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Waterbeds – from my La Jolla garage studio to Paris

And other risky schemes

I just knew I could make a killing selling waterbeds in Europe.
I just knew I could make a killing selling waterbeds in Europe.

The first time I lay down on a waterbed, I thought, “Who wouldn’t want one of these?” The undulating motion of the water, the evenly distributed pressure against my body — so relaxing, and sensual too. And with a waterbed heating pad warming the water from below, it was pure pleasure.

It was the early 1970s and waterbed sales in the U.S. were starting to heat up. I was a customer myself, having been introduced to the product by a friend who would let people (plural) spend the night on his own waterbed in a sort of “try before you buy” operation. I bought mine the very next morning, and slept on it that night in my garage studio in La Jolla. But in Europe, not so much. My most recent business endeavor had involved finding vintage European cars overseas and sometimes helping to ship them back to the U.S. — I still remember the Morgan three-wheeler roadster I found in a field next to a pub in Sussex, smashed up but still magnificent, and maybe salvageable. But amazingly, I didn’t see or hear anything about waterbeds while I was abroad. Bingo: forget trying to ship old Morgans and Peugeots back to the states. I just knew I could make a killing selling waterbeds in Europe. It was time to contact my good friend Giovanni.

I knew Giovanni from our time together at university in the UK. We had kept in touch, and at that point, he was living in Paris with his girlfriend. I sent him a letter explaining my plan for waterbed sales in Europe, and it wasn’t long before he called me and said he was in. He wanted to know how soon I could get to Paris with the merchandise. Like me, Giovanni, was in between jobs — that is, unemployed — with not much desire for a nine-to-five solution to that problem. I knew Giovanni would be a good partner because we had run a couple of small moneymaking ventures during our time at university; these included ghost tours and poker parties. The poker parties were particularly successful, with a waiting list of students eager to pay our hefty fee to sit at the table. It was always surprising to me how much students loved to gamble, especially because many of them could hardly afford their books.

Just a few days after my first conversation with Giovanni, he called me again and told me he had several waterbed buyers lined up. He said we could sell them for 10 times or more what I paid for them, and told me to bring as many as I could. There would be no need for graduate school now, nor a nine-to-five job, for that matter. I quickly scraped together about $800, which was enough to buy 10 waterbeds from a small San Diego manufacturer and a cheap charter flight from Los Angeles to Europe. I packaged two of them together and tied them with heavy rope that also served as a handle. Each package of two was about the size of a medium suitcase. I knew shipping would be too expensive, and that there might be a problem getting them through French customs. But if I carried them like luggage, I could probably scoot right through.

With my toothbrush in my top pocket, and a change of underclothes packed into my newly purchased business briefcase, I was all set to make some easy money — and have a lot of fun, too. I was definitely on one of those highs that one gets when the future looks really promising. What could go wrong? I knew my way around Europe, I totally trusted Giovanni, and I had good business sense. Heck, I already had a college degree in urban planning, so I was sure I knew how to plan.

I got a friend to drive me from San Diego to the Imperial Terminal at the Los Angeles Airport, from which all the cheap charter flights left for Europe — sometimes several each day. I called Giovanni again to tell him I was on my way. He assured me that he could sell all the waterbeds I could bring, and that he had already taken some deposits. Then I hit my first snag: the next flight to Paris was two days away. However, there was one to London leaving that evening. I knew London pretty well, and more importantly, I knew it was fairly easy to get from London to Paris. But most importantly, I knew how to travel in those long-ago, less regulated days.

Sponsored
Sponsored

That evening, I watched as the London flight boarded. As the line at the counter grew short, I rolled over with my cart full of waterbeds. When I reached the counter, I said to the agent, “Hi, I am late, and I haven’t checked my bags yet, and I can’t find my ticket. But I know I am scheduled to be on this flight. Can you check for my name?” This wasn’t the first time I had used that line to take a “no reservation or ticket” charter flight to Europe. I knew the drill. There was a long pause, during which I placed my arm and hand across the counter, opening it slightly to show that I held several folded $20 bills — three, to be exact.

