BESSEMER, ALA. -- These are not the best of times for the pro-contra group known as Civilian Materiel Assistance, which yesterday wrapped up its national convention here at a hotel named Journey's End.

The group's president and founder, Tom Posey, is under threat of indictment or alleged gun-running to Central America and is also a target of a wide-ranging civil suit. Peace initiatives from every quarter seem to be poisoning the air, sapping the enthusiasm of the fighters in the field. Official American aid to the anti-Sandinista rebels, which runs out this month, may not be renewed by Congress. Even Ronald Reagan -- he of "I'm a contra, too!" -- has appeared at times to be backsliding.

The sky this weekend was appropriately gray, the weather unseasonably cool. It was against this backdrop that something under 100 conventioneers from as far away as Alaska and the Caribbean -- many in combat fatigues and jungle boots, and a few women in camouflage skirts -- came to celebrate the contras and to vent their frustrations, which were considerable and severe.

"We've taken a lot of verbal abuse," Posey said at a news conference punctuated by bursts of applause from the angry faithful. "Why doesn't the press report the dad-gum truth?"

The truth, Posey said, was that the latest Central American peace plan, signed by the Sandinistas and embraced by some members of Congress as well as by the contra political leadership, might just be "quite a liberal trick to give Central America to the Sandinistas and kill the contras."

Posey, a retired Marine sergeant and Vietnam veteran from nearby Decatur, organized the group four years ago and called it Civilian Military Assistance -- a name later softened to counteract reports that it was secretly sending weapons south. He insists that CMA has never dealt in anything but nonlethal supplies -- some $4 million in food, medicine, clothes and the like, not including items worth "an easy million" sitting in a warehouse in Decatur. In recent years CMA's membership has dwindled from 1,000 to about 650, but it claims 5,000 contributors nationwide, and Posey can still conjure up visions of ultimate victory and the rewards that it will bring.

"When all this is over and we've won," he said with a little smile, "I'm hoping some of these people in Congress will be tried for treason against the United States. All these congressmen and senators who are giving their allegiance to Daniel Ortega are going directly against their oath of office to defend and protect the United States."

The conventioneers, mostly retired military people, were as varied as a Texas petrochemical worker, a Memphis psychiatrist and a Canadian businessman from the Cayman Islands. "I would sure like not to see another damn generation die in a war," said the Texan, Charles Toler of Bridge City, who served in Vietnam as a Navy enlisted man. "That's why I support the contras. So we don't have to send Americans down there."

"The one thing the contras don't want," said CMA Vice President Jim Kent, a Marine first sergeant in Vietnam, "is the Americans coming down there and screwing it up, just like they did with the Vietnamese. And I don't blame them."

A member from Dayton, Ohio, brought a supply of medical and tool kits for combatants in the field, and a stack of homemade leaflets for Americans on the sidelines. "Hey, Danny! Surprise!" read one leaflet depicting Nicaraguan President Ortega in the process of being blown up. The man, a retired Navy logistics officer who insisted on anonymity, said he feared the ill will of Democrats and liberal church groups.

"There are a number of us who fully expect to be assassinated," he said as he tugged at his beard, a wild thicket of gray. "I like beards," he said. He also said he is not a kook. "No, I don't think a beard is some symbol of revolutionary fervor. And I don't believe that fluoridation is a communist plot, but I believe that this country is in the hands of bad people. A lot of people in Congress, were it up to me, would be in prison by sundown today ...

"This year alone, I've spent about $15,000 or $20,000 out of my own pocket on supplies. We live very frugally. At 3 this morning, on the way down here from Dayton, I was in some motel parking lot, I don't even know where, putting together 90 first-aid kits. I've had six hours of sleep in the last 96 hours."

He looked it. On his head he wore what he described as "my gun-show beret," a chapeau in the tradition of the Special Forces. He said he recruits for the cause at gun shows "because that's where the right-wingers are. I've been a right-winger since I was three weeks old. You probably think we're all running around in camos screaming 'Kill! Kill! Kill!,' but a lot of us are reasonably intelligent, well-informed people ...

