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This book is dedicated to the young men who played for FC Shoreline International, and their families, as well as all kids around the world whose challenging circumstances prevent them from playing the “beautiful game”

Contents

The Kickoff

The Seahawks of Soccer

The Move to Seattle

Mad Dogs and (Other) Countrymen

The Internationals

Club Initiation

Major Changes and One “Big” Mistake!

What a Crazy Game!

Big Foot, Big Foul

Revolving Door

Subtraction by Addition?

A New Blue Crew

Swan Song Summer

Trials and Tribulations

The Final Chapter

Chapter 1

The Kickoff

I never would have imagined I’d someday be coaching a soccer team. Even though I’d always loved sports, I didn’t know the first thing about soccer growing up, other than it was popular around the world, and it was played with one’s feet. They didn’t have soccer around where I grew up, or if they did, I sure didn’t know anything about it.

I was never a great athlete myself. I was the guy the coach would spot playing in the gym and say, “Hey, Robbins, looking good. You should come out for the team this year.” Then, I’d go to tryouts, and for two straight years, I was the last guy cut. No hard feelings. I deserved to be cut. I was the kid who was not quite good enough to make the team but usually one of the best in the regular gym classes. It never stopped me from playing hoops after school in my driveway and later on in adult leagues and at the local health club.

However, when I became a father, it was pretty clear that my firstborn son, Ben, was a natural athlete. When he was only about two and a half, he could throw a whiffle ball up and hit it in the air with a bat. I could see he was no chip off the ol’ block. Instead, it looked like he might own the block. I couldn’t wait until he was old enough to play a sport.

My name is Emerson Robbins, known to all my friends as Skip. My brother Steve and I owned a chain of engagement ring stores, which is how I found myself one evening at a boring industry dinner dance, the kind where everyone sits at round tables and is served the proverbial chicken or fish dinner, ordered in advance. Though I always hated these types of events, it was expected for me to be there, and I’m usually a get-along kind of guy.

I was sitting at a table next to a friend of mine in the biz, Bob Sears. Bob was a sales rep for a big jewelry wholesaler. We didn’t do much business together, but he and I always got along well. His wife Renee was entertaining Sherri, my wife, with a story about the time, many years ago, when she went out on a date with Elvis. Yes, The Elvis!

Bob said, “Logan, my six-year-old, is having a blast playing soccer.”

“Cool; where does he play?” I asked.

“He plays through AYSO at the Sherman Oaks Park; you know, the fields off Woodman.”

AYSO is the American Youth Soccer Organization, the largest organization in the country for youth soccer, founded in Torrance, California, in 1964.

I didn’t hear much about soccer growing up; as mentioned, it just wasn’t played in my neck of the woods. “I’ve been wanting to sign Ben up for a sport. When are sign-ups?” I put in.

Bob, taking a bite from his cheesecake, said, “I think they’re next month.”

I was also thrilled that Sherri was enjoying her conversation with Renee, which hopefully meant I wouldn’t have to dance.

* * *

So, with Bob’s encouragement, I decided to sign Ben up. When the AYSO sign-ups opened, I was there first thing to register my son to play at AYSO Region 58 in Sherman Oaks.

Ben ended up on a team coached by a gentleman who looked more like a bird-watcher than a coach...turned out, his hobby really was bird-watching.

He even wore the dorky shorts and vest. It didn’t take long before I figured out that this not-very-athletic-looking gent knew even less about soccer than I did, and, worse, he proved to be totally inept dealing with young kids, even his own.

The first season was a long one for this unfortunate team. For me, too…the boys lost every game. They didn’t keep score at that age, but the kids knew what was happening. No one likes losing, especially every game. The kids learned very little about soccer, and most didn’t even have fun.

On the positive side, Ben enjoyed playing, and, as suspected, he turned out to be the best player on the team. Soccer, at that time, wasn’t a very popular sport in the U.S. There weren’t many parents, at least who we knew of, who understood the game or who were willing to put in the time to coach, so the league board members were always begging for volunteers.

I began to realize I should probably try to cut the bird-watcher some slack. At least he was trying to make a difference, and so, I decided to volunteer to coach a team. The region’s directors were thrilled to have another sucker, i.e., …volunteer step up.

