Class Of 1964 USAF Academy

Alexander (Sandy) Purcell

Why the Air Force Academy? How on earth did I get in?

sandy.jpg I entered the US Air Force Academy as a 17-year-old beanpole from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Beanpole? I barely made the minimum weight requirement (135 lbs?) for a six-footer. Why was I on my way to the new Air Force Academy? I was a 17 year-old male raised in the 40s and 50s! I wanted to fly jets, live fast and travel far! See and do a variety of things. Maybe pick up some manly arts along the way that would enable me to be a warrior like some of my movie heroes. Having been a biological scientist for the past 40 years, I can see now just how important the Y-chromosome and my age had to do with this decision. I wonder what are the biological underpinnings for young women's motivations in going to USAFA?

Up until the spring of 1963, I figured I was going to become a professional herpetologist! I loved the exotic strangeness of snakes, and southern Louisiana was a paradise for collecting and studying snakes. I also had a deep fascination for insects. But even at age 15 and 16 I realized that there were only a few job openings a year for herpetologists in the entire country, so my options for flexibility in choosing where to live and what I did would be very limited. My parents “college fund” amounted to $300, meaning that I could go to LSU if I lived at home. A pivotal point was an “infomercial” that I heard on the car radio describing the challenges of becoming an Air Force Academy cadet. It started my thinking about going to the Air Force Academy. I turned to my aunt Cissy and told her “That's where I am gong to go.” I'm sure inside she was laughing to herself, but she was a classy lady and just smiled.

Baton Rouge High was a big public school in a state consistently ranked among the lowest 10% of states in quality of public education. We didn't know any better then and thought our education was just fine. I can see now that the separate but unequal division of public schools between black and white was the basis for this low rating (all of the other low-ranking states were also in the segregated South), which meant that the black schools must have been truly deprived, because the achievements of my BRHS classmates now seem amazing to me for a big public high school: lots of professors, engineers, doctors, lawyers, clergy, and business leaders. I know the black Louisiana students' achievements were very poor, and I know now that it certainly wasn't because of racial attributes. As a child of the times, I accepted segregation as the category of “God-ordained”, along with many other aspects of my family upbringing and religious (Baptist) training. At age 10 I felt called to become a preacher. Thank-you-Jesus, that passed by after a couple of years.

My large extended family in Louisiana and Mississippi was entirely family-oriented. I had lots of cousins, aunts and uncles and all my grandparents lived nearby. My parents had modest but steady middle class jobs. Dad was an auto parts manager; mom was a file clerk at ESSO's oil refinery. My family's tradition was that military service was something you did only if there was no other alternative. My father spoke of his army infantry service in Europe only rarely and briefly, with obvious displeasure with the whole experience. It was only after his death that learned I had been shielded from his history of lifelong treatment for depression (then called battle fatigue, but now termed post-traumatic stress disorder) that included institutionalizations and numerous electroshock therapies. My grandfather was proud of avoiding danger in WWI by being a barber in the Navy. Military service was viewed as an unpleasant, risky undertaking that only grand-standing fools or incompetents unable to find other employment volunteered for. I'm sure that to my family my interest in the Air Force Academy seemed more like an expression of adolescent naivety than a serious career interest. It was the height of the Cold War. WWII had ended 15 years before, with ongoing concerns about the expansion of communism from Korea and eastern Europe, which had many thousands of American troops stationed there. Communist China was a massive communist bloc, with the possibilities for a future of titanic confrontation with American interests. My family's politics were all local. Louisiana is a political aberration in the US. Though I did not consciously recognize it at the time, I had an interesting exposure throughout my youth to institutionalized corruption on the local and state level.

