Fall 2023, Volume 35

Fiction by Ron McFarland

Professor Wibbles on the Wagon

 There would have to be a round of gimlets, of course, because:
 “I’ll have a gimlet,” Robert Wilson told him.
“I’ll have a gimlet too. I need something,” Macomber’s wife said.
“I suppose it’s the thing to do,” Macomber agreed. “Tell him to make three gimlets.”
And of course, there must be brandy because:
The waiter poured on into the glass so that the brandy slopped over and ran down the stem into the top saucer of the pile. “Thank you,” the old man said.

All of which is to say that Professor T. Roland Wibbles’ projected summer course would entail alcoholic beverages that would draw their cues from the carefully selected prose of Ernest Hemingway. The graduate class would meet six weeks, four days a week, Monday-Tuesday and Thursday-Friday, with every Wednesday off for sober reflection and research, and if need be, for recuperation.

For that summer he decided to do what he had hinted he might do for several years since he had begun teaching courses on Hemingway at the undergraduate level and later graduate-level seminars. More-or-less half-jokingly he proposed teaching a grad course some hypothetical summer to be called informally, off the books, “Drinking with Hemingway.” On the books, the course would be listed as “Seminar on the Works of Ernest Hemingway.” And unlike his seminar on the poetry of John Donne and John Milton, offered a few summers previous (he liked to teach a graduate class every other summer) and playfully titled “Two 17th-Century Johns,” this seminar promised to be a draw. The catchy course label that suggested “two johns” did draw the minimum required ten signups, but three students had not bothered to read the course description and dropped it promptly. Bruce Kellar, the department chair at the time, had reluctantly allowed the course to proceed. Two more students dropped before the six-week summer term elapsed. Wibbles had to confess his student evaluations among the five survivors were “mixed” at best.

Having gained tenure (on time) and been promoted to full prof (belatedly), which garnered him but a slight salary increment, Professor Wibbles felt unaccustomedly adventurous and at the same time more than ordinarily disgruntled over his prospects at good old “Podunk,” as he liked to call North Central Idaho during four o’clock cocktails at The Woodshed, one of the university town’s more elegant watering holes, Jon’s Stump being among the town’s less elegant holes. He proposed the Hemingway course to Walter Bagley, who was two years into his five-year post as revolving chair of the department and already regretting nearly every aspect of the job despite the fairly generous salary boost, a portion of which would adhere to his annual salary after he returned to the relative pleasures of fulltime teaching.

And because Walter was probably his best friend in the department, and because no one wished that summer to teach even a graduate-level course, excepting the instructors whose lot in life for perpetuity was freshman comp and the occasional thrill of a section of business or tech writing, the chair gladly signed him up. Why not? Fiftieth anniversary of the master’s suicide down in Ketchum. Consider a road trip. Wibbles did not mention the less formal title by which the course was fast making the rounds among grad students not only in English, but in other disciplines, as “Drinking Papa under the Table.” Adults only.

Giddy with delight over the realization he was going to get away with this crazy scheme, Wibbles outlined his plans to his wife, Florence, who had expressed interest in auditing whatever course he planned to offer that summer, if only to help assure he would draw the minimum number of students required to have the course make. Admin had recently bucked up the number to a dozen. She had audited his “Two Johns” seminar a couple years before and had “quite enjoyed it” after she shook off her anxiety about being the oldest student in the class by a few decades and a non-major as well. “Thank God,” she’d said, “you didn’t make me submit a term paper. I could never have pulled it off.”

“That little paper you did submit was actually quite good,” the professor said.

“Thanks, Rollie. But you didn’t write much on it.”

“No, I didn’t, but it was really impressive work,” he said generously. “If you’d spliced in a half dozen secondary sources and whipped up a works cited page, it would’ve been one of the best in the class.”

“I still have the paper somewhere,” she said. “That’s exactly what you wrote at the top of it: ‘really impressive work.’”

“Oh. Well, it was.”

“You added, ‘well done!’ with an exclamation mark. I appreciated that. So, what’s with the Hemingway? Should I take a shot at it?”

