Books: July-August 2003


Scout’s Honor: A Father’s Unlikely Foray into the Woods
Peter Applebome ’71.
Harcourt, Inc., 2003.
330 pages, $24.
The Treatment: The Story of Those Who Died in the Cincinnati Radiation Tests
By Martha Stephens.
Duke University Press, 2002.
376 pages. $28.95.

Scout’s Honor: A Father’s Unlikely Foray into the WoodsPeter Applebome came to scouting late—his late forties, in fact—and lasted only three years, until his fourteen-year-old son, Ben, outstripped him in the woodsy arts and scouted on without him. But for those three years, which Applebome refers to as “my hapless tenure in Scouting,” father and son met on equal footing as hikers, paddlers, campers, woodsmen, and skeptics, together traveling the sweet and funny trail from innocence to experience chronicled in Scout’s Honor.

In suburban New York in the Fifties and early Sixties, a heyday for the Boy Scouts elsewhere, Applebome grew up in what he remembers now as a neighborhood where children could roam and explore the local woods with a fearless freedom that today’s kids are rarely permitted. For him then, scouting had a “dorky superfluity” about it. “If I thought about Scouting at all, it was with an instinctive, dismissive snort of disapproval. The drab, hopelessly uncool uniforms! The borderline fascist marching! The hilariously goofy grownups in those ridiculous shorts, neckerchiefs, and high socks!”

By 1999, Applebome, now a writer and editor for The New York Times who serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of Duke Magazine, had recently moved his family from Atlanta to Chappaqua, New York. Ben, eleven at the time, had taken to Cub Scouts in Atlanta, so joining the Boy Scouts in his new home seemed like “one way to ease his transition.” Applebome, wishing to be a good dad or at least not to be a bad one, decided to join Ben in this venture. To his surprise, Applebome soon found himself “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.”

What follows is a generally upbeat, winningly witty, and self-deprecating narrative of those three years’ worth of “countless hikes, camporees, trekorees, canoe trips, nature walks, camp-outs, bird-cage cleaning expeditions, Christmas tree sales, the annual Klondike Derby, and three week-long sojourns at beautiful Camp Waubeeka…in upstate New York.” These many outings might have run together more than they do except for Applebome’s curiosity about the people who participate in them, from Chappaqua Troop 1’s scoutmaster, the “aging peacenik” Dr. Flank, to its senior patrol leader, the golden boy Todd Davis, to less Olympian souls such as two pudgy, inseparable, fast-talking younger scouts whom Applebome thinks of as Sam ’n’ Eric. And we share some of Applebome’s paternal gratification as we watch Ben develop from an awkward outsider the first year to a confident platoon leader by year three.

Applebome also revels in the “retrograde rituals” of the troop, not the stuff of merit badges so much as the weird one-pot meals they concoct, the spooky campfire stories and skits they hear and see, and the distinct personalities of different troops, from the “well-drilled hauteur of Bronxville 4” to the frank slovenliness of their own Chappaqua 1. Rarely does he miss an opportunity, when describing the events of a scouting evening, to repeat the ceremonial closing chant, “May the Great Master of all Scouts be with us until we meet again.” Retrograde and dorky, yes, but it captures the tone of adolescent mysticism that is surely part of scouting’s appeal for many boys.

If Scout’s Honor had focused only on these generally sunny days of fathers and sons in the woods, its pleasures might well have, in truth, palled. But Applebome’s curiosity also leads him to interrupt the flow of his narrative to explore the history of scouting, its British roots in the ideas of the somewhat bizarre Lord Robert S.S. Baden-Powell, and its American roots in the naturalist Ernest Seton Thompson, who looked to the American Indian for skills and rituals, and the folksy Daniel Carter Beard, who looked to pioneer figures like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett for inspiration. These lovably eccentric figures gave scouting in its early days an appealing sense of individualism and quirkiness. But since its official inception in 1910, the Boy Scouts of America has had an increasingly corporate national organization. As Applebome puts it, “Scouting may have been advertised as fun for boys, but it was serious business for the men behind it.”

Scouting grew steadily through much of the twentieth century, especially in times of war or patriotic fervor following wars, until the 1970s, when a series of scandals and a changing youth culture contributed to a long decline in scouting’s numbers, despite a fairly relentless program by the national organization to inflate those numbers. From a high of more than 6 million members in the 1970s, the roll has fallen to about 3 million now. The two great issues of the last thirty years have been pederasty and homosexuality, issues that even scouting, itself, in its present, right-of-center manifestation, points out are not related. (Applebome points out an enduring irony: “There is virtually nothing in the Handbook or other Scouting literature specifically about homosexuality, but the handbooks are full of advice about being tolerant and respectful of differences.”) Once it became clear that scoutmasters were not always reliable around boys, scouting clamped down with a series of rules that seem to have been effective.

