Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018, was a magical day in the life of one young boy. He shared that moment with his mom, dad and 15 complete strangers.
My journey that day started in the wee hours of the morning, while the moon was still high in the sky, lighting the drive ahead of me. I drove cautiously, weaving along dark, wet, windy roads, passing the occasional home. Shadows cast by the moon and the reflection of my headlights off of random road signs had me seeing bear and deer everywhere. I was in a magical jungle of my own creation. Even with the windows up, I could smell the smoke from someone’s wood burner. I whiled away the time, silently reminiscing about the many times I went hunting with my dad, and the way our camp smelled of bacon and our fireplace, crackling with energy and life. Stepping outside, you could see the smoke hanging over the cabin like a gray, fluffy blanket. Sometimes, it was so cold that my nostrils would stick together when I took a deep breath in through my nose, holding it for a moment and then exhaling through my mouth as a white steamy cloud would form right in front of my face. It may not be cold enough on this hunt for steam clouds, but it would still be magical.
I snaked up one hill and down another. Driving up over a ridge where deer were silhouetted in the field. I drove cautiously by and offered a silent prayer of thanks as they stood their ground. My destination was a lovely hunting lodge, nestled in the soft hills of Farmington, Pa., southeast off Route 40. The air was crisp with anticipation. The humidity was high; they forecasted rain. It didn’t dampen my spirits; in fact, it fueled my determination and my purpose was clear as we converged on this remote destination – one goal in mind. We approached with awe and excitement! Well, I approached with awe and excitement. Ronda, my Honda CRV, doesn’t get as excited about things as I do. But she is a good listener and at 14 years old, is still able to accompany me on my many adventures!
I parked Ronda next to a long row of vehicles on a grassy, muddy slope that led down to a gated compound. This was no normal gate and this was no normal compound. I was greeted by my friend Mark Hildebrand, and was introduced to his lovely wife, Anna, and their grandson, Riddick. There was a flurry of activity as other “hunters” were suiting up and grabbing what gear they may need. I’d left my gloves back at the hotel, so Anna lent me an extra pair of theirs. Mark also introduced me to the reason for this adventure: a little guy that was no more than 6 years young, Sawyer “Bean” Werner, or Bean for short.
I said that was a cute nickname and asked him how he came to be known as Bean? Bean’s mom explained that he was given the same nickname as his grandfather, and she’s not sure how he came about being called Bean. So, Bean it is! This was Bean’s day. Bean was wearing a child-size version the same camo outfit that his mom and dad had on. Many of us were dressed alike. We all assembled in his honor and to make his dream come true.
I’m old enough and have lived long enough to have developed a “bucket list.” There are things I want to accomplish and places I want to visit before I kick the bucket! You would expect that of a 60-year-old. You wouldn’t expect that of a 6-year-old. Bean was dealt a harsh blow when as a toddler, he was diagnosed with kidney cancer. When they removed his kidney, they found and removed a tumor behind his remaining kidney. That’s when his condition worsened and they found it had moved to his lungs. Bean is very ill. He has hopes and dreams like any normal 6-year-old. He may not understand it, but he has a bucket list, too.
We headed down to the gate, where our host welcomed us warmly. We went into his lodge, filled with trophies and antler sheds galore. There was even a lighted antler shed Christmas tree. Some of the trophies adorning the 10-bedroom, two-story hunting lodge include trophies taken from the property as well as others that were harvested elsewhere. There were black bears, coyote, red stags, white-tails and mule deer. It is a beautiful place, heated by a large wood-burning stove in the middle of the kitchen.
Bean is frail. He is a beautiful child. He wears a hat on his bald head and at this early hour he exhibits a weariness. His condition is touchy. We were told we would have to wear masks to protect his health, but it is Bean who wears the mask. While Mark and the camp guide are discussing the options, Bean curls up in his mother’s arms and falls asleep.
While Bean naps, the rest of us admire our surroundings, get to know our host a little better, and graciously accept some hot coffee. Then the rains came and it poured, further soaking the already saturated earth and forming puddles everywhere. It was not an ideal hunting situation for a little guy who is very ill. Our host was very creative and provided Bean, his family and all his new friends with a unique and safe environment for him to harvest a deer of his choosing. A special gun was set up that moves with a joy stick. The sights focus on the target and are viewed on a small monitor. You can line up the crosshairs for a sure shot.
We spent early morning into early afternoon waiting on the appearance of a trophy. As he slept, those of us who were prepared to put on a drive or help in any way were reassured that the guides would continue to put on the drive and do all the manual labor. We slowly got comfortable and started to peel some of the layers off. I felt alive with anticipation, as I’m sure everyone there did. Other hunters were getting back to the lodge with their stories of success. As they learned of Bean’s story, they anxiously watched and waited with us. Some had binoculars and some trusted their own eyesight, but we were all looking in the same direction, toward the woods searching for the object of our quest. We had some close calls. A few of the guys could see movement, walking through the trees, only to be lost in the blink of an eye.
This was like looking for a magical unicorn! Unicorns are mythical creatures, said to resemble the body of a horse, the cloven hooves of a goat, the mane of a lion and a singular horn protruding from the center of its forehead, much like a narwhal. The presence of a unicorn is believed to bring good luck and good health. That’s just what this young boy needed, and in abundance – good luck and good health.
When Bean woke up, Mark decided he needed to learn how to operate the gun. They use a Be Adaptive Equipment Shooting Mount, which can be operated by the chin, mouth or hand. He sat on a bench in between Mark and Ron, practicing how to move the joystick to aim the gun where he wanted it. He practiced for a good long while, getting the hang of it. He would turn the joystick one way and the muzzle would turn that way and then the other way. Back and forth he went. Every now and then Bean’s dad would remind him that it’s not a toy. Fortunately for Bean, he had some very skilled and patient teachers.
By about this time it was noonish, and we saw some movement in the trees. We instantly went on high alert, slow to no movement. I know I was barely breathing, I was so excited! This time they were not on the rise of the hill, but making their way across the middle of it. Three beautiful fallow buck were slowly eating their way across the hill, with not a care in the world. I silently prayed for Bean, that he would have a clean shot. I thanked God for this gift, and what it meant to Bean and his family. This was God’s gift to Bean. Mark and Ron whispered to Bean and helped him with the joystick, positioning the sights directly behind the left front leg. Ron took the safety off, and with the press of a button, the big buck went down. No pain or suffering. The look on that little guy’s face and the excitement from all of us who spent the day with him were priceless. Some cried, but most of us just wanted to congratulate him. I gently gave him a hug and told him I was proud of him. We were all proud of him.
The realization of Bean’s dream was made possible through generous donations made to the Tom Siple Foundation.
Mark Hildebrand is the president of the Tom Siple Foundation, which is a nonprofit 501©3 foundation helping disabled, handicapped and terminally ill men, women and children. The foundation offers hunts or outdoor adventures to the recipients or gives monetary donations or supply equipment to those in need.
For more information, visit tomsiplefoundation.com.