When he briefly explained the details—class to meet at three of the ostensibly nicer bars in town (The Woodshed, for instance, but not Jon’s Stump), two weeks each, previously arranged with the owners and bartenders—drinks to be carefully monitored at no more than two per student per session and drinks not, repeat not, required—Florence decided to pass. She was, after all, mostly a wine-with-dinner drinker, not a “cocktail gal,” as she put it. No way she could keep up with committed, hard-drinking Hemingwayan twenty-somethings. “Seems pretty risky,” she added.

Professor Wibbles grinned.

“Seems downright nutty,” she confided to herself.

As the professor predicted, the course made readily. In fact, more than twenty applied for the maximum fifteen slots in the seminar, leaving quite a few disgruntled “customers,” as Dean Ingalls put it. Enrollments had sagged over the past two or three years, and summer school had drawn so poorly there was talk of ending it. “Not fiscally feasible,”’ Ingalls groused. To the argument that quality education should never be “all about numbers,” the Dean was said to have replied something to the effect that “numbers are all it’s about.” Whether the exchange went exactly that way was debatable, but over the past few years it had gathered the impact of campus legend, a force similar in nature to “urban legend.”

In a memo to Professor Bagley, Dean Ingalls urged expansion of the enrollment ceiling for the Hemingway seminar, adding that he might very well have signed up himself if he hadn’t urgent matters to attend to over the summer. Walter Bagley knew quite well that the Dean planned to spend the summer “meddling with mollusks” at Woods Hole, sailing off Cape Cod, and dallying in Martha’s Vineyard. The Dean’s supposed research project was intended, as usual, to make the stay largely tax deductible. But Walter did appreciate the flattery and passed on the sentiments to Wibbles, who said, “You didn’t . . .”

“Nope. I’ve got your back. I told Ingalls—you’ll like this—‘numbers count.’ We’re holding at fifteen max, per the handbook.”

“To maintain our impressive student-to-faculty ratio?”

“Of course.” Bagley grinned. “And that’s been all too easy to maintain the past few years. There is talk of paring down the tenured faculty again and cutting back on graduate course offerings in lit.” Wibbles suspected a subtle reference to the notoriously under-enrolled “Two Johns” seminar of recent, lamentable memory. The Donne had gone over fairly well, the Milton not so much.

“Meaning laying off some instructors,” Wibbles surmised. “The non-tenurable part-timers who do all the scut work. The expendables. Pathetic.”

Bagley and Wibbles sighed in unison, both aware of the contributions of a handful of overworked instructors in the department, most of whom lingered after taking graduate degrees at Podunk and becoming enamored of the place. Assign them three sections of freshman comp, even the remedial sections, and they’d beg for a fourth. Teach two sections during the summer term? How about a third? Please! Need to eliminate a position or two? Out the door with ye! Compose a kind letter of reference. Try to ignore the paltry efforts of several underworked but securely tenured among the professoriate.

“Which,” Professor Wibbles reflected, “is how the system works. Sacrifices must be made. Usually at the bottom of the pyramid.”

He struggled mightily with the syllabus, first, setting up an even split, three weeks on Hem’s stories and three on the novels, and then working out an intricate plan by which he would play certain stories off against each other, at least up to a point. And what about the nonfiction? Must include A Moveable Feast, at any rate, the Paris memoir—plenty of boozing there.But the more he worked at it, the more quickly he realized his scheme was doomed. The students would surely enjoy themselves, and most would read Hemingway with pleasure, albeit not with uniform satisfaction, and they would discuss and wrangle, and at the end of it all they would turn out a pair of papers, the one “major” (longish) the other “minor” (shortish). These would likely vary between acceptable and commendable, but not exceptional.

As he predicted, most of the enrollees were male, but he had not predicted the degree of interest from the distaff side. Nor the element of protest from that side. Six of the presumably fortunate fifteen were women. But had they enrolled out of admiration for Papa Hemingway, or were they plotting subterfuge? Might they be involved in a cabal to undermine this seminar devoted to another DWM author? Might Wibbles be deluged with papers in major and minor key devoted to the thesis that Ernest Hemingway failed to create credible female characters? That Papa was a misogynist. Or that his female characters are unlikable, unrealistic, irritating, pathetic but not sympathetic, all nurses or whores.

