WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — S. Brian Willson would seem to be an unlikely martyr. In his youth he considered becoming a minister, an FBI agent and a professional baseball player. He has been a lawyer, a dairy farmer and a veterans' counselor.
But it wasn't until middle age that Willson found his true calling. In his 40s--and long after it was fashionable or popular--the working-class boy from a hamlet near Buffalo, N.Y., became a full-time antiwar activist, a self-styled "peace warrior."
Because of that career decision he is famous. Because of it he also is in a hospital here, recovering from a skull fracture and minus both legs below the knee, limbs lost in what he maintains is a worthy cause--trying to stop U.S. arms shipments to the Nicaraguan contras.
For Willson, 46, it has been a long and complicated journey from obscurity and conformity to notoriety and the fifth-floor private room at the John Muir Medical Center.
Even now, in the early stages of learning to walk on artificial legs, Willson defies expectations. He does not appear to be depressed by his new handicap. In an interview last week with The Times--the first face-to-face interview he has granted since his hospitalization--he was cheerful, animated and voluble.
He has few regrets about the chain of events that cost him his legs and he has begun to see his survival as a gift for his devotion to a cause.
"I feel clean and clear about what I'm doing," he said. "That doesn't mean I won't think a lot about it (the loss of his legs). Obviously I have. . . ."
But, he added, "I want to know why I'm still alive. That's the question. Wrestling with that question indicates to me that somehow something was OK about what I did."
Because he still has his knees, he happily explained, he should eventually should be able to walk almost normally. With almost equal delight he displays an autographed baseball from the St. Louis Cardinals, his favorite team. The card accompanying the baseball wished him a speedy recovery from his "accident," a word that makes Willson laugh.
He also chuckles when recalling that late at night, to the displeasure of his nurses, he is reading books about such leaders of the nonviolent movement as Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.
But behind his good humor lies a grim and tenacious preoccupation, a single-minded obsession with what he declares are forces of death and destruction. It was Willson's serious side that nearly got him killed--and quite accidentally reaped a public relations bonanza.
Willson's near-fatal encounter with a military munitions train during a demonstration at the Concord Naval Weapons Station on Sept. 1 has made him a martyr in the peace movement and an international celebrity.
A videotape showing Willson being mangled by a locomotive received widespread television news play. A few days later, thousands of protesters, including Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, turned out at the spot where Willson had been mutilated.
Rosario Murillo, wife of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, has visited him in the hospital. Willson also received--and declined--an offer for medical treatment from the Soviet Union, where he was hailed as a hero.
The dramatic and bloody episode also has seemed to energize the fragmented peace movement in the San Francisco Bay Area. Demonstrators, including veterans who began what they call the "Nuremberg action" with Willson last June, are maintaining a vigil at the spot where he was injured. They talk of escalating the nonviolent protests there and elsewhere to highlight opposition to the Reagan Administration's policies in Central America.
Yet the most important consequence of Willson's close encounter with death may well be the ultimate changes in Willson himself. Those who know him say that Willson's life has been a series of political and moral metamorphoses. After each he has sloughed off a little more of his past, a few more possessions, a few more connections to conventionality, they say.
In his hospital room with a baseball cap covering his head, shaved during surgery to repair his skull, Willson seems to acknowledge that his life has reached another period of intense reflection.
"I don't have any answers now," he said. "I'm in the process of trying to live up to some ideals. I concluded I have to give up a lot of what I have to be free, to express what I honestly feel without worrying about my mortgage, my reputation, my career, my patio or whatever. I had to start with myself. I'm 46 years old and it's been a long process."
Holly Rauen, who married Willson just days before he was injured and helped staunch the blood flowing from her husband, is worried that Willson, her son and she eventually will pay a price for the traumatic experience they shared.