Without any hesitation, the agent took the money, then lowered his hands down below the back of the counter. He paused, then looked straight at me and said, “There are no more seats.” I knew this meant more $20 bills were needed; fortunately, I had one more, folded up in the watch pocket of my Levis. I handed it over the counter and voila, the agent asked me to please step over by the departure door and said he would be right over to help me board. And he was: he walked me out the door with my cart, helped me carry all the waterbeds onto the plane, and even helped me put them in the overhead compartments. He then told me to sit wherever I wanted since the plane was only about half full, shook my hand, smiled, and said, “Have a nice flight.” Within a few minutes the doors were secured and we were off to London. Clearly, I knew how to plan.

Once in Paris, I called Giovanni, and in about an hour, there he was — driving one of those old four-door Citroens with the cloth roof.

I had an entire row to myself, so I stretched out and slept for most of the flight. I dreamed about cruising the beaches of Southern California on my new BSA 441 Victor motorcycle, which I was planning on purchasing when I returned — along with a couple of new surfboards, and a VW Van for trips to surf in Mexico. And, of course, more waterbeds for my next trip back to Europe. When I woke up, we were on the gray, rainy approach into London. I had no problem with UK immigration, because I told them I was just passing through on my way to France. And with a serious expression on my face and a determined posture, I rapidly rolled my cart through the Nothing to Declare area for UK customs.

I changed some dollars for pounds, and bought some French francs in the airport. Although it was a bit pricey, I took a taxi from the airport to London’s Victoria Station. I wasn’t sleepy, but lugging all those waterbeds around was already starting to be a bit much. Once at the station, I loaded my beds back onto a cart and got in line for my ticket to Paris. I overheard a couple behind me speaking both English and French. After purchasing my ticket, I approached them and asked them if they would help me carry my packages in exchange for a free waterbed. After I quickly explained what a waterbed was, they quickly said yes.

It was a short trip to Folkestone, where I would catch the ferry to Calais. It was a night ferry, which was fine, because I was getting tired and had already started to indulge in some pints. Besides being friendly and eager to try my product, it turned out my luggage handlers were also French citizens. That was great: I would get them to declare the waterbeds with French customs and do all the talking.

I knew from experience that French people were quite good at negotiating. I always enjoyed it when the check for a meal would come in a French restaurant; there was often a lively conversation over the charges. By lively, I mean that I always thought someone was going to punch someone. But I never saw that happen, and after everything was settled, everyone was always unbelievably polite. I thought of that dynamic when we ran into some trouble with French customs. Happily, my two new friends took the trouble on as a kind of challenge, and after a little back and forth — which sounded not unlike the argument over a restaurant check — a deal was struck. One waterbed would go to the customs agent, for further inspection.

After purchasing a couple of bottles of wine, some baguettes, and some excellent French cheese, we were on the train to Paris. Next stop, Gare du Nord. I thanked my new friends and gave them their waterbed. I told them they would need to build a wooden frame box, and that they could use a normal garden hose to fill it up. I also told them that waterbeds are very heavy, so putting it on a higher floor in an older building was not advisable. And I briefly noted that there was always the possibility of a leak. That last word brought forth a rather concerned look, but my spirits were undampened.

Once in Paris, I called Giovanni, and in about an hour, there he was — driving one of those old four-door Citroens with the cloth roof. He spotted me standing on the curb, stopped, jumped out, and gave me a big hug. He was totally excited to start making bundles of money — but far less excited to learn that I was down to eight waterbeds. Nevertheless, we loaded our goods into the car’s cramped back seat and set off to deliver and set them up for our brave European pioneers. It took about two days to deliver all the waterbeds. It also took a good deal of negotiating, which thankfully, Giovanni was able to handle. No one seemed to care much about the setup. Questions of weight and possible leaks issue didn’t seem to arouse much concern, either. However, my warnings about possible electrocution arising from the use of an electric blanket received serious attention.

Within two days, all eight waterbeds were sold, and we had made around $6000. Even after deductions for expenses and the initial investment for 10 waterbeds, this was a really hefty profit. I was ready to be rich. Therefore, I was ready to head straight back to the U.S. to get more waterbeds. But Giovanni had another idea: he thought we could do much better selling waterbeds in Switzerland — not as a two-man operation, but as the heads of an entire sales network. What was needed now was not inventory, but infrastructure. And after a few expensive nights out in Paris with Giovanni, his girlfriend, and his friends, I was convinced.

