Typical Travis, he goes on an LDS Church mission to Russia and winds up getting kidnapped.

I keep seeing his face, a moonbeam of laughter as it was every Sunday at our dinner table, thinking he's got this big joke going.But the image wavers, fades into darkness, recedes into that cold, bleak, Russian landscape he's described in letters.

Over the years, I've written about dozens of tragedies, quoting friends and family. They always say the victim was special.

Now I empathize: Travis Tuttle has been like an adopted son since my wife started coaching his Gilbert High tennis team five years ago. Linda has a way of growing close to kids, bringing them home, making them part of the family.

Travis is special: a warm, bright, charismatic, tough kid with incredible energy and heart.

I vowed not to write about this story, not to trivialize life with maudlin prose. But it is better than waiting, than doing nothing.

When word came that Travis and another missionary were kidnapped in Samara, I blindly dialed the Tuttle home in Gilbert.

Roy, his father, answered. "I was just calling you," he said.

Nothing more needs saying. You just know. Words are hollow. And the journalist's favorite question - "How do you feel?" - exposed as an abomination.

I see Travis in the kitchen, arguing about sports, laughing so hard at one of Linda's stupid jokes that he chokes on his Sprite . . . He's at the tennis court, hitting with Dusty, screaming at himself over a bad shot . . . He's on the sofa, 6-year-old Kacie curled at his side, reading a bedtime story.

I used to wonder if his parents resented us for stealing away the time and affection. But there was plenty of the latter with Travis.

And the concern vanished that day at church a year ago when we celebrated a young man's mission to Russia. Instead of jealousy, Donna Tuttle tearfully offered gratitude to her child's "second mom."

A few weeks before Travis left, I looked up Samara on the Internet. Besides the geographical stuff, I came across several postings from young Russian women seeking American husbands.

One was a beautiful 20-year-old named Marina. I printed out her biography, then I wrote a long letter from "Marina" to Travis. In broken English, she explained that she was on a student exchange visit at ASU and had met one of Travis' friends, who mentioned the upcoming mission.

"Marina" wrote that it would be wonderful if they could rendezvous at her home in Samara and provided an address for him to visit. I attached Marina's picture to the letter, then mailed both from a Tempe postal box.

Typical Travis was all geared up to visit Marina until the truth slipped out.

Faced with injustice, his lower jaw juts out in fiery belligerence. He understands sacrifice. He not only values hard work, but loves it.

That became obvious in the letters from Russia. Travis never proselytized with us but never disguised his LDS Church faith.

In Samara, he encountered a culture that was the antithesis of his own idealism and vitality. Like other LDS Church elders, Travis lived in squalid apartments, endured bitter cold and slept beneath a table.

But what bothered him most was the desolation of Russia's people. He wrote of a daily ritual - trudging through poverty-stricken neighborhoods, knocking on doors, knowing that few would welcome a spiritual overture.

Yet even his tales of misery were filled with mirth.

He joked about Russian drivers careening along mud roads like demolition derby racers. He provided a gagging description of the local delicacy - fat that has been boiled, then chilled solid. He described his narrow escape from Olga, a lovesick Samara housewife who greeted him at the door without any clothes on.

I remember thinking things were better after his last couple letters. One, a tape-recording, featured Travis teaching a bunch of Russian girls to sing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" in English.

Friends and families know he is not just a survivor, but the kind of guy who will make Russian kidnappers wish they'd picked on someone else. I see him over there, Typical Travis, lecturing his captors on morality until they run for Siberia or sign up at the nearest temple.