned a US European command headquarters in Stuttgart Germany. And so I was assigned of the Pentagon arrived in August and I had a desk in the Pentagon.
12:38 August of 2001 head gasket Pentagon. I also ran a field Army operating agency in army field operating agency at Fort Meade Maryland about 20 miles away office there and I split my time between the Pentagon in Fort Meade and most of the time and I spent at Fort Meade one of my jobs was I had to pitch or make the presentation on our budget request for my part of the Army and the Army all of the whole building at that time in September is consumed with putting together the budget requested the ODS going to submit to Congress later in the year. So my secretary came in Monday afternoon, so my meeting our budget pitch was going to be my budget officer was full-time Infinity gun. We were going to pitch a Tuesday morning.
13:34 And my secretary came in and she said I just got a call as Monday afternoon random back and reading your budget Oscar. Call us at our meeting Scott postponed. Someone else had a higher priority. So they got our meeting slot. So she'll call you later in the week and let you know when we reschedule.
13:53 So the next morning my secretary walks in the system applying just hit the World Trade Center.
14:00 Cuz I was going to stay informed me I decided to stay in Fort Meade instead of going in the building then and and I was thinking I'm a history buff. I collect history. And and I remember the B-17 hit the Empire State Building World War II. How could that happen today?
14:19 And then about 10 minutes later she give us another plane.
14:24 Hit the World Trade Center. I said not this isn't.
14:27 This is this is different so I can I ran back to my quarters throwback my quarter grab the TV set. We didn't I didn't have TVs in the office and came unplugged in the TV set. We got local transmission so we could get that and then
14:46 I decided to go I knew I had some guys going to the building that morning. So they were going to be at the train station. So I went down to the train station to intervene said he you guys need to come on back. Let's let things settle down and then I was told when I got back to the building that got hit.
15:03 So two days later, I went to the building we stayed there to try to to help as we could because the the Pentagon as you may notice Bilton wedges, and so the plane hit in the wedge right next to the wedge that my office was in.
15:23 And so the FBI came in and declared the wedge of the whole area crime scene. So they put a crime scene tape in the hallway doors right where you would enter are part of the wedge. So for two months, we could see our offices we could see our computers we could see our desk, but we couldn't go in it so they stuck his little nooks and crannies. And the first thing you remember what if anybody was there then remembers going in the building the days after was the strong smell of smokes with all building fact, it stayed smelling smoke kief for at least the next year every time you went in you could smell it.
16:04 So I was helping with ARA filling them around at the edges for all of the stuff that was disrupted to see if I could provide some help and assistance continue to continue operations. So I waited for about all about three or four weeks and I called Randy and I said, you know, and I know we're at War.
16:25 But we still have a budget we still need money next year. So when do we go pitch our budget? It was a long silence and I knew what I knew Randolph got to know her quite well.
16:37 And she said Gary the plane hit we're meeting was supposed to be everybody. We're going to meet with this dead.
16:49 It's it's funny. I didn't I every 911 I think about things but it's only been the last couple years of one day. I woke up and I said, I wonder who
17:01 Daughter meeting slot
17:04 Show me the mill.
17:06 But somebody took our bullet they they had a higher priority. So they got the meeting time we had.
17:15 And they died instead of us.
17:19 And I don't have any idea who they were. I did visit the senior senior person killed that there was an Army 3-star who was from the chief of the army budget office. I did visit his grave over and Arlington and I don't know if it was by Design. He was very where the number of other prominent General officers are very but when you swear you stand at his grave you can see the Pentagon you could see the spacing the side that got hit by the planes when I went there. They were still rebuilding.
17:49 When you walk Lola dust settled metaphorically and literally my new desk space was just down the hall about 30 yards from where the plane hit the building. There's a very nice Chapel Scott all the names of everybody was killed on the very quiet. It's so if you can get to the outside of the building they when they rebuilt it they put in one of the blocks one of the burned stone blocks from where the plane hits on the outside very few people can get out there. But if anybody ever goes to the Pentagon to goes on the tour, they will probably be taken to the chapel that the Odyssey that
18:28 That seems like it would have been and still maybe is such a heavy thing to carry.
18:39 Yeah, it is heavier than a lot. I had several times in my in my military career when I made a decision of a few seconds made a difference between me living or dying just serendipitously in I'd already gone through something like that similar to that helicopter or supposed to get on my boss pulled me off at the last minute and the next time I saw the helicopter the next morning, it was just a pile of burning wreckage.