Although Giovanni came from a working-class background like me, he sure seemed to know how the upper class lived. All of our dinners out seemed like special occasion celebrations, ceremonial events presided over by attentive waitstaff. There were always several courses, including an aperitif to start and several different wines — always changing to the correct type of wine glass — during the main courses, and ending with a digestivo, usually cognac. It was the first time I had ever tasted cognac, and I liked it. This was a very long way from standing up while eating a torta and drinking a Fanta purchased from a street vendor in TJ. As for shopping, I liked the Galeries Lafayette on the Rue du Rivoli, which was this huge old building with a beautiful glass dome. I remember buying a couple of long-sleeve fitted shirts and a nice tweed blazer. And I couldn’t resist some stylish beige low-top boots with a little zipper on the side. They looked so good on me!

Soon we were off to Zurich, traveling first class by train and stopping for a few days in Chamonix to work on our business plan. What was the plan? Make as much money as possible as fast as possible, and have as much fun as possible with the profits.

We checked in to one of those big old palace-like hotels right on the lake in Zurich: Baur au Lac. Today, it will cost you about $1400 a night. Shortly after checking in, I bought a beautiful Swiss watch on the Bahnhofstrasse. It was from one of those shops where you are invited to sit down to try on several possible timepieces — and to sample the complimentary coffee and chocolate truffles, of course.

After a couple of days of partying, Giovanni arranged a business dinner with the roughly 20 people who we thought would be our distributors in Switzerland. And what a dinner it was: held in a big private dining room with a big round table and huge crystal chandeliers, the kind of dinner with plenty of food, Champagne, and waiters — the kind of waiters who stand just back from the table so they can clearly see if you need a top-off for your Champagne. Giovanni had even hired a string quartet to play classical background music. The whole thing was like dining in a palatial palace. I had this thought that maybe we should have all dressed in 17th or 18th century costumes. We were going to be the waterbed kings of Switzerland, and maybe all of Europe.

Everything was going perfectly — until I noticed Giovanni staring at me with one of those “something is wrong” looks. I looked down at my new watch and noticed that it was just about midnight. I thought that maybe he was worried because we were supposed to finish up the dinner party by then. No problem: we could just go some other place to keep the party going. Then, like a bolt of lightning, a question hit me: Do we have enough money to pay for this dinner? For the hotel? For travel back to Paris? To the United States? Was I a great planner after all, or had I ruined everything just as it started getting good?

We signed the meal check with our room numbers and names. I kind of lost track of Giovanni during all the goodbyes, during which we assured all of our new business partners we would be in touch with them soon. I guess Giovanni and his girlfriend retired for the night, but I wasn’t finished yet. I retreated to the lounge with a couple of my new business associates for some expensive cognac. Again, I signed my name and room number on the check — no sense quitting now. As I sipped, I recalled that just a week or so earlier, I had been sitting in a Tijuana bar drinking a pitcher of very cheap beer. I had come a long way in one week.

But every magical night gives way to morning. When Giovanni and I met the next day, I learned that I was right about his “something is wrong” look — he’d been hit with the same question I had. We reluctantly headed to the check-out desk to get the bad news. There were the room charges, the business dinner charges, and other food and drink charges. The total was over $2500, and I think that was before tipping for all those attentive waiters. I wasn’t exactly sure how much money we had, but I didn’t think it was that much. About then, Giovanni whispered in my ear that we had only about $1500.

Running for it was out of the question; we were in big trouble. We came right out with it and told the hotel we had made a gross miscalculation and could only cover a portion of the total bill. We were quickly ushered to the hotel manager’s office, and the Zurich police were called. Surprisingly, everyone was very nice and polite — and somehow, thanks mostly to Giovanni’s negotiating skills, we agreed on a price that was less then what we actually owed. Even so, it would totally wipe out our resources. Personally, I had been ready to work off the balance in the hotel kitchen.

Returning the watch got me enough money to get back to the U.S., and Giovanni’s girlfriend’s parents got them back to Paris. Somehow, in less than a week, we had spent around $6000. It was a fun ride, but to be honest, not being able to get the BSA 441 Victor was the ride I was going to miss most. However, we did accomplish one important part of our business plan: have as much fun as possible.

Next stop, Tijuana, for some pitcher beer and a few good rights at K38½.

