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James Brolan Remembered

The eulogy was written by CBS News Correspondent Mark Phillips and was originally published on June 13, 2006.
I see in the notice the family put out for this service that the total points in the Scrabble depiction of James' name comes to 22. James would never accept that. Surely there were some double- or triple-letter scores on the board that would have raised his total to some unassailable level.

James was a double- or triple-score kind of guy -- and not just in Scrabble. With James, you didn't just get another crew member... a sound man. You got a humorist, a script consultant, a social worker, a cook, a fashion consultant, a therapist, a pharmacist and a director of games.

On that point, let me just clear up a misconception that somebody somewhere had accused James of cheating at Scrabble. Nobody really accused James of cheating. What some people do say is that he just had his own view of the rules.

So let's just admit for the final time... Of course you can "avenue" roads -- as in the road needed to be widened, so it was "avenued." Word score: 11.

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Of course... there's such a thing as a qadi Q_A_D_I (not Katie), except it isn't the obscure sailor's knot James said it was -- it's an Islamic judge. Score: 14. You challenged James at your peril ... and not just around the Scrabble board was he usually the smartest guy in the room.

If there's a Scrabble heaven, it's a good bet that James is in it... and I'm pretty sure that there, you get to make -- or bend -- your own rules. But then again, so does everybody else.

James was a rule bender -- but in a good way. He was a creative rule bender. Once when he was part of a camera team that was being denied entrance to an even, he looked around saw a broom and some cleaning equipment, picked it up, talked his way past the guards saying he was a cleaner -- and staked out a prime position for his cameraman.

Another time, when he similarly denied access to a fashion show --Alexander McQueen I think it was -- James noticed a flower shop across the street. In he went, bought a bouquet, walked up to the security guard saying he had flowers to deliver for Mr. McQueen, was let right in -- and staked out a prime position for his team.

No wonder cameramen used to fight over him. One said famously that having James go work with someone else felt like they had stolen your girlfriend.

James was popular for another reason as well: He wasn't only the smartest guy in the room; he was also the funniest. A James one-liner could be devastating and would often be all you remembered from a trip or story

When he and Mat and Bob Woodruff were embedded with the U.S. military during the Iraq invasion, he dubbed their little gang The Desert Prats. What the Iraqis thought of that emblazoned on the side of their Humvee, I'm not sure, but it confused the hell out of the Marines.

The helmet he wore bore his name and blood type on the front -- and across the back it was the phrase "make tea, not war," which I think was the battle cry from his old regiment The Royal Green Jackets. If it isn't, maybe it should be.

Having helped conquer the country -- after a fashion -- James may have single-handedly inspired the insurgency. He was shooting prayers in a mosque in Sadr City -- in Muktader al Sadr's mosque, actually. When all the men knelt in prayer -- their foreheads on the ground in rows as you've all seen -- James was kneeling on the end of one of those rows fiddling with his sound mixer and noticed the cameraman panning over. Thinking quickly, he knelt down too.

Now James always had a problem with his trouser belt line when he knelt over -- a throwback, perhaps, from his decorator and builder days. When the men behind him lifted their heads, the view they got of James was probably more than they cared for. Let's just say they had somewhere to park their bikes. Uproar ensued. Sensing a problem, the crew's security adviser moved, in putting his vast experience in hostile environments to work. Here's what we're going to do, he said. We're gonna leg it. The rest is history.

James did it again after particularly nasty recent interview with the U.S. commander in Iraq in which, as the questions got harder and harder, the commander got more and more monosyllabic and sour. That guy, James later said, must be the battalion's chief lemon taster. If only we could put lines like that in the scripts.

Another time he was miking an interview with a bunch of Iraqis -- holding the boom above their heads as the reporter asked question after question. He must have held it there for half an hour -- never complaining. Finally the reporter hit on a line of questions that worked and the answers came boom, boom, boom... just what they had been looking for. "That's great," the reporter said -- thanks. James looked at him, dropped his aching arms and said, "why didn't you ask those questions at the beginning?"

I'll end this series of yarns with my favorite: In Afghanistan, James was with a crew at an Afghan Army firing range. They'd done an interview with an American colonel -- call him Col. Smith -- who felt he had said something he shouldn't have. Several minutes later, Col. Smith comes over, clearly very agitated, saying, "look, I said something there you shouldn't use -- can not use -- in the story. It would be very bad for what we're trying to do here" -- meaning very bad for him -- so don't use it.

Quick as a whip James looks at him and says, "Of course we won't use it, Private Smith. The other Americans there cracked up. The colonel was completely embarrassed and trying to re-assert his authority says -- in effect, "you're so good at firing off your mouth, try firing this, wise guy," and hands him an AK. James, the military-trained James, picks up the gun, cocks it aims and blasts the target to shreds, adding injury to insult. In some American mess somewhere, people are still laughing at that one.

For the one or two of you who haven't heard the "how James disarmed George Clooney" story -- I'll repeat it briefly. James, said by some to look like Clooney, went up to him before an interview, paused and said, "goodness me," -- or words to that effect -- "it's just like looking in the mirror. Nobody who was there can remember what Clooney said in the interview, but everybody remembers James' line.

Reputations are built on stories like that. And friendships.

If we remembered him in that way -- there are hundred, maybe thousands of children from Iraq to Pakistan to Nepal to who knows where who remember him for his little sight gags: the separating thumb trick ... the offered-and-then-quickly-withdrawn handshake trick.

I can still hear the kids laughing. It was always the best way to find James -- look for the gaggle of laughing kids.

Or look for the pack of Sherpas on Mount Everest. For James, the ascent to the Everest base camp was living a dream. Among his legendary consumption of books were accounts of the great explorers and adventurers, Mallory among them.

But rather than using oxygen on the climb, James used Rothmans ... and of course, all the Sherpas smoked too -- all the time -- as they hauled their loads uphill. It was a relationship made in heaven, to which they seemed to be climbing. The Sherpas provided the local knowledge and James provided the jokes and the fags.

There's a guy in a carpet shop in Islamabad -- a big fat guy -- who James always called my other brother from my other mother. A silly line. He'd introduce the guy that way to anybody else in the shop. The guy loved it. Whenever James would walk in the place there'd be a race to see who would say it first. I don't think it reduced the price of the carpets any, but I'm told that like the rest of us, when the other brother from the other mother heard the news of James' death, he took it pretty hard. Like a death in the family -- even one with two mothers.

James was a guy who naturally connected with people, whether working as part of a film crew or decorating houses. Once you knew him, you stayed connected. All over this part of London there are Queen's counsels, famous composers, film and theatrical directors, who met James because they hired him to paint their houses and who stayed friends. I'm told we're in this church today because James once did some decorating work for the Vicar.

James was a privilege to know. He had the knack or seeing the levity in situations in which there wasn't much levity. He made the terrible, bearable. Among the great tragedies of today is that he isn't here to help us through this.

James is still everybody's other brother.

Geri and the family have asked that I end with this quote from Kipling's Kim, and you'll soon see why:

"From time to time, God causes men to be born -- and thou art one of them -- who have a lust to go abroad at the risk of their lives and discover news. Today it may be of far-off things, tomorrow of some hidden mountain, and the next day of some nearby men who have done a foolishness against the State. These souls are very few; and of these few, not more than 10 are of the best."

Those wishing to make contributions to Brolan's family may send them to the following address. Please make checks payable to "Trust for the Family of James Brolan."
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