After former CIA logistics officer Robert H. Watson retired, he expected to putter around his Bethesda home and enjoy his new-found freedom from government service.
"But it wasn't two weeks before two police officer friends from Bethesda came to my home and said they were going to put me to work where blood is the thickest -- as a school crossing guard," Watson said.
This week Watson started his 12th year as a guard for the Montgomery County Police Department. Each school morning and afternoon, he goes to his post near the Burning Tree Elementary School to help 60 to 100 children cross the street.
"A lot of them are children of diplomats," he said. "And the diplomats were a bit of a problem -- they seemed to think they had the right of way."
Watson said that the neighborhood's foreign service families now understand that it is the responsibility of the school crossing guard to control traffic, and override traffic lights, if necessary, to get children safely across streets.
The job experiences overall, Watson said, have been "wonderful." As a result, he has applied for and received permission to continue working past his 70th birthday on Oct. 18.
Watson's age and sex make him different from most school crossing guards in the Maryland suburbs, where nearly all guards are women aged 35 to 50. A sample includes:Judy Strawbridge, 32, mother of three children, who is stationed at the crossing for Shadyside Elementary School in Suitland, Prince George's County.Carolyn Carter, 47, grandmother who works as a substitute for crossing guards in the Silver Spring area.The mother-and-daughter team of Jacqueline Tabler, 57, who works at Ashburton Elementary School in Bethesda and her daughter Robin Tabler, 27, who works at Wyngate Elementary School in Bethesda.
All are given training in the fundamentals of traffic control, first aid and the extent of their authority.
"We cannot make an arrest," Watson said, "but we can swear out a warrant that can be used as the basis for an arrest by a police officer."
Montgomery County's 155 crossing guards are paid $6.61 to $9.50 an hour, depending on length of service, according to Officer David Barnes. The guard's work day has a minimum of 2 1/2 hours and a maximum of four hours, he said.
"The jobs are not hard to fill," Barnes said. "The problem is arranging for guards to be assigned to schools close to their homes, so they can get to the school crossing even in bad weather."
Prince George's County's 148 crossing guards are paid $5 to $7.50 an hour, said field supervisor Charlotte Moreland.
Dressed in their uniforms, which include orange fluorescent vests designed to make them as visible as possible, the crossing guards whistle while they work -- using regulation police whistles to stop cars and control traffic. Some of them help children cross streets; others are assigned to schools to direct bus and car traffic. They go to work in all kinds of weather: rain, sun, sleet, snow. And they sometimes have to endure impatient drivers and uncooperative parents.
Occasionally, there is an accident.
On Jan. 24, a speeding car struck and killed an 8-year-old boy, Brandon O. Cunningham, at the New Hampshire Avenue crossing near Langley-McCormick Elementary School in upper Prince George's County. The crossing guard, Dorothy Doyle, managed to shove several other children out of the way in time to save them.
In 1978, Montgomery County crossing guard Margaret Owen was struck by a car and suffered a broken right leg, facial cuts and other injuries.
Despite the hazards and the headaches of the job, the crossing guards typically say they like their work and the flexibility it gives them to do other things.
"I love it," said Strawbridge, who helps about 176 children cross the street to Shadyside Elementary School in the morning and again in the afternoon. "I like the children, I like being out there, even in the winter when it's cold, and I like being able to do it and then go home and do some housework, be with my children, and make dinner.
"It's like I have a job, and I don't have a job," she said of her split schedule.
Strawbridge said that she has established a close relationship with many of the children she meets at work and "they tell me things that they don't tell their parents. When they do that, I try to get them to talk to their parents and I give them a chance to do that. When they don't, I tell them that I will tell their parents if they don't."
Nevertheless, safety guard officials say that it would help if motorists understood what they were trying to do.
"Lots of times I have wanted to go on television and explain to people what we are trying to do when we make only one car stop for a group of children," Moreland said. "They don't understand why we can't let their car go through and then cross the children. They say, 'I was the only car coming on the road, why did I have to stop?'"
The reason, Moreland said, is simple.
"Guards are trained to build a barricade of one or two cars and then cross the children in front of that barricade," she said. "It's not that we sit and wait for a car to come. But it is better to stop a car and have it serve as a barrier for other cars that may be coming up, especially if there is a hill or curve or other visibility problem."
Moreland said that school crossing guards have been instructed to work with traffic and try to keep it moving, "but children are our main objective -- children and their safety."
Parents who fail to follow good safety practices also give guards a headache.
"Some parents will walk with their children to school to help them learn the route," Moreland said, "but then they cross the children in the middle of the street instead of taking them to the guard crossing.
"We would appreciate it," she said, "if they would go to the guard crossing and set a good example for the children."