Having a somewhat obsessive personality, I spent many evenings studying what I discovered was the world’s most popular sport, also known as the “beautiful game.” I ordered books and read them cover to cover. Most of the coaches in the league came from other countries, such as Mexico, England, Scotland, Ireland, Portugal, South Africa, Germany, Brazil, and other countries, where the game of fútbol is king and just about every boy grows up with a ball in his crib. I soon discovered that the top coach in the league was an Israeli gentleman named Abe.

I introduced myself to Abe. “They asked me to coach, but I’m fairly new to soccer, so I’m hoping I can ask you some questions every now and then. They tell me you’re the man to talk to.”

Abe smiled. “Sure, Skip, call me anytime,” he said, as he gave me his phone number.

I took Abe up on his kind offer and called him several times a week, each time bombarding him with questions. Abe always graciously complied. I can’t recall how many times I called Abe, but I know it was quite a few, and he really helped me learn the basics.

While I didn’t know much about soccer, I’d like to believe I’m a natural coach.

My first coaching gig was back when I was in high school. My younger brother, Steve, then in middle school, was on a local YMCA team. Steve’s Y team played baseball, basketball, flag football, track and field, and even competed in swimming—just about every sport but soccer. Steve’s team wasn’t doing well, and one day, he came home from practice and said his coach had quit, leaving the team high and dry. No parent stepped up, so Steve finally asked if I’d take over as coach.

I readily agreed and quickly got to work, preparing. My very first move was to encourage Steve to recruit all the best athletes at his middle school. Being a popular kid and a great salesman, Steve ended up convincing many of the top athletes at his school to join the team. The Condors soon soared from last place to the top team in their league in just about every sport, quite a dramatic turnaround. I don’t remember a lot about those years, but I do recall we had one kid on the team, Chris Haynes; this kid was huge, I mean really huge. He was also fast and powerful. He was a man among boys. During football season, flag football, Haynes was so intimidating that the opponents, instead of trying to grab his flag, would actually run from him to avoid having to make contact with him. It looked a bit like Gulliver versus the Lilliputians. He’d score a touchdown just about every time he had the ball. Steve also brought in some kids who were equally talented in some of the other sports our team competed in, and, as such, the Condors became a virtual juggernaut, destroying our competition. The lesson here was very clear! You don’t have to do a great deal of coaching when your team has vastly superior talent.

After the games, I’d pile Steve and his teammates into my old Chevy Nova and treat them all to ice cream. It so happened I worked at a local Baskin-Robbins and got a discount.

I think the only reason the co-owners of the franchise, two brothers, hired me was because my last name was Robbins, and they thought I had to be related to the Robbins who cofounded the famous company. The main offices for Baskin-Robbins were only a few miles from the store where I worked, so although I denied being any relation, I don’t think they ever believed me. I wasn’t even sixteen years old when I applied; however, within a short time, I proved to be a valuable employee, so much so that the owners appointed me as Store Manager after my being there for less than a year. I’d guess they saw how responsible I was, especially for a high school kid. Plus, they liked how I always tried to sell customers bottles of fudge sauce, caramel sauce, cones, and more, whenever someone ordered pints, quarts, or gallons of ice cream to go. Having grown up in a family retail business, I had an innate understanding of business and sales, which most high school kids just didn’t get.

