It was a clear day in Vietnam in 1968 when Peter Smith, an American soldier, heard a rumbling in the sky.
He thought it was thunder, but when he looked up, realized it was something else: America, in the form of five B-52 bombers winging back to Guam. In the distance, the soldier remembers, fire rolled over the hills of a land he had come to see as beautiful.
And last week, while wood burned in his stove and oil burned in a lamp on his table in Hillsboro, Wis., Smith told the story to help explain how he, now 66, went from being a soldier to a farmer to an Amish farmer to a man looking to build a community in an American empire he sees crumbling.
He's seen it that way for a long time.
"Words fail me when I try to talk about this," said Smith, sitting on his farm early last week, talking about that day in Vietnam. "I wish every single American would sit under a B-52 carpet-bombing airstrike and know what it's like."
Smith experienced acute depression verging on suicide when he returned from Vietnam.
He couldn't seem to communicate meaningfully about the war.
The doves and the hawks both relied on simplistic arguments, he'd felt, and he sensed an inability in the American character to see the larger landscape.
And Smith sensed something was not right with his homeland's role in the world.
It wasn't only the B-52 bombers they flew over Asia.
It was the bulldozers and skyscrapers at home, and what he would come to see as an addiction to optimism and technology, or what he calls a "push-button world."
Smith ravages books.
Worn, torn copies of "Soil andCivilization" and "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" sit on tables in his small home on his 82 acres in Hillsboro.
From a pile of papers, which included an article from the Christian Science Monitor titled "Change We Can Eat," he pulled a letter he wrote a decade ago to the editors of the Wisconsin State Journal, responding to an article on how overworked farm children miss their youth.
"Who, really, has missed out on their youth?" Smith asked, reading from the letter. "Farm children who have learned to work hard with their families tilling the soil and caring for plants and animals or suburban children caught up in a sterile frenzy of computers, consumption and confusion?"
He looked up from the letter.
"I think it's a valid question, you know?"
Smith married in 1976 while farming organically in Vermont and joined an Amish community in New York in 1983.
The move to farming, and then the Amish, was partly a response against the technological obsession he sensed in the culture, and partly a response to the environmental consciousness he developed after Vietnam.
He also couldn't get that Vietnamese soldier out of his mind, the one he'd found in a foxhole and whose death came to show Smith his own role in the history of American war.
After emptying his clip into the foxhole, Smith had pulled the man out and found a black and white photograph of a handsome-looking woman in the dead man's pocket.
"She had this serenity in her expression and she was looking right at me," he said more quietly than he spoke any part of his story. "I'd just been judge, jury and executioner of this man, and it's like the whole thing went before me, that he wanted to do exactly what I wanted to do. Go home, have a family, farm, live a peaceful life."
Smith and his wife raised seven children. He lived with the Amish for more than 20 years, settling in Hillsboro in 1992.
Francis Goodman, 59, a friend of Smith, describes him as intense, as someone who challenges him in the way that saints do, and as someone who has taught him a great deal in the machinery repair shop on Smith's farm.
"He could be a wealthy person, he could be a powerful person, but that's not what he's chosen to do," Goodman said. "He feels an awful lot of social responsibility."
During the first Persian Gulf War, Smith, who now lives alone, started to find himself at odds with the Amish community.
There were theological differences, but memories of war caused him to want to reach out to a world he saw suffering.
That didn't fit with the traditionally insular community, he said.
"There's a tremendous amount of relevance with what the Amish do," Smith said, pointing to their farming methods that require low inputs of energy. "In a certain respect, I'd like to be an interface between the outside world and the Amish way of life."
Which brings Smith's story to this article, which he was hesitant to have written, but which he agreed to hoping it would bring him closer to his goal.
"While I'm very negative, I don't want to despair," he said. "As bad as whatever is going on is, life has an incredible healing capacity. Even if we're under a Mount St. Helen's or a Vesuvius, nature can come back, life can come back. And I want to be a part of that."
And so he is putting out a call for people interested in joining him on his horse-powered off-the-grid farm, for people interested in supporting the farm through relationships with the urban poor; not for people who feel things are sound in this country, but for people who - as one of Smith's favorite quotes, which comes from a Richard Austin book, "Reclaiming America, Restoring Nature to Culture," says - "will ease the pain of others by sharing."
You can contact Smith at E17566 Gross Valley Road, Hillsboro, WI 54634.Read Peter Smith's project proposal, "Green Leaf Outreach," at www.lacrossetribune.com.