My first year at Fermilab was 1968. I was a maintenance man when I first started, and we did all kinds of things in the early days: digging holes for trees, planting trees, shoveling snow, plowing snow, hauling garbage. We took care of furnaces, toilets, windows, window shades. We exchanged water bottles for drinking water, moved furniture, ran errands.
I worked on Robert Wilson’s car at times, which I enjoyed. We also did a lot of yard work out at Site 29. Wilson liked it clear, and we spent at least a good summer clearing the brush in the front of the house. There were lots of hawthorn trees in the front yard. The thorns in them would fall out, and our lawn tractor would get flat tires — constantly. So we made some steel wheels for the front of the tractor.
Our crew worked closely with Wilson. He was very charismatic, very friendly and outgoing. If he met you once, he remembered you by name. We’d have hot dog cookouts in our shop on Fridays, and our boss, George (I got called little George for forever), would always invite the directorate. They came over and had hot dogs with us, and we chatted.
I appreciated Wilson’s attitude toward the lab’s trees and landscaping. I was told you needed his permission to cut a tree down or even cut a limb from a tree. According to one story, Wilson moved the beam target areas because there was a group of trees at the targets’ planned location.
Wilson didn’t like things that reminded him of the war years. He didn’t like barbed wire. One of the early jobs I did was going around cutting barbed wire off the fences. He didn’t like fences, period, but particularly didn’t like barbed wire. In one case, right across from our office was a water tower with a fence around it and some barbed wire on top. I had to go cut that off. He wanted no part of it. Eventually, he took the fence and everything down. He also didn’t like trailers or Quonset huts – anything that was military-related. Word was he was just intense about that kind of thing.
As a director, he was completely geared to building an accelerator — very hands-on in that respect.
I vaguely remember the speech he gave in front of the old director’s complex. We were all standing out in the street. He said something to the effect that we had just received a few million dollars, and we were going to spend it all in the next couple of days so we could build our machine. That was his attitude.
He was building a laboratory, and we were going to build an accelerator — today.
George Davidson is the head of transportation services at Fermilab.