Sandy Eastberg blends right into this swirling fraternity party of fatigue uniforms, war stories, double bourdons and swipes at Carter's defense policies, except perhaps for the blond hair cascading from her black beret and falling over her green camouflage T-shirt.

Under her left arm is a black leather shoulder holster, which tonight is functioning as a purse. She looks like Patty Hearst in her days as Tanya, the machine-gun moll of the Symbionese Liberation Army: a woman at ease in a man's fantasy world.

"Catch this, men," some sarge is screaming. "She's wearing combat boots."

New ones. Barely used, like so many of the boots in the Columns Ballroom of the Columbia, Mo., Hilton Inn, where 800 people have come for the first annual convention sponsored by Soldier of Fortune magazine, "the journal of professional adventurers."

Sandy Eastberg looks around the room at this band of dreamers, and says:

"There are a lot of men here who would like to die quick and hard and brave. And, you know, they're all afraid they're going to die in a hospital, with their overweight wives beside them."

Sandy Eastberg and Merv, her husband of one week, are here for their honeymoon.She is 24 and his fifth wife; he is 41 and her second husband.

They are both private investigators from Denver. They met four months ago when she came to his office to screen some films from a stakeout. He says he got one glimpse of her and immediately arranged to "get her out of town with me the next weekend on a trumped-up assignment.

"Look," he says, "I did some merc work in Vietnam in 1960, but we're all really just armchair adventurers who suck up all these fantasies that Soldier of Fortune dishes out for $24 a year. A lot of guys can't wait for the next issue to come out, but how many of these guys do you think can get away from the construction gig and the wife and the kids and go crawling around in the jungle?"

What a way to relive boot camp -- a veritable boy scout jamboree for grown-ups: all the merriment and none of the work; a weekend of marksmanship and mess lines; classes in self-defense and knife-throwing; leave anytime you want; parachute jumps only when desired; displays of $3,900 laser-aimed rifles and $24 blowguns and soft, lightweight bullet-proof vests constructed from 18 layers of class A Kevlar. And $300 knives hand-honed in South Africa and T-shirts that announce "Peace Through Superior Firepower" and "Happiness is a Confirmed Kill" and "Terrorism Stops Here" and Velcro watch bands with little pads to cover the dial so the enemy can't see the glow at night and icepicks called Poor Man's Stilettos and $10,000 nightscopes.

And books and books and books. God forbid a Russian spy or a Hollywood agent should slip in. "Silencers, Snipers and Assassins: An Overview of Whispering Death." "How to Kill," volumns one through five, published by the Palladin Press. Volume one includes pointers on the eye gouge, head smash and two-fingered strangle. A tip on body disposal: "Tar stumps with roofing cement to stop blood." "100 Ways to Disappear and Live Free." A poster declares: "PARANOID? Most of Your Fears Are Real!"

Where does Hollywood stop and real war begin? As many men are carrying Nikons, movie cameras and videotape units as are brandishing weapons. One books counsels, "Techniques for using garrotes can be learned from watching 'The Godfather.'"

The convention offers all this, plus the camaraderie of a bunch of right-thinking, tough-talking, gun-wielding readers of Soldier of Fortune.

It is commonly referred to as the magazine for mercenaries, those unorthodox soldiers of fortune who hire out brain, brawn and bullets to the highest bidder. Each month, 180,000 readers get a spicy dose of guns, guts and glory: a Walter Mitty excursion through the firefights of Rhodesia and South Africa and Afghanistan; a compendium of data on the latest in weapons; a digest of advice on how to make that one important shot really count; and a harbinger of adventure promised in classified ads like:

Godzilla's Dental Floss -- could be. But it's better used as a garrote. Two steel loops connected by 36 inches of steel cable, guaranteed to turn heads around . . .

Ex-Marine, Vietnam Vet, seeks to fight in Afghanistan. No monetary compensation. Travel expenses only. Expert demolitions, boobytraps, mines, small arms. Valid passport. Contact Custer . . .

Needed: highly skilled elite person (or persons) for Southeast Asia rescue mission. Background will be investigated thoroughly. Serious inquiries only. Fee negotiable . . .

"It's just a magazine," says Bill Koehler, a reader from San Francisco. "Just like Harper's Bazaar." When a Man Was a Man

To accept that this gathering is heavily populated by mercs is as absurd as believing that a convention sponsored by Playboy would be attended by America's greatest lotharios.

For the most part, the conventioneers are men who are trying to recapture the good old days when a gun was a man's best friend. They do not like the all-volunteer army of the idea of women in the Armed Forces or gun control.

In a real sense, they are the modern day wild bunch, the old dreaming desperadoes rounded up for one last maneuver. They do not want to admit that there are no more frontiers, not even an Alaskan pipeline to conquer. Nor do they want to acknowledge that many of their girths have expanded considerably since they returned to civilian life.

They are the residue of an era when a man could prove he was a man by staring down the sights of an M-14 carbine and squeezing the automatic trigger. They seem not unlike Harold Russell, the lost, bewildered GI who returns home in "The Best Years of Our Lives."

