Why I live in a small town

Dedicated to Private First Class, Ryane G. Clark

You may or may not know this, but my small town of New London, Minnesota lost a soldier last week. He was 22 year old Ryane Clark, a 2007 graduate of New London-Spicer High School, where he was a wrestler, and an Eagle Scout.

Today, Pfc. Ryane Clark returned home. His remains were flown to Willmar Municipal airport, and from there, began a 20 mile memorial procession, ending at the funeral home in downtown New London.

Eight soldiers with the Army’s 27th Engineer Battalion from Fort Bragg, N.C., carry the casket containing the body of Army Pfc. Ryane Clark after it arrived Thursday at Willmar Municipal Airport. Photo courtesy of West Central Tribune.

I never knew Private Clark, nor his family, but I know of them. Everyone knows *of* everyone in a small town. Even if you haven’t met them directly, you know someone who’s dated their daughter, goes to the same church, works at their auto repair shop, or went on vacation with them last spring. Everyone knows OF everyone here.

I happened to be working at a client’s office in Willmar today, so I decided to leave early in order to pay my respects along the procession route. Even though I didn’t know Ryane, I wanted to be there for him. He was a wrestler; my boys are wrestlers. He lived in New London; I live in New London. He died to protect our country. I live in this country.

I wanted to be there.

So, as I drove home along MN State Highway 23, I noticed people already beginning to line both sides of the road. Just outside the electric cooperative, employees had gathered on the center median, between four lanes of busy, fast-moving traffic. They waved flags as I passed. I waved back with tears streaming down my face. Behind them, crew members had backed one of their high wire repair trucks into the ditch, and extended the hydraulic arm, raising a flag in Ryane Clark’s honor. The back of my throat tightened, and an unexpected sob snuck out of me.

Flag raised at Kandiyohi County Power Cooperative

My thoughts turned to the Clark family, knowing they were not far behind me. They’d be passing this exact spot just moments from now. If I was this choked up, how would they feel?

As I got closer to Spicer, (our neighboring city, just four miles north of New London), more and more people were gathered along the route. I wondered how long they’d been waiting there. Rounding the corner and pulling into town, I noticed the entire parking lot of Jahnke’s grocery store was full. People were lined up, waiting in their cars, ready to move out to the road once the procession got closer. I stopped at the red light and noticed a woman at the corner, sitting in her wheelchair scooter. She was by herself, holding a flag… waiting. I wondered who she was; why she cared.

Someone had thought to tie yellow ribbons and an American flag to every light post in the center of the road. There were flags and people everywhere… at Town and Country Tire, the Dairy Queen, along the bike trail, and in front of Mel’s Sport Shop. More tears, more choked-back sobs.

I neared the turnoff to my house and wondered if I had time to grab my camera. This was an amazing sight, and I wanted to save it in my memory. But, did I have time? I listened to Q102 as Mary Elin Macht gave an update on where the procession was in Willmar. I decided it wasn’t worth it. It was more important to pay my respects than to preserve the memory.

I drove into New London and first noticed the gigantic tower erected at the concrete plant. Was it a truck? I wasn’t sure… how could any hydraulic arm get that high? And proudly displayed atop the tower… a flag. I slowed down and prepared to turn left onto Highway 9… the road that runs right through downtown New London. And there, on either side of the main drag, were two fire trucks with their ladders extended, forming an arch over the road. A gigantic American flag was draped from the end of each.

The bawling started… I couldn’t go down that road. There were people lined up along the entire street. I moved back into traffic and took the back way into town. As I pulled into the driveway of our creative studio, I took a deep breath, said a little prayer, and got out of the car. God, help me through this. Help this family. Help our town.

The schools had let out early so all the grades could attend the procession. Even the elementary kids had walked over from the grade school. The Color Guard from the American Legion was parked on the road beside me. The plan was for them to lead the procession by foot once it turned onto Highway 9, and continue all the way down Main Street, to the funeral home. I looked at the members of the Color Guard, wondering if they could even make it that far. They looked to be in their late 70s, or maybe even their early 80s. But I could tell no one would question the logic. They were soldiers, a band of brothers, and they had lost one of their own.

As the procession neared, we heard a helicopter overhead. Channel 11 news out of Minneapolis was covering the procession. Hmm. Wasn’t sure what I thought about that. It was loud and obtrusive, but then, I guess this story was newsworthy.

And then, around the corner, I saw the Color Guard heading our way. Every grade school child along Main Street put their hand over their heart and said nothing. Not a word. Not today.

God bless you Ryane Clark, and thank you for your service to our country.

Click to view a quick clip of the procession from my cell phone…

6 Comments

  1. Thanks Joy.

  2. Susan Dressel |

    BEAUTIFULLY SAID.

  3. I too saw the beauty of small town life today.

  4. Thanks Joy, your story made me cry this morning. I think people forget all too often how important our military is. They put their lives on the line for us to live in this free country. All too often young lives are taken before their time protecting my freedom, my children’s freedom, everyone’s freedom. These people are true American Heroes and deserve to be honored as one in life and in death. I hope your story touches many and reminds people to say “Thank You to all of our soldiers”. Thanks again for your wonderful story.

  5. Thank you Ryane Clark and Joy. You brought to life honor and heartbreak in the sacrifice of Ryane and his fellow freedom fighters. I, too, am crying while reading your description of, maybe small towns, but BIG HEARTS. God Bless our USA!

  6. This was so inspiring. Seems like people in small towns know something about everyone (which usually irritates me) but when tragedy happens they come together and support each other!! Thats what its all about.

    Prayers to The Clark family.

    Awesome story Joy.

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