“Well,” Florence said, “what would you expect?”

Wasn’t he, after all, asking for it?

Scanning the class list, he spotted the names of five of what he considered “the best and brightest” in the graduate program in English, including Becka Lindsay, who had that spring taken the Orland Award for best paper submitted in a graduate course. He had not before had the good fortune to have her in one of his classes, but he had heard his colleagues gush over her work. She was dark and heavy, “big-boned” Florence would have said, not obese. He had never seen her smile. Ben Johansen, the quondam Miltonist who had not liked Milton, described her as “sullen but not surly.” Wibbles supposed if she had been male, she’d have made a ferocious linebacker. Walt Bagley spoke well of her, and Saundra McGint spoke glowingly. But then Saundra spoke glowingly of nearly all the women in the grad program. She pronounced her name “sawndra” and was quick to correct anyone who went with “sand.” Wibbles liked to call her “Sandy” and then apologize when she corrected him.

On the other end of the spectrum the professor noted with some dismay that several English ed majors had wandered into the seminar. “Always a mixed bag,” he told himself of those pursuing teaching credentials and “burdened,” as he saw it, with crip courses in education, courses heavy on technique and light on substance. If he were king, he prated to Florence, he would abolish the College of Education altogether, perhaps whittle it down to a Department of Elementary Ed. Three of the six women enrolled came out of English ed. He surmised they did not know what they were getting into. Well, based on past evidence he could anticipate they would prove nice enough, amenable, docile. He chuckled to think of a sweet young coed preparing to teach middle school somewhere hoisting a Papa Doble to her pretty lips. Sorority girls. When he shared this notion with Florence, she suggested he had no clue as to the nature of the middle school scene. Had he forgotten what their kids were like at that age? He had.

When Wibbles complained about “sorority girls,” as he did all too often because of an unhappy amour with a Tri Delt when he was an undergraduate, Flo would take a deep breath and say, “Well, sweetie, you married one.” She had been a Pi Phi.

To his pleasant surprise, however, two of the English ed majors would turn out to be among the stars of the course along with Becka Lindsay, as predicted, and a guy who had an undergraduate degree in history and was working on a law degree, a guy in chem engineering who wanted a change of pace for the summer, and Gary Byron, a second-string outfielder on the Pikeminnows baseball team who had survived his survey course in American lit a few years back and had struck him as irremediably dull. All proved stellar students. Go figure. Most surprising were the husband and wife, a Mormon couple, Steve and Madlyn, who imbibed lemonade or bottled water throughout the seminar, disagreed with each other spiritedly and perceptively on Hemingway, and turned in major papers (he on “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” and she on The Sun Also Rises) that he nominated for an Orland Award. Happily, the committee declared a tie and gave each an award.

The “Drinking Hem” seminar proceeded in orderly if not downright tame fashion from the beginning at The Woodshed through the next two weeks, then onward to Fehrenbacher’s Bar & Grill for the third and fourth weeks.

For Professor Wibbles, the seminar proved momentous. All his life he had prized himself on his moderation, the Aristotelian Golden Mean: “Παν μέτρον άριστον.” He went so far as to learn how to pronounce and spell in Greek characters the noted Delphic proverb: “Everything in moderation.” When he boasted to Flo of his adherence to this noble philosophy, however, particularly with respect to his drinking habits, she scoffed. “More honored in the breach than the observance,” she asserted. “From your favorite Shakespeare play.”

Hamlet is not my favorite Shakespeare play,” he grumped, hoping to alter the direction the conversation was taking. In fact, students over the years had asked him his favorite among the plays, and he usually dodged the matter by indicating his favorite in each of the three major modes: Macbeth for tragedy, Twelfth Night for comedy, and Henry IV, Part One for history, topped off by The Tempest, “of course,” he would add. He recalled an ambitious paper he’d written early in his grad school days on “boozing it up” in Shakespeare’s plays. The professor admired the paper for its scope and for its playful title but found himself hard put to detect either a clear thesis or a “scintilla of fresh insight”: B+.

“Really,” he said, “I am in fact quite a moderate drinker, a virtual Stoic.”