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In-Seine, But Not Crazy
I just knew I could make a killing selling waterbeds in Europe.
I just knew I could make a killing selling waterbeds in Europe.

The first time I lay down on a waterbed, I thought, “Who wouldn’t want one of these?” The undulating motion of the water, the evenly distributed pressure against my body — so relaxing, and sensual too. And with a waterbed heating pad warming the water from below, it was pure pleasure.

It was the early 1970s and waterbed sales in the U.S. were starting to heat up. I was a customer myself, having been introduced to the product by a friend who would let people (plural) spend the night on his own waterbed in a sort of “try before you buy” operation. I bought mine the very next morning, and slept on it that night in my garage studio in La Jolla. But in Europe, not so much. My most recent business endeavor had involved finding vintage European cars overseas and sometimes helping to ship them back to the U.S. — I still remember the Morgan three-wheeler roadster I found in a field next to a pub in Sussex, smashed up but still magnificent, and maybe salvageable. But amazingly, I didn’t see or hear anything about waterbeds while I was abroad. Bingo: forget trying to ship old Morgans and Peugeots back to the states. I just knew I could make a killing selling waterbeds in Europe. It was time to contact my good friend Giovanni.

I knew Giovanni from our time together at university in the UK. We had kept in touch, and at that point, he was living in Paris with his girlfriend. I sent him a letter explaining my plan for waterbed sales in Europe, and it wasn’t long before he called me and said he was in. He wanted to know how soon I could get to Paris with the merchandise. Like me, Giovanni, was in between jobs — that is, unemployed — with not much desire for a nine-to-five solution to that problem. I knew Giovanni would be a good partner because we had run a couple of small moneymaking ventures during our time at university; these included ghost tours and poker parties. The poker parties were particularly successful, with a waiting list of students eager to pay our hefty fee to sit at the table. It was always surprising to me how much students loved to gamble, especially because many of them could hardly afford their books.

Just a few days after my first conversation with Giovanni, he called me again and told me he had several waterbed buyers lined up. He said we could sell them for 10 times or more what I paid for them, and told me to bring as many as I could. There would be no need for graduate school now, nor a nine-to-five job, for that matter. I quickly scraped together about $800, which was enough to buy 10 waterbeds from a small San Diego manufacturer and a cheap charter flight from Los Angeles to Europe. I packaged two of them together and tied them with heavy rope that also served as a handle. Each package of two was about the size of a medium suitcase. I knew shipping would be too expensive, and that there might be a problem getting them through French customs. But if I carried them like luggage, I could probably scoot right through.

With my toothbrush in my top pocket, and a change of underclothes packed into my newly purchased business briefcase, I was all set to make some easy money — and have a lot of fun, too. I was definitely on one of those highs that one gets when the future looks really promising. What could go wrong? I knew my way around Europe, I totally trusted Giovanni, and I had good business sense. Heck, I already had a college degree in urban planning, so I was sure I knew how to plan.

I got a friend to drive me from San Diego to the Imperial Terminal at the Los Angeles Airport, from which all the cheap charter flights left for Europe — sometimes several each day. I called Giovanni again to tell him I was on my way. He assured me that he could sell all the waterbeds I could bring, and that he had already taken some deposits. Then I hit my first snag: the next flight to Paris was two days away. However, there was one to London leaving that evening. I knew London pretty well, and more importantly, I knew it was fairly easy to get from London to Paris. But most importantly, I knew how to travel in those long-ago, less regulated days.

Sponsored
Sponsored

That evening, I watched as the London flight boarded. As the line at the counter grew short, I rolled over with my cart full of waterbeds. When I reached the counter, I said to the agent, “Hi, I am late, and I haven’t checked my bags yet, and I can’t find my ticket. But I know I am scheduled to be on this flight. Can you check for my name?” This wasn’t the first time I had used that line to take a “no reservation or ticket” charter flight to Europe. I knew the drill. There was a long pause, during which I placed my arm and hand across the counter, opening it slightly to show that I held several folded $20 bills — three, to be exact.