"My contempt for the news media is limitless and boundless," he added. "One of the high points of my life was when Dan Rather got the {bleep} stomped out of him." Of anticontra protester Brian Willson, a Vietnam veteran who lost both legs while blocking the path of a train last week at a California weapons base, he said, "I was rather delighted."

"These people are doing what they do out of love," said Portia Paine Wicker, an erstwhile lounge singer who is busily writing the group's official history.

Unofficially, it has a checkered past. "You always get wackos," said CMA's Alaska state director, William Luckett, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. "You realize there are some people whose elevator doesn't go all the way to the top." One of these may have been the CMA member arrested after he held a gun on illegal aliens at the Arizona-Mexico border, or another who tried to blow up a bridge in Nicaragua.

"No organization can be responsible for the actions of all its members," Posey said, who on his trips to contra headquarters in southern Honduras carries a Soviet-style AK47 rifle. "I don't really need it," he said. "I feel safer there than I do here."

The feeling is perhaps understandable. He was called earlier this year before a Miami grand jury investigating illegal shipments of weapons -- he once presented a bolt-action rifle to contra military leader Enrique Bermudez as a Christmas gift -- and gave a deposition to the Iran-contra committees. He is also one of 29 defendants in a lawsuit brought by journalists Martha Honey and Tony Avirgan and lawyer Dan Sheehan of the Christic Institute. The suit claims, among other things, that Posey played a role in shipping explosives to La Penca, Nicaragua, where dissident contra leader Eden Pastora's May 1984 press conference was bombed, killing three people and injuring Avirgan, among others. Posey vehemently denies the allegations.

"I ain't worried about it," he said of the suit. "When I countersue, I'm going to own the Christic Institute, and Dan Sheehan will be on the unemployment line." Couldn't he find some work for Sheehan? "I think he'd refuse to pull targets for the 105 howitzer, and I don't think he'll hold targets for the flame thrower. The only thing I agree with the communists on is let's get rid of lawyers." He said he has raised $1,200 for a legal defense fund. "I have no real legal defense right now. If I'm ever indicted, I'll probably end up taking a public defender. But are they going to pick on Tom Posey because he's an anticommunist? Because that's exactly what they're doing."

Luckett, 58, veteran of Korea and Vietnam, brought from Anchorage an entire wardrobe of warlike garb. Gracing his camouflage fatigues was his "I'd Rather Be Killing Communists" belt buckle, exchanged later in the day for another buckle ornamented with shell casings of various calibers. Still later, he donned a .30-caliber machine gun belt, and the pie`ce de resistance, black field fatigues for the Saturday night banquet.

"Human beings are a tribal animal," Luckett said of his penchant for uniforms. "This has been so for millions of years. We seek out our own kind." Like a few others in attendance, he had just come from last week's Soldier of Fortune conclave in Las Vegas.

Many of the conventioneers sported shoulder patches of the CMA mascot -- a Pegasus-like beast called the "freedom horse" -- and proudly wore "contra crosses," flattened cartridges sculpted into the shape of a crucifix. They brandished bumper stickers ("Give Aid to the Contras, Give AIDS to the Sandinistas") and told each other jokes: How many Sandinistas does it take to change a light bulb? None -- they wait for the Cubans to come. Then there was the requisite exchange of late-night war stories in the hotel bar and the equally requisite trading of hangover cures the morning after.

But they had also come to honor their dead -- two Americans and a Nicaraguan shot down on a helicopter rescue mission into Nicaragua in September 1984 -- and watch videotapes of last June's contra offensive and the congressional testimony of Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, whom they named their Freedom Fighter of the Year. Then there was the singing of a new CMA anthem, written by Bessemer seamstress Louise Kerr: "We're the CMA freedom fighters," went her lyrics, "Reaching out a helping hand/To secure our life from communism/Throughout all the land."

A meeting room at Journey's End was brightened by the CMA freedom horse flag (sewn by Kerr) and graced by a display of captured weaponry -- a Soviet-made hand grenade, a land mine, a rifle -- and snapshots of young men with gaping wounds. Conventioneers studied these along with Posey's collection of patches from various contra battalions. There was also the pilgrimage from Journey's End, across a wide, empty highway, to the Bessemer Civic Center for a CMA-sponsored gun show, held to raise money for the cause.