Yet they are convinced that they could still get out there and crawl through the bush -- and that they could have done a hell of a lot better job rescuing the hostages in Iran.

Viewed abstractly, they might be considered a bunch of easy-chair misfits riding the mechanical bull at Gilley's on Saturday night, then watching a televised Cowboys game, six-pack at the ready, on Sunday.

But to see and listen to these men is to sense a part of America that is all but lost now, for good or bad: a sense of absolute commitment, a value in self-preservation and a belief in guns-and-butter economics.

"It's exhilarating to see people show some enthusiasm for America for a change," says the woman on an elevator in the Hilton. Unconventional Convention

This is not, as some had feared it might be, a gathering of trigger-happy supermen. The reservations clerk at the Hilton, a week before the event, had confessed his own fearful visions of men rappelling themselves down the concrete sides of the hotel and firing bazookas in the corridors.

In fact, the biggest controversy of the weekend is caused by Robin Moore, author of "The Green Berets," who resorts to humor in questionable taste when he attacks Jimmy Carter and Andrew Young during his banquet speech, given under the Soldier of Fortune banner that declares, "Death to Tyrants." The next day Moore is asked to leave the convention by the Soldier of Fortune publisher Robert Brown, who announces at a briefing, "Unfortunately, you never punch out a speaker in the middle of his address."

Beyond this, not a single little finger is so much as grazed in all the combat marsman shooting -- tens of thousands of rounds fired -- on the Chapman Range, a shooting center a few miles outside town. There's but one brief fist fight and a threatened hurling of a dummy anti-personnel grenade at six kids who stand outside the hotel holding placards that read "Hilton Harbors Hitmen."

Yet even here, in the heartland, ther is something odd and perhaps even threatening about witnessing an entire hotel taken over by camouflage-uniformed grown men, many of them wearing firearms on their waists and toting high-powered rifles.

It is not exactly your average Elks convention, although the private lives seem the same: the police officer from Rochester; the meat packer from Columbus, Ohio; a heavy equipment operator from a GM plant in Defiance, Ohio; a motorcycle mechanic from Mattoon, Ill.; a bricklayer from Clinton, Iowa.

It is certainly a convention: There are whistles being blown, and men screaming "A Team" and "1st Airborne" and standing room only in the Hilton bar.

"Honest" Larry Martin of Gastonia, N.C., begins handing out his business card, which is more crowded than the cocktail party: "New cars, used cars, land, whiskey, manure, nails, fly swatters, racing forms, bongos," it reads, "horses doped, wars fought, revolutions started, assassinations plotted, governments run, uprisings quelled, races fixed, tigers tamed, bars emptied, virgins converted, computers verified, orgies organized."

"Haven't actually done too much of the last one," says 210-pound Honest Larry, who undoubtedly would be played by Slim Pickens if this get-together were ever made into a movie.

"Now let me just tell you one good North Caroline joke," Honest Larry says. "See, there's these [guys] who've just taken their citizenship test. And the man says, 'Okay, now we've just have one more question about holidays for each of you before you're through. You, what's Christmas?

"'Well, that's when people get dressed up like Indians and stuff and go around ringing doorbells . . .and' --

"'No, you idiot, that's Halloween. Now, number two. What's Thanksgiving?'

"'That's when you get wreaths and lay them on the graves of soldiers who died in wars . . .'

"'You fool. That's Memorial Day. Now number three. What's Easter?'

"'Well, that's when Jesus was nailed to the cross.'

"'Then what?'

"'Well, they wrapped him in a cloth and put him in a cave and rolled a rock in front of it.'

"'Yeah? Any more?'

"'After three days he rose from the dead, and the stone rolled back.'

"'Then what?'

"'Well, if he comes out and sees his shadow, there's gonna be six more weeks of winter.'" The 'Soldiers'

Some of the characters:

Robert Burton, a livestock insurance broker from Santa Barbara, Calif., represents an ominous-sounding organization called the Special Operations Association. (Motto: "You've never lived until you've almost died, for life has a special flavor the protected will never know.") "Making war is a weekend hobby for us," he quips.

Donald Steele, a portly meat-packer from Columbus, is running through a maze to simulate combat maneuvering while firing a shotgun. He not only trips but his weapon jams.

He is being watched by his buddy, Anthony Dee, a firearms instructor for the Rochester police department. Dee is explaining how the two of them spent some time together as mercenaries in Africa, and then nearly falls down with laughter when his friend's gun jams.

"Hard to think of us as soldiers," he says.

William Brooks, a high school librarian in Wilminton, N.C., spent three years with the 82nd Airborne Division and then five years in the French Foreign Legion. Brooks, who at 34 looks boyishly dapper in his legionnaire's outfit, is a hero here because he is one of the few Americans who have openly admitted serving as mercs.

Brooks himself becomes most animated not when talking about recon missions and treks through minefields, but rather when recalling crazy antics he experienced.

"When you go in the Legion," he says, "they give a nom de guerre , so if your wife calls and asks 'Is Walter there,' they don't know anything. This guy who didn't speak a word of English starts looking through an old New York telephone directory and names me Walter Bride."

