My recent post about my my mother-in-law got me thinking about other heroes in my life.
For as long as I can remember, No. 1 on the list has been my oldest sibling, Kenneth David Troyer.
It’s not just that he shot and killed a bear which surprised the two of us at close quarters in Alaska in 1987.
It’s not just that he taught me how to fish when I was little, nor that he was always the calm, patient one in a house full of high-energy people. There was simply a mythic nobility about Ken, from the get-go.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, let me boost the word-count right here at the beginning with a few photos.
Here I am sticking to Ken like glue during a family trip out West in the 1970s.
Here he is catching a fish for me, but pretending like we did it together.
Here he is doing actual stuff, like getting the fish unhooked and back in the water, while I go yammering on about how We really did that, now didn’t we? We caught a big trout! Look at that! Buddies for life, I say.
Because Ken was nine years older than I was, he left for college when I was just a 4th-grader. I remember one night in January when I realized he would be leaving the next day to go back to college, I snuck back to my room, buried my head under the pillow, and cried, just absolutely sobbed.
It’s a separate question, I guess, why I wouldn’t have just gone downstairs and cried in front of everyone. I was probably frightened and ashamed of the intensity of my emotion. But honestly I don’t think my family would have been surprised. Maybe a little weirded out, sure, but if there was someone to provoke that strong a response, yeah … Ken would be the one.
Our family folklore is littered with mythic stories, most of which did in fact happen. There was the time he broke his leg playing lacrosse in high school. It was the first time I’d heard the term “compound fracture.” The bone not only snapped, it popped out through the skin. At 8 years old, I was both horrified and deeply impressed by this fact.
Then there was the time he fashioned a homemade spear during our family vacation in the Caribbean. He went free-diving and speared a lobster, which he brought back for the rest of us.
Probably illegal, but impressive nonetheless that he brought home meat on his first and only spearfishing expedition.
Then there was the time he and I got surprised by a bear in northern Alaska.
He was working as a fisheries biologist for the National Fish and Wildlife Service. For two summers in a row, he arranged for me to work alongside him out in the middle of nowhere, north of the Arctic Circle.
The second summer, a plane dropped us at a huge lake surrounded by endless forest. We spent the next six weeks setting gill-nets, catching fish, measuring fish, tagging fish, releasing them back into the lake, compiling data.
To live that far north during the summer was a head-trip, every day. Not only would it never really get dark. But there was just no one else around. No humans anyway.
One day we were on the lake when he told me to be quiet.
“I think that’s a wolf,” he said. “Hand me the binoculars.”
When it was my turn with the binoculars, I needed a few minutes to find what he’d seen with his naked eye. Way up the shoreline, the same color as the background, totally still, with its eyes locked on us, was a wolf.
That Ken could see the distant, ultra-cautious creature without binoculars remains incredible to me, to this day. And it’s still the only wolf I’ve ever seen in the wild.
One night that same summer we returned from working on the lake and eased our inflatable raft onto the sandy shore. We a heard noise about 25 feet away, near some barrels which contained our nets. Ken correctly surmised there was a bear. We waited a while. We considered the options. The bear was between us and our campsite.
Ken made noise to scare the bear off. No luck. We waited around, made more noise, discussed options further. I was antsy enough already, even without seeing the bear yet. But then Ken decided to fire a warning shot above the bear, to see if that would do the trick.
It definitely caused the bear to move. A full-sized adult bear pushed out of the brush and started down the slope toward us.
I wish I could tell you exactly how close the bear got, or whether it roared. But in truth I was already turned around and running into the damn lake. The water was up to my chest and over my waders. I was getting ready to dive in and just … I don’t know, maybe swim as far as I could without coming up for breath?
Two shots rang out.
And then … nothing.
I turned around, breathless, my heart pounding so hard, it sounded like waves crashing in both ears. Or maybe my ears were ringing from the gunshots, I don’t know.
Ken had shot the bear twice, if I remember correctly — once in the head, once in the shoulder. It was already dead when we got close enough to check.
My heart was thudding, my mouth was dry. I felt weak behind my water-soaked knees. But I also had that one-of-a-kind elation you get when you realize, Fuck! I’m gonna live! I’M NOT GONNA DIE!!
But not my brother. He was devastated.
Knowing him like I did, I knew he was thinking of what could have been done differently, how else the nets could have been stored, in what other spot, so that the bear wouldn’t have ended up at our campsite. He was thinking about the warning shot, too, which had caused the bear not to flee, but to charge. He was second-guessing all of it. He was blaming himself a dozen different ways.
But even in the midst of disappointment and self-criticism, he was already thinking of a way to make a bad situation better. He radioed his superiors not just to report the killing, as required by law and department policy, but also to see whether there was a way to get the bear meat to any of the native Alaskan villages reachable by amphibious plane.
