The first chill of fear of nuclear devastation touched Carrie Venema during last Thanksgiving dinner at her sister's home in Michigan.

The fear already had taken hold of her sister, Susan Logie, and she tried to impress Venema with her concerns. "I stiff-armed her, shut her out," Venema said.

The fear returned and eventually grew to a passion, she said. At her sister's urging she formed a group in her hometown, Kalamazoo, called it "Billboards to Washington," and raised $10,000 in small contributions. With the money, she bought a month's worth of time on 17 billboards in the Washington area.

The message: "Hear us. Nuclear war hurts too much."

Last Friday, Venema and her husband, Bill, were here to see the billboards. "The idea just took shape, almost by itself: send a message to Washington," she recalled. "I didn't want to rub the administration's nose in it -- if I had, I could have been more pointed."

The billboards, green, brown and white, show a paper doll-like chain of stick-figure people astride the earth. Nine of the billboards are in the District of Columbia and eight in suburban Maryland and Virginia. Venema has very little practical expectation -- or even hope -- for what the billboards may accomplish, she said.

"I guess the best way to put it is what I pray for," Venema said. "That there develop a level of global concern and cooperation which would enable us to forgo the use of nuclear armament and the threat of the use of nuclear armament for all time."

Earlier this month, the Venemas' congressman, Howard Wolpe (D-Mich.), used the billboards' message to call for a nuclear freeze on the floor of the House. The fact that several hundred people had donated between $5 and $50 apiece to rent the billboards, Wolpe said, demonstrated "that the public once again is far ahead of the politicians in their understanding of the urgent need to do something about the nuclear arms race."

Carrie and Bill Venema do not fit anyone's preconceived mold of activists and they are quick to say that before the billboard idea took shape they were anything but. He is a 45-year-old pediatrician; she is 43 and teaches Sunday school at their church in Kalamazoo. She pulls out a wallet and shows photographs of her two children, and proudly says the kids arranged and paid for this trip to Washington. But there is steely resolve and not just a touch of the new convert in her soft, firm voice and the penetrating gaze of her green eyes.

"Suddenly I realized that it's wrong not to complain just because you don't have a solution," she said. "Instead, I decided that making a statement would perhaps cause those few with the technical knowledge and power to make changes, to take the first step.

"I'm much less lonely in my concern than I was a little while ago. I think this has been gnawing at people. Those who responded and sent money seemed to feel relief and release."

More practically, she said, what she would like to see is step-by-step evolution of a U.S.-Soviet disarmament agreement.

"I want to see bits and pieces signed along the way, as they're agreed upon," she said, "so that momentum gets going and nothing is lost from administration to administration.

"Yes, I'm naive. I want to go beyond a national commitment to nuclear disarmament to a global commitment. Yes, it's dangerous and it's fraught with risks. But the other way is more dangerous."