An Unlikely Journey, A Father’s Discovery

You’ll remember that some weeks ago, the New York metropolitan area experienced a strange and even bizarre phenomenon called “a sunny, warm weekend,” which led to much rejoicing throughout the region. On that fine day, I spent four hours at a grade-school track meet in Morristown, N.J., sporting the title of assistant track coach for my parish school’s first-grade team (and, oh yes, I was the father of one of the runners).

Now, this assistant track coach title of mine was unlikely for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that I haven’t run at any appreciable speed in a quarter-century. (That’s assuming you don’t count the time in 1997 when I beat three truckers to the dessert table at the Giant Buffet off Interstate 80 in the Poconos.) And then, of course, there’s the fact that the main duty of an assistant track coach for first graders is to shout encouragement, and I simply don’t do encouragement. I am more likely to say, “Look, kid, nobody’s gonna remember this race in three days, so would you just hurry up and finish and get it over with.” This kind of motivational rhetoric has won me numerous friends in newsrooms hither and yon.

But after spending an afternoon in the company of these kids, I was clapping and yelling and repeatedly using a new phrase in my vocabulary: “Good job!” (I butchered it several times in the early going, but finally got the hang of it after a 45-minute immersion course in Encouragement as a Second Language.) And I was mighty happy I hadn’t listened to my inner grouch when somebody asked if I’d like to be, of all things, an assistant track coach.

Yes, parenthood makes some people do the darnedest things. Journalist and author Peter Applebome has just published a book on that very theme. Entitled Scout’s Honor , Mr. Applebome’s book tells the story of his unexpected transformation from skeptic to Scout Dad with Troop 1 in Chappaqua, N.Y. Why did this proud indoorsman find himself in a canoe on the swirling Delaware River, or in a cabin in Camp Waubeeka? Young Ben Applebome wanted to be a Boy Scout, and that was enough for his father.

In certain parts of this famously tolerant city, the mere mention of Scouting likely would result in social ostracism and personal condemnation. Mr. Applebome wasn’t too keen on it, either, associating it with all manner of evils and hypocrisies. But Mr. Applebome did what so many of us refuse to do: He acknowledged his prejudices and set out on a journey to see if they were justified.

To his surprise, he discovered that he was wrong. “For the most part, I’d say the values of Scouting are wonderful-the two glaring exceptions being the ban on gays and atheists,” Mr. Applebome said. “When you think about what kids do today, there’s almost nothing that is cooperative and not competitive. But Scouting is just that. And lots of parents talk a good game about egalitarian values, but often it’s really all about exclusivity. In Scouting, we all ate the same food and survived the same ordeals.” In his book, Mr. Applebome notes with sadness that many of us are not “that interested in something that’s as accessible to the kid in Harlem as it is to the kid in Chappaqua.”

Even in this celebration of newfound values, Mr. Applebome doesn’t flinch from the less appealing aspects of Scouting-no, not the clean-cut image, but the stinking camp toilets. “Outside was a horrific latrine, with wooden stalls as dank and foreboding as a dungeon and a hideously soiled apple sitting in the middle of a rusted-out urinal,” he writes of camp life. Scouting, anyone?

That horrific latrine, though, was a reminder that nobody in camp received special privileges; everybody from the Scoutmaster to the most junior Scout shared the same ordeal. “Scouting didn’t exactly begin as a New Age bonding experience,” Mr. Applebome writes, “but there are very few activities in modern life that brings dads and sons together the way Scouting does.”

Modern life injects itself into this narrative, and into Mr. Applebome’s bonding experience with his son, when the Boy Scouts of America banned gays from their ranks. To quit or not to quit? Mr. Applebome didn’t, and his chapter on the dispute is illuminating, dispassionate and utterly sensible.

The heart of the story, though, is Mr. Applebome’s relationship with the boy who led him to this unlikely place of discovery: his son, Ben. The author worries that Ben, a newcomer to Scouting, will be an outsider; in the end, he is pleased to see his son develop from a boy to a young man.

Of course, Scouting alone didn’t make that journey so memorable. Good parenting had something to do with it, too.