Peter Applebome grew up in a time and place where most boys were obsessed with sports, and Scouting was considered hopelessly uncool. As an adult, he assumed his son, Ben, would also be turned off by the "dorky superfluity" of Scouting, too.
No such luck.
An indifferent athlete, Ben finds his calling in Scouting, first in the Tiger Scouts in Atlanta, then in Boy Scout Troop 1 in suburban Chappaqua, N.Y.
"Scout's Honor: A Father's Unlikely Foray into the Woods" tells the engaging story of Applebome's experience in an organization that remains, despite our radically changed culture, a waymark in the lives of millions of American boys.
Applebome did his paternal duty and accompanied Ben to the initial troop meetings. It wasn't long before this self-styled "committed indoorsman" got involved, first for his son's sake, then for his own.
The author, a writer and editor for The New York Times, describes his Saul-like conversion this way: "To my utter surprise, I soon found myself sucked in to Scouting. I liked the way it brought kids and dads together in a totally noncompetitive way. I liked the skills and values - well, most of them - that it taught. I liked being in a group that, in the end, wasn't about whose kid was going to be treated like royalty because he had the best fastball and whose was just tolerated because he wasn't a star."
The main narrative thread of "Scout's Honor" is an affectionate and often amusing account of Applebome's adventures with Troop 1 - "one part Braveheart and one part Lord of the Flies." These include a canoe trip in the rain, numerous camping mishaps, a sled race without snow, and a fund-raiser where the half-Jewish troop earns money selling Christmas trees.
Applebome delves in some detail into the history of Scouting and provides a fascinating look at the biography and worldview of Robert Baden-Powell, the British military hero who founded the scouting movement in the early 1900s. Many readers may be surprised to learn that this most quintessentially American institution has its roots in Edwardian England.
Applebome also examines the stories of two important figures in the early days of US Scouting: Daniel Carter Beard, an illustrator and naturalist who founded the Boy Scouts of America, and Ernest Thompson Seton, a writer and artist who organized the Woodcraft Indians, a boy's organization that predates the Boy Scouts.
All three were highly complex, even eccentric figures, quite unlike the Scoutmasters depicted by Normal Rockwell. In fact, Applebome shows that the popular image of the Boy Scouts, forged in the 1950s, does not entirely jibe with Scouting as envisioned by its disparate founders.
He also examines modern-day scandals surrounding the Boy Scouts, particularly the organization's policy that bars atheists and homosexuals, a stand that was successfully defended before the US Supreme Court.
The author finds this position troubling and, in fact, counter to the spirit of Scouting. (It's one of many instances that show how out of step the national organization is with the local troops.)
He agonizes over whether or not to allow his son to continue. "In the end," he writes, "what was admirable and worthy about Scouting seemed far more important that what was stupid and narrow about it."
While acknowledging the steep decline in enrollment in the Boy Scouts during the past three decades, Applebome suggests several reasons to believe that Scouting could enjoy a revival. (There are about 3.3 million Boy Scouts today; no small number, but down by about half from its all-time high of 6.5 million in 1972.)
With our collective breast-beating about endangered boys and absent fathers, the vogue for hiking and camping to inaccessible places in stylish and expensive gear (what Applebome calls the "North Face Movement"), and the post-9/11 premium on patriotism, Scouting just might find itself less uncool in coming years. Be prepared.
• David Conrads is a writer in Kansas City, Mo.