Stranger in a Strange Land

Forest Hansen

For two years I was an Instructor of English at Stetson University in Deland, Florida. That was back in the 1950s, when you could get such a job with only a Master’s degree; these days it would be hard enough even with a PhD! Actually, I had wanted to be a high school English teacher, but to follow that path I would have had to take a full year of what I considered Mickey Mouse courses in education. I had then thought briefly about teaching in a prep school. But a professor of mine who had done that for over a decade dissuaded me. “Your life is not your own,” he said. “You have to coach a couple of sports, do dorm duty, and in general be on 24-hour call. Why don’t you look into college teaching instead?”

My applications were accepted at several colleges. I chose Stetson primarily because it was in the South, an area I had never visited and knew little about. Having grown up in the Midwest, gone to college in New England, been a Good Humor man one summer on Long Island, spent another in Arizona, and served in the Army in Missouri and Paris, I was always open to new experiences. But I didn’t realize that I was about to enter a foreign culture.

The English department chair had sent me a Stetson catalog before my job interview. Many decades before Google, this was one of the few ways one could get information about an educational institution. I learned that Stetson had university status because its College of Liberal Arts awarded the MA and MS along with the undergraduate degree and because it included degree-awarding business, law, and music schools. Although many faculty members were graduates of Stetson, those who had gone on for doctorates had mostly earned them at good state universities in the South: North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida. A few had PhD’s from Yale, Columbia, and the like. I had the impression that they were trying to build a reputation above at least the other private universities in the region, and to do this in part by hiring more faculty from the North. In fact, my own MA was from the University of Wisconsin and the two other new English Department hires came from graduate departments at Boston University and Northwestern.

Still, although it was in Florida, that was more of a Southern state then than it is today. And it was not only church related—which most private colleges were in those days—but its church was Southern Baptist, with connotations that left many Northerners wary. To offset that reputation, I was assured in my interviews that the pledge we were required to make had recently been “modernized.” We did not have to be church members or even avowed believers; we only needed to attest that we believed in an education that honored Christian values, notably to prize “the spiritual and moral above the materialistic, to cherish personal integrity, and to seek further truth with reverence.” Although a committed agnostic, I could easily—even enthusiastically—make such a pledge. After all, I had grown up imbued with the faith of a Methodist and had had to struggle to leave behind its trappings while still trying to emulate its ethical principles.

As I recall, I enjoyed my interviews with the president, the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts (as was his title), and the chairman and other members of the English Department. All of them in turn were welcoming to me. It wasn’t until I joined the faculty that fall that I learned I was entering a somewhat foreign culture. I can best sum it up as “a culture of pretense.” More specifically, a culture of pretense about alcohol and sex.

While no one told me in my early days at Stetson that I was expected to be a teetotaler, it gradually became clear that there was an unwritten rule: “Thou shall not be seen drinking in public.” This meant, in effect, that one was not to drink alcohol in any public setting in Deland or nearby. If you wanted to have a beer, a glass of wine, or a martini, you should go to Daytona Beach, about 20 miles or a half hour away.

I soon became friends with a small group of freethinking faculty members relatively new to the university. Although none of us had experience in such an endeavor, we decided to start a homebrew operation. An assistant professor of psychology agreed that we could place the setup in his garage. We somehow learned that we needed a 5- or 10-gallon brewing kettle or barrel, glass tubing with corks, a hydrometer, and a bottle capper, apart from items like a strainer that we could buy at Woolworth’s. Someone had the bright idea of checking on the legality with the local sheriff’s department. “Anything’s okay as long as you ain’t gonna sell it,” we were told. Indeed, the sheriff’s department had everything we needed, thanks to raids they made on illegal distillers. They were happy just to give the equipment to us, to free up their storage space. Ingredients—molasses, yeast, and sugar—we could purchase from a local supermarket, and water came free from the house. All we needed then was a collection of empty beer bottles, which we accumulated through drinking 6-packs or, by one generous member, a case (none purchased locally, of course).

By December of that first year our homebrew operation began running. We enjoyed having beer at our bull sessions, each bottle costing about 33¢. Of course we needed to be discrete. And as far as we could tell, no one in the administration learned of our venture that year or the next.

And what about sex? By the end of my second year, I knew of a half dozen faculty members who were unfaithful to their spouses but were members of the Baptist Church in good standing. Only one was exposed—a 60-year-old biology professor who was having an affair with a student. But I think even he was forgiven for his sins. Only later, in novels set in the South, did I realize how pervasive adultery and secret drinking were in the region. The culture of pretense was comfortable to those growing up in that tradition while it seemed the height of hypocrisy to at least some of us from the North.

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