It all started when Christine Watson's sister's boyfriend heard about the affair secondhand.

Watson, 23, of nearby Mardela Springs, was shocked. She wrote her church newspaper, and pretty soon the Hebron Fire Department's closely guarded sex and gambling dinner held annually behind taped windows and locked doors was out of the closet.

It quickly became the talk of the CB airwaves on the lower Eastern Shore. The Salisbury Times jumped on the story, then the big-city newspapers from as far away as Philadelphia.

"It's very easy to paint this as a quaint little country town with coarse humor," cautioned the Rev. James L. Hartman, Christine Watson's preacher. Hartman has twice sermonized on the affair, condemning it in apocalyptic terms.

"But what we're talking about," thundered Hartman, a portly former newspaperman who got religion while covering the Florida legislature, "is a double standard in law enforcement, a double standard in morality, and we're basically talking about crime."

This year, some 35 local businessmen and farmers and, according to some sources, other prominent local residents paid $12 each to attend the annual event, which in recent years has featured striptease dancers.

The event is sponsored by the 40-member volunteer fire department of this formerly obscure farming town to raise money for new equipment. This year, the entry fee and proceeds from the gambling brought the total take to some $6,000, sources say.

"If a hungry black in Salisbury stole, it would be for a good cause, but it would be called crime," said Hartman in a recent interview. "If powerful and upper-class whites gamble, it's considered okay."

"Hartman is considered a meddlesome outsider by most of those in this Eastern Shore community of 800 who are still willing to express an opinion. Among Hebronites, the revelations have generated more guffaws than embarrassment, and only a modicum of outrage. The outrage over the publicity.

The town's wrath has been directed mostly toward Hartman, the Mardela Springs minister, and toward members of the media who have given Hebron an unwanted dateline.

"This thing is very unfortunate, that it got in the papers, because we have a nice town here," said Walter Smith, owner of Smith's Market. Smith said he is not a member of the fire company and has never attended the dinner because of scheduling conflicts.

"I think the town would like to see [the controversy] die down," said Darley T. Travers, a steel company, immediate past president of the county council of PTAs and finance chairman of his church.

"The whole thing's been blown out of proportion, like a fish story - the more it's told, the bigger it gets," said Tavers who attended the dinner but refused to discuss details of the annual event, which is held each February.

From other sources, however, the picture that emerges rivals or surpasses some of bawdies goings-on along Washington's downtown tenderloin: men cavorting naked on stage with two equally unabashed strippers imported for the night from Virginia Beach.

According to these sources, there were public displays of oral sex after dinner and gambling at slot machines and in poker games that lasted well into the following day. And, on top of it all, the worldly women from Tidewater had their clothes stolen.

All of this revelry was preceded by the traditional dinner - prepared by the wives' auxilliary - of baked muskrat and raccoon, biscuits, greens, cornbread and coffee. The wives do not attend.

Fire company president Travers said his wife considers the annual event "a man's activity, a fund raiser. I haven't received any static from her. . . .

"The tickets are not put on the open market," explained Travers. "They are given to fire company members who sell to those who ask. We don't solicit. They come to us."

"They have to earn money somehow," said a woman about to enter Smith's Market, located a few doors down from the fabled firehouse on Main Street. "New fire engines cost a lot. It's great as far as we're concerned." The woman and her companion were, like Hartman the critic, from Mardela Springs. "Needless to say," said one, "we're not in his church."

Travers accused Hartman and his supporters of being "on an ego trip."

Ego trip or spiritual mission, Hartman and those who share his view are demanding an official investigation, at local, state and federal levels. They have drafted a resolution to that effect for this week's United Methodist Peninsula Annual Conference in Dover.

"We cannot have a rule of mob morality," stormed Hartman during a recent Sunday sermon attacking the gambling and sex party. Among his congregation, such pronouncements have evoked either approval or "stone silence," he said.

His Methodist counterpart in Hebron, the Rev. Herbert H. Gladden, is in the awkward position of being chaplain to all the county's fire departments. He has maintained a discreet public silence on the so-called Annual Coon Dinner.

"I preach against things like that every Sunday, anyway," he said. "Some seem to think [the Coon Dinner] is a moral issue. I couldn't say."

One of Hartman's allies, a Queenstown woman, has written Wicomico State's Attorney Richard D. Warren that the reported activities "go beyond shocking to apparently flagrant abuse of the obscenity laws of the state.

"The lewd performances degraded not only the women performing and the men attending but also the wives at home," she wrote. "Such activities make a mockery of the marriage relationship, ignore family responsibilities and make our God-given gift of sexuality seem to be a mere commodity for sale as an amusement."

The presecutor, however, has been unsympathetic to pleas like hers that he "prosecute violators" of laws allegedly broken at the dinner.

"There are more serious matters to be addresses," Warren said in an interview."It's a question of priorities and allocation of resources. I'm amazed this thing has caused such great concern. It's mind-boggling, really."

Wicomico Sheriff William E. Shockley has no plans to investigate, either. "If there was all they say going on, that's not right, but I don't know, nobody's ever told me," said Shockley, who admitted attending the dinner three times but said he left each time right after the meal.

Another Hebronite admitted in a letter to the local paper that he'd attended one such dinner and, in what is apparently a minority view, said he was "ashamed" of having done so. "I hope this was the last Annual Coon Dinner," he wrote.

It's not likely to be. Already two doctors in Salisbury have offered $100 a piece for next year's tickets and requests to attend have come from as far away as the Carolinas.

"The feeling in the fire company," said Travers, "is there's been so much static they'll probably want to have it again out of spite." CAPTION: Picture, The Rev. James Hartman condemned party in sermons. By Larry Morris - The Washington Post