As the first of morning sun sweeps across Maj. Gen. James Birdseye McPherson's horse, the general's gaze is fixed, as always, far off in the distance. It seems to be a matter of pride with him not to acknowledge, in the smallest way, the half dozen ill-clothed and sometimes ill-shaven derelicts camped out virtually under his nose in the park that bears his name.

But it is their park now - the regulars' park - Ray's, Bruce's, George's Lefty's, Linda's and the nameless Man Under the Oak. For all its proximity to the White House, Treasury Department and other centerpieces of the executive branch of government, in spite of the office buildings that surround the park, not a white collar worker is in sight.

The only person standing in the park, in fact, is a large gentle-looking man whose scraggly white hair obscures his face.

His name is Ray, he says, and he matter-of-factly tells of leaving his wife, his three children and their West Virginia home about 1 1/2 months ago, without warning or explanation. He left, he adds ambiguously, because his wife had a habit of "messing around" while he was at work - auto body work - and dinner was not always on the table when he came home.Ray says he misses his children.

With his buddy Bruce, he continues, he hitch-hiked to Washington, and "we haven't drawn a sober breath since, and that's the truth."

"I'm an alcoholic, I admit it," says Ray.

"We drink, we don't hide it," chimes in Bruce, a compact dark-haired man who looks like what central casting might send if you asked for a typical truck driver.

"We drink rubbing alcohol, Wild Irish Rose, Skol vodka and Listerine," says Bruce, who is on the mend, he explains, from a 12-ounce bottle of Listerine he drank last night. "It's 24 per cent alcohol. It didn't taste too good, but" - here he punctuates the story with a sinister grin - "you have good breath."

The two men strive to stay as clean as possible, given their resources. Ray has a bar of soap and a razor in his back pocket, and he and Bruce take turns shaving each other in the mornings, by the Reflecting Pool.

Their friendship, born in the hills of West Virginia, is strong. "When you see one of us," says Bruce, "you see the other."

At 6:50, Millicent Ayres, a large women in a white uniform, is dropped off by a friend at 15th and K streets, and she settles onto a bench near the northwest corner of the park to await the 7:30 but to Wheaton, where she works as a housekeeper/lady's companion. "I just come in and help an old lady," she says. "I come in and do her wash and get her groceries." It takes Ayres 1 1/2 hours to get from her Seat Pleasant home to work, and, of course, another 1 1/2 hours to return.

George, a small man in his late 50s, whose clothes are about as dirty as clothes can be, half sits and half lies on a bench at the opposite end of the park.

George says he went into the Air Force in 1942, became a belly gunner on a B17, got shot down in the South Pacific and then spent 14 years in a military hospital in California contending with a variety of internal injuries.

After his discharge in 1958, George came back East - he was originally from Farmville, Va. - and between hospitalizations worked as a security guard at D.C. Armory. During that period, he and his wife split up. "Other words, she divorced me," he says. "She had one child. She said it was my daughter but I didn't know. You got to go by what they says."

George has never really gotten a foothold in life. But he has a goal: to be admitted into the soldiers' home in Newport News, Va. near where his daughter - or the woman who may not be his daughter - lives.

"I have a difficulty of thinking," he says, pointing for emphasis to his forehead. And he has an ulcer, he adds, that put him in D.C. General Hospital last year to have part of his stomach removed. "It burst on me," George explains. "I was on my way to work and it burst on me."

While the derelicts - some, at any rate - are rousing themselves, the first office workers descend on McPherson Square, including William Lindsey, a management analyst for the Veterans Administration who is here, as usual to feed squirrels. For six years he has come armed with a bag of peanuts every working morning. "They were 89 cents a bag and now they're 98 cents," he says.

"These trees don't grow acorns like they used to," Lindsey points out, by way of demonstrating the urgency of the need to feed McPherson Square squirrels. "It's the beauty of them," he says. "The mother nature aspect."

At 7:30, across K street, a procession of tourists, office workers and elderly downtown residents starts filing into Sholl's Cafeteria, past Margaret Pearson, a young sidewalk vendor who is setting up a table of jewelry, hats, glass-encased butterflies, canes that convert into pool cues ("handcarved in Taiwan") and other assorted bric-a-brac.

In Sholl's window a sign proclaims, "Special today meat loaf with tomato sauce." The regular price, 70 cents, has been crossed out and replaced with today's price, 60 cents.