Early one Saturday morning, just after opening the store up by myself, not an uncommon occurrence, since mornings were usually the slowest time of the day, in walks a young white guy, maybe in his early twenties, dressed in dirty jeans and a wrinkled white t-shirt. I approached him as he leaned against the counter to place an order, or at least, so I thought. Suddenly, he pulls out a gun, pointed directly at my stomach, from less than a few feet away. He then tells me to open up the register and hand him all of the cash in the drawer. Not a huge surprise at this point, as I figured he wasn’t there for the flavor of the month. I had no thoughts about anything other than doing what he said. I sure wasn’t going to try to play the hero and attempt to save the meager ice cream receipts, less than twenty dollars; plus, it seemed to me he might possibly be even more frightened than I was. I distinctly remember his hand shaking as he held the gun. He seemed as nervous as could be. This guy was definitely no Dillinger. It was probably his first holdup, guessing he was a druggie, desperate for funds to feed his habit. Who else would be dumb enough to rob an ice cream store, especially in the morning right after the store opened, with no time to fill the till? I remember being less scared than I thought I should be. Maybe the situation was just too surreal for me to grasp, or maybe I was in a state of shock. I’m not sure why, but I handed over the money to him without hesitating, nervously dropping some loose change on the floor. After handing him the cash, he told me to go to the back room as he followed closely behind, the gun now sticking into my lower back. I recall asking him if he was going to kill me? Kinda funny looking back on it, but I’ve always been the inquisitive type. He gruffly replied, “Just shut your mouth, and do what I tell you.” He then said to lock myself in the bathroom and to not come out for a half-hour or he’d kill me. That’s when I knew I was safe. After about fifteen minutes or so, as silently as possible, I unlocked the bathroom door and cautiously creeped out, listening carefully for any sounds. Not hearing a peep, I peered out the doorway, as subtly and slowly as possible. Not seeing him in the small store, I rushed to the phone and immediately called the police and then my bosses. After the police arrived and the bosses drove over to relieve me from my shift, I ran home and excitedly told my mom what had happened. At this point, the whole experience was just an exciting adventure that I knew I’d remember for the rest of my life. A few days after the holdup, I was asked to come to the police station to look at books filled with photos of suspects. After looking through hundreds of photos, and not seeing anyone resembling the holdup guy, I returned home. That was pretty much the end of it. I’m sure that robbing an ice cream store of about twenty dollars wasn’t going to result in a nation-wide manhunt, so it wasn’t long before the whole situation faded into time, becoming nothing more than a distant memory. It worked out well for me, though, because the owners of the store, being the sympathetic gents they were and feeling bad that a youngster like me was placed in such a precarious situation, were now more congenial to me than ever. I think they might have been more traumatized by the whole deal than I was. In any case, from that point on, they graciously allowed me to give ice cream to my friends and family at a drastically reduced cost. My younger brother and the boys I coached on the team were the main beneficiaries of the great ice cream caper. Well, I guess I was the luckiest of all, having not been shot at; in any case, this event played a part in my first season as a coach serving as a tasty bonus to all the players on the team since I always paid their tab. A season later, Steve had graduated middle school and my coaching gig was over. I wouldn’t coach again until many years later, six years after Ben was born—a fourteen-year hiatus from coaching.

Chapter 2

The Seahawks of Soccer

I was born in Seattle, as was my entire family. Though our parents moved down to Southern California when I was just a little tyke, many of my extended family remained in Seattle—my grandparents, an aunt, uncle, and cousins—and so I visited the “Emerald City” often while growing up. That is how I became a die-hard Seahawks fan when they joined the NFL in 1976.

When I started coaching Ben’s team, I knew I wasn’t going to make naming the team a democratic process. I didn’t want to be stuck with a team named the “Scooby Doo’s,” or the “Foot-Fighters,” the “A-Team,” or the like.

I decided to name the team the Seahawks after the team I’d rooted for since the franchise began.

In our first season, we finished somewhere in the middle of the pack, which I felt was a fairly worthy accomplishment given I was a total neophyte to the game. The kids seemed to have a lot of fun, and the parents were complimentary about their new and enthusiastic coach. Maybe they were just cutting me some slack, knowing I was new to this. In our second season, we finished near the top of the league. There was a yearly draft in the league in order to keep parity, so the team’s roster changed annually. I tried to draft the boys I wanted back, but that wasn’t always possible, so there were always some returning players, as well as a group of new players.

A key part of my success as a coach was that I had a way of making the game and practices fun for the boys, though I’d still be working them hard. I’d often bring toys as incentives, going to the Dollar Store every week to stock up. I also gave many of the boys nicknames. A short, stout defender named Paul was “Paul the Wall” because I told him he was like a wall that no one could get past. Then there was Bobby “The Bullet,” faster than a speeding bullet, and “Super Glue Glen” because he marked players so tightly. Another boy was “The Hitman” because he was so tough. Jake “the Snake” was our quick moving goalkeeper.

Back then, in the eighties, attitudes weren’t nearly as politically correct as they are today, so I could get away with some of these now controversial monikers. The boys on the team seemed to take great pride in their nicknames. I innately understood how to make the game fun for the kids, which was half the battle.

By the third season, the Seahawks contended for the league championship. However, we lost the game in a tight penalty kick (PK) shoot-out. Nonetheless, this season, we beat Abe’s team, and Ben had become one of the top players in the league—obviously, a huge boost to our team’s success.

