WASHINGTON (AP) _ It might have been there in a microsecond flash while he was flying the Cobra gunship in Vietnam, a blip in the concentration of Marine Corps helicopter pilot Frank Batha. Chances are he didn't even realize it at the time.

You don't lose concentration very often, and live, when flying in a war. But the seed was there, ready to pop up at any time. Frank Batha must always have wanted to have a farm. That's what he's going to have.

Batha, 43, retired this summer as a major after 20 years in the Marine Corps and is like thousands who have gone to the land to feed their souls, to find respite from the din of city life, a fresh lifestyle.

With a little luck, Batha will sell his home here and move to a small farm in southern Illinois this fall. At the same time, he plans to attend classes at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, majoring in agribusiness economics.

Eventually, he wants to get master's degrees in business administration and agribusiness economics. No fancy job in one of the big conglomerates, though.

''I want to keep my orientation toward agriculture and rural concerns, as opposed to the typical person who gets an MBA and thinks in terms of the Fortune 500,'' Batha said in a recent interview.

The farm. It figures into his plans, too. Maybe 12 acres, or 37 acres, or even more than 100 acres. Batha wants to have an orchard, peach trees and pears. Maybe some hay for a modest assortment of livestock. Other crops, too.

For the last couple of months since he retired from his last Marine Corps assignment here as an aviation historian, Batha participated in the Agriculture Department's intern program, sopping up all he could learn about small farms and how they fit into the giant, complex U.S. agricultural system.

Batha had read about Bud Kerr, the USDA's one-man strike force on behalf of small farms. Kerr, full of missionary zeal, thinks small, part-time farmers may be on the verge of a golden era as consumer demand increases for fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs and other produce that city dwellers crave.

''I started, really, with almost no knowledge of agriculture,'' Batha said. ''In the last two years, my brother and I had talked about starting up a farm from scratch, basically an orchard, a peach or apple orchard, or a combination, and some hay and other cash crops.''

But Batha's self-professed ignorance about farming belied the ancient roots, however tattered, that still cling to so many of us.

Batha was ''a service brat who move around a lot.'' His Coast Guard father was transferred ''all over the place'' and upon retirement in 1959 returned to the family hometown of Belleville, Ill., where Frank graduated from high school three years later.

As in so much of small-town America, residents were never very far from the farm, even when they worked at something else. Frank's grandfather was an Illinois coal miner, but he had 10 or 15 acres of his own. On his mother's side, the family was from ''right along the river'' in West Virginia and Ohio.

''Both grandparents lived out in rural communities, and farming was the backbone of the areas that I grew up in,'' he said.

After high school, Batha attended the University of Utah on a Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps scholarship, majoring in history, graduating in 1966. The Marine Corps' basic school in Quantico, Va., followed, then Navy flight school at Pensacola, Fla., for two years. Helicopters and the Marine Corps, Vietnam, in 1968-69. Huey gunships and Cobras.

It was war, and he was shot at, of course. ''That's what they say,'' Batha said, reluctantly. ''I saw a few tracers coming at me.''

Years of assignments, including a 3 1/2 -year stint as an instructor at Pensacola, followed Vietnam. Another oversees assignment, in Okinawa for a year, back into Cobras, then a couple of years on recruting duty at Birmingham, Ala., in 1974-76. Then four more years with the Fleet Marine Force, the FMF or fighting edge of the Corps, in North Carolina, and more Cobras.

Batha's final tour with the FMF took him on several cruises, some lasting for months, to the Caribbean, Mediterranean and Northern Europe. Finally, to Washington, D.C., and the historian job at Marine Corps headquarters.

The profile of Batha's 20-year career would not seem to make him prime for the farm. Except that this is what he wants for himself, his wife and his children, three daughters, 15, 7 and 4, and two sons, 13 and 11.

''Right now is an excellent time for somebody like myself to get into farming, because land prices in the Midwest are so depressed that a person can afford to buy a piece of land now and put a house on it for almost as much as somebody moving into a big city, buying just a house,'' he said.

Moreover, Batha has no intention of being a full-time farmer. He plans to work at something else, and he has the security of Marine Corps retirement income. It's his future that beckons.

''I want it tied to a small farm,'' Batha said. ''I believe in that lifestyle, I think it's going to be good for my children. I want them to have the fun of being out there, seeing nature close up instead of asphalt and pavement and just a few feet of grass for a yard.''

End Adv Sun Aug 24