Buses are piling up on K Street now, and the first tentative signs of smog are in the air as Robert Brooks, a young man in a tank shirt, leans over a hedge to unlock a well-camouflaged storage locker in the middle of the park. The National Park Service pays Brooks to keep McPherson Square park clean and the locker contains the tools of his trade, including his portable radio, which he promptly tunes to soul music on WOL.

He is a temporary employe. His job is guaranteed only until November, "but if they take me for permanent, I might to to school for gardener or exterminator," says Brooks.

Brooks appears to enjoy a good relationship with park derelicts, who greet him warmly and stay out of the way of his rake.

But there is one derelict with whom he is not on friendly terms. This is the Man Under the Oak, who sleeps in heavy winter clothes year around, who wears a musty bandanna over his forehead and eyes and who never says anything to anybody if he can help it - and he usually can. Brooks has to rake around him as he rakes around the oak itself.

Another squirrel feeder has arrived, a gaunt, bearded young man bearing a mail-pouch full of letters and packages. He has the unmistakeable aura of eastern religion about him. "Since this spring, there are a lot of new squirrels who don't know me," laments Bob Venezia. "Oh, this guy knows me," he adds, as one willing mouth invades his hand for a peanut.

Besides being, by day, a messenger for Advertising Distributors of Washington, Venezia explains that he is the secretary of a group called Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Plants, in turn a subdivision of Ananda Marga, a spiritual organization based in India with local headquarters on Montague Street NW.

By midmorning, most of the derelicts have wandered off for a day of foraging and are replaced by retirees with dogs, newspapers and time on their hands. They relax on the benches while working people - people on their way to destinations - march through the park briskly, eyes forward and full of importance. There is no discernible communication between these two groups.

Suddenly, 14 preschool children, tended by three adults, fill the park with noise and motion. They are from the Luther Place Day Care Center, and they are here to learn to read their names and the days of the week, among other lessons.

After 15 minutes, teacher Ethel Robinson instructs her group to take a break and wander through the park. "Don't pick any flowers," she warns. "Just observe everything. When you get through, I want you to tell me everything that you saw. All this is nature. Put that stick down! I said observe!"

At 11:30, Genevieve Solomon, a secretary for a consulting firm, arrives in the park with a blanket, a paperback book and a tube of suntan oil. Dressed in dungaree shorts and a bathing suit top, Solomon applies oil to every conceivably burnable part of her body. She explains, "It's that time of year."

The lunch hour has struck, and without warning the park is besieged with refugees from the surrounding office buildings, carrying brown bags and carryout boxes.

Seven uniformed clerks from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce offices at 1615 H St. crowd onto a big blanket with an assortment of Chinese food-to-go and two six-packs of beer. They are not officially entitled to a lunch hour, (one member of the party unhappily divulges. "That's why we're way up here," he says. "They can't find us way up here." Asked if the group would mind being photographed, the spokesman shakes his head decisively. "We're just leaving," he explains with a grin.

Along with the lunchers comes a small troupe of orators, solicitors and eccentrics. "Go to hell!" shouts an intense, one-armed man to no one in particular, as he storms across the park. "Go to hell! There was a time when Communists were put in prison!"

Estelle Thompson feeds the squirrels on her lunch hour. Like William Lindsey, whom she has never met, she is a management analyst for the Veterans Administration, but she gets her peanuts wholesale for about half what Lindsey pays.

The day has heated up into the high 80s as the lunch hour - it sprawls over a roughly two-hour period - winds to a close. But after most of the picnickers have departed, a small gray dog of obscure age and pedigree still scampers wildly about the park, unclaimed.

There seems to be an unwritten law that the derelicts are to make themselves scarce at lunchtime, but now some of them return, a few for hot afternoon naps.

Nicola Greco, a student a Bocconi University in Milan, Italy, has come to the park to photograph sleeping derelicts. He has come to Washington, for the summer, to research a master's degree thesis on the lobbying campaign against the Consumer Protection Agency. "I intend to apply to an American graduate school, so I picked an American issue," he explains, before heading into the bushes with his camera, stalking one of the derelicts as a cat might a bird.

Meanwhile, an old woman sits down on a bench and pulls a large sign from a shopping bag. It reads: "I don't have any food at home. No money to buy any with. Your help will be appreciated."

"You see, my rent has been increased and that's what causes me to do this," explains Dorothy Hollingsworth, who says she lives on a $177 monthly disability check. "I belong to the Gray Panthers," she adds.