Sparsely attended by the general public, the show featured such hardware as AK47s, .50-caliber ammo cans, packs of bullet lubricant, a Claymore mine ("Front Toward Enemy," read the instructions), and a booth devoted to books with such titles as "Hand to Hand Combat," "Two Component High Explosive Mixtures," "The Secret Science of Covert Inks," and "Nuclear War Survival Skills: What You and Your Family Can Do Before ... And After."

The convention went off with Latin American precision. The survival games planned for Sunday morning were called off, while the top-billed guests of honor -- military commander Bermudez and political leader Adolfo Calero of the Fuerza Democratica Nicaraguense, the largest contra army -- failed to show. But Adolfo's brother Mario did, along with Bermudez's personal assistant, Guillermo Jose' Gasteazoro Coen, better known as Comandante "Pecos Bill," a former first lieutenant in Anastasio Somoza's National Guard, and Meskito Indian Hilton Zelaya, whose nom de guerre is "Barricuda."

"I gave my blood for my country and my people, but I'm living, and I can still do something more," said Barricuda, who lost his right foot in 1985 to a Sandinista mine.

"I lost my rank, I lost my status, I lost my country," said Pecos Bill about why he was with the contras.

The three contras said the Sandinistas are supported by PLO and Bulgarian pilots, as well as Libyan artillery. Asked about alleged contra atrocities against unarmed civilians, they said special units of the Sandinista army regularly disguise themselves in contra uniforms to kill civilians so the freedom fighters will be blamed. "Tell me," demanded Pecos Bill, "how could we have the support of the populace if we commit atrocities?"

"I'd get on my knees and crawl naked through glass for these people," said CMA's Kentucky state director, Bob Hamilton, known as "Dr. Bob" for having spent more than two years near the war zone, delivering more than 300 babies.

The barrel-chested Mario Calero downplayed the significance of the recent peace initiatives. "We have {sought} peace from the onset," Calero said. A cigarette dangling between his fingers, he spoke with a rasp reminiscent of Marlon Brando as the Godfather. "But there isn't a single case, as a precedent, where a communist regime in power will negotiate itself out of power ... We will continue to fight. Our arms are not for sale. We are staying in the struggle until Nicaragua is free."

"Truth be told, we are winning the war," Calero added in all but accentless English, the result of having lived in the United States since age 10. "That's why there is a peace initiative. Everybody wants to get into the act." He claimed the FDN has reduced the Sandinista helicopter fleet by 70 percent, that 80 percent of the contras are operating inside Nicaragua -- "we have close to 15,000 fighters in-country" -- and that, if Congress keeps sending military aid, victory will be theirs "more or less by Easter of 1988."

But he derided this summer's Iran-contra hearings as "Congressgate."

"The government has decided to investigate itself more than to investigate those that go against the policy of the U.S. administration," he said. "I don't actually see where the word 'Congressgate' to describe the Iran-contra hearings is an insult to Congress. But are the Iran-contra hearings an insult to the contras? Now how would that be? Are we just to take insults?" He grinned broadly.

Later Calero pointed out a minor flaw in the otherwise optimal American political system. "There is a very good word in Spanish -- you don't have it in English -- and it's libertinaje. It means 'excessive liberty.' "

"I am one of the first contras, I am contra number eight," said Pecos Bill, 33, who listed his residence in the convention register as "the jungle in Central America," although he has been spending much of his time traveling in the United States. "Nobody gets paid at the FDN -- they get paid in rice and beans."

He said his moniker arose from his preference for cowboy garb in the field -- "I looked like a gunslinger," said the thickly mustachioed comandante, who was American-trained, having attended officer-candidate school in the early 70s. He was later schooled at Ilopango Air Base in El Salvador. "I am also a demolition officer with the contras."

But at Journey's End, he seemed to be spending much of the convention hobnobbing with the ladies. "Cuidado," Mario Calero laughingly told him, using the Spanish word for "careful."

"Pecos Bill is very active," Calero said in a jaunty aside. "But his father, oh boy, he was hell on wheels!"