Leticia Thompson is here with her husband from Defiance, Ohio. They have left their infant daughter at home. Henry Thompson, a Vietnam vet, is saying that he'd love to head back into the bush, but now there are the responsibilities of a wife, a family . . .

"Oh, honey, go, go, go. I want you to fight and be a man," says Leticia, sighting down the barrel of a Heckler & Koch 91, a .308 NATO beauty that can drop an elephant at 200 yards.

Gary Reynolds, a 28-year-old active duty sergeant from Platte City, Mo., ran a Special Forces A Team out of Thailand into Laos and Cambodia to pick up the remains of downed helicopter pilots.

"I came because I expected some of my team to be here," he says, while hurling shurikens (Japanese throwing stars) into a sheet of plywood. "Hell, I'm not a merc because my government and your government pays me to fight."

Errol Won't-say-his-last-name, 18, from Alberta, Canada, works in a windshield shop. He purchases a replica of a Nazi dagger and says his dream is to be a merc. His definition:

"Guy's who don't like civilian life or sitting behind desks, who like life outside and like challenges." He says he is writing to the government of South Africa to offer his services in the fight against black revolutionaries.

John Gaines, 34, Vietnam vet, discharged May 18, 1969, M.A. criminology, is now a prison guard in Jackson, Mich.

"I cannot shoot a deer," he says. "Animals do not declare war on men, and they cannot shoot back. The only thing I'll ever hurt has two legs. But I'll fish all day. If they're stupid enough to bite on that worm, that's their problem."

George Basarich, 67, bricklayer from Clinton, Iowa, flew Douglas A20s during the second world war. He still uses a suitcase he bought in Brindisi, Italy, in 1943.

"This is the nucleous of the new America," he says, while flipping through a wallet that holds a yellowed airman's certificate and a photo of his wife, who left him in 1952, because "she thought I was spending too much time fixing up a 1929 Lambert Monocoupe."

Dana Drenkowski, 34, graduate of U.S. Air Force Academy in 1968, says he flew 170 F-4 missions during five years in Vietnam. Now a law student at Berkeley, he has spent nine years working for the National Organization of Women on ERA and abortion issues. He winces at a briefing when Soldier of Fortune military adviser Col. Alex McColl says, in response to a question on drafting females, "If we have to call in the womenfolk to defend us, we're in pretty sad shape."

Drenkowski may be the ultimate paradox at the convention: suscriber to the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra who loves art and poetry, he says he still accepts mercenary assignments "because nothing comes close to getting the adrenalin going." Flirting With Danger

Terry Nolan of Beaufor, N.C., approaches Sandy Eastberg. She looks so alluring in this sea of aging soldiers.

"Where you from?" Nolan asks. "Colorado? Really? Gee, I used to go with a doughnut dolly from Colorado. You know what a doughnut dolly is, don't you? That's a girl who sells doughnuts. She was great. I've always like Colorado since then.

"Hey, you know," he continues, "I just got to tell you that you look good enough . . . well, that beret, you just look terrific in that beret," Nolan says, moving in for the kill.

"Is that a foreign beret?" he asks.

"You bet," says Eastberg.

"What country?"

"No comment."

"Could you kill?"

"You bet, in an instant."

"Have you?"

"No comment."

Now Nolan's curosity is primed.

"Come on," he says, "where did you get that beret?"

"Well, it's not really mine," says Eastberg. "It's my husband's."

A smile from here to Tripoli, or maybe the Halls of Montezuma, one of those big Southern-boy-caught-in-the-hayloft smiles.

"Oh, you've got a husband," says Terry Nolan, inching backwards now. "Shoot, he is one lucky guy. I think I better get out of here."

Merv Eastberg walks in on Terry Nolan's attempted pickup of his wife. He does not get upset or impolite or belligerent or consider his manhood in peril. He laughs, and continuously leans over to whisper to his wife, "Ask him how old his boots are."

And Terry Nolan begins to drift back into the magic anonymity of camouflage suits, tonight's formal attire. You're in the Army Now

Saturday evening. John McPherson is driving his black Dodge van. Texas tag, into the Chapman Range, when a yahoo in an Army surplus jeep sideswipes him and forces the van into a foot-and-a-half ditch.

The jeep driver jams on his brakes and hops out to apologize. No hard feelings.The five other guys in McPherson's van hop out and McPherson tries to drive the Dodge out, only to get it stuck deeper and deeper.

"Is this the Army, or is this the Army?" somebody yells.

And seven men lift the back of the van two feet into the air and remove it from the ditch as if it were a Hollywood prop. Discharge

Sunday, 2:30 a.m. in the heartland, and Channel 13, KRCG, the Columbia CBS affiliate, is signing off. A young man in an Army uniform is seated on a bus, traveling up a country road. He climbs off, and is greeted by his parents, his fresh-scrubbed sister and the family dog.

It looks like vintage '40s footage without dialogue, and as they sit down on the steps of the family farm house, the national anthem plays.

Outside, the moon is bright, the fields of alfalfa are swaying slowly in the breeze.

There is no sound. Even the soldiers of fortune are asleep. Later today they will have to go home.