Take a hike in any American wilderness area during the summer, and there's a good chance you'll find a group of Boy Scouts. Since it began in Britain nearly a century ago, Scouting has revolved around camping, canoeing and other outdoor activities - the kinds of activities New York Times writer and editor Peter Applebome avoided for much of his life. He was drawn into the organization after his son Ben joined a troop in Chappaqua, New York. In his book Scout's Honor: A Father's Unlikely Foray into the Woods, Peter Applebome describes how he acquired a new appreciation for the outdoors and for Scouting.
At a troop meeting in Springfield, Virginia, a group of Boy Scouts repeated a time-honored oath:
"On my honor, I will do my best, to do my duty, to God and my country..."
That oath has been repeated by generations of Scouts, but Peter Applebome was never among them. He described himself as a "committed indoorsman."
"I was not a Boy Scout as a kid. I never camped," he said. "I never made fire over anything other than a gas grill. I believe God made indoor plumbing for a reason. But when we moved from Atlanta to New York five years ago, I was racked with pangs of modern dad guilt that I was uprooting my son from his good friends in Atlanta, so I found him a Scout troop. And then to go the extra mile I figured, 'Well, I'll get slightly involved.'"
It was a decision that even his son Ben, an enthusiastic Boy Scout, greeted with some misgivings. "To be honest with you, I thought he was crazy," said Ben Applebome. "He didn't know a thing about Scouting. He pitched a tent once in one of our friend's back yards. But other than that, he had zero outdoors experience. Period."
In Scout's Honor, Peter Applebome describes how he overcame all those years of inexperience to become an enthusiastic part of his son's troop. He even attended Scout Camp three years in a row.
But the transformation wasn't painless. On his first canoe trip, he received a quick lesson in a rowing maneuver known as the J-stroke, then got in the river. "Within 15 seconds I get us stuck on a rock," he said, "and all I could think of was, 'if I drown my son and me in our first 15 seconds of Scouting, I will go down in history as the single worst Scout who ever lived.' We floundered around for a while, and then finally we got the J-stroke, which isn't really that hard. And then it was this gorgeous day, and we had this flotilla of 30 canoes with dads and kids. It was my first outing, but I got the sense that 'Ha, this is kind of nice.'"
As he was polishing his outdoor recreation and survival skills, Peter Applebome was also learning more about the history of Scouting. He traces its origins back to Britain, where scouting was founded by a war hero named Lord Robert Baden-Powell. Peter Applebome looks at how the Boy Scouts of America became more closely linked to religious values over the years, and how they've dealt with recent controversies over the inclusion of homosexuals and atheists. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Boy Scouts had a constitutional right to exclude a gay Scoutmaster, some parents pulled their boys from the organization. But Ben and Peter Applebome stayed on.
"It was so much a part of my son's life that I was not going to pull him out on an abstract issue," said Peter Applebome. "In lots of ways, this was more a philosophical argument among adults than a real world thing in the life of kids. The national organization has its policy but in fact, different councils [like] the council of Philadelphia a few weeks ago passed a resolution saying they would not discriminate on the basis of sexual preference.
"I think they're wrong on this issue, but I think Scouting does much more good than harm," he continued. "Particularly for poor kids, it's about the only way they get to experience the outdoors. If you're a rich suburban kid, your dad can afford to send you to one of these expensive wilderness expeditions. If you're not, Scouting is the best you're going to do."
When Ben and Peter Applebome look back on the Scout outings they enjoyed the most, both recall the same climb up a mountain, just as the weather was growing colder.
"We climbed up to the top and at the top was snow, the first snow we'd seen all winter," said Ben Applebome. "We threw snowballs. There was this observation tower you could climb to the top of. It was really an amazing moment."
"It was as if we had hiked from one season to another," said Peter Applebome. "The kids were just ecstatic. You know, sometimes the best part of being a parent is seeing your kids happy. I'll always remember that."
Then there was the triumph at summer camp. Peter Applebome says his son's troop hasn't always been known for being model Boy Scouts.
"They don't necessarily wear the uniforms right," he said. "I don't know if they're the most skilled at the Scout skills. And at our third year of camp, I was the senior dad that year, so I was the Scoutmaster, which was truly the lunatics taking over the asylum. But really as a fluke, not through any of my skills, we win the coveted Waubeeka award, as the best troop during our week, and I win the Scoutmaster challenge, as the best Scoutmaster. I was not the best Scoutmaster, but there were three specific tasks you had to do for this competition. And on these three tasks I won."
Ben Applebome is now 16 and hopes to earn the coveted rank of Eagle Scout soon. He says that a lot of kids grow more distant from their parents as they move through their teens, "and I'm very proud to say that hasn't happened with us," he said. "That's partly due to Scouting, I think. We really had a chance to get to know each other better, that we probably wouldn't have had otherwise."
Peter Applebome believes Scouting also lets fathers and sons share an activity that's more cooperative than competitive.
"If your son's a jock, you essentially sit in the stands and cheer," said Peter Applebome. "And if he's a musician you sit in the audience and clap. But in Scouting you go on the same adventures. You eat the same dubious cuisine, and I think in lots of ways, the real lesson to take away from my experience is how important it is to find something you do together that becomes a part of both of your lives."
Peter Applebome says most of the time, parents lead their children into new experiences. In this case, Ben led him into an alien new world, and it turned out to be a wonderful adventure.