For 10 years Dr. George Ritchie didn't tell anyone except his wife and stepmother what had happened to him. Even his wife didn't fully believe him.

But these days Ritchie, a respected Charlottesville psychiatrist, will come right out and say that after he was declared clinically dead back in 1943 he underwent a "life after life" experience which he relates, one astounding detail after another.

He speaks openly now because people - scientists, scholars, clergy - are listening. And more and more are recounting "life after life" experiences, many of them encouraged by the book of the same name. The fact is that Raymond Moody, the author of that best seller, was prompted to begin his inquiry - among some 100 persons who had been pronounced dead or been close to death - after hearing Dr. Ritchie relate his story.

There is no question that Ritchie was pronounced dead. He's got the hospital staff's sworn testimony on that, including one doctor's additional opinion that Ritchie's "virtual call from death and return to vigorous health has to be explained in terms other than natural means."

What Dr. Ritchie says he experienced in that nine minutes or more when he stopped breathing lends itself to skepticism, raising as it does questions that cannot be explained. But Ritchie's credibility has been substantially bolstered in recent years, beyond the capacity of his character references, by Moody's research showing that any number of clinically dead persons who made comebacks tell extraordinarily similar stories independent of each other.

As Moody concludes, the stories don't strictly prove anything but, then again, "it's impossible to have talked with all the people I have without becoming convinced that something about us survives bodily death, that we will go on to some other state of consciousness or realm of being." Convinced, he dedicated his book to Dr. Ritchie.

When Ritchie "died," he says he went neither to heaven nor hell but to Vicksburg, Miss. . . .

It was December 1943. Ritchie, then 20, was a private in the Army, stationed at Camp Barkeley, near Abilene Tex. On Dec. 20, he was to be sent back to Richmond to complete medical studies at the Medical College of Virginia.

But Ritchie missed his train. For more than a week he had been hospitalized with pneumonia, and his condition worsened. Finally, he collapsed with a 106.5 fever. Twenty-four hours later he was discovered showing no signs of life and was pronounced dead.

About nine minutes later the hospital ward boy who discovered Ritchie "dead" thought he saw Ritchie move. The doctor again declared him dead, but shot some adrenalin into his heart anyway. Ritchie's vital signs returned.

All the while Ritchie was undergoing almost all the events that Moody ever heard of in his interviews with those who "died." These include feelings of peace, hearing noise, leaving the human body, seeing a being of light, seeing a panoramic review of one's life and approaching a border or limit.

"I sat up on the side of the bed in this little isolation room," Ritchie says. "In the process of trying to find my uniform I looked back on the bed and there was this body lying there. But I didn't have time to think about that. I had one thing on my mind. I knew I had missed my train. I knew I had to get back to Richmond.

"So I came on out, I'm going back to Richmond, and I see this ward boy coming up with a tray. I turned to tell him to watch where's he's going and he either walked through me or I through him. I didn't have time to think about that either.

"Now I know this sounds ridiculous. I get outside and, swoosh, man, I'm traveling at something approaching the speed of sound, about a hundred to 500 feet above the trees. And suddenly I'm crossing this large river and I see this little town. There's this one, lone guy coming down the street; there's this all-night cafe on the corner. So I lit down on the sidewalk to ask him where I was and he could neither hear nor see me. So I thought, well, I'll tap him on the side of his cheek to get his attention. And I went through him.

("A year later I was going through this town and I recognized it. I told the guy driving the car, if you go one block further on this street you'll find all-night cafe. He went one block further down the street and there was an all-night cafe. Guess what town that was? Vicksburg, Miss)

"Suddenly it hit me that I had left a body back there in the bed. I knew there wasn't any sense of going any further. Now I also knew as a freshman medical student that you work on cadavers. And then it suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks, suppose some fool doctor gets to working on the body that left back thee.

"Just as fast as I left I got back there. Man, I went on the strangest hunt you've ever seen. You got a whole bunch of soldiers lying under the same short of brown army blankets in beds all with the same GI haircut all roughly the same ale, you think you know what you look like?