Pecos Bill said his late father, a crop-duster pilot in Chinandega, would occasionally have a drink with President Somoza. At first the soul of geniality, Pecos Bill began baring his teeth as the convention wore on. "You better not twist what I said," he warned, confronting a reporter in the hotel bar. He was outfitted in what he called his "Blackbird" uniform -- black, he said, for night combat -- impressively festooned with training patches from the Salvadoran air force. "You better not," he repeated. He punctuated this admonition by narrowing his dark eyes to execute a menacing glare.

Perhaps the weekend's dramatic highlight was Jim Kent's briefing on "War and the Contras." He paced the room, waved his arms and modulated his voice with a skill that would have done Ollie North proud.

He talked of visiting men who had lost their limbs. "I asked them, 'What are you going to do when you get out of the hospital?' And with a gleam in their eye, they say, 'I'm going to go back and kill the man that did it.' I know something about the psychology of war. When I saw my friend's head splattered down my leg, I got real mad, and I wanted to kill the man that did it. I knew it would be hard to find him so I just kept killing and killing and killing. And that's what the contras will do."

As if that were not enough, Kent added, "Almost on military command, they get done eating and everybody produces a toothbrush. They're very hygienic people!"

Jon Griswold, 23, a recent history graduate of the University of Alabama, briefed the members on the "3rd World Anti-Communist Guerrilla Movement."

"Nicaragua is the symbol of the freedom fighters around the world," he said. "If Nicaragua is liberated, that will be the impetus for rolling back the Soviet empire around the world."

"Outstanding!" Charlie Toler shouted every so often, adding a percussive guttural noise -- "Ooof!" -- that indicated appreciation.

"Learn how to write an effective letter to the editor," Griswold advised. "If you write that 'Jane Fonda is a traitor commie bitch and I hate her guts,' it may be true and what you really feel, but they're not going to print it."

Among the conventioneers was the Rev. Jim Mundey, a missionary lately based in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where he has just taken charge of a home for terminally ill children.

"The reason I joined CMA was as an American I feel I have to do my share to stop communism. For another thing, as a Christian, if the communists take over, I won't have anywhere to preach."

Shirley Williams, code name "Angelita," a licensed practical nurse who works in an old-age home in nearby Pleasant Grove, Ala, spent 45 days this summer in Honduras tending to wounded contras and their families. She brought with her a bumblebee costume, which she donned to cheer up the children. "The contras let me go anywhere, do anything," she said, adding that she survived dysentery, three tarantula bites and a horse stepping on her foot. "Scared? Are you kidding? I was petrified ... My 18-year-old son thinks his mother is crazy ... They are loving, beautiful people down there," she said of the contras. "They're the most compassionate people on earth."

Pulling snapshots of her patients out of a carefully assembled scrapbook, she frequently got wet-eyed as she recounted her experiences. "Just call me ol' blubbermouth," said Williams, who was inducted into the contras last weekend as an honorary major.

"I'll tell you something, I never talk to the media," said retired Marine brigadier general Donald M. Schmuck of Buffalo, a member of CMA's board of directors, veteran of Soldier of Fortune fests and occasional visitor to contra base camps. Schmuck, an honorary general in the FDN army, strode with ramrod bearing, smiling a tight smile. But later at a party by the pool, beer in hand, he seemed considerably looser, having exchanged his blue blazer for a T-shirt proclaiming himself a "grunt," shorts and no shoes.

"This is the first time I've seen a marine general in bare feet," marveled a real retired grunt named Rick Aztlan, a Chicago policeman. "These people are good people and their cause is certainly just, but they aren't very sophisticated," added Aztlan, a Vietnam veteran. He said he didn't believe Calero's rosy reports of contra gains, and wondered why he was the convention's only Hispanic American. "They need to be more polished to get their message across. I'd have Tom Posey hire a New York public relations firm and in six months you'd have little children playing contra board games, liberating Nicaragua from the communists."

Tom Posey, meanwhile, said he didn't mind holding his convention at a place called Journey's End.

"To every end," he said, with a steady gaze, "there's a beginning."