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What are you thankful for?

11:00 PM, Mar 7, 2004 • By LARRY MILLER
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I'VE MENTIONED LT. RUSSELL BATES before in this column, a Marine pilot, my friend Pete Hamilton's nephew. Pete and his wife, Marcia, brought their four girls out from Connecticut and stayed with us last Thanksgiving, and his sister, Trish, another pal forever, made everyone a fabulous meal at her place ("faboo," as she would say). Russell came up from Miramar to join everyone. In case you've never done it, it's actually great fun when that many people stay with you, assuming, of course, you don't detest them. We have a four-bedroom house (the bar is its best feature, for good or ill), and every couch and pull-out was filled. And there was always someone padding around with a bowl of cereal.

The next day we all drove down to Russell's base, and had enough cars in procession to look like the picnic in "Citizen Kane." We climbed all over the planes and helicopters, and put on the too-big helmets--the kids, anyway; the grownups just took pictures. Everyone got coated, literally, with the ever-present oil mist, and was disgusted by it--the adults, this time; the kids loved it. Then we all checked into a hotel not too far away for the night, with an eye on their renowned brunch the next day. (You know the ones, where you fill up on the first thing you see, and they have an entire room just for rolls. I think the profit margin on those brunches slightly edges out Las Vegas.)

We were lucky, indeed, to be able to stay at a place like that, because it's one of the fanciest joints anywhere, and I know this for a fact, because just as we all got into our rooms, it became clear that I had cleverly left three pieces of luggage sitting next to the front door back home. Nothing important, really, unless you consider all of the kids' clothes and toothbrushes and toys important. (They were covered with oil, remember, and seriously stank.) The Divine Mrs. M. chewed this new information over in her usual thoughtful manner, measured me for a straight right, thought better of it (for the time being, anyway), and exited the room wordlessly for the gift shop. This was not their first time at the dance, and they were filled with everything a stupid family might need. Monogrammed, of course, with the name and crest of the hotel that will mock me forever on T-shirts, shorts, pants, books, and what used to be called "sundries."

Russell came down the next day and joined us for the brunch, and actually noticed how many of us were walking ads for the hotel. But it was a lovely day, and the rest of us caravanned back to our house, while Russ went back to work. I remember glancing at him down the long table, laughing with Katie, Pete and Marcia's oldest. Russ and Katie were always very close, like brother and sister. I've known Russell since he and his brother were toddlers, and he's one of those guys it's impossible not to meet and think, "What a great young man."

WELL, maybe you can see this coming, and, yes, it's bad news. Russell was killed two weeks ago, flying back to base. Just days later his outfit, Squadron HMM-166: The Seaelk, was beginning a larger training mission before deploying to Iraq. Now they'd have to begin it one man short. But first, they had to find him.

It was one of those things where one second he was on the radar, and the next second he was off it. This was on Monday afternoon, February 16, and the Marines sent out AWACS planes and troops. He was young and strong. Maybe he had survived. But the mountains and the desert hold many secrets, and are hard to beat. Two days became five, and five became ten. His mother flew from England, where Russell and his brother were born and raised, to Connecticut, and she and Marcia and Katie flew from there to San Diego to wait and pray.

We all did. Wait and pray. Each day that brought no word, brought something less desired: longer odds. But as I said to Pete, there's never any reason in life not to hope and pray for the best. Especially when that's all you have. One night, after about a week, my wife asked about Russell when our own kids were asleep, and I shrugged and shook my head. And I said, "Maybe there's some old gold miner in a cabin with no electricity who found him and is nursing him back. Maybe this will all be just an incredible story." Maybe.

As it turns out, maybe not.

In the face of not finding anything, a larger prayer meeting was scheduled on the base for Friday, the 27th, but then they found him Thursday, the night before. The meeting was held on Friday, just the same, but now the prayers were for something different.

COINCIDENTALLY, Marcia and Pete were living in England, too, in the '80s, when I went to visit them. She was pregnant with Katie, and another friend from school was living in London, and when you're single and have a billion bonus miles, it was the kind of trip that made sense. So I stayed with them, and one day we all drove into the country to see her sister and her husband and their young sons. Russell was one of them. (Marcia and her sister were raised in England, too. Their dad was a Navy man, Captain Fuller, Commander of all Naval Operations, U.K., in the '60s.)

So we went to her sister's for the day, Laurie and Tony, and their sons, Russell and Simon. Lord, memories are hard to nail down sometimes. I remember a lot of storybook roads and walls on the drive, and a house with a fence, and a meal and a drink, and two small boys laughing in their playroom. And I remember seeing them rolling around and thinking, "How is it possible for cheeks to be that pink?"

A few years later, still single, I had a movie part in England, and they were all still there, and we got together again, and two of us drank too much, and one of them was me.

Still later, the Hamiltons were back in the States, and took a summer home on Kiawah Island, off Charleston, and invited us, and Russell was visiting, too. It was then he announced he was signing up to be a Marine, and wanted to be a pilot.

Last year he and Simon were in town and called to see if they could come by my office at Universal. I gave them my fifty-cent golf cart tour of the studio. There's a bunch of set houses I love, the "Leave It To Beaver" house, and the "Animal House" house, and one from Ronald Reagan, and lots of others, because some things are never torn down in show business, even if no one ever looks at them again except people like me. And we walked around a little, and went inside, and on the ride back across the lot I made a wrong turn and put us right in the middle of the "Jaws" tour, the part where everything floods. You'd think I'd know my way around by now, but I guess I don't. And the water rose over the wheels, and the three of us sat there laughing like idiots, and the official, triple-hitch, tour tram rolled by on its higher ground, and the puzzled guide waved, and all the tourists waved, and, for lack of anything better to do, we waved back. Then the water receded, and the cart started (which, frankly, surprised all of us), and we went to lunch in the commissary.

And then there was Thanksgiving. And then last week.

THEY SAY IT WAS VERY FAST, what happened, which, somehow, becomes a tiny bit of good in a world of bad. At least, they said, he wasn't crawling around freezing for a bunch of nights. I guess. I don't know. And they found him, which doesn't always happen, though they try their best, and Marine-best is pretty damn good.

A few days before the crash, our littlest had to make a poster for temple with photographs describing his life. He picked one from Halloween, and one from a roller coaster, and one from Legoland, and one from someone's birthday at an indoor rock-climbing thing.

And three standing next to Russell the day after Thanksgiving, covered with oil and grinning like, well, like a kid standing next to a marine pilot and covered with oil. I haven't put it away yet.

One of the calls in the last week was to Trish, and we talked about him, and she said, "Remember what he said on Thanksgiving?" I didn't, and she said, "Sure you do. We were all going around the table saying what we were thankful for, and all the kids said toys and candy and the usual stuff, and we all said health and family and friends, the usual stuff for adults, and then Russell was last and said, 'I'm thankful to God for the chance to get paid for doing something I love.' And he smiled that little smile of his, and we all nodded and thought about it."

I remembered it then, sure enough, because that smile was staring at me from three photographs on a piece of oaktag on the coffee table, and I nodded again, and thought about it one more time.

Larry Miller is a contributing humorist to The Daily Standard and a writer, actor, and comedian living in Los Angeles.