At 4:30 precisely, a flood of humanity rolls out of the front door of the Veterans Administration building, and a fair-sized tidal wave turns north in the direction of McPherson Square. They appear not to be in a browsing or bantering mood; they have one thing on their mind: HOME.

Andrew Malosky, who retired three years ago from the engraving shop at Woodward & Lothrop, is in a more relaxed mood as he strolls into the park with his red Pomeranian, named "Foxy." Malosky has been coming to McPherson Square about 15 years. "I never knew this was called McPherson Square until last night" he said. "I got caught in the rainstorm and I went into the Metro station and saw the sign."

An unscientific survey reveals that Malosky's ignorance of the name may be the rule rather than the exception. Few of those who patronize McPherson Square have bothered to examine the heroic statue at its center. Fewer still are aware that shortly after the date inscribed on the statue's base, July 22, 1864, the general was shot dead by a Confederate soldier who had failed to retreat with his comrades as Union soldiers stormed Atlanta.

Like Malosky, Lela Stiles is no newcomer to McPherson Square. Now in her 70s, and jotting notes in her diary on a bench at the park's northeast corner, Stiles has had three careers - as a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune in the 1920s and early 30s, as a White House correspondence-handler through the New Deal and as a staffer with the House Committee on Internal Security in the 50s. Stiles was fired by the Tribune, she says, because she failed to interview Marlene Dietrich. "I had other things to do," she explains. Another of her fonder memories is of a speech she saw Madame Chiang Kai-Shek deliver during World War II. "She got up and made a plea for the starving people of China," Stiles recalls, "and you could hardly see her for all the diamonds flashing from her neck."

It is dusk now, and as the 14th Street prostitutes begin to filter up K Street, McPherson Square is slowly reclaimed by its derelicts. Old George is back, looking much the worse for his day's travels. And Ray and Bruce are trying to raise $1.90 for a bottle of wine.

"We're panhandlers," says Ray with his usual candor.

Bruce begins his pitch by extending both hands, palms forward, toward a promising-looking solicitee. "Now you see, that shows 'em that I don't have anything in my hands and I don't mean no trouble," he explains later.

Win or lose, Bruce winds up his appeal with the same gracious curtain line. "Thank you, sir," he says, "and have a nice day today and all days."

Lefty and his wife Linda - those are the only names they acknowledge - arrive in the park toting a pair of burgundy knit pants and a matching shortsleeved shirt. Lefty and Linda work at a thrift shop, without pay, and the pants and shirt are for George.

"Take those dirty clothes off," Linda orders George with the authority of a schoolmarm, hurrying him to a parking lot across the street to try on his new attire.

"We're all in the same boat here," says Linda, explaining that there is a strong fraternity of McPherson regulars. Lefty and Linda Met Ray and Bruce after the two West Virginians found temporary work at a construction site one day, and then came up to Lefty and Linda - "out of the clear blue," she says - to give them each a dollar.

Lefty says he spent most of the 1960s and early 70s in prison, and has had little success getting work since. Like Ray and Bruce, he hails originally from West Virginia, but he has never told them that because "you can't let a man knew everything about you."

"They're stone cold drunks," Lefty says of Ray and Bruce, who have settled on a bench just out of earshot. "But they're good people."

A few minutes later Ray is pointing to George stretched out under a tree. "Now it ain't quite gotten to me that bad," says Ray, clutching a cigarette, "and I hope it never does." On the other hand, Ray admits, "If I were a millionaire, it wouldn't be very long before I'd be broke."

"You gonna put a ring on that cigarette?" Bruce asks him. "You gonna marry it?" Ray gets the message and hands over its remains.

Sleeping in McPherson Sqare is a risky business, both men agree. "This town is rough," says Ray. "Walking these streets is rough." Bruce recalls one morning when he woke up to find his right pocket had been slit open with a razor blade. Another time, he found both pockets rummaged and the bottom plate of his false teeth broken.

"If I ever get back to West Virginia, the only time I want to see D.C. is on television," says Ray.

"First thing in the morning, I'm going to call the rehabilitation center," vows Bruce.

Before turning in for the night, Ray scours the park's trash cans in quest of a meal for "Lady," his name for the stray dog that has been racing around the park since lunchtime. Ray has adopted Lady, or Lady has adopted Ray, it is not clear which.

"I love animals," he explains. "I can't stand to see 'em hungry."