He is a colonel in the Ku Klux Klan, a tall, burly man with a mustache and two missing front teeth lost in a fight, a high school dropout turned trucker who became a sort of twisted hero for a day in his own right-wing back yard of white power and hate.

"I kind of enjoyed the stick fighting, but it kind of got out of hand when the guns came out," grinned Jerry Paul Smith, 33, one of six men found not guilty Monday of murdering five Communist marchers at a Greensboro rally last year. His exploits with "sticks," then with a .357 magnum in one hand, a second pistol in the other, were linked to the death of marcher Cesar Cauce. But the all-white jury decided that his actions -- and the actions of three other Klansmen and two Nazis -- were self-defense.

"Like I said on the witness stand, I didn't know there was going to be a fight, but if you smack a man in the face with an egg, you got to expect to get your butt whipped," Smith said. He testified that he had been hit over the head with a board and didn't remember shooting anyone. But a videotape played over and over in court showed his guns blazing, and a few feet away Cauce falling to the ground, dead.

Smith strutted down a muddy dirt road, beneath a Confederate flag flapping in the bitter breeze. His exploits in the streets of Greensboro had just earned him a promotion to the staff of the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the KKK.

Smith sucked in his beer belly, and reporters, adoring neighbors, family and Klansmen on pilgrimage could make out the CSA belt buckle that held up his jeans. Then he moved into his two-bedroom brick house in this tiny textile town in the Appalachian Piedmont, beside the tree house where his two sons had scrawled "Free the Greensboro 14" in red paint.

He took up his sentry duty against creeping integration, abortion, drugs, communism and Jews before a roaring fire.

"I've said all along they ought to pin a medal on those boys," said neighbor Giles Ballard, a retired cotton mill worker with emphysema in his lungs and a wad of tobacco in his jaw.

"People have been treating us like heroes," said Coleman Pridmore, 37, another freed Klansman who dropped by to celebrate with his pregnant wife, Linda, and his daughter, Lisa, 14. He called the verdict, reached after one week's deliberation in the longest murder trial in North Carolina history, a "victory for America. Anytime you defeat Communism it's a victory for America."

Smith said he had "lost a lot of sleep" over the notion that he may have killed someone. He raised his tattooed arms to show a newspaper photograph depicting the Greensboro shootings. "It's a hell of a thing to see a man laying' there, gasping, the life running out of him in the street, but that's what they intended to do to us."

Pridmore, Smith and two other Klansmen who were acquitted Monday of five counts each of first-degree murder as well as felonious rioting had set out from Klan country here to drive 100 miles to meet the Communists, who dared them to stop a "death to the Klan" rally on Nov. 3, 1979, in a Greensboro ghetto.

Their country is a rolling stretch of hardscrabble farms, piney woods, textile mills and blue-collar workers who feel America has forgotten them. Beyond the heartland they perceive a nation where atheist bureaucrats advance equal opportunities for blacks and other minorities, and they feel it is at their expense. The Klan's gospel of fear gives Klansmen with titles like Exalted Cyclops and Grand Dragon a potent weapon to recruit soldiers like Smith, Pridmore and others.

Fighting communism is what drew him into the Klan, not hate, said Pridmore, who holds the rank of Exalted Cyclops. The Klan doesn't preach hate, just the hate of certain laws passed against the poor, the elderly and whites, he said, combing wavy brown hair slicked down with oil. He stood beside a table stacked with autographed photos of the freed Klansmen and assorted Klan literature: "Documented Proof: Jews Behind Race Mixing"; "Who's Who in the World Zionist Conspiracy"; "The Negro and World Crisis"; "Choose Your Side"; "The Klan."

Pridmore learned to hate communism in high school, before dropping out in the ninth grade, he said. Smith left school in the 10th grade to work in the mills, drive a truck cross-country under the CB handle "Southern Babymaker," carouse with a gang of local bikers, the Hellbenders, settle down with his wife, Frances, and join the Klan and fight communism.

"Communist want to destroy america, to tear it down, and they should be tried for treason," said Pridmore, a former $4.68-an-hour textile dye foreman who has a half dozen job offers to choose from. "They're using everything they can to spark incidents like Greensboro. There are 10,000 Greensboros waiting to happen.

"For us, it [the violent confrontation] was a sucker play. They called us cowards and punks, and we got mad" and fought back. "We were suckered."

Smith doesn't plan to take to the streets any longer to counter such marches. He plans a hunting trip to trap mink and bobcat in Maine and to write a book with fellow Klansmen.

The acquitted Klansmen and Nazis see a potential gold mine in Greensboro, with possible books and movies to package the Klan's message for America as entertainment. Smith was attempting to charge $100 for interviews today, but had no takers and decided to open his house gratis to the press. Another freed Klansman, David Wayne Matthews, 25, a millworker who admitted firing into the crowd in court, tried to sell his story to The Hickory Daily Record today. Ellison Clary, the editor, told Matthews to take a hike.

While Smith talked of his exploits in his living room, Harold Covington, who identified himself as the head of the National Nazi Party, called a news conference 150 miles away in Chapel Hill to display his own brand of hatred. "We're simply overjoyed," he said of the jury's verdict in the deaths of the five Communist Workers Party demonstrators, all but one of whom were white. "It's still possible for whites to fight back."

In Maiden, Smith dreamed aloud of holding forth on the Phil Donahue show, getting right with the Lord "for the first time," swearing off whiskey and other women and reining in a volcanic temper.

"I've been known to throw the first punch in a fight," he said.

But forswearing violence doesn't mean he would tie his hands if there came another "Miami." He said his Klan guru, Joe Grady, imperial wizard of the White Knights of North Carolina, has a stockpile of weapons and a Klan guerrilla unit of Vietnam combat veterans just itching to fight a race war.

"We've got the firepower and the artillery, and if a race war breaks out, the organization will hold their own," he said.