"I keep wandering around and sue enough lying there in the bed there is this body but it's covered up. But when they pulled the sheet up over that they left this much of the am and hand out. And there is my fraternity ring.

"My hand had the exact same color of my grandfather who had died three years before. Just as white. And then this suddenly hit me, well, this is what they call death. All of us think we have three score and ten promised to us. But something had gone wrong. I had barely had just one score. Now you talk about being horribly frightened.

"But what next took place I was not prepared for. . ."

"There's this little 15 watt bulb there and I thought that the bulb was getting brighter. And suddenly the intensity of that light was so strong that the only thing I could compare it to is if you turned on a million welders' lights you'd have some idea of the intensity of light.

"Out of this light stepped this form of sheer light. Nothing like I'd ever seen in any stained glass windows. Something said, stand up, you're in the presence of the Son of God. This was the most powerful male you have ever met. I could well understand why he could walk along the coast line and say to a bunch of hardened seamen, drop your nets and follow me."

In his book, "Life After Life," Moody says that those who encounter a being of light - and he says such an encounter is the most common element among his interviews - identify the being in various ways, seemingly according to their religious backgrounds.

He says most Christians identify the light as Christ. A Jewish man and woman identified the light as an "angel." A man who had had no religious beliefs simply identified what he saw as "a being of light." One Christian woman also called it "a being of light" rather than Christ.

"Then," Dr. Ritchie continues, "the hospital walls disappeared and every single thing that had ever happened to me from the time I was born was there in panoramic view. Every detail. Everything I had ever done in public, in private, in light, in darkness. Now how would you like to have your best friend see that? Because I was a pretty normal boy.

"But guess what, I have never been in the presence of such total and absolute love, a Being that totally knew everything about me and totally accepted me and totally love me. A moment before, desperately alone and frightened, awful gloom. Now to be in-the presence of this Being, I didn't want to leave Him under any circumstance. This Christ is like something you have never seen. I don't have the words to get this across."

Dr. Ritchie says it was an "easily recognizable form, but not human. He had a very definite shape, but not like yours and mine," a face but not like the familiar face of Christ is art. "Because He was light all over."

"Now the first question he throws at me is, 'What have you done with your life?' I definitely can hear, but I'm not hearing from ears but it's like you and I sitting here and there's no need for us to talk because every time you think of something I'm instantaneously aware of it.

"I have to laugh today, I want you to get the ludicrousness of this situation. I'm trying to look over some of the better parts of my life and hoping he won't notice some of the embarrassing parts. I think, well, I was an Eagle Scout. He's got a good sense of humor, thank goodness. And he immediately comes back with the same question. I mean, that didn't impress him too much.

"Here's something funny. I had never met anybody that had any experience like this until about six months ago. Another guy was asked the exact same question and he looked over his life and the only thing he could find was where he had met kit Carson of the movies. And guess what the Lord said to him. He says, 'I can't believe it'. . .

"So I'm hedging. I'm thinking, I was president of my college fraternity. I'm thinking, I'm too young to die. He immediately comes back, 'No one's too young to die.'"

Then Ritchie says he was taken on a rare tour.

Dr. Ritchie says he was conducted through "different realms of life." His first realm is life as we know it. His second realm is made up of spiritual creatures similar to what he was during his Vicksburg experience, creatures who can observe this world and - he says as bets he can explain it - look something like human beings. He says there's a third realm with beings "not as dense as us," and a fourth realm where the beings were "beings of light."

"The first thing He did, we're out traveling lie the first time when I was going to Vicksburg. Only this time we're coming into a large city and I can see all the physical things, like if you were to come into Chicago or New York or Dallas at night, as the plane comes down you can seeall these tall buildings and the lights and everything. We let ourselves down into this bar, and we can see these soldiers and sailors standing in the bar." (Ritchie says there were other "second realm creatures" there, too, invisible to the servicemen). "He showed me many other things in this realm . . .