“Ha!” Florence replied. “More like an Epicure.”


“Don’t you remember Ben Johansen’s retirement party? Cinco de Mayo?”

He did. Mostly because when the subject of drinking arose, Flo nearly always brought up that embarrassing afternoon when Margaritas flowed freely and at which Wibbles was slated to read a playful little poem of his own concoction composed in heroic couplets á la Alexander Pope, “An Essay of Boozing,” dedicated to Ben, but when the magic moment came around, he was too thick-tongued to carry it off. Instead, he had to excuse himself for a private moment in the Castle of the Porcelain Goddess while Sam Oliver read the poem for him.

“Once-in-a-lifetime event,” he said. “Never happened again.”

“Really. How about the department Christmas party last year? Or that party at Walt and Eleanor Bagley’s place? You need to ease up. I’m worried about this stupid seminar.”

“Oh Florence,” the professor replied lamely, as he always did when he could come up with neither clever rejoinder nor apt retort.

A conversation very much like this one having prefaced the start of the summer seminar by about a month, the professor decided to practice the notable virtue he so often preached. In preparation for his new commitment to a temperate (albeit by no means abstinent) program of consumption, he rigorously limited himself to a single drink a day in the weeks prior to the start of the class and on the three days of the week the class did not meet. One drink to be defined as either a single beer (12 ounces), a single glass of wine (5 ounces), or a single mixed drink or shot (1 ounce of liquor—bourbon, gin, rum, whatever). The ignominy of the Johansen retirement had forever squelched his enthusiasm for tequila.

The one-drink-a-day period passed with gratifying ease, and Florence commended his good behavior at least twice a week. “You’ve been so much more pleasant lately,” she said. “I’ll bet your students noticed it, too.”

Wibbles nodded. The notion of being “pleasant” to his students, while not entirely inimical to him, was not really the pedagogical timbre to which he aspired. Rather, he sought tones of genteel asperity, if that oxymoron might be allowed, whereby his students would feel both challenged and motivated, more inclined to fear than to love him, but to respect him, yes, and to be upon occasion slightly terrified, notably when exams were in the offing and when papers were due. Would that they might evince a greater appreciation of his lightly (he thought) sardonic wit. Students on their evaluations either admired his “wicked sense of humor” or insisted he “seemed to think he was funny.” With Machiavelli, he suspected the ideal condition of prince or prof would be to be feared and loved simultaneously.

The seminar opens with the professor’s sweeping comments on Hemingway’s reckless life with special attention to his 1952 shilling for Ballantine Ale published in Life and other magazines. Hem describes Ballantine as “a good companion,” but cautions, “You have to work hard to deserve to drink it.” Wibbles is quick to point out how the work ethic Papa boasts in his writing and sports activities he has here appropriated for his hard drinking. He’d rather “have a bottle of Ballantine Ale than any other drink after fighting a big fish.” This in the context of his success with The Old Man and the Sea, initially published in Life, and anticipating his Pulitzer Prize for the novella awarded in 1953, long delayed after that prize was wrested from his grasp for his epic 1940 novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls. The Nobel would soon follow his delayed Pulitzer—1954.

The photo Wibbles displays on the monitor for the class to admire features a stern and confident Papa sitting in his garden at the Finca Vigía in Cuba, his legs crossed at the knees. He’s wearing shorts, a casual light shirt (collared), and an open cardigan. He holds an open book on his lap, about the right size to be a copy of Old Man. Not coincidentally, per the slim novel, he mentions having “worked a big marlin fast because there were sharks after him.” The ad copy embodies Hem’s style to a T. The critical mess of Across the River and into the Trees lies two years behind him (1950). The pair of disastrous plane crashes in Africa lie two years ahead. Ballantine Ale, like Hemingway himself, is no longer extant, so the class must satisfy itself with pitchers of a regional ale, Henry Weinhard, out of Hood River, Oregon. This, Wibbles reflects, gets the job done, or, as Hemingway wrote, “it tastes good long after you have swallowed it.”

All went “swimmingly,” he informed his wife, who responded, “I’ll bet.”

