ODON, IND. -- On a cool October afternoon, a smiling old man drives down Main Street in an ancient Ford "horseless carriage," one of the earliest automotive prototypes. The car would be an anachronism elsewhere, but not here in Odon, a small Midwestern town that seems frozen in an earlier America. The driver pulls up in front of the Malt Shop, one of the two big hangouts in Odon (population 1,500), and steps out to talk to some friends, a group of farmers who've just finished lunch.

Across the street is the town's other central gathering place, the Odon Tavern. What's happening over there is not so quaint. Out front are two men with big-city haircuts, one holding a movie camera, the other a microphone, interviewing the Daviess County sheriff. The driver of the Ford asks what it's all about.

"Breeden and the sign," one of the farmers says.

"Oh God," he responds, with the air of a man reliving a nightmare.

Odon, in the middle of Indiana's Amish farm belt, about two hours south of Indianapolis, doesn't seem a likely hotbed of dissent. But it is a fact that the longest trial (five days) in Daviess County history centered on an act of political protest.

While Odon may not be nationally known, it can claim one famous son: former national security adviser John Poindexter, of Iran-contra notoriety. It begrudgingly claims another one, local peace activist Bill Breeden, whose older sister dated Poindexter in high school. The men chose radically different paths -- Poindexter the pipe-sucking bureaucrat, Breeden a self-proclaimed anarchist known to live in a tepee. Which is why two enterprising documentary filmmakers are here today, tweezing an old wound, taping the recollections of those involved in a political prank that captured Indiana's attention -- and a conservative community's animosity -- for more than a year.

Steven Day and David Goldsmith have come to Odon with their movie equipment and whatever else will fit in the back of Goldsmith's car, to record the saga of Bill Breeden, who in 1987 went on trial for stealing a street sign.

The sign read "John Poindexter Street."

Day, a Washington, D.C., doctoral student in Middle Eastern studies, and Goldsmith, a New York video producer, have no studio affiliation, no financial backers and no grants. But they have high hopes and high ideals.

"I was going to take a year's leave of absence from my doctoral studies at Georgetown to go to Yemen to study the democracy movement there, but I've decided to concentrate on this project instead," says Day, who's been living off his savings to do the movie. (The pair say they have invested about $10,000 so far.)

"What we're trying to do here," says Goldsmith, "is show how this little incident not only affected a small town, but is a reflection of national politics."

Day and Goldsmith have tentatively titled their film "Sign of the Times."

The Rev. Bill Breeden, 41, is a bearded, ponytailed former Nazarene minister. Currently living with his wife and son in an Indiana University professor's house he has been contracted to repair, Breeden drives around town in a black 1948 Packard, whose back is plastered with bumper stickers such as "Abolish the CIA."

What we have here, clearly, is a different kind of Iran-contra story.

The whole thing started on Nov. 25, 1986, the day John Poindexter resigned as Ronald Reagan's national security expert, taking much of the rap for the arms-for-hostages deal. Within hours, local television crews descended on Odon, asking the townspeople how they felt -- did they stand by their native son?

Earlier in the year, before the scandal broke, a group of local Republicans led by the admiral's cousin Dickie Ray Poindexter suggested to the town council that John Street be changed toJohn Poindexter Street. After all, who would have thought that a kid from this town, a kid who worked at the local theater as a teenager, would have gone on to become a three-star admiral?

The council took the recommendation and also decided that such an event merited a full-scale celebration: food, a parade and, of course, the presence of a high-ranking Hoosier. However, Poindexter's schedule was full in the summer of '86 (doing what, one can only guess), so it was decided that the new street signs would be unveiled in the summer of 1987, so Poindexter could take time out from advising the president (or not advising the president, as he later maintained) and return to his home town.

But things weren't looking good for Poindexter on Nov. 25, and as a way of showing his support for the besieged intelligence officer, Odon Journal Editor John Myers asked the town council if he could put one of the signs up immediately. Permission was granted, and as the TV cameras rolled, Myers tied the John Poindexter sign over the John Street sign with a roll of baling wire.

Breeden was in Odon the next day, visiting his mother in a nursing home, and on the way to an old friend's house he noticed the sign.

"I'd always thought it was a bad idea to name things after people who were still living, because you never know what they might do before they die," he says. "I was always kind of upset that they never named a street after one of my best friends, who was killed in Vietnam. The statement in this case was 'All of Odon supports John Poindexter,' and that wasn't the case."