Another factor to my quick rise up the coaching ladder was that I knew what I didn’t know and had no ego about bringing in help. Early on, I found a former college player and paid him to help train the boys at practices. I always sought out help from former players who’d played the game at a fairly high level.

When Ben was eleven, we hit pay dirt. One of the office ladies who worked for my company was dating Martin Vasquez, who just a few years earlier played for the U.S. National Men’s Soccer Team. He’d also played professional soccer in Mexico and was still playing in the top league in the U.S. at that time.

I asked the young lady, “You think Martin might be interested in helping train my son’s soccer team and earning some money on the side?”

“I’ll ask him,” she said and returned a few days later. “Hey, good news! Martin is totally up for it.”

He was soon training the boys two practices a week. Martin was planning to give his girlfriend, Denise, an engagement ring, so we worked out a deal. Instead of cash, Martin got a beautiful diamond engagement ring for training the team.

The boys were always mesmerized watching Martin juggle a soccer ball, seemingly keeping it in the air forever. They, of course, benefitted greatly from having a high-caliber trainer like Martin helping them learn and improve their skills, but they weren’t the only ones.

I was like a sponge, asking Martin a thousand questions and soaking up all the knowledge I could about the world’s most popular game. Before long, I felt like I had a pretty decent grasp of the game.

After his playing career ended, Martin went on to serve as assistant coach for the L.A. Galaxy and later for Chivas USA, also of the MLS. Then, legendary player and coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, hired Martin to be his assistant coach at Bayern Munich, one of the world’s top teams. He later returned to Chivas USA as head coach. Martin then joined Klinsmann again, this time as assistant coach for the United States Men’s national team. The boys were pretty darn lucky to have such incredible training. Martin and I became friends, and Sherri and I attended Martin and Denise’s wedding not long after the season ended. We still remain friends to this day.

Before the start of the fourth season, Abe suggested we team up, though not because he thought I was the better coach. More because he thought we’d make a good combo with Abe training and coaching and with my previous success, enthusiasm, and the fact the boys on my team always had a lot of fun. Also, since Ben and Abe’s sons were two of the top players in the league, Abe likely felt this union would be an advantage. Abe also figured out that I was a good evaluator of talent. When the drafts were held, I always seemed to come up with a few lower draft choices that proved to be “diamonds in the rough.”

The team did well again, but the season didn’t go as smoothly for me as it had before Abe and I teamed up. I decided that I preferred to coach alone. Abe’s son was a great player, but he could be hardheaded and a bit selfish with the ball, trying to do too much on his own and not passing to open teammates. I found it wasn’t easy to coach a fellow coach’s son. By this time, I was recognized as one of the best coaches in the league, and I was asked to coach the Region 58 All-Star team, which I did for the next few years.

In 1987, Ben and David, Abe’s son, were invited to play on a Southern California All-Star team. The team was heading overseas to play against youth teams in Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Neither Abe nor I were coaching this team, but we still jumped at the opportunity. The team met in the West L.A. area and practiced for several months prior to the trip. One of the players’ dads was an international travel agent and made all of the arrangements for the families that went. The group of boys and their families had a great time on this trip, combining the many games with lots of sightseeing. Ben turned out to be one of the top players, even on this team made up of All-Stars from all over Southern California.

Ben was only about four years old when his mother and I divorced. We’d been high school sweethearts but soon realized we’d made a mistake. We were polar opposites in many ways, coming from completely different backgrounds and having very little in common; we had no business whatsoever getting married. We were married for seven years and had two children—Ben, our firstborn, and Kerri, his younger sister, who was barely a year old at the time of the divorce. Not long after we separated, I met Sherri and fell in love. Sherri was and is a vivacious blonde, about 5’2” with a warm smile, a magnetic and super-fun personality, and a heart of gold. We dated for several years after the divorce. After the traumatic ending of my first marriage, I was naturally gun-shy. I was the first and only in my family to get a divorce. My parents had a marriage made in heaven, so I came from a happy home and wanted no less for my children and myself. Everyone who met Sherri loved her, though none more than me. The two of us seemed to belong together, and, as time would prove, we most certainly did.