"Suddenly he opens up a third realm, superimposed right on the surface of this earth. I was conducted into (many) centers of higher learning; I couldn't even comprehend the instruments that these beings were working on in laboratories."

Dr. Ritchie says that more than a decade later he came to understand what he had been shown in one "center of learning." "In 1952 or 1953, I picked up the picture of the first atomic powered submarine, the Nautilus, in Life magazine. One of the instruments I had seen these beings working on in this third realm was the control panel of the Nautilus. I couldn't understand the instruments these beings were working on . . . trying to perfect . . . until I picked up this Life magazine 10 years later."

Ritchie says the creatures of his second realm look "very definitely (like) people who have lived here." As for the third realm, "They probably might have been human beings, I'm not even sure of that. But I can tell you this, they are so far advanced on an intellectual plane. My impression is that these people could have lived here and been very highly advanced intellectually and gone on to work in fields they had already begun to be interested in."

But Ritchie says he was to be shown still more. "As if I think I had seen everything by now, another entire dimension is opened up. This is not on the surface of this planet. This is out in spaces. There I saw a realm of sheer light. The beings in that realm were likened to the Christ Himself."

George Ritchie, seated on a sofa in his Charlottesville office, laugs gently as he concludes his story. A large man, 6-feet-2, his hair combed in a pompadour, he had chuckled a few times as he ran through the account in his pronounced drawl.

Now 53, he has two grown children. He says his wife believes him fully now, that she was relieved to hear recently another person's similar story. He says most people have taken him at his word; those who haven't have wondered if he might have been dreaming.

Ritchie, as does Moody in his book, offers rebuttals to any number of alternative explanations. As for the suggestion that he merely had a dream, Ritchie says that in a dream "you wouldn't see yourself as two people at one time" and that he has come across nothing like this in his work involving dreams as a psychiatrist.

Nor does he think it was some latent thoughts that surfaced at the time of his physical collapse. "Although there are quite a few cases in literature like this," he says, "I'll tell you on a stack of Bibles I had never read any such thing."

He says his previous concept of death and life afterward will never be the same. He was raised in a strict orthodox Southern Baptist" home when "the idea pretty much was that if you died you went to heaven or you went to hell." Today he belongs to a Methodist church but describes himself as an "ecumenist."

He says the concept that "somehow when we die we go floating away on a cloud . . . I can't think of anything more stupid. It's much more involved than anything our religions have ever taught us. It's his opinion that this life is sort of a first state.

"We don't leave junior high school to go into medicine or law, right? We have to go through high school, college and the professional school. It's the same thing.

"I think these are the lower class-rooms of the universe that we're in. I think that our ultimate destiny is to reach the Christ state. Now I don't think you do it in one lifetime. Now some people might but . . . I don't think I'm going to make it.

"If you're interested in, say, photography, in this third realm I'm telling you about you will see instruments and techniques they haven't even begun to think of here yet."

"You start off where you leave off. That which you sow, you reap."

Which brings up that other realm which Ritchie says he saw and where he says he would never want to go, "a place devoid of love and peace - what I consider hell, although I didn't see any fire and brimstone."

He says he was "sent back for a definite purpose" - working with youth and "through my profession to help fellow human beings love one another." He is currently writing a book entitled "Return From Tomorrow," wich will be published next January by the religious oriented Chosen Books.

He says he receives "guidance" - "Three years ago the idea began to come through stronger and stronger that I was to leave Charlottesville." Next month he is giving up "lifetime security" and an established place in the community. He is moving to White Stone, Va., on the Rappahannock. He says he is not certain precisely what the future holds for him.

Except that he believes he has time to fulfill the "definite purpose" for which he was "sent back." He says he was told by the Being, "that I had 45 years to do what I had to do. At first I misinterpreted. I thought I had until I was 45 years old to live and, man, my 45th year was quite traumatic because I was expecting to leave momentarily."

From what he says he knows, though, he's to until 1988.