Despite their misgivings about my going to the Academy, some family members immediately alerted me to my uncle CW's connections to a long term US senator, Russell Long, who resided in Baton Rouge (and who had dated my aunt Cissy in college). My uncle arranged a meeting with Senator Long at his home in Baton Rouge in the summer of 1963. In retrospect, this was propitious for uncle CW's business, which often involved highway construction and other business related to Federal funding. Senator Long was gracious to hold forth with me for about 5 or 10 minutes about his method of selecting candidates for the military academies. Most of his appointees who did not fare well at the academies had difficulties mainly with mathematics. So he screened prospective candidates by having them take the Federal Civil Service mathematics exam. As I recall, I took this exam in early fall, just as I was starting Algebra II in high school. I did not do well at all on the civil service exam. Consequently, in November I received a package from Senator Long's Washington D. C. office: brochures from the Coast Guard Academy and the Merchant Marine Academy. At that point, Senator Long appointed me as the 12th alternate for his appointment to USAFA. Eleven candidates ahead of me had to be found as unqualified for me to get the appointment. At that point, I assumed I was not going to USAFA but I still took the necessary physical and written exams because it gave a 17 year-old a chance for days away from home without parental control!

My experience with testing at Keeler AFB in Biloxi, Mississippi further reinforced my opinion that my chances of an Academy appointment were nil to slim. So many applicants were in college! They had taken calculus and other exotic, no doubt insanely difficult courses. The AF Officers Qualifying Exam questioned me on how to repair a carburetor, how to make a climbing left turn in an aircraft and other unimaginable feats. Also I was sick to my stomach with some bug and yet still tried to stuff myself so that I could reach the minimum weight for my height. I was the last applicant to be weighed in during our medical exam because I was in the hall drinking water up until the last minute. I felt as if I tilted forward, water would pour out of my mouth. At my suggestion, the indifferent airman medical orderly entered my weight as what I knew to be the minimum for my height. This was immediately followed by the NCO shepherding us around to shout “OK men! Hurry up getting dressed. We're late for our physical fitness exams.” At least one benefit of my light weight was that I could do more pull-ups. Otherwise I felt I didn't perform very well, as I felt awful from flu symptoms.

Needless to say, I was surprised to get a telegram in April from Senator Long's office. His colleague Senator Allen Ellender gave the Air Force a list of candidates and let them pick who they wanted. One of Ellender's candidates had withdrawn. Did I want to replace him? Of course! I still don't have any idea why they picked me. I was an Eagle Scout with good grades and College Board scores but no significant civic or school leadership credentials or any record in high school athletics. And I had no idea what calculus was.

Entering the Academy

I travelled to the Academy on a Continental Trailways bus from Louisiana to Colorado Springs, accompanied by another future cadet, Norman (can't recall his last name). During our 24+ hour trip, Norman described in great detail how to raise and train fighting cocks. He was also apprehensive about how he could be away from his girl friend in Denham Springs. He solved that problem by returning home right after our basic cadet summer training period.

I expected my first day to be difficult and challenging. Like everyone who'd ever been a cadet, I found that first day exceeded my expectations by a lot. The details are now a blur of memory, but I remember clearly the sense of mental stress and physical fatigue that we all had throughout that first summer. Until all the upperclassmen I encountered that day pointed out to me how stupid, careless and impolite I was, I had considered myself to be a fairly intelligent and reasonable person.

Food was a very strong motivation that first year. I lost my southern drawl because of the threats from the upperclassmen at my table during doolie summer to withhold food unless I lost my strongly accented “suh” instead of “sir” and the drawled long “i” (as in the word time”). To this day, people are surprised I once had a strong, typical southern accent. In my experience only cadets from Georgia and Maine were able to withstand attempts to change their accents. Georgians were too proud to give it up. Maine natives could never be convinced that they had an accent.

After three years at the Academy, it was our class's turn to train new cadets. By 1963, the newly arrived cadets had been first transitioned into getting their uniforms and equipment, taking placement tests, and learning some rudiments of marching by Air Force noncoms. After a few days of this, we took over their training. I recall my surprise that after we halted our march of the new cadets to their first meal under our command, many of the cadets were on the verge of tears after our summary “chewing out”. I had forgotten that only a few years before I had probably felt the same way.


Before we knew it, academics were underway after our doolie summer. I remember how scary our new math textbooks looked – wow! How will I ever understand this stuff? It was certainly not my intention to enroll in accelerated mathematics. How on earth did I get into that class? My first daily quizzes in math reinforced my fears; I made zeros on the first two quizzes! I had never made a zero on a test before! That got my attention. Miraculously, I was ranked sixth in that class by the end of my first semester.