19:10 And does so in a way, you know, if you take on the military as a career, especially if you're in what we call the combat arms, you kind of have to come to grips pretty early on with you know, what comes with the territory that your life is at risk and it doesn't have to be in combat. I mean those men died during a training exercise the men and a helicopter.
19:33 Author for a second
19:40 I have I should have told you I have that effect on electronics.
19:43 It's the same door open.
19:46 And then I can see the rest of the time. That's okay. We'll use that recording on there another turn off.
19:59 Do you just kind of talking about these these big things that happened where your
20:05 Going into the space where?
20:08 Your understanding that your life is at risk, you could lose it pretty easily or more in other the higher chance and then there are some circumstances in which you would have you would have died. But then something very small changes that do you make meaning of that do you like to do that? You know, I think every situation you're in if you're in a military career, I think everything that you go through like that deserves reflection.
20:42 The first time I encountered that what Satan he was training.
20:51 Everybody else in the unit was going to do something. They had done a thousand times before. I adjust bike shirt unlock icon to a training course just before being assigned there and they had changed the protocols for how you handled ammunition. And so when I got there I was in charge and so I insisted that they handled the ammunition the way that I was bought and that saved their lives.
21:19 So that was a lesson that I became to the extent. I needed to have a reminder that training is important. That was a reminder the reminder from the helicopter was more I think just you take onboard intellectually that you're in a profession of violence something like that is what makes it real makes it.
21:49 It makes it take the appropriate place in your head. When you're when you're making risk assessments and deciding what to do. The Pentagon was was just
22:02 Even though I went to Iraq, that's the closest to the terrorist ever got to to take me out was the Pentagon that morning so I don't know what to make with other than I I I don't.
22:19 Part of you. Does it say you can't afford to to take that on board to intensely. I think that's the PTSD the edge of PTSD as I respect a lot of men of it in women that I work with. I know suffer from PTSD. I've been lucky in that I haven't but I I think no less of them because of that but I think it's because for some reason I've been able to take that on board and then put it in a in a in a part of my rucksack or I can take it out when I need it for reference. But other than that, it's not part of every day that I live. Some people can't do that too easily. It overflows the compartmentalization to be in the military history buff so I can wait two examples for the personal Memoirs from the Napoleonic Wars for the Civil War. The first World War II bolt or where the people people brought that home.
23:19 Sure. Sure. It's also.
23:24 There seems to be a hell of a lot of thinking and words that people have done about what it is like to experience a traumatic event or even then to be in a place where something big and traumatic is happen to like going back to your office before the dust has settled, you know, and I'm curious what the feeling was like among the people you worked with there in the days after the weeds months after 9/11 the overriding initially media burst of emotion is anger.
24:02 Anger even even to the point of rage you want to recheck especially
24:10 Especially if you're in the military.
24:13 You your oath The Arc of your life at that point is to defend defend the country.
24:21 And you feel you know, we had men and women I knew in the building that were in the building when the plane hit were knocked off their their feet. I'm sure I had it's at least casual acquaintance with some of those who were killed and so you take that very personally by the same token. I think you had theirs in something of an advantage in the military at least in the near in the short-term over the non-military people who were affected directly by 9/11, which is you got a job to do but the fact that something terrible has happened.
25:00 Doesn't mean that you can take a pause. You're so busy. It really is a 24/7 lifestyle when the helicopter crashed. We still had the exercise with 6,000 soldiers maneuvering at that time didn't stop everybody was continuing on and in an hour after I was at the site of the crash. I was at a debriefing for a training exercise to the darker during the day in the summer specs at just that keeps you so busy and takes you out of that moment and takes you to the next moment, but I do think there was there was a desire to get at whoever and of course it that day. We didn't know for sure.
25:45 Where there's some come from so there was a part of that he certainly what we saw with recruiting jumping and in a lot of the young men and women that I met who came into the military after 9/11. It was 9/11 that brought them there.
26:01 Before 9/11 the studies we did for decades said that the two main reasons why people join the Army was to learn a job skill or on educational benefits.
26:14 And at least for a short. Of time, I think the overriding reason people were joining was because they had a sense of the country under attack and they wanted to be a part of Defending it. I'm not sure what it's like today. I'm not sure what the motor is. I suspect there the old tried-and-true.