Ben, as well as my daughter, Kerri, took to Sherri, and she became like a best friend, never trying or wanting to be their second mother. Ben was eleven when Sherri and I tied the knot, with Ben serving as my handsome best man and Kerri as our adorable auburn-haired flower girl.

It was now 1989. Ben had turned twelve and was entering middle school. He’d been playing soccer since he was six years old. He also played basketball for almost as long. Ben loved both games and excelled at both, but since the two sports took place in the same season, he was forced to make a choice when he began middle school. Soccer or basketball? This was a really tough decision. Although I loved coaching soccer, I knew it was my job as a dad to advise Ben to follow his heart. This had to be completely his choice, not mine. After much thought and deliberation, he finally decided on basketball over soccer. Though I’d never tell him, this wasn’t what I’d hoped for, but it was Ben’s decision, and all I could do was gulp, take a few deep breaths, and fully embrace my son’s decision. I was then retired from coaching soccer, at least for a while.

A year earlier, in 1988, Sherri and I had our first child Ryan, and when Ryan was five, I eagerly signed him up for soccer. Ryan was not the athlete that Ben was, but that didn’t matter. I just wanted him to have fun, get some exercise, and as an added bonus, I was back coaching again.

However, I soon found out that coaching five-year-old boys is a lot more like babysitting than it is coaching. Nevertheless, I stuck it out for Ryan’s sake. By the time Ryan was around seven, I found it was again enjoyable to coach.

I made sure to keep it fun for Ryan and the other boys on the team and; just as it was while coaching Ben, the team did well. This time, I had the advantage of my previous experience, so the Seahawks were back, contending for the league championship just about every season.

Ryan had a completely different nature than Ben and as parents often do, if open to it, I learned some valuable lessons from my kids. Ben was intense, driven to be the best he could be, while Ryan was a politician, more of a peacemaker. There was a boy in Ryan’s kindergarten class, Jonathon, nicknamed Jono, who was the proverbial class bully. Having heard from Ryan numerous times that Jono was picking on him as well as some of the other kids; Ben and I advised him, that in order to get Jono to stop, all Ryan needed to do was punch him in the nose one time. That way, we told Ryan, he’ll never be bullied again, at least not by Jono. So, we proceeded to teach Ryan how to throw a punch, shadow boxing with him the next few afternoons. A few days later, at dinner, we asked Ryan if he had punched Jono yet? Ryan responded, no; instead he’d decided to make friends with Jono, which he did. This was Ryan personified. A wise five-year-old had clearly taught us a better way to handle things.

As it turned out, Ryan and Jono became good friends and as luck would have it, or maybe karma playing its part, Jono happened to develop into one of the best soccer players in the league and because he and Ryan were friends, I drafted him for our team. With Jono’s athleticism and soccer skills playing a big part, the Seahawks were back, contending for the league championship every season thereafter.

Three years after Ryan was born, Sherri and I had another son Tyler, and when Tyler was five, I signed him up for soccer as well. Since I didn’t have the time to coach two teams and I sure didn’t want to start all over again with preschoolers and kindergartners, I didn’t coach Tyler’s team the first year or two. I served as an assistant coach for Tyler’s team the following year while I continued to coach the Seahawks—now the perennial league leaders. At this point, I had become among the most respected coaches in the league, and several other coaches were now asking for my advice, just as I had with Abe many years prior.

Meanwhile, Ben was now a varsity starter, two-time captain of his high school basketball team, and one of the best players in his league. His high school team became one of the top teams in Southern California when, in Ben’s junior year, his school welcomed the Twin Towers, the Collins twins, Jason and Jarron, each almost seven feet tall. These twins, both bright and extremely nice young men, were dominating inside players while Ben served as the captain and point guard, feeding the twins the ball and hitting three-pointers when the defense collapsed. Ben set a new school record for assists, as well as three-pointers. The Collins twins later went on to play for Stanford University and, from there, to the NBA.

I loved watching Ben play. In the four years that Ben played for his high school team, I didn’t miss a game, not even the away games. I was not, however, very fond of his coach. The coach often wore a cheesy lime green suit with cowboy boots, obviously not a candidate for Mr. Blackwell’s fashion list. Bear in mind, he dressed like this in L.A., at one of the top prep schools in the state. This humorless jerk, with the personality of a corpse and all the warmth of a winter tombstone, was careful never to shout at the twins, but he’d often get in the face of some of the other players and scream at them at the top of his voice, humiliating them in the echoing gym in front of all their friends, folks, and fans.

