They’re funny. Sad. Heartbreaking. And revealing.

The stories in Mark Nickerson’s book, “Blue Lights in the Night,” offer a rare view inside the life of a Maine State Police trooper, patrolling the rambling, rural roads of Piscataquis, Waldo and Kennebec counties, covering accidents, stopping intoxicated drivers, responding to domestic disputes and investigating crimes. Nickerson, who retired in 2005, shares with readers some of his most memorable moments over his 28-year career.

There’s the drunken driver he arrested three times in 30 years who, on the final stop, declared, “Oh, no, it can’t be you again!”

The night he responded to an accident in Palermo, where a car had careened into a ravine and the driver, too drunk to realize Nickerson was a trooper, begged him to help get him out of there before the cops arrived.

The cold December night early in his career, covering a head-on crash north of Jackman, where two boys were killed by a drunken tractor-trailer driver whose rig slammed into their pickup truck. Nickerson’s job was to notify the mother of one of the victims.

It was heart-wrenching. She struck Nickerson in the chest, screamed and cried hysterically, according to the story, “A Long, Sad Night.”

“I wrapped my arms around her to keep her from hitting me. She hung on to me for all she was worth and sobbed. I lost it and cried with her. I have no idea how long we embraced and cried. But I let her do what she needed to do to console her.”

Published this spring by North Country Press in his hometown, Unity, the book is Nickerson’s first. It is plainspoken, readable, descriptive, poignant. Frankly, I couldn’t put it down.

I met Nickerson, 58, last week after having read the book the week before. How does a retired state police trooper become an author?

It turns out he has a good friend, John Ford Sr., who wrote the popular book “Suddenly the Cider Didn’t Taste So Good,” published in 2012 by Islandport Press in Yarmouth. A retired Maine game warden, Ford for several years wrote columns about his work in the Belfast-based The Republican Journal and later in Village Soup’s weekly newspaper, The Waldo County Citizen.

He and Nickerson had worked together in law enforcement in Waldo County and experienced many adventures along the way. In his columns, Ford often took shots at Nickerson (“John’s a wicked prankster,” Nickerson says).

Republican Journal editor Beth Staples, who later was editor of The Citizen, contacted Nickerson to see if he would write columns in response to Ford’s, and thus began a several-year, back-and-forth sparring between Ford and Nickerson in alternating columns.

“It was like we lived our career over again, trading barbs,” Nickerson said Thursday. “We had a huge following because people loved to read about places they knew and people they knew.”

“Blue Lights in the Night,” available online and in bookstores, is a compilation of only 35 of about 160 of Nickerson’s newspaper columns published between 2005 and 2011.

Now he and Ford, who has written a second book, “This Cider Still Tastes Funny” (published this spring by Islandport), travel the state together, speaking at libraries and other venues, recounting their travels and discussing their books. Their next gig, free and open to the public, is at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Alamo Theatre in Bucksport.

“I really am enjoying this,” Nickerson said.

A 1973 graduate of Cony High School in Augusta, Nickerson grew up in Vassalboro, the son of a school teacher and the late Maine State Police Capt. Millard Nickerson, who retired in 1973 as commander of the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, which today is the State Police Major Crimes Unit.

As a child, Mark admired and respected his father, who was part of a group of state police legends who met regularly in their homes for “quiet practice,” or playing cards and telling stories. Young Mark sat quietly and listened, relishing their tales.

He recalls a story told by Eddie Marks, of Thomaston. Marks was a trooper for 25 years, beginning in 1925. He rode a state police motorcycle with his 300-pound pet bear, Minnie, in the sidecar, Nickerson said.

“Eddie had a bald head and always had a wet cigar in his mouth,” he recalled.

One day, Marks and the bear approached a railroad crossing where a train was coming through, and Marks got off the motorcycle to stretch his legs, according to Nickerson.

“The bear was chained in the sidecar, and when the train whistle blew, the bear tore off into a field, dragging the motorcycle with him. This is one of the stories I never forgot. I can just picture the whole thing happening.”

I didn’t need to ask Nickerson where his propensity for storytelling originated.

As he said of his own stories, “You can’t make this stuff up. The truth is better than fiction, any day.”
More than good reading, his book shows the human side of the men and women in blue, who appear so stoic and staid when we see them on the highways and at crime scenes.

“It’s not all fun and games,” Nickerson said. “Eighty percent of it is extremely serious, but when we can, we try to have fun.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 25 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]

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