But the rightward shift of Boy Scouts of America (including a requirement that a Scout profess his belief in God), and the increasing influence of the Mormon Church in its affairs, led to the controversial Supreme Court decision that supported the banning of homosexuals from scouting, either as leaders or as scouts. This decision came down in June 2000, at about the middle of Applebome’s scouting tenure, and led to a great deal of soul searching among those, like him, who oppose the decision as “a betrayal, not a defense, of Scouting’s core values.”

In the end, he draws a distinction between the benevolent laissez-faire attitude of the local troop, with its shambling idiosyncrasies reminiscent of the early days of scouting, and the discriminatory stance of the national organization. His decision not to pull Ben out of scouting in protest, defensible or not on a theoretical level, seems by the end of Scout’s Honor to have been a very good thing for Ben, himself.

The Treatment: The Story of Those Who Died in the Cincinnati Radiation TestsNearly a decade ago, reports of U.S. government-sponsored radiation experiments that were conducted without the consent of the participants began to appear in the popular press. The experiments, which took place during the Cold War, included releasing radiation into the atmosphere, irradiating the bodies of human subjects, and injecting people with radioactive elements. In sponsoring these experiments, the government was interested in gaining a better understanding of the effects of radiation as the nuclear age matured. What could happen to troops and civilians in the event of a nuclear attack was of paramount relevance to national security. Paradoxically, efforts to maintain freedom by fighting a Cold War were accompanied by activities such as human experimentation that seemed to violate this very same freedom.

Following the public disclosure of these experiments, President Bill Clinton chartered the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments (ACHRE) and charged it with uncovering the history of the experiments, outlining the ethical and scientific standards by which they should be evaluated, and recommending what should be done to ensure that this would not happen again. After eighteen months of work, ACHRE produced a detailed report consisting of a review of several major types of experiments that were conducted, a framework for evaluating the human radiation experiments, and some policy suggestions regarding human experimentation.

A series of important actions followed the delivery of ACHRE’s report and recommendations. Parts of the system for providing protections for research participants were improved. Those representing the interests of the subjects in some of the experiments had a means of assessing what went on. And scholarship regarding the experiments continued.

In The Treatment: The Story of Those Who Died in the Cincinnati Radiation Tests, Martha Stephens gives a personal perspective on the government funded, total-body irradiation experiments that were conducted during the Cold War at the University of Cincinnati. Unlike the authors of the more formal chapter on these experiments in ACHRE’s final report, Stephens, a retired professor of English at the University of Cincinnati, incorporates the stories of some of the patients with cancer who were used as subjects in these experiments, the physicians who conducted the experiments, the reporters who uncovered and then wrote about them, and the legal battles that ensued after ACHRE released its report.

But perhaps most interesting is Stephens’ story of her own futile attempts to bring these experiments to the public’s attention in the Seventies, when she was a young faculty member at Cincinnati. She reports that when she and her colleagues learned of the irradiation experiments there they felt morally responsible for dealing with them. Nevertheless, for a variety of reasons—some related to power and timing—a thorough examination of the experiments did not occur until the Nineties, when it was revealed that a series of other Cold War radiation experiments had been conducted across the country. Stephens speaks of being reinvigorated by the public disclosure of these experiments, along with those conducted at the University of Cincinnati, and by her efforts to provide facts to journalists and others intent on understanding what had actually happened. She describes following ACHRE’s work and the subsequent legal actions brought on behalf of those who had served as subjects in the experiments.

Stephens’ narrative is passionate and her investigation insistent, but her complete commitment to those who were used as subjects, while laudable, precludes a balanced view of the experiments and of those involved. While the interests of the patients should rightly come first, the true extent of the therapeutic intent on the part of the physicians and the government is unclear, as is the degree to which the patients provided consent consistent with standards of the time. In other words, convinced from the outset that all was wrong, Stephens cannot offer a truly critical analysis of the case at hand. But this sort of analysis is arguably not her task.

All the same, such an analysis is essential, not only for those directly involved, but also for all who care about essential freedoms, human rights, and scientific progress. Now, when we face important ethical questions about bio-defense research aimed at preserving freedom in the long term, it is vital that we find ways of preserving individual freedoms in the short term. The lessons from the human radiation experiments can provide some help.

Research conducted today, even if related to bio-defense, should be conducted in such a way that risks are minimized, and consent is obtained from human participants. Stephens reminds us of the importance of the participants, their families and loved ones, and the bystanders who are brought into and affected by the action in unusual and important ways.


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