26:34 What are the you're in the Army for 30 years? What are some of your kind of their most memorable things that you've taken away from that time Army Ranger school. I lost 37 pounds and 8 1/2 Weeks met went through some of the most intense experiences of my life. I had a we had an Vietnam was going on at the time. So all of our instructor for Vietnam veterans, so they brought in everything was a Vietnam scenario. It's very common for you because you get one meal a day unless you miss resupply which case you don't get that meal. You only have to sleep. The only have to guarantee you sleep for 4 hours within in any 24 hour.
27:25 Hallucinating is not in, So I was I'm not Catholic and Methodist, but I was in a fox hole I dug in the middle of the Jungle in all at once in the middle of the night a priest came walking out of the Jungle and came over and gave me a blessing and offered me communion and it seemed like the most natural thing anybody anybody see a priest come out of a job and I think it was everybody just had their own little things like that. So it didn't didn't affect anybody. I think the Army has a sense of humor. It doesn't rights most humorous when it doesn't realize is being humorous, you know ice. Where would you send a Yuma Arizona boy for his first assignment the Army? Will of course you sending the Fairbanks Alaska in the middle of winter?
28:18 I got to Fairbanks Alaska. It was 20 degrees below zero.
28:24 Three years later when I left work on that below zero was was nothing. I figured it out. Once it the coldest. I was ever out operating actually on my feet manoeuvring and was at 72 below zero. Yes, just Diller temperature.
28:44 And the hottest I've ever been in was leaving Iraq and getting to Kuwait and was 128 and I realized I have a 200 degree temperature differential in my life tween. The coldest I've ever been in the hottest I've ever been
29:03 The I think we're still after Alaska. Actually my favorite assignment the Army was in Honduras. I spent a year in Honduras 87 to 88.
29:14 Wonderful country wonderful people spend a lot of time out in the jungle with the Villagers. We took a lot of medical and veterinarian and in other types of assistance in the villages. We saw two months epidemics that was breaking out on the Guatemala border. It felt good to be a part of that. The people were wonderful to find out now it's a murder capital of the world is really
29:43 The theater people that deserve a lot better than it.
29:46 But the other seimetz other places I guess those are those two things stick out very much and then going to going to Haiti going to Iraq.
30:04 Going to Korea Thailand and other places all of them had two different flavors different different scents different different Landscapes magical it is it is it was
30:20 It's also you know, you're viewing when you're when you're there is some in the military context. She kind of you differently to your rack was.
30:30 I left Iraq thinking I've done so that's doesn't study on the iran-iraq war and other things before we even knew we were going to have something like that happen and I've been then after 9/11. I've been involved in planning for four operations there, but I left there thinking I understood it less than I did when I got there.
30:57 What did you do after retiring from the Army? I went to I was I'd come home my wife who told me that I needed to think about. What I was going to do next I come home on leave. I didn't know I had as long as I wanted to stay in the Army is coming up on the 30th here. So we knew we wanted to come back to you when she said we need to look in the newspaper start looking with open the newspaper in there. It says that Arizona Game and Fish Department is hiring for position in Yuma. My my bachelor's degrees in wildlife biology from Arizona State. That's what I wanted to do except for the fact that I had the commitment for because of Vietnam. I have my commitment to ROTC so that got in the way I'd always thought I'd spend my for years then get out come back and go to work for Arizona Game and Fish. So I never thought it was ever going to get to do that. So I applied team actually flew back from DC for the interview and I got
31:57 So I was still on terminal leave from the Army when I showed up for my fighting. I was retired on a on a Thursday or Wednesday. I started out from the Pentagon and on the next Monday morning. I've reported for work at Arizona Game and Fish, I never thought it was going to be able to to check that block and it was it was a it was fun. It was it was interesting that you would be against you know, I don't
32:36 I plane Army and cowboys and Indians with what we all did boys and girls the most ferocious of are cowboys in Indiana. I think I'm the whole neighborhood and all of my that Generation all of your uncles and grandfathers and overall World War 2 veterans, and there were parades for Veterans Day and they were parades for Morton Memorial Day. So in one sense, I had a pretty late. I already knew that the military it had a pot very positive role in my life. I got to do environmental stuff when I was in high school, and we had the first Earth Day 1970 and I organized high school for our first Earth Day April 22nd 1970.
33:29 And I still have a little desk placard. They gave me Gary hovatter Yuma High criminals. We are the criminals as I'm sure you know, the is the mascot for the Yuma high school. And so that's what really got me thinking about. Why life? So those were both things that were on my probably short list of potential things to do since I couldn't figure out how to make a make a living as an archaeologist, which was the first thing I would do it again, but finding out that I actually
34:03 I liked doing those things knowing that you want to try something and and then finding out that you can actually do it that you like what you get out of it and that you actually are confident doing it. Those are two different things. And so finding out that those things fit me. I was very glad to find out but it's not something like I did never been able to write that script.