On my first day of class, my disorientation led to my being late to find the correct classroom. That cost me at least a month's confinements. The second day, the instructor in a mechanical drawing class told us to take out the materials from yesterday. Yesterday? Turns out I had misread the class schedule and missed the entire first class. More punishments ensued. Not a good start. In hindsight I realize just how naïve and inexperienced I was as a new cadet. I also realize how much the Academy improved my self confidence and ability to deal with stressful situations.

I did well academically until we began engineering courses beginning our second class (junior) year. I found somewhat to my surprise that I was not really as interested in engineering as I thought I would be. Nevertheless, engineering courses provided new perspectives in practical problem solving that would be useful to me many years later. I dropped a course in “nuclear physics” that would have qualified me for a major in Basic Science, after I found the course was really an engineering course, not a basic physics course. This is the only course I ever dropped at any level. Instead I majored in Humanities. I was intrigued by philosophy and Russian history, language and literature. This was at the height of the cold war, and Russia was the main enemy challenging our nation.

As a professor at the University of California at Berkeley for over 33 years, I have had a lot of experience with college undergraduates, and Berkeley has some very highly qualified students. I can say from looking back at my years at USAFA and spending time talking to cadets over the years since, that USAFA cadets are a unique breed in their outlook and motivations. They are strongly motivated and highly idealistic compared to their civilian peers in good colleges. The amount of minimum effort that cadets put into academics far exceeds that of the average college student. Our very broad education at the Academy served me and others very well over the years. I strongly believe that our universities need to stress every college grad having enough science and math to appreciate the thought processes involved; enough history and social studies to have a broad understanding of how the past brings us to the present, and economics, law, geography, psychology and political science to help us understand how societies organize themselves. Currently this is rare outside of some good private schools and service academies.

Singular memories of cadet days

I was disappointed that we had little opportunity at the Academy to fly. Dick Hackford talked Gary Dickenson and I into pooling enough money (almost $1000) to buy a light aircraft sight unseen by a seller in Iowa. We bought a 1948 Taylorcraft (with the BIG engine - 85 horsepower) painted bright red, with an FTD florist symbol painted on the fuselage. The only electricity in the aircraft was in the magnetos for the engine. There were many cadet regulations, but as of then, none governing cadets owning an aircraft. We flew out of a grass strip near Fountain that was literally a fenced-off portion of a pasture. In exchange for lessons, we lent the aircraft to a flight instructor. When the Academy officials discovered our situation, we were brow-beaten into moving the Taylorcraft to the Academy's air field and increasing our insurance to usurious rates. At that point, I bowed out and sold my share to Nick Lacey. Unfortunately, high winds coming down from the Rampart range shortly thereafter tore the aircraft from its tie-down and left it a shattered wreck.

During intramural field hockey practice on a beautiful October afternoon in 1962, we were ordered to stop all activities and listen to the loudspeakers in the athletic fields. There we learned about what was later called the Cuban Missile Crisis. All we knew then was that our nation was closer to nuclear conflict than it had been in recent memory. It would be decades later before we would understand just how close we really came.

In January, 1961 the entire cadet wing flew to the Washington, D. C. area to march in the inauguration parade for the new president, John Kennedy. The day of the march was the coldest I've ever been in my life.

While I was serving as a “third lieutenant” at Otis Air Force base in Cape Cod, President Kennedy had spoken to me and two other cadets lined up on the receiving line outside Air Force One, the C-135 that carried him and his family to Hyannis Port, Mass. for weekend vacations. The next fall, just after forming up to march to lunch, we learned of the assassination of President John Kennedy. It was a somber cadet wing the rest of the afternoon.

Attendance at chapel Sunday morning was mandatory our first year. I noticed my friend, C4C Carver Sears, ducking into a door next to the auditorium in which Protestant chapel was held. I followed and discovered for the first time the world of the tunnels beneath the dorms and other buildings.

