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What are you thankful for?

11:00 PM, Mar 7, 2004 • By LARRY MILLER
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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.