More often than not, I regret it when I tell someone off. I’ve rarely even done so as I’m not the confrontational type. However, in this case, I look back and regret not telling Ben’s coach what I thought of him. I would never have done so when Ben was playing for him but wished I had after he graduated. I would have told him that these boys were going to remember their years playing for their high school team for the rest of their lives, and they should be looking back fondly on these years. However, because of his harsh and almost abusive coaching style, it was highly doubtful most would. What was equally disturbing was that, although Ben was the captain and the star guard for his team for several years, this tacky and tactless coach never went even one step out of his way to help Ben in his quest to play basketball in college.

Ben ended up playing a few years of college ball, but no thanks to his high school coach. The only saving grace of this coach was by watching him interact with his players, he unintentionally taught me what not to do as a coach.

I was juggling going to Ben’s basketball games and helping coach two youth soccer teams, all while running a business. Fortunately, I was partners with my brother Steve in our now very successful chain of engagement ring stores, so I somehow managed to take time off to go to Ben’s games and still coach my other two boys.

I ran the creative side of the business, the marketing, merchandising, and store design, while Steve handled daily store operations, as well as the finances. We were close, and each of us proved to be experts in our given areas. I had tremendous respect for Steve’s financial acumen and his sales ability. However, I had also earned a national reputation in our industry for my marketing and merchandising skills and was instrumental in making our brand synonymous with engagement and wedding rings in Southern California. Nevertheless, Steve could not help but continue to want to micromanage me. It really came down to the fact that, as anyone who’s ever been in a family business knows, it’s often difficult to mix family and business. Steve was ambitious and the main driver of the business, while I was no longer as willing to put in the same number of exorbitant hours as he did. We had already worked together for over twenty-some years, and at this point in time, I wanted more balance in my life. I was making more money than I’d ever dreamed of, but I was growing tired of feeling like second fiddle. We were both type A personalities, and it’s never easy to have two drivers for one car. I felt like I could never win an argument with Steve. He knew I had excellent instincts, but even when he knew I was right, he’d take a devil’s advocate position. Steve, though brilliant in business, was also one of the most persistent and, in my view, controlling people I’d ever experienced. This was definitely not my idea of what a true partnership was about or should be.

In spite of the money I was making, I was no longer enjoying the business, feeling more and more like a partner in title only and finding myself becoming increasingly cynical and bitter. I loved my younger brother and had tremendous respect for him. I had no illusions about who was the better businessman, and I knew that if I went my own way, it was highly unlikely I’d ever earn as much as I was making at that time. However, I’d also learned a valuable lesson. In spite of what most people may believe, I discovered that money doesn’t make you happy. I knew Steve was never going to change, so after many years of frustration, I finally told him I wanted out. It was time for me to step away and sell him my share of the business.

More than anything, I wanted to continue loving my brother, but I finally came to the conclusion that this couldn’t be sustained unless I moved on—a difficult decision that I’d pondered for several years. It was now the right time to move on. Both of my older children from my first marriage, Ben and Kerri, had graduated high school and were either already in or headed off to college. Sherri and I spent a great deal of time discussing this and finally decided this was the perfect time in our lives to leave Southern California and start anew.

At the season’s end, as was the norm for all teams, the Seahawks held our team banquet after our final season as a team. Sherri and I had grown close to many of the players and parents. While the team roster would change every year, a handful of players had remained on the team for several years, a few even since the team’s inception.

Most of them had heard and were disappointed to find out I was moving to Seattle. One of the players, a talented little guy named Andy, had a dad who was the noted sportscaster, Roy Firestone. Andy was one of the stars of our team, which had just come off a great year, vying once again for the league title. Roy, known to just about every sports fan in Southern California and beyond, gave a heartfelt speech about what a great coach I was for the kids and how much his son loved the team and this season—his son’s favorite season ever. This was already an emotional day for me, and being an emotional guy to begin with, I could barely keep it together. With tears in my eyes, I choked out a warm and genuine thank you to Roy for his kind words and expressed my appreciation to all of the players, parents, and friends who attended the event. The team handed me a goodbye gift, suitably an umbrella, knowing our family was headed up to the rainy Northwest.