From Hemingway’s first book of short stories, In Our Time (1925), Wibbles elects to focus not on the renowned “Big, Two-Hearted River,” but, as he puts it, on the “more potable” Nick Adams story, “The Three-Day Blow,” in which Nick or “Wemedge,” standing in for young Hem, talks literature with his pal Bill (Hem’s true-life friend Bill Smith), whose father is out duck hunting. As a fall storm rages outside the cabin, Nick and Bill sip Irish whisky and talk about baseball (the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Giants), then segue into various titles before hitting on Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton’s 1914 fantasy novel, The Flying Inn, from which Nick cites the following passage from a 32-line poem:

        “If an angel out of heaven
Brings you other things to drink,
Thank him for his kind intentions,
Go and pour them down the sink.”

The temperance message is clear enough: stick with pure water. Ironically, Bill proposes they “get drunk,” which the boys proceed to do as they move on to Scotch.

Soon, their conversation moves to “a high plane”—Nick’s “tragic” breakup with Marjorie (Marge), which elicits from Bill one of the oft-quoted lines from the four-times married Ernest Hemingway: “Once a man’s married he’s absolutely bitched.” Nick convinces himself nothing is “irrevocable”: “Nothing was finished. Nothing was ever lost. [. . .] There was always a way out.” He tells himself he “felt happy.” Over Irish whisky, which some in the seminar try neat and some in the form of Irish Coffee, and Scotch, which varies in range from neat and Scotch & Soda to the popular Rusty Nail, they converse over everything from the significance of the passages on baseball, if any, to the relevance of the four authors mentioned, if any, to what Hem has to say about marriage, notably in the context of his marriage to Hadley in 1921, to that ambiguous neuter pronoun in the last sentence: “It was a good thing to have in reserve.” To what, after all, does “it” refer?

The question would come up again, notably in the third week when the Monday and Tuesday sessions dealt with his first novel, The Sun Also Rises (1926) amidst a flurry of drinks at Fehrenbacher’s ranging from champagne (albeit neither Veuve Cliquot nor Mumms) to martinis and rioja alta. That wine region in the north of Spain, on the Ebro River, features Tempranillo, a hefty red that Wibbles rather likes. Jake Barnes apparently likes it quite a lot, as he consumes three bottles of it over dinner with Lady Brett Ashley in the closing pages of the novel. The professor points out that in the final six pages, Hemingway employs the neuter pronoun “it” more than forty times, most notably in the seven times the would-be couple return to Brett’s refrain on the subject of her fling with the young bull-fighter Pedro Romero: “Let’s not talk about it.” Wibbles reflects on Brett’s assertions that “‘it makes one feel rather good deciding not to be a bitch’” and “‘It’s sort of what we have instead of God.’”

“What does Hemingway mean, or imply here?” he asks. “Does ‘deciding not to be a bitch’ turn out to be the only thing ‘we have instead of God’?”

Given multitudinous choices of alcoholic beverages in that novel, the most adventuresome launch into martinis. “Tee many matoonies,” Becka Lindsay burbles. Outfielder Gary Byron clinks his glass against hers, sloshing their drinks and prompting them to justify ordering another. Wibbles does not object. “Martinis at Fehrenbacher’s not up to the standard of The Quiet Bar,” the slightly soused prof tells himself. “Must take that under consideration next time I offer the course.” He observes Becka and Gary are becoming something of an item. “Booze and Hemingway make strange bedfellows,” he muses.

Reflecting on those days, only three weeks into the seminar, Professor T. Roland Wibbles would be forced to concede that was when the wheels began to come off. At the end of that week, after dealing with such stories as “Hills Like White Elephants” (cervezas and Anis del Toro) and “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” (brandy), he found himself rationalizing occasional and then frequent departures from his regimen of moderation.

It was Florence who detected his variance from the Golden Mean. “You’ll never make it to a Moveable Feast at this rate,” she admonished. “Have you forgotten your Aristotle?”

“Aris-tittle,” he tried to joke.

“Very funny.”

“Really,” he said, “it’s going great.”

“Well, maybe it is, but you are not.”

“It’ll be okay.”

