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As Different as Night And Day

From Platoon Sergeant To Swing Watchman

By Jonathan H. Alter

George Richardson admits it. He was "a little pissed off" when he first went to work as a security guard at Harvard in 1969.

Richardson, whose duties as a night watchman take him from Adams to Winthrop to Lowell Houses on various nights of the week, was coming off a different career at that time. It was only natural, he reflects, for a 23-year Army man who had seen action in World war II, Korea and Vietnam to feel some resentment upon seeing Viet Cong flags waved around at Commencement.

"I saw so many good boys die over there," he says, fingering a pack of the cigarettes he still buys tax-free from a Boston-area military commissary. The clock in the Lowell House Superintendent's Office reads 8:30. Four hours to go.

There's no anger in his voice, though. And even with the crewcut and Canal St., New Orleans tattoos--one of a mermaid, another of a clipper ship--the image of Richardson as a platoon sergeant just doesn't fit. His soft voice belies some of the memories--of "mowing down" North Koreans as an infantryman in MacArthur's Yalu River-bound 24th Division and carrying out "search and destroy" missions in the Central Highlands of Vientnam.

In retrospect, he says, Vietnam was clearly an unjust war and he might have been out there demonstrating himself were he young: "As I thought about it more, I realized it wasn't necessary for them to die." It was in Vietnam in 1965 with "airplanes and more aiplanes coming every day from home" that Richardson began to tire of his career. When it came time for another tour of duty, he opted out--"A little too old run those hills."

His mission over there--"simply to annihilate"--also began to bother him. "We'd take an area and a few months later go back and take the same piece of land again." And it was hot, hotter than the other wars, and tougher. He had contracted malaria and suffered a concussion from a grenade. "I wanted to live," he says matter-of-factly.

Richardson began picking up his $500-per-month pension, married a widow and embarked on a new career--his first since 1944, when he ran away from Plymouth, Mass., at the age of 16, to join the Merchant Marine. The Harvard job opened up while he was shelving books at Houghton Mifflin, and he recalls jumping at the opportunity.

Richardson generally has good things to say about Harvard, particularly about its students. "They're your employer and if you didn't treat the students right, you wouldn't have a job," he says after handing an alligator-shirted sophomore a key to lock her closet.

His job as a "swing watchman"--alternating between Houses--is also to his liking. A hearty laugh overpowers the WEEL "easy listening" wafting from a radio behind him: "You screw up one week and by the time you get back there they've forgotten all about it."

Like other night watchmen, Richardson worries about job security. Guards fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Buildings and Grounds, not the Harvard Police, but like the policeman they worry about their dwindling numbers. Richardson recalls that when he arrived at Harvard, there were about 50 other watchmen. Now, he says, the number is closer to 30. The University has begun to hire "casual workers" at a rate far less than the $4.74 an hour they pay the guards, and Richardson sees that move as the wave of the future. When the guards meet with University officials this week to negotiate a new contract, the "casual workers" will unquestionably be an issue. (Other B&G workers have already ratified new contract.)

Richardson won't say much to criticize the administration. He hopes to be a House superintendent some day--he was rejected recently when Eliot House had an opening--and he is understandably reluctant to voice gripes.

Stories about various assignments, however, flow freely. During the South Africa demonstration in April, for instance, Richardson was posted inside Mass Hall. He just sat at President Bok's secretary's desk all night smoking cigarettes, "waiting with a bazooka," he jokes.

"It's a just cause," he says of the agitation over investments in South Africa. The only ones who can make trouble, he adds, are the "professional demonstrators," not students.

Sometimes it's the police who are at fault, he admits. In the early '70s, when clashes between demonstrators and police were at their height, Richardson saw a Cambridge police car trying to run over a student demonstrator on the grass between Winthrop and Kirkland Houses. The student fled into Winthrop with the cop in hot pursuit. Richardson pointed the officer in the wrong direction.

Richardson's attitudes are rather paradoxical about "authority" and what it represents. For most of his life, he worked in the service of his nation--and many times he killed for it. In Vietnam, the bodies of the Vietnamese were piled "yea high." He holds his hand above his head in illustration. But devotion to country only goes so far. Outside Lowell House, Richardson's 1971 Chevy Impala has a bumper sticker on it summing up his attitudes about where the country is heading. "CRIME WOULDN'T PAY," the bumper sticker reads, "IF THE GOVERNMENT RAN IT."

Politics, though, isn't something Richardson is much interested in talking about. He'd rather mention the $50 Savings Bond and two free theater tickets he won a few years ago for his design of the patch used on uniforms worn by security guards. The job itself interests him. He likes to talk about it.

Richardson prefers working the Houses to assignments in Harvard's museums--which is what his summer work entails. The museum detail is either boring--"once you've seen those picures for two or three days, you've had enough"--or hair-raising. School children are the worst; they dive under the cases holding the irreplaceable glass flowers in the Peabody Museum and Richardson's heart skips a beat. He yells at them like an Army sergeant, he says.

Rarely, if ever, do Harvard students anger him, even when they do things like let a pet cobra loose in the House--as one Adams resident did a few years ago when Richardson was on duty--or break a sprinkler system pipe doing chin-ups on it, the work of another Adams House student earlier this spring.

"Who can blame them when they break loose a little bit?" he asks, listening to a distant party. "As long as no one's flying out the window I don't break it up."

It's 12:30 and Richardson is ready to start the drive home to Arlington. Tomorrow he will head out to the Hilltop Steak House is Saugus to buy a whole side of beef. Then it will be back to work--a job with the kind of slow-passing hours that lend themselves so well to conversations and recollection.

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