On the plain and dusty streets of this tiny farming community, international espionage is an awkward, unlikely topic. But with the fascination reserved for home town gossip, Muldrow is consumed by the jarring accusation that a town son is a Soviet spy.

For the farmers and factory workers who live here at the eastern edge of Oklahoma, the arrest last week of Jerry Alfred Whitworth, a Muldrow boy living in California, brought the ugly business of espionage too close to home.

Whitworth has been charged with conspiring since 1965 with John Anthony Walker Jr. to pass secret information to the Soviets. The spy ring, which allegedly involved two other members of Walker's family, could be one of the biggest in U.S. naval history, authorities say.

"It's been the talk of the town," said O.C. Flanagan, a friend of Whitworth's when they were in their teens and now owner of the Muldrow Barbeque. "You just think it would happen somewhere else, in a larger town. Everybody around here knows everybody. In a town like this, people were shocked."

Whitworth, 45, was born and reared in Muldrow, a town of one stoplight and about 3,000 residents. Most of the residents farm soybeans or commute eight miles to work in the furniture factories of Fort Smith, Ark. Whitworth's mother and three uncles still live here, and Whitworth visited almost every year.

"It's just rural America," Flanagan said of the town.

Muldrow is a community of solid, middle-American values, traditional and patriotic, throwing into even sharper relief the possibility that a local boy turned over national secrets.

"We're extremely conservative and proud people," said Roger Sharp, Muldrow's school superintendent. "We've had young men from this area who lost their lives for the country, to preserve liberty and freedom. To come to grips that in our own town there's someone who's been accused of spying , of course it's disturbing."

Whitworth, a retired Navy senior chief radioman, left his home town shortly after he graduated from high school in 1957. He is remembered as a friendly, skinny, sandy-haired boy who made average grades and was voted the class clown his junior year. The 1956 Muldrow High School yearbook carries a picture of him perched in a tree.

"He was just an average country boy like the rest of us," said Flanagan, who was a year ahead of Whitworth at Muldrow High School. "We were into getting the gals to run around."

Whitworth was raised on a large family soybean farm a few miles outside of town. His parents divorced about the time of his birth, and he lived with his mother, uncles and grandparents.

"He was the sweetest boy that could be," said his mother, Agnes Morton, who is 71 and has lived alone since her second husband died eight years ago.

"Jerry's from a nice little town and was raised nice and decent. He was well thought of by everyone," she said. "I was proud for him to be in the Navy because I thought service boys were wonderful. I thought they were so pretty in their uniforms.

"He always had a big smile, and I imagine he still does if I could see him," she said.

Whitworth, who is being held without bail in San Francisco, lived in a mobile home park in Davis, Calif., near Sacramento, with his 30-year-old wife, Brenda Reis. Unemployed since retiring from the Navy in 1983, he considered a career in computer sales after his military service and also took courses to become a stockbroker.

At a hearing last week, an FBI agent testified that confidential documents were found in a search of Whitworth's mobile home, and his fingerprints were found on documents in John Walker's Norfolk home. The documents carried coded notations about high-frequency detection systems, according to court testimony.

Allegations of such misconduct have been greeted with indignation in Muldrow.

"I don't understand how anybody could sell out the country. Anybody that does that ought to be executed," said Bill Shermer, 71, who spends his time playing dominoes with half a dozen other men at a crumbling, informal club on Main Street known as the "spit and whittle."

Along with the angry voices crying betrayal, however, there are some who express compassion for their former neighbor. "There's a certain concern for Jerry and the family. It's a family of integrity and substance," said Maynard Blackard, the school superintendent when Whitworth was in high school. "We all think maybe, maybe it isn't true."