Without any hesitation, the agent took the money, then lowered his hands down below the back of the counter. He paused, then looked straight at me and said, “There are no more seats.” I knew this meant more $20 bills were needed; fortunately, I had one more, folded up in the watch pocket of my Levis. I handed it over the counter and voila, the agent asked me to please step over by the departure door and said he would be right over to help me board. And he was: he walked me out the door with my cart, helped me carry all the waterbeds onto the plane, and even helped me put them in the overhead compartments. He then told me to sit wherever I wanted since the plane was only about half full, shook my hand, smiled, and said, “Have a nice flight.” Within a few minutes the doors were secured and we were off to London. Clearly, I knew how to plan.

Once in Paris, I called Giovanni, and in about an hour, there he was — driving one of those old four-door Citroens with the cloth roof.

I had an entire row to myself, so I stretched out and slept for most of the flight. I dreamed about cruising the beaches of Southern California on my new BSA 441 Victor motorcycle, which I was planning on purchasing when I returned — along with a couple of new surfboards, and a VW Van for trips to surf in Mexico. And, of course, more waterbeds for my next trip back to Europe. When I woke up, we were on the gray, rainy approach into London. I had no problem with UK immigration, because I told them I was just passing through on my way to France. And with a serious expression on my face and a determined posture, I rapidly rolled my cart through the Nothing to Declare area for UK customs.

I changed some dollars for pounds, and bought some French francs in the airport. Although it was a bit pricey, I took a taxi from the airport to London’s Victoria Station. I wasn’t sleepy, but lugging all those waterbeds around was already starting to be a bit much. Once at the station, I loaded my beds back onto a cart and got in line for my ticket to Paris. I overheard a couple behind me speaking both English and French. After purchasing my ticket, I approached them and asked them if they would help me carry my packages in exchange for a free waterbed. After I quickly explained what a waterbed was, they quickly said yes.

It was a short trip to Folkestone, where I would catch the ferry to Calais. It was a night ferry, which was fine, because I was getting tired and had already started to indulge in some pints. Besides being friendly and eager to try my product, it turned out my luggage handlers were also French citizens. That was great: I would get them to declare the waterbeds with French customs and do all the talking.

I knew from experience that French people were quite good at negotiating. I always enjoyed it when the check for a meal would come in a French restaurant; there was often a lively conversation over the charges. By lively, I mean that I always thought someone was going to punch someone. But I never saw that happen, and after everything was settled, everyone was always unbelievably polite. I thought of that dynamic when we ran into some trouble with French customs. Happily, my two new friends took the trouble on as a kind of challenge, and after a little back and forth — which sounded not unlike the argument over a restaurant check — a deal was struck. One waterbed would go to the customs agent, for further inspection.

After purchasing a couple of bottles of wine, some baguettes, and some excellent French cheese, we were on the train to Paris. Next stop, Gare du Nord. I thanked my new friends and gave them their waterbed. I told them they would need to build a wooden frame box, and that they could use a normal garden hose to fill it up. I also told them that waterbeds are very heavy, so putting it on a higher floor in an older building was not advisable. And I briefly noted that there was always the possibility of a leak. That last word brought forth a rather concerned look, but my spirits were undampened.

Once in Paris, I called Giovanni, and in about an hour, there he was — driving one of those old four-door Citroens with the cloth roof. He spotted me standing on the curb, stopped, jumped out, and gave me a big hug. He was totally excited to start making bundles of money — but far less excited to learn that I was down to eight waterbeds. Nevertheless, we loaded our goods into the car’s cramped back seat and set off to deliver and set them up for our brave European pioneers. It took about two days to deliver all the waterbeds. It also took a good deal of negotiating, which thankfully, Giovanni was able to handle. No one seemed to care much about the setup. Questions of weight and possible leaks issue didn’t seem to arouse much concern, either. However, my warnings about possible electrocution arising from the use of an electric blanket received serious attention.

Within two days, all eight waterbeds were sold, and we had made around $6000. Even after deductions for expenses and the initial investment for 10 waterbeds, this was a really hefty profit. I was ready to be rich. Therefore, I was ready to head straight back to the U.S. to get more waterbeds. But Giovanni had another idea: he thought we could do much better selling waterbeds in Switzerland — not as a two-man operation, but as the heads of an entire sales network. What was needed now was not inventory, but infrastructure. And after a few expensive nights out in Paris with Giovanni, his girlfriend, and his friends, I was convinced.

