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AN UNLIKELY BOY SCOUT

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by Susan Hodara

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Peter Applebome always imagined himself as a Little League dad, but when his son, Ben, developed an interest in the Boy Scouts, Applebome followed him, and in 1999, they became members of Troop 1 in Chappaqua. Over the next three years, Applebome found himself river rafting in the rain, cheering for Ben during a snow-less Klondike Derby, eating mystery one-pot stews by a soggy campfire, and learning to love the array of offerings — some traditional, others more subtle — of the Scouting life. Scout’s Honor: A Father’s Unlikely Foray into the Woods (Harcourt, $24) is Applebome’s account of those years, an intimate and irreverent collection of anecdotes and adventures interwoven with a history of Scouting and its iconoclastic founders, and commentary about the politics of the Boy Scouts and its relevance in the culture of contemporary Westchester and America. It is also, at its heart, the story of Applebome’s evolving relationship with Ben during the transformative years of Ben’s early adolescence. Applebome, an editor and writer at The New York Times and author of the 1996 Dixie Rising: How the South is Shaping American Values, Politics, and Culture, lives in Chappaqua with Ben (now 16), his 12-year-old daughter Emma, and his wife. His voice in Scout’s Honor is engaging and accessible, witty and sometimes sardonic, and as the reader’s Scouting guide, he is thorough, insightful, and never overly serious. In the book, he examines the discrepancies between the Norman Rockwell-ian version of the Scout and the members of Troop 1; a “motley assembly”, Applebome writes, which includes a range of stereotypes — “nerd, straight arrow, misfit, jock, all-American kid, unpretentious average Joe.” These are boys decked out in the latest and most expensive camping gear, immersed in a culture of cool and competition, who Applebome believes have found an oasis of calm and old-fashioned fun as Scouts. He describes friendships among the boys that might not have existed at school, and relationships that flourished among the dads outside of the boundaries of the workplace. He recreates the unique world of Troop 1 as a quirky haven from today’s fast pace. Applebome does not shy away from the controversies surrounding present-day Scouting — specifically its bans on homosexual Scoutmasters and atheists. He is vehemently opposed to both policies, to which he attributes part of the decline in the organization’s membership in recent years. While over 100 million boys and men have been involved in the Boy Scouts of America since its inception in 1910, membership has dropped from 4.9 million boys in 1972 to 3.3 million currently, according to Applebome, and is down almost 50 percent in the local Westchester-Putnam Council since 1992. Yet Applebome also points out that it is wrong for Scouts’ critics ‘to argue for de-funding of Scout troops.’ “Scouting is one of the few affordable hiking and camping programs open to all kids, rich or poor,” he says. “Eliminating funding just hurts the kids.” For Applebome, the essence of Scouting lies in the Scout Law, which defines a Boy Scout as “trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.” These are qualities, he says, that remain inarguably valid and desirable for any boy. Especially in the current national climate. “I say in the book that I came to feel that what was worthy and important about Scouting is more important than what is stupid and narrow about it,” Applebome says. “And that feels particularly true now. I watch the kids and think how close some of them are to military age and how, in many parts of the world, they would be there already. And it seems an enormous blessing to see how Scouting, in the end, allows them to be boys and not men.” Even readers who come to Scout’s Honor with little or no interest in the Boy Scouts are sure to discover much in the book that is entertaining, informative, meaningful and gratifying — as Applebome found in Scouting.


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