So on the night of Nov. 26, Breeden and an old high school buddy decided it would be an amusing bit of political theater if, in the small town of Odon, a mysterious radical group were to "kidnap" the Poindexter sign and hold it hostage.

On Nov. 27, the sign was gone and a message left in its place, scrawled on the back of a Wheatsworth cracker box: "There are some graduates of this high school who do not believe government should lie to the people. Lo how the mighty have fallen. -- The Midwest Liberation Front."

Several days went by, and no one reported the sign missing. On Dec. 4, Breeden was in Bloomington, participating in a local organization's press conference on its efforts to raise medical supplies for children in Nicaragua. Afterward, Bloomington Herald-Telephone reporter Richard Gilbert told Breeden he had heard about the missing sign in Odon and asked if he knew anything about it.

"I told him I had it, and he asked what I planned to do with it. I said, 'Well, I've been thinking about writing a letter to The Washington Post and telling them I'm holding the sign ransom for $30 million {the alleged amount diverted to the contras} in humanitarian aid to Nicaragua.' Then Rich said, 'No, man, don't give it to them, let us do it. Hell, probably be the only national story I get to do.' I said okay."

The next morning Gilbert's story appeared in the paper, with a photo of Breeden holding the purloined sign. Queried about his role in the sign's disappearance, Breeden replied: "I'll plead the Fifth Amendment. It seems to be a national precedent ... that is in good stead right now."

Not everyone considered this funny. Dickie Ray Poindexter is said to have pressed the Daviess County prosecutor to investigate. A few days later, a warrant for Breeden's arrest on felony charges was issued, and six law enforcement officers from the state police, Daviess County, Indianapolis and Bloomington started tromping through the back woods of neighboring Brown County, where Breeden resided with his family in a tepee. When he heard the authorities were looking for him he decided to move around the Brown County woods for a while, figuring they would get bored and go away.

The cops knew where Breeden picked up his mail, so they got a search warrant for the land behind a nearby house where they suspected he lived. No luck. They set up roadblocks. No luck.

The press, meanwhile, had no problem finding Breeden. Over the next couple of days, he granted a number of interviews to reporters who had tracked him down, including the Louisville NBC affiliate.

By the third day of the manhunt, however, Breeden decided the charade had to end. Police had managed to locate his encampment, and according to his wife, Glenda, "it put a lot of stress on the {two} kids. Here were these men with guns walking around our home."

Breeden called the Odon town marshal and said he would present himself for arrest in front of the Odon Tavern. A throng of supporters, detractors and TV cameras was there to greet him.

Bail was set at $2,500. But while Breeden had been captured, the sign's whereabouts were unknown. (A Dec. 12, 1986, headline in the Columbus {Ind.} Republic read: "Activist gives up; sign still at large.") In January, Indianapolis police received a tip that the sign was in a city phone booth. But Breeden had pulled a dupe: The sign the Indy cops recovered had been manufactured by one of Breeden's friends. The real sign was later recovered in a park in Washington, Ind.

All the while, Dickie Ray Poindexter was itching for justice. Dickie Ray, who died last year, had considered Breeden's prank an affront to his family. What was all the more ironic was that the Breedens and Poindexters had gotten along pretty well for several generations. Dickie Ray, the only undertaker in town, had laid Breeden's father and brother to rest. In a pretrial deposition, Dickie Ray said he was "disappointed" in Bill Breeden, remembering the "love and understanding" between their families.

In his column of March 24, 1987, Indianapolis Star columnist Dan Carpenter told of how Dickie Ray Poindexter had expressed his umbrage at the "idiotic" acts of Breeden, namely "smearing Odon's name and helping the communist Sandinistas."

"It just didn't seem right to me to put up a sign bearing the name of someone who was involved in trying to overthrow a government, of someone who said he thought it was okay to lie to the American people," Breeden maintains today in a steady, slightly raspy voice, similar to that of singer John Prine. "Hell, we still don't know where it ends."

On Oct. 21, 1987, Breeden, dressed in a plaid flannel shirt, jeans and a headband, walked into Daviess County court for his trial. He sat at the defense table and casually thumbed through the Bible. In the end, he was convicted of conversion, a Class A misdemeanor, after one 18-year-old juror refused to vote for a felony conviction. Breeden served four days behind bars, while everyone else who has been convicted in the Iran-contra affair -- including John Poindexter, whose conviction was recently overturned by an appeals court -- hasn't seen a day in jail.