It was outside in the hot sun, in front of a building he must have visited hundreds of times.
The flag was lifted and held taut above the casket, there was a rifle salute, and echo taps, and a helicopter fly by.
The bagpipes played “Amazing Grace” as the flag was folded and carried to the superintendent.
There was a salute and the handover and then he walked to the front of three rows of chairs, pivoted in front of Nick’s mom and dad, and bent down to make the presentation.
That’s when the static broke.
“Canandaigua to all Troop E cars and stations,” the trooper in dispatch radioed. “Maintain radio silence until further notice for a special broadcast.”
And they did.
Across three zones, 10 counties and 23 stations.
For long moments, the busy radio crackle of the New York State Police fell silent.
“Canandaigua” is the station originating the radio call. It is calling to a specific troop car. “3” is the zone, “E” is the troop, “16” is the car.
There was no answer. The dispatcher repeated.
There was no answer. The dispatcher called out a third time.
“Canandaigua. 3E16 – Trooper Clark?”
That’s the man on the front of the program. Nick Clark. A big kid with a big smile, he played football for the college where they gathered, his family and the people from town and maybe a couple thousand cops from across the country, in the fieldhouse, in their Sunday clothes, come to say good bye.
The governor had come in with the top brass of the state police. He wasn’t announced and he had no role in the program, but he knelt before the various members of Nick’s family and held their hands and spoke with them.
As the ceremony began, the flag-draped casket rested in the front between the flags of New York and the United States. There was a picture of him as a trooper; there was a picture of him as a football player. To the right, against the wall, there were pictures of him on a board, a collage of who he was and what he’d done. Hunting, fishing, wrestling, trying out for the Buffalo Bills. To the left, on a table, were mementos from police agencies. Flags, patches, challenge coins. And across the back, maybe 20 or more floral arrangements.
The arena had been a mess earlier in the week. A big renovation project during the summer break and then this tragedy and the hall was needed. So since Thursday they worked day and night, laborers and tradesmen, putting it back together and making it nice. It was what was needed, and they did it, and that was how they showed their love.
One whole side of the arena was police officers, and maybe a quarter of the other side as well. On the floor, on the right side, sat row upon row upon row of state troopers, each with a lump in his throat and a Stetson on his lap.
The people were Southern Tier people. Rugged, sunburned, in various sizes and degrees of refinement. As is the case in small towns out in the country, the intertwining relationships of family and experience create a sense of community and identity felt in few other places. They all looked sad because they were, because they had mostly been touched by him and his life and his family. This wasn’t an as-seen-on-TV event, this was Nick.
The Nick they’d played with or hunted with or served with. And they didn’t just know him, they loved him.
“You just knew things would be better if Nick showed up,” the superintendent said.
He was a trooper from another generation, responsible for the whole state. But the uniform is the same, and he seemed to understand this young man.
“His willingness to help others became his life’s work,” the superintendent said.
But like the Savior he worshipped, Nick Clark’s life’s work led to his death.
“His life was taken because he did what we asked him to do,” the superintendent said.
That “we” is you and me, and everybody else who wants to live in a safe and peaceful society, who wants to lock the door and close the blinds and call 911 when the going gets tough.
His life was taken because he did what we asked him to do. He died on the people’s errand, on their bidding, in the public service. For me and you.
The superintendent’s closing words were, “Rest in peace.” He choked with emotion as he said them, and turned and walked back to his seat.
Nick was 29. The picture inside the program shows a portrait he took with his dog. Big smile, hunting jacket, sportsman’s cap. The retriever is in his arms.
On his Twitter account, you find pictures of ice-fishing pals, the view from his deer stand, and the backstraps of a fat doe browning in a frying pan. He posted Christmas greetings, thanks for his blessings, lyrics from country songs, observations about sports, and love for his family.
His profile picture shows him with that big smile, cradling his newborn niece in his strong arms.
After the third radio transmission, after the third call out with no response, the dispatcher paused.
“Trooper Nicholas F. Clark.”
It’s a ritual called the last roll call. It’s used by our military and by our police. To honor the ones who die for us.
It played over the loud speaker where loving hands clutched a folded flag, and in the arena where silent people watched on giant screens, and it echoed from the two-way speakers of hundreds of troop cars across a broad swath of New York State.
“Trooper Nicholas F. Clark. End of watch July 2nd, 2018.”
It was a faceless and nameless dispatcher, a trooper herself, speaking for the family of purple and gray, and the larger family of blue, and the still larger family of red, white and blue.
“The men and women of the New York State Police are forever grateful, and proud to have worked with Trooper Clark, and will always remember his sacrifice.
“We thank you for your service to the citizens of New York State. You are gone, but will never be forgotten.
“Rest easy – We have the watch.
Inside, they silently stood and began to disburse. Outside, the cortege headed off to a little spot in Hillside Cemetery where, on Saturdays in the fall, you can hear the cheers when the Redskins play.
And on the air, the static crackled with the busyness of society’s defenders returning to their task.