Irona Cliver is 33, in good condition but Sunday afternoon she about suffered a physical malady she hadn’t experienced since she was a very little girl.
“Oh my God, I almost (wet) myself,” she said through a loud, excited laugh, a split-second after watching a nice whitetail buck fall to her shot.
The Marine Corps veteran, a sergeant, was more than due some positive excitement in her life.
We met in October when she was a guest at a Wounded Warrior’s-style event. Cliver was probably the most popular of the 25 or so vets being honored because of her out-going personality. At the closing dinner she understandably broke into tears as she spoke of enduring more physical and emotional damage within the past few years than I have in my 55.
We talked for a few minutes, I gave her my card and a “contact me if you ever want to go.” Usually you don’t hear from people after such offers.Within a week of the event Irona more than convinced me she really wanted to go deer hunting, something she hadn’t done in about eight years. I figured we would go. I hadn’t figured we’d have so much assistance.
But the forecast for serious cold, plus about a slam-dunk chance of freezing drizzle and snow ,meant we’d need shelter for her to be even remotely comfortable. So I called my friend, Ed Markel, to see if we could use an enclosed shooting tower on 160 acres he owns in Reno County. It’s a great place to which I’ve been granted access for several years. Still, taking someone with me deserves special consent.
But when I told Ed Irona’s story, he instantly said, “Or there’s the ranch, it has a lot more shooting houses and probably a lot more deer.”
I was stunned.
Offering up “The Ranch” over the other land is as much an upgrade as offering a golfer a chance to go to Pebble Beach over their local favorite course. It’s about 4,000 acres in Elk County that are managed more for wildlife than cattle and crops,…much more. It’s part of the famed Chautauqua Hills, with the steep rimrock canyons, dense woodlands and patches of great prairie and amid all of that are more than about 60 acres of food plots.
And it’s Ed’s baby, …his best spot, a place he understandably only shares very rarely with a relative or friend from out of state. The ground is so sacred to Ed I’ve never asked for bowhunting access out of respect, despite 12 years of our very good friendship.. But he offered it up instantly if I thought it would help Irona to have a good time. It was just the start of unrequested kindnesses.
Ed’s ranch manager, Rick Mitchell, volunteered to guide us around on his day off and help in anyway possible. Another nearby friend, Greg Pickett, flat insisted we come to his ranch to warm up and enjoy a fish fry feast after the hunt. Possibly the best outdoorsmen I’ve met in Kansas, Greg also offered up advice on which stands to hunt on The Ranch, given Sunday’s freakish southeast wind and snow.
Everyone involved was probably offering up some silent prayers for success, too. Deer activity had been almost nil since the weather turned so cold several days earlier.
Rick met us at the ranch and took us to the stand we thought was the best option. Things got off to a good start when a doe and fawn flushed when we neared the heated shooting tower. Within ten minutes later 37 turkeys, far more than Irona had ever seen in a flock, came on the scene and entertained us for an hour. A gorgeous, big male coyote gave us a long look, too.
I’d told her not to expect any deer until at least 4:30 that afternoon, but it was only 3:50 when we saw a buck working the edge of some nearby standing corn, a route that would quickly take it in front of our stand.
Irona was using my .30-06, and earlier I’d let her dry-fire it so she could get a feel for the scope and the trigger. With each shot on an empty chamber she’d gone through a good 15 second breathing and squeezing ritual and I’d been left wondering if she would take too long if a buck appeared. That was not a problem.
I grunted like a deer to stop the walking buck, and somewhere between my “Take”…..and…”him,” the rifle sounded.
An 80 yard shot from a trained Marine marksman wasn’t a challenge and the 10-pointer was quickly down, though a little later the perfectionist did grouse that the bullet had hit her deer about an inch from where she’d been aiming. Irona laughed, she thanked, she hugged, she high-fived, and she shook visibly from more than the cold. But her day was far from over.
Rick was on the scene in minutes and after a photo shoot we were off, with the buck in his truck, to Greg’s ranch. There we took the buck into a building that was toasty warm from a wood-burning stove, and Greg and I skinned and quartered the deer as Irona warmed by the fire, watched and chattered.
What followed was a full-fledged southeast Kansas feast as Greg, and other friends who had volunteered to help, made platters of homemade venison sausage, fried catfish, freshly cut French fries, long-simmered beans and a homemade apple pie served still steaming.
More importantly, Irona was being nourished emotionally more than physically as she talked and laughed with Ed, Rick, Greg and others first at the table, and then by the fire. When we headed back to Wichita, Irona had several month’s worth of venison, the makings of a fine European mount for her wall and what could be some very important memories.
Through time she’ll remember the kindness of strangers that she knows really cared about and appreciated her.
And there will be times in the future when she mentally returns to some of those dark chapters of her life, which will always be as much a part of her as her blue eyes or her Semper Fi attitude. But she WILL have the memories of a special day, and she will know she has friends from that day that care deeply about her, and that the outdoors can go a long, long ways towards patching wounds that simply can never completely heal.
And I promise you…Ed, Rick, Greg, and I are better people having spent time with “our” Wounded Warrior.
If nothing else, seeing her bravery re-emphasizes how fortunate we all are in our lives. Seeing her smiles and hearing the excitement in her voice, we now have even more confidence that we can make a positive difference where it’s really needed.
She may be our first Wounded Warrior, but I’m pretty certain she will not be our last.