It was in the middle of the fourth week of the seminar, after the first round of papers had been submitted and graded, that the proverbial fecal matter struck the device for producing a current of air by the movement of one or more broad surfaces. Dejected over the fully merited C she received on her paper, one of the English ed students (“of course,” Wibbles groaned) informed her advisor in the College of Education she must drop the course as she felt the professor was “intimmidating” and “prejudice against me,” as she wrote in her allegations. Her accusations followed an irksome office conference during which the student attempted to turn the sow’s ear of her paper if not into a silk then at least into a respectably muslin purse. He agreed to reread the paper, but his return visit only produced additional grounds for the C, which then seemed to him an overly generous mark. He bumped it to C+.

Such charges were not new to Prof Wibbles; in the aftermath of this instance, however, the complainant felt moved to confess to her advisor that she was underage and had joined her classmates in their tippling to Papa Hemingway. Was that a requirement of the course? No, she said, it was not, but she had succumbed to peer pressure to imbibe. Moreover, it was in the spirit of the seminar. Also, she now hated Hemingway’s writing and would never read another one of his “true sentences” ever again.

Repercussions came swiftly. As ill luck would have it, Acting Dean that summer was none other than Professor Saundra McGint, whose disapprobation of Papa was widely known. She had led the successful struggle to eliminate the Shakespeare requirement from the English major, beginning with the creative writing option and culminating in the literature option. If Shakespeare himself was consigned to the DWM status, surely E. Hemingway must qualify. Ironically, Wibbles reflected, only those in English ed curriculum at Podunk were now required to take a Shakespeare course.

The way such matters work in academe: A word from Professor McGint to Walter Bagley with unsubtle hints to the effect that should the State Board of Education get wind of such a course, dear old Prof Wibbles would be surely out the door, tenure be damned, and a fresh round of budget cuts for higher ed would be slapped on the table. The state legislature prided itself on ranking 50th in the nation on per pupil funding for public schools, K-12, and it had slight use for Higher Education, which most in that body regarded as a frill to be compared with such subjects as art, music, poetry, and philosophy.

Wibbles was crushed. Here he was on the brink of A Farewell to Arms with its many drinking episodes, beginning on page seven of their edition with wine, “clear red, tannic, and lovely” and climaxing with Nurse Van Campen’s discovery of empty bottles of vermouth, marsala, capri, chianti, kümmel, and cognac in Lieutenant Frederic Henry’s hospital room. The angry Miss Van Campen counts eleven brandy bottles (Chapter 22), and the lieutenant loses his convalescent leave and finds himself returning to the front. In the final, tragic chapter Henry drinks a couple of “demi-blonde” beers as he awaits news of his beloved Catherine Barkley, who has suffered a dangerous miscarriage. Three pages later she is dead.

The final two weeks of “Drinking with Hemingway” prove anticlimactic to say the least. The seminar is moved to a room on campus. Spirited class discussion fades. Absences increase. To save what remains of his scheme, Wibbles proposes an optional, bonus last meeting at The Quiet Bar, where the two noted African stories that drew on Papa’s 1934 safari will be discussed and toasted: “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” and “Snows of Kilimanjaro.” Despite the “late unpleasantness” the last session proves the best, partly because of the stories under scrutiny and partly owing to the lifting of the two-drink maximum. After all, the summer term has officially ended. Every student is on his or her own recognizance. The Mormon couple surprise everyone by ordering drinks, a beer for Madlyn and white wine for Steve. Their classmates break into applause spiced with a couple of whoops. “Don’t tell the bishop,” Steve says. Although both sip at their beverages, neither make any pretense of drinking them down.

For the remainder of the summer, Florence imposed the rules of moderation her husband had set for himself prior to the start of the seminar. Wibbles acquiesced. He never taught another summer course, but he came to regard “Drinking with Hemingway” as his highest pedagogical achievement, and his student evaluations soared off the charts.




BIO: Ron McFarland served a 2-year term as Idaho's first state writer-in-residence in the mid 1980s. He's emeritus professor of English at the University of Idaho, where he taught for nearly 50 years. His most recent books are Professor McFarland in Reel Time: Poems & Prose of an Angler (2020) and Gary Soto: A Career in Poems and Prose (2022).