SANTA ANA — This wasn't your typical grade school