Air Force experiences

After pilot training at Williams AFB, Arizona, I was assigned to fly a big turboprop cargo aircraft, the C-133 Globemaster at Travis AFB, California. This definitely was a detour from my plan to become the world's greatest fighter pilot. The C-133 was an awful aircraft with a horrible record of unexplained crashes and disappearances. It was designed expressly to carry the Atlas missile, so it was quite large for its time. Vietnam came along in time for its spacious cargo hold to prolonged continued use in the Air Force. We carried helicopters to and from Vietnam, along with other cargo, so most of my flying was in the Pacific. I was excited to be accepted as a volunteer to fly F-100s in Vietnam as a Forward Air Controller. To my great disappointment, days before leaving for training in the F-100, the program was shut down because of excessive aircraft and pilot losses.

My chance to be a warrior arrived months later with an assignment to fly an AC-47 gunship in Vietnam. I wanted to get a closer look at what was happening in Vietnam, and I was able to change my assignment to a Forward Air Controller (FAC). This was the only time in my life that my wishes had any impact whatsoever on an Air Force assignment. The AF personnel I talked to probably thought I was nuts to volunteer to be a FAC. I wasn't crazy, just ignorant and naïve, and I never regretted my choice. My year as a FAC for a Korean infantry division near Qui Nhon, South Vietnam showed me a lot about what was going on in South Vietnam. Our band of eight pilots spent half our time on the ground with troops and the other half flying in support of the division's operations. I learned a lot about myself and the US military during my time in Vietnam. It became clear to me that the US could command the overall direction of South Vietnam as long as we were willing to pour money and troops into the conflict. Within a short time after our leaving, however, the Vietnamese would then sort out what was to become of their country.

I entered Vietnam an enthusiastic supporter of our efforts to contain communism there. By 1969, I thought that we had enough benefits of hindsight to decide we should not stay the same course. I witnessed a terrible waste of air power in blowing holes in the jungles and farm land of Vietnam for no good tactical or strategic reasons and some tragic mistakes that killed noncombatants. Combat flying was exciting, but war was appalling. I witnessed cruelty on all sides. I have never been a pacifist and believe that we need to maintain a strong military for our defense in a dangerous world, but Vietnam was a personal revelation to me. What we had to do to “win” the Vietnam war was nation-building, and weapons and troops were the wrong tools for this goal. The subsequent history of Southeast Asia has only confirmed what I felt in 1969, when I decided to leave the Air Force.

I returned to the US on the day that we first landed men on the moon. Returning to the US from Vietnam was then called “going back to the world”, and seeing those video images of astronauts on the moon was definitely other worldly to me.

After the Air Force

My last year in the Air Force was, as expected back in C-133s but at Dover. There I met my future wife Rita. I decided I would be an airline pilot rather than work for a living, but the economy of 1970 and my status as a newlywed dictated that I look to other employment. Why and how I became an academic entomologist is a long and probably boring story. Basically, I returned to my roots of a deep interest in nature and basic science. In truth, it's clear to me that fate plays the key role in what becomes of us. That certainly was true of me. I went to graduate school at the University of California at Davis in 1971 to get a Master's degree in entomology so that I could go into the business of agricultural pest management. Instead I was quickly sidetracked into a PhD research program that led to my hire in 1974 as a faculty member at Berkeley. I became chair on the Entomological Sciences Department. In the late 1990s we were reorganized into an Environmental Science Department. Most of my research involved insects' role in spreading bacterial diseases of plants. Some of these are quite important in California. Hopefully I've more than compensated the State's investment in me, not only through teaching, but in reducing millions of dollars in crop losses in grapes, almonds, cherries, and peaches.

My daughter Alison followed me into the academic profession after graduating with her PhD from my department. We're lucky that she lives within a 6-hour drive and my son Adam lives across the bay in San Francisco. I became an emeritus professor in 2006 and still retain a research program at Berkeley and occasional work as a consultant (2011). At the ripe old age of 68 I finally became a grandfather: twin girls from my daughter and another daughter from my son – all within 6 weeks.

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