Although Giovanni came from a working-class background like me, he sure seemed to know how the upper class lived. All of our dinners out seemed like special occasion celebrations, ceremonial events presided over by attentive waitstaff. There were always several courses, including an aperitif to start and several different wines — always changing to the correct type of wine glass — during the main courses, and ending with a digestivo, usually cognac. It was the first time I had ever tasted cognac, and I liked it. This was a very long way from standing up while eating a torta and drinking a Fanta purchased from a street vendor in TJ. As for shopping, I liked the Galeries Lafayette on the Rue du Rivoli, which was this huge old building with a beautiful glass dome. I remember buying a couple of long-sleeve fitted shirts and a nice tweed blazer. And I couldn’t resist some stylish beige low-top boots with a little zipper on the side. They looked so good on me!

Soon we were off to Zurich, traveling first class by train and stopping for a few days in Chamonix to work on our business plan. What was the plan? Make as much money as possible as fast as possible, and have as much fun as possible with the profits.

We checked in to one of those big old palace-like hotels right on the lake in Zurich: Baur au Lac. Today, it will cost you about $1400 a night. Shortly after checking in, I bought a beautiful Swiss watch on the Bahnhofstrasse. It was from one of those shops where you are invited to sit down to try on several possible timepieces — and to sample the complimentary coffee and chocolate truffles, of course.

After a couple of days of partying, Giovanni arranged a business dinner with the roughly 20 people who we thought would be our distributors in Switzerland. And what a dinner it was: held in a big private dining room with a big round table and huge crystal chandeliers, the kind of dinner with plenty of food, Champagne, and waiters — the kind of waiters who stand just back from the table so they can clearly see if you need a top-off for your Champagne. Giovanni had even hired a string quartet to play classical background music. The whole thing was like dining in a palatial palace. I had this thought that maybe we should have all dressed in 17th or 18th century costumes. We were going to be the waterbed kings of Switzerland, and maybe all of Europe.

Everything was going perfectly — until I noticed Giovanni staring at me with one of those “something is wrong” looks. I looked down at my new watch and noticed that it was just about midnight. I thought that maybe he was worried because we were supposed to finish up the dinner party by then. No problem: we could just go some other place to keep the party going. Then, like a bolt of lightning, a question hit me: Do we have enough money to pay for this dinner? For the hotel? For travel back to Paris? To the United States? Was I a great planner after all, or had I ruined everything just as it started getting good?

We signed the meal check with our room numbers and names. I kind of lost track of Giovanni during all the goodbyes, during which we assured all of our new business partners we would be in touch with them soon. I guess Giovanni and his girlfriend retired for the night, but I wasn’t finished yet. I retreated to the lounge with a couple of my new business associates for some expensive cognac. Again, I signed my name and room number on the check — no sense quitting now. As I sipped, I recalled that just a week or so earlier, I had been sitting in a Tijuana bar drinking a pitcher of very cheap beer. I had come a long way in one week.

But every magical night gives way to morning. When Giovanni and I met the next day, I learned that I was right about his “something is wrong” look — he’d been hit with the same question I had. We reluctantly headed to the check-out desk to get the bad news. There were the room charges, the business dinner charges, and other food and drink charges. The total was over $2500, and I think that was before tipping for all those attentive waiters. I wasn’t exactly sure how much money we had, but I didn’t think it was that much. About then, Giovanni whispered in my ear that we had only about $1500.

Running for it was out of the question; we were in big trouble. We came right out with it and told the hotel we had made a gross miscalculation and could only cover a portion of the total bill. We were quickly ushered to the hotel manager’s office, and the Zurich police were called. Surprisingly, everyone was very nice and polite — and somehow, thanks mostly to Giovanni’s negotiating skills, we agreed on a price that was less then what we actually owed. Even so, it would totally wipe out our resources. Personally, I had been ready to work off the balance in the hotel kitchen.

Returning the watch got me enough money to get back to the U.S., and Giovanni’s girlfriend’s parents got them back to Paris. Somehow, in less than a week, we had spent around $6000. It was a fun ride, but to be honest, not being able to get the BSA 441 Victor was the ride I was going to miss most. However, we did accomplish one important part of our business plan: have as much fun as possible.

Next stop, Tijuana, for some pitcher beer and a few good rights at K38½.

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Events July 21-July 24, 2024
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