I was in awe as I watched him cut open the bear, tie off its bladder, and begin the laborious process of gutting it and extracting meat. Not only was the smell overwhelming, but the sight of the bear’s insides revolted me. It was one of the many times in my life I stepped back and considered my older brother for what he increasingly seemed to be — unfathomable.
When the fuck had he learned to butcher an animal? We had grown up in Chevy Chase, Md., not the Yukon.
I sat and watched him work away at the carcass (which I, of course, had voted for immediately dumping in the middle of the lake). He was carefully preserving meat even as I knew he was still analyzing all the decisions which had led up to the shooting.
Here’s another picture of him, from when he worked on a fishing boat in Alaska. I could call him right now to find out what kind of fish he’s holding — halibut maybe? But I would run the risk of a 40-minute phone call. One of his other attributes is an extraordinary memory. If you ask what type of fish it was, you’ll also be told the weather that day, what time the fish was hooked, which cove the crew pulled in at, how exactly the fish was caught, and so on. He’s nothing if not thorough.
One of my first jobs, as a teenager, was working as a counselor at a summer camp in Pennsylvania. During the week before the campers arrived, we were all given various tasks. Mine was clearing brush down by the lake. No problem. For the next two days I hacked away at the branches and brambles, cleared out an area which would be usable again.
As I walked back to my cabin after breakfast the next morning, the head of the camp called me into his office. He wanted me to know — he had noticed how hard I worked. He appreciated it.
I felt embarrassed by the attention, but also proud. And as I went about my day, the first thing that occurred to me was … Ken. He was the one I had learned yard work from. In fact, I had not even realized I was working hard. I was just working the way I had always seen Ken work, tending to the large vegetable garden in our backyard. Maryland gets hot and humid in the summer, but it never deterred Ken. He would sweat rivers while happily turning soil, weeding, nurturing bean plants and tomatoes.
A running theme in our family, growing up, was my mother’s fervent, often-expressed conviction that “Ken would make a great doctor.” This opinion was voiced so many times through the years, it went from annoying to comical, back to annoying, and finally back to comical again. Even after it became clear he would make his living as a fisheries biologist for the federal government, which he has done for 30 years now, my mother could not quite let go of the doctor idea.
There were a lot of layers to her fixation. One was the death of her father, David Brown, a literature professor at Bucknell University, whose first name is now Ken’s middle name. David Brown died of a bleeding ulcer in 1941, when my mother was just 7. The event was painful and pivotal for her.
Another layer was that Ken, by nature, just seemed to have attributes well suited for medicine — highly intelligent, good with details, calm, supportive. Basically he had the best bedside manner imaginable.
For years my other siblings and I made fun of our mother’s fixation. And then one day … the joke was on us, because events revealed that indeed, Ken would have been a great doctor.
Ken and his wife Sara, who live in Boise, Idaho, have three beautiful children. Here’s a picture of these kids three months ago at the wedding of the oldest, Elizabeth.
Michael, the youngest of the three, has experienced significant health problems and developmental delays throughout his life. Eventually, thanks to painstaking efforts by his parents and by doctors in Boise and Denver, the source of the disability was traced to a rare genetic mutation.
As we started to get updates from Ken about the defect and its effects on metabolic processing, I was astounded by the depth and detail of the explanations. I was in awe of the preternatural calm and resolve which both he and Sara showed in their daily care for Michael, in their long, meticulous journey of medical investigation and treatment.
Indeed, watching Ken and Sara from a distance these last handful of years, I began to realize that all the other stories, all the other mythic Ken feats in our family lore, it was all trivial bullshit compared to the actual heroism, the true, highest calling now on display every day in his co-parenting of Michael.
I was talking to my mother recently on the phone. She and my father still live in Maryland, where we all grew up. I made a comment about Michael Troyer really getting shafted, as far as the cosmic roll of the dice.
But then I realized, for all the shittiness of the situation — the uncertain progression of symptoms, the uncertain lifespan — Michael hit the jackpot as far as the house he was born into. He could not have landed with better parents, I said.
It was an easy opening for Mom. She could have rubbed it right in my face. But after all these years, she didn’t bother to state the obvious because she didn’t have to. Yes, Ken would have been a great doctor.
And yet, it is also true that his not being a doctor — with a demanding schedule, with dozens of other cases to puzzle over — worked out well, too.
Thank God, it occurs to me, that he is able to focus fully on his son. Thank God he saved up a lifetime of doctoring for one person, one at the absolute center of his heart.
Because Ken was nine years older than I was, he was always a hybrid for me — both sibling and parent. He was comforting to have around. You felt safe. That’s why I cried so hard years ago when he returned to college. He was my brother, and my parent, and my hero.
He still is.