Originally scheduled for a museum in England, the COVID pandemic changed things. Ship Captain Phillip Beale had the Phoenicia ship cut into pieces. Half of Lehi’s ship was returned to England, while the other half was sent to Iowa for reassembly. The problem was, there were no instructions on how to re-assemble the ship! Enter Mike Stahlman. He’s a bit of a modern-day Nephi as he has to rebuild a replica Phoenicia ship as it would have appeared when Philip Beale sailed it from the Middle East to Florida. Mike tells more about a real-life 3-dimensional puzzle. Check out our conversation….
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Meet Mike Stahlman
GT 00:16 Welcome to Gospel Tangents. I’m excited to have one of the best engineers on the Phoenicia ship. Could you go ahead and tell us who you are and where you’re from?
Mike 00:48 My name is Mike Stahlman. I’m originally from Pennsylvania. I lived there for 33 years, and then I gathered to the Center Place in Independence, where I’ve lived for the last 33 years.
GT 01:02 So, you’ve been both places. I’m trying to find out. Is your background LDS or Community of Christ? It sounds like you’ve been in both of the major cities there.
Mike 01:13 Well, I was actually raised Catholic. And I had my conversion experience where I met our Lord and Savior when I was 20 years old, at which point, I joined what was then known as the RLDS [Church], and I have an absolutely unshakable belief and faith in the Book of Mormon. And the RLDS for all intents and purposes no longer exists. I am a member of what is known as an Independent Restoration Branch, who are former members of RLDS, who did not want to go along with the direction that the now Community of Christ decided to go.
GT 01:58 Okay. I don’t know if you know, Patrick McKay. Do you know, Patrick?
Mike 02:02 Yes, I do.
GT 02:03 Patrick, I just interviewed him. He’s going to be on here next week. He’s an apostle with the JCRB. Would you be considered part of the Joint Conference of Restoration Branches?
Mike 02:13 No, actually, the groups that are part of the movement that I’m in are simply congregations that were ruled out of order by the RLDS and basically kicked out of their buildings. So, those groups bought their own buildings, and have remained as independent congregations until now. The JCRB, some of those congregations banded together to form the JCRB, but quite a few didn’t. So, I frequent the ones that didn’t.
GT 02:52 Okay.
Mike 02:53 I’ve got nothing against them. And I’ll attend our services and I’m friends with many of them. There’s no animosity. It’s just that, scripturally, I didn’t feel I could go that way.
GT 03:07 Okay. So, does your branch have a specific name?
Mike 03:12 There are several that my wife and I attend. The one we’ve been going to lately is known as the South Crysler Restoration Branch, because their church had originally been on South Crysler Street in Independence, but their new building–once they were kicked out and had to get a new building, it’s now on Salisbury Street. So, it’s a little confusing, the name South Crysler, but you’re not on Crysler Street.
GT 03:38 Okay. I drove by there a few years ago. I wish I could remember that guy’s name. I’ll have to show you a picture, later, and see if you know him. But they were working on the fence. I always thought it was [pronounced Cry-sler] Street, but you said [Chris-ler], huh?
Mike 03:53 Correct, it’s [pronounced Chris-ler].
GT 03:55 Yeah, I’m trying to remember. Anyway, that’s interesting. All right. So, how did you get involved with the Phoenicia?
Mike 04:05 Well, I was following Wayne May for years. I used to get his magazine, and I attended several of his conferences, specifically one in Nauvoo. So, I got to know Wayne, personally, and became friends with him. And when he announced that he had located, what he believed, was the location of the temple in Zarahemla, just right across the river from Nauvoo, I said that I needed to go up and check it out. Wayne was wanting to do a dig at the site. They had done previous digs, but they had done some ground-penetrating radar and they located what they thought were anomalies in the ground. So, they wanted to dig down and excavate those. So, I had a Bobcat 331 mini excavator, so I volunteered to bring it up and do the digging for him. Then, after that, the Heartland Research organization was doing some side scan sonar in the river, looking for a possible site where the armies could have crossed. Again, to me, it was extremely interesting. So, I went up right at the very end of that, and then that was when Wayne actually took me over and showed me the temple site. That was the first time I’d seen it. Then I found out later, Wayne had let me know, that they were getting some high-tech instruments from Germany to do a magnetometer scan of the temple site, and they ended up scanning like 250 acres in total.