34:29 We have a few minutes left and we talked a lot about some kind of formative experiences in your life. But can we talk for a few minutes about formative people in your life? Can I tell me a little bit about your grandparents and your parents owe my grandfather. My dad's side was killed in a train crash out on their Farm back in the long before I was born but he's he's somebody that's always been there for you shows up in books. He was a a guide hunting guide and so it shows up in some books about Arizona history. I collect Arizona history. Now my grandma Scott was always kind of a she was a loving figure, but she was she never lived here in town. So I only saw her and so the people are really cord to my life growing up where my grandma and my my maternal grandparents was out on their Farm probably every week watching might my grandfather farm with his first tractor ever bought I still have it still runs 1935 John Deere model.
35:29 Farm does farm raised his family had 40 acres never got wealthy, but I remember he had to go during the Depression had to go off to the lumber Lumber camp in California to make money and I asked him once this will let you come back.
35:49 I just always wanted to be a farmer.
35:52 And that was his life is no more complicated than that Mom was wonderful. She she and dad were childhood. I actually found after mom died. I found her diary from a s a little girl and so it has her diary and it been a date and I think she's in eighth grade.
36:14 And she said in the chest says I met a boy today. His name is Edwin.
36:21 That was my dad.
36:24 It was just amazing notes my dad wrote to his mother who grew up on a farm just a few miles for moms and farm was and and he was he grew up in a Colby Ranch. And so dad is always rugged individualist and homeless, and it said mom I've gone to Sydney's it's too creepy here.
36:50 And you've been he he been left there for the night while cuz out the elders were out from in town. And so he just put the creaking in the groaning of the old farmhouse was too much for him. I got I got the biggest kick out. They were a big part of of of a growing my sister and I up to to be we both been I think the most respect successful and then my wife has been the the biggest support my life fit. If you're in the military your family's in the military. I always think every family members for their service to come and I think cassia
37:29 I've always said she's stuck with me out of sheer curiosity about what it was going to do. Next. We got out of training early Fort Benning flew to Las Vegas for dad was an accountant for season initially living in Vegas. We got married on a Saturday Sunday. We're back on the plane to Fort Benning Monday. I'm back in school three weeks later. She's newly pregnant. We're driving 6000 miles to Fairbanks Alaska in the middle of the winter. So we're out on the Yukon Highway Gravel Road. It's 30 below zero in she's having morning sickness by the side of the house.
38:07 So I think when she when I when she when I realize that that was not going to deter her from staying committed to who we were, I said, okay this I chose well her judgment a suspect, but I made a good choice.
38:30 So when I asked you if there's
38:33 Any particular way that you would like to be remembered?
38:39 I thought about that being a history about fight.
38:44 You know.
38:46 Is a gun around the world one of the things I've noticed when you go to museums and historical Museum's what you're seeing is just what survived the vast majority of history in the vast majority of Life Is invisible to us and we'll be forever the fasting. I wonder what a former in in Wales in the ninth century when I got up in the morning. What what did they do? What was her normal day? How did I know what Kings do in did when I can see some of the remains of what they left behind but I'm kind of content I've decided we're just having been showing up occasion little dig through an old high school yearbook and say that's an interesting looking person, but
39:39 I just rely guess I just want to be remembered by every I recognized that everybody ultimately very few. People are given a place in history that people will actually be able to notice them centuries later. I have decided that I think my legacy will be any good things that I did that gave someone a moment of of peace or contentment or safety.
40:06 That will be my legacy. I think that that lives on forever. I think if I knew how to do what I could find out some Centurion of the Roman army the taught somebody lesson to talk somebody a lesson to talk somebody Listen to Somebody taught me at Fort Benning Georgia in the 70s that had it made a difference in my life. I think that's
40:27 I think they expect more than that is selfish.
40:32 Yeah, I hear you.
40:35 Anything else you want to share before? We are all just I want to thank storycorps. This is this a remarkable effort in this is kind of intuitively obvious to sing to me when you hear a storycorps presentation limpiara. It was obviously wasn't that intuitively obvious or would have been done decades ago. So I really might might and Kudos and respect to the people who put this together and sustain it. Thank you to you for coming in at the time.