Mike 05:53 So, I went up and joined that expedition, at which time, that’s when I joined the Heartland Research organization. And then when Mike and John brought up the possibility of purchasing the Phoenicia…
GT 06:09 John Lefgren and Mike LaFontaine. Is that right?
Mike 06:15 Yes, they brought up the possibility. But it was cut into pieces, so it was going to be–we wouldn’t be buying a ship. We’d be buying pieces of a ship. They asked me what I thought about it and having to put it back together and I said it’d be fun. So, more or less at that point, I volunteered to help put it together, which is exactly what happened.
GT 06:41 Okay.
Mike 06:42 Now, I’ve had some experience in timber frame construction. In Pennsylvania, I used to repair timber framed barns. There’d be rotten timbers in it, and you’d have to remove the rotten timber without the barn falling down and work a new one in there. So, I’m used to working with timbers. But working on a ship is a little something new. But I have always loved puzzles. I’m a very good puzzle solver. And it’s kind of like a puzzle. When they took the ship apart, each piece and panel were numbered, but there was no key supplied, or map, as it were, to show which piece went where. So, we had to figure that out. But I have a background in engineering and construction. I’ve worked all my life in various phases of construction, commercial, industrial, concrete, electricity. I’ve been an electrician, I’ve been a plumber, I’ve been a framer.
GT 07:51 I understand you’re a Nittany Lion. Is that right?
Mike 07:54 A what?
GT 07:54 A Nittany Lion, Penn State?
Mike 07:57 Oh, yes, yes.
GT 07:58 You must not be a sports fan.
Mike 08:01 No. I’m a Nittany Lion, but I was never really into college football, but I was a big Steelers fan.
GT 08:08 Okay.
Mike 08:10 And now I’m a Chiefs fan.
GT 08:11 Okay.
Mike 08:14 But I believe that everything has happened in my life, all the different aspects that I’ve worked on, I was being prepared by the Lord to work on this ship. There’s a lot–people say, “Are you a shipbuilder?”
Mike 08:33 I say, “Well, I am, now.” There’s a lot of…
GT 08:35 Just like, Nephi, right?
Mike 08:37 There’s a lot of different aspects involved in there that you can’t really put into a cubbyhole, but it takes a wide knowledge of different aspects of different construction trades. I mean, we drill holes. We use bolts. We use steel plates. There’s going to be some welding involved. And I’ve had experience in all of those areas. But I think one of the biggest things is the puzzle aspect, it really is quite a puzzle. And then once you figure out where the piece came from, and where it needs to go, you have to figure out how to get it into that position. And sometimes it’s tricky, because you need it to go in two directions at once. And you need it to go over and down and movement in either direction blocks the movement in the other. So, it’s kind of a dance to get the piece to go in.
Rebuilding Nephi’s Ship
GT 09:38 So, for people who don’t know, basically, the Phoenicia ship, made two trips, from the Middle East all the way around Africa. And then the other one was through the Mediterranean Sea and then they went over to Florida. So, what I understand, or, can you tell us what happened after that so that people understand why the ship is in pieces now?
Mike 10:01 Well, Mike LaFontaine might be better to answer that, because he was actually there in Florida and saw what happened. But, basically the ship, and Mike can fill in the details. The ship spent some time, at the bottom of the harbor in Florida. It sank because of the hurricane. And when they pulled it back up out, there was nowhere for it to go because of COVID. And no museums were interested in it at that time. Prior to COVID, there was tremendous interest. But during COVID, nobody was going to museums and museums were not having any income, so they couldn’t make any purchases. So, the captain was…
GT 10:47 It was going go to England, originally.
Mike 10:49 The captain had to get it back to England. And, really, the only way he could do it was to cut it up and put it into containers and ship it back. And that’s when Heartland Research organization stepped in and said, “Well, don’t send it to England. Let’s send it up to Iowa.”
GT 11:05 Half of it did go to England, right?
Mike 11:07 It was already on the sea, on its way to England, but the other half was still here.
GT 11:12 Okay.
Mike 11:12 So, let’s take the other half, instead of sending it to England, send it to Iowa, and let’s get the one that’s on its way to England to do a U-turn and get it to come back.
GT 11:23 And so, now you got a ship that’s been cut into pieces, and you have to put it back together.
Mike 11:28 Right. The second half of the ship arrived first. So, we have the back half of the ship. And it arrived in Montrose, in a container, on a snowy night, when we really didn’t have any way to unload it and nowhere to put it. But, before that day was over, John had found a building, rented a building and a big crane appeared out of nowhere, literally. And we got it unloaded and got the container sitting right in front of that building, which then, was subsequently unloaded put it into building. And it was just a giant, like, a box of Legos dumped out on the ground. And so, we started sorting them out and trying to make sense of what we had and trying to decipher what the numbers on them might mean. And by taking a very close examination of the individual boards, we could discern, well, the grain pattern on this board continues across onto the grain pattern on that board. So, these two must have been together. So, taking that little bit of information, we extrapolated on what the numbers might mean. And so, we were able to get them figured out and sorted and then, our first job was to take the keel, which wasn’t numbered, but the keel, itself, was cut into sections. But we could examine the cut and the angle that was slightly off and find the piece that matched it and get them lined out and figure out how we could rejoin them in a way that would be structurally sound. And so, once we got to the keel laid, then we could start it to one end and figure out which piece went first. And once we got that in, then, it really started to take off after. Then we were able to sort out each piece and we now know exactly where each piece goes, in what sequence, in what row. So, we started putting it together. And we have–we’re one panel shy of having half the panels that we have in our possession, now, reassembled. So, there’s other work besides just putting the hull together. But as far as the hull, itself, we have half the keel assembled, and about 1/4 of the total hull.
GT 13:56 The keel is the bottom of the boat, for those of us who aren’t shipbuilders. Is that right?
Mike 14:00 True. The keel is the bottom backbone of the boat. The Phoenicia doesn’t have a keel board that extends down for stability. It’s basically a flat bottom boat, but the timbers on the side are about six and a half inches wide or so, two inches thick. The keel is about the size of a railroad tie if you can picture what that would be. And the first planks attach to the keel and then it comes up like this. So, the keel is a very solid piece of timber on the bottom, very hard. But it’s not a tremendously deep keel. It’s actually a shallow draft flat bottom boat, which makes the boat able to rock side to side quite a bit when it’s in the open ocean. So, if a person is prone to seasickness, they probably wouldn’t want to be on that boat. It’s very, very strong, very sturdy, but it does have a tendency to rock a little bit more than you’d probably like.
GT 15:12 Well, very good. All right. So, your main job is has been to, I mean, this is kind of a three dimensional puzzle, right?
Mike 15:19 Yes.
GT 15:20 Yeah, and so you’ve got a background in engineering. Is that right? Are you at least started engineering at Penn State?
Mike 15:29 Yes, I had a lot of engineers in my family, a brother and a couple uncles. It was always expected that I would be an engineer. My grades were good enough. It shouldn’t have been a problem. So, I attended Penn State University for two years and simply decided engineering wasn’t my thing, though I did study engineering and surveying. So, I decided to go back out into the construction trades. Before I went to school for engineering. I actually worked in construction as a young man. After school, evenings, I worked on modular homes. There was a factory that built modular homes. I worked in there a couple summers. So, my real interest was in construction and building and so I framed houses. I was an electrician. I was a plumber. We worked in a sawmill one time. And then I started a painting business, painting buildings. And then I got into repairing timber frame barns. And there’s a lot of old, falling down barns in Pennsylvania. And at that time, there was a lot of money from the coal mining and the farmers would get royalties for coal taken off their land. And the first thing they wanted to do was fix up their old barn. So, it was quite a bit of work, fixing up old timber frame barns that were ready to fall down. And I was about the only person in the western half of the state that was doing it. So, I had my pick and choice of the jobs. And that’s what I had been doing a couple years prior to moving out here. I did a stint as a building maintenance [worker] in town. [In] a lot of commercial buildings, I took care of the boilers and heating and the plumbing in these buildings.
Mike 17:35 And then I moved out here to Missouri and started a house-building business. I built a few houses. But then I switched to concrete, did nothing but concrete. First, it was residential, then it was commercial. And then I started working on cell phone towers, doing site work, running the electrical conduit and the grounding and the concrete foundation for the towers. And my two sons who were old enough, worked with me. We traveled all over the Midwest, putting in cell phone tower foundations. Then, I stopped doing that. I got tired of being away from home all the time.
Mike 18:20 So we started concentrating on convenience store parking lots, my sons and I and guys we had working for us, poured concrete parking lots. Our record pour was, we poured an acre of concrete one day, 60,000 square feet, me and 14 other guys there. It was for the fire department there. They had built a fire training facility.
Mike 18:45 Then I retired. And it was right about the time I retired was when I started, I had had more time, and I was able to run up to Iowa and join the Heartland Research Group. If I hadn’t been retired, I wouldn’t have been free to do that. So, that was fortuitous, the timing, but the Lord’s timing is perfect. And I truly believe that he has led me to my life’s path to get me to the point where I’m now able to be here and help put this boat back together so that this message of the contact between the Old World and the New World, the actual, positive, physical trip that Captain Beale did, validates two of the three migration stories that are in the Book of Mormon. And, of course, Captain Beale knew nothing about these stories, and wasn’t [trying to prove them.] He was simply trying to prove that Phoenicians had a rightful place in history and that they could have made these trips. And. coincidentally, they’re two of the trips in the Book of Mormon.
GT 20:04 Interesting. And so how far is Independence from Montrose?
Mike 20:11 That’s about a four and a half hour trip, five hours if I stop to fill up for gas.
GT 20:17 Right, so it’s a little bit of a jaunt, there.
Mike 20:21 Yeah, it’s not bad. I don’t mind driving, like truck drivers, they drive all day, every day for a living and they manage it. It’s not a bad trip.
Is Restored Ship Seaworthy?
GT 20:34 Okay. And so, you’re the head construction engineer on reconstructing the ship?
Mike 20:42 Right. Mike LaFontaine is actually in charge. But I probably have the head and the understanding of what needs to be done structurally. Mike has a lot of good ideas, too, as far as wood joinery, how we should attach the pieces. But, as far as making sure it’s going to be structurally sound, I have a good feel for what timbers do. I understand loading tables, what different spans, what kind of weight they can bear, what type of attachments have the best strength, and so on.
GT 21:27 So I know–and I guess this boat will never be seaworthy again. Right?
Mike 21:32 It’s not planned to ever put it back in the water. But structurally, it would be sound enough to sail. We’ve made no efforts to waterproof it. But theoretically, it could be waterproofed and could be put back on the ocean. Structurally, it’d be capable of it. It would just be a matter of making sure it was all sealed up. We’d have to caulk the joints and the simplest way would just be to put a fiberglass mat and resin over the outside.
GT 22:03 Although, I don’t think the Phoenicians had fiberglass back then. Did they? (Chuckling)
Mike 22:06 Right. They didn’t build their boats out of little pieces like Legos, either. So, they didn’t have the issue of, not only the horizontal joints leaking, but the vertical joints, where it was cut. That’s the real problem.
GT 22:22 Right. I did notice in there. You guys are using a lot of modern tools and modern techniques. But I guess the original ship, did they use power tools and that sort of thing to build it? Do you know?
Mike 22:36 Well, it’s as far as we know, they didn’t. There’s a lot of people with fringe theories about what technology they may or may not have had. But it’s simply a matter of methods and not design. We have to make a hole. They’d have drilled the holes by hand. We have the advantage, instead of having to hand turn the drill, we just turn the drill with an electric motor. But we’re doing the same thing. We are simply making a hole inside of the plank. And the tenons, they probably made with draw knives, where we’ll run them through the table saw and round them over with a belt sander. But it’s the exact same tenon and they would have just done everything with hand tools. It would have taken them longer. But we’re not doing anything differently, as far as design. We’re just using the advantage of electrical power to turn our bits and our saws where they would have done everything by hand.
GT 23:40 Because one of the things that I think I heard in one of the videos, they believe the Phoenicians used nails, which was a brand new technology for them. Are you using modern nails or are they trying to be Phoenician nails?
Mike 23:54 Well, we’ve had some iron, hand wrought nails made. They’re identical to the nails they used. But the ribs are still attached to the planks. So, we don’t have to put that–when they cut the hull into sections, the rib section with each corresponding panel, for the most part, remained in place. So, they’re already attached. We’re using quite a few screws, instead of nails.
GT 24:37 Because those will hold it tighter, basically, stronger?
Mike 24:42 It’ll be stronger than the grip that the deal had. There will be less movement and be less slippage. We’re trying to remain as authentic as possible. Yet, it doesn’t need used to be 100% authentic, as far as the methods that are used to put it back together. It’s the original boards. It’s the original pieces of wood that made the voyage. So, whenever we add a screw here and there to tighten things up or to draw things together, it’s considered an upgrade.
Restoring the Phoenicia
GT 25:21 Okay. Well, cool. I’m trying to think of what else is there? What else should we know about what you do on the Phoenicia?
Mike 25:32 Well, it’s not quite as glamorous as it sounds is. There’s a lot of time-consuming dirty work, cleaning the panels up. There’s dirt and stains and years on the ocean have left the pieces… On the outside of the panels, that were covered with an anti-fouling compound to keep the barnacles from attaching, but, more importantly, to keep the ship worms from eating the wood. When you put a wood ship in the ocean, the first thing happens is there’s these worms. The tiny larva of these worms are floating around in the water and they attach to any piece of wood and they burrow in there and they want to make a home. So, they put this coating on a wood ship to prevent that. Well, as you pointed out, the Phoenicians did things a little differently than we do nowadays. So, in order to restore the boat and get it back more to what it would have been if it actually had been built 600 BC, we’re removing the antifouling compound. I’m just going to take it down to the bare wood. And that is some pretty tough stuff. It’s got copper in it. It’s got epoxy in it. It doesn’t just come off with paint stripper. We use heat and scrapers and manual labor. And then once it’s off, there’s still residue, so there’s sanding involved. And on the inside, basically, we just power wash it and that power washing does pretty good job taking it down to the bare wood on the inside. So, it’s about 40 hours’ worth of labor to get one section ready. So, that’s where volunteers are very helpful. There are a lot of people coming up volunteering and they help clean the panels. To take one panel and attach it to the ship, only takes about an hour for the initial attachment. And then that’s followed up with, maybe, another hour of actually securing it and restoring the structural integrity of that piece against the next one. So, most of the time is in prep work. And we have been moving the pieces around inside the shop. It’s kind of heavy.
GT 27:59 Yes, I bet. So, the hull is basically almost done right now. Is that correct?
Mike 28:05 Right now we have one half of the ship in Montrose. And it’s the back half of the ship. Of that half of the ship, we have the entire keel section put together, except for one piece on the very back end that goes way up high. We’re going to save that for last. Once it gets on there, it’s going to be hard to move the ship. I don’t think it would fit out the door with that piece installed. The door is only 20 foot high, and that piece sticks up higher than that. But the ceiling of the building’s high enough to do it. Now, of the panels, we are one panel short of having half the panels installed of the half ship [that] we have. So, if you do the math, that’s ¼ of the hull, half the keel and ¼ of the hull has been installed. Then after that’s together, quite a bit of the railing, which is the very uppermost row that we’ll be working on, quite a bit of that railing is going to have to be replaced, due to rot. So, even though we have a ¼ of the hull done and half the keel, we’re not as far along as that would make it sound. There’s a lot of ancillary work. We’re going to have to put the lower deck in. We’re going to have to put the upper deck in. And we have to. We don’t have the deck. The deck will be a complete reproduction. We’ve located some cedar in Iowa that we’ll be using for the deck boards.
GT 29:43 Not the cedars of Lebanon, huh? (Chuckling)
Mike 29:46 No, it won’t be the cedars of Lebanon, but it will be Cedar. And we don’t have the sail built, yet. We don’t have the mast. So, we’re not as far along as, initially, you’d think with those numbers that I gave you. There’s still quite a bit of other work involved.
GT 30:04 How long do you anticipate this will take to rebuild the whole ship?
Mike 30:07 There’s a lot of variables there, how many volunteers we get, how many hours per week we’re able to put in. I’d say an estimate would run anywhere from three to five years.
GT 30:21 Three to five years it will take? Oh, wow, this is a big project. So, if people want to volunteer, how do they volunteer?
Mike 30:30 Contact the Heartland Research Group.
GT 30:32 Okay.
Mike 30:34 There’s phoenicia.rocks.
GT 30:36 Phoenicia.rocks, that’s the website?
Mike 30:37 Yeah.
GT 30:38 So, not “.com,” it’s “.rocks.”
Mike 30:41 Yes, that’s correct.
GT 30:43 And then they can just sign in to volunteer there for…
Mike 30:46 They can get all sorts of contact information right there.
GT 30:49 Okay, and, of course, you can see videos at that website and everything.
Mike 30:53 Yes.
GT 30:54 Is there anything else we should know about that?
GT 30:57 I guess there’s a gift store there, as well.
Mike 31:00 The building that it’s in doesn’t have an official name. We call it the Phoenician Museum or the Phoenicia Shop. Inside the shop, there’s an area that’s been set up. It’s actually a tent that makes a little room that there’s a gift shop. There’s information in there. There’s a video that you can watch of Captain Beale making a trip. We have a big screen TV in there. You can sit down. You can see the presentation and it fills you in about the whole project from start to finish. And we have, even, if someone would like, we’ve got little pieces of the old tenons that we took out. See, when they cut the ship in half, they cut it horizontally, they cut the tenon in half. This is totally of no use to put the ship back together. So, we pull half the tenon out of the top panel and half the tenon out of the bottom panel and the two pegs that were holding it together, and we really can’t use them in a restoration ship. We’ve made new tenons. We got some English walnut, which is what the– or Mediterranean walnut was what the original tenons were made out of. And we replicated the tenons, the exact size and shape. So, we have the new tenons. Well, the old ones, you can purchase those there at the gift shop, if you want a souvenir of the ship.
Mike 32:27 When people come up there, they love to come in there and touch it, put their hand on it and feel. This is a very visceral, solid, big, as far as we’re concerned, artifact from Book of Mormon times, even though it was built in modern times. It’s a replica of the ship that brought young prince Mulek to the New World. So, when you’re touching that ship, you’re touching the spirit of that trip and it makes that trip real. This isn’t the ship he came on. But this is just what it looked like. This is the exact same type of ship. This is a model. This is a re-creation of that ship that he would have come over on it.
GT 33:18 Very cool. Very cool. All right. Well, I think I’m out of questions. Is there anything we’re missing? Well, what am I missing?
Mike 33:28 My wife, she says, “Well, I don’t need physical evidence to believe in the Book of Mormon, I believe it’s true.” And that’s excellent, if a person can be like that.
Mike 33:40 But in the New Testament, when Christ would appear to His disciples, He would say, “Come. Come here.” He says, “I want you to touch the prints in my hands. I want you to thrust your hand in my side.” They already had faith. They believed in the Savior. They believed in Jesus, and now he’s standing before them, resurrected. Your faith can’t get any greater than that. Yet he knew the mind. Faith exists. But we do have a physicality to us. We do have a physical body. He says not only do I want you to have faith in me, I want you to come here, he says, “I want you to touch me, physically. I want you to have physical proof as well.” So, the Lord, himself, wanted us to have physical proof. So, we now have something that you can come and touch, a very real, a very physical object.
GT 34:32 All right, well, Mike Stahlman, what do we call you, Chief Engineer of the Phoenicia. Is that what should call you?
Mike 34:39 They call me the homeless guy.
GT 34:44 I’m not going to put that on there. We’ll call you the chief engineer, the Scotty of the Phoenicia, right?
Mike 34:52 Yeah, that would be apt.
GT 34:55 Give me a, “Captain. I’m giving it all she’s got!” (Chuckling)
Mike 35:01 I’m giving it all she’s got, Captain! It’s going to take at least an hour to get it fixed. But I’ll have it done in five minutes.
GT 35:09 You’ll get the Di-lithium crystals and we’ll be fine. (Chuckling) All right, well, Mike Stahlman, thank you so much for being here on Gospel Tangents. I really appreciate it.
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25:16 Storm after Capetown
36:01 Almost a Mutiny?
40:30 Vera & Yuri’s Thoughts on Book of Mormon
Mike & Betty LaFontaine helped purchase Lehi’s Ship: The Phoenicia, captained by Philip Beale.
0:00 Indian Placement Program
8:27 Is Book of Mormon history of Navajo People?
18:32 Hopewell Evidence
23:57 Buying the Phoenicia
28:20 The Boat Sinks
30:08 COVID Makes Purchase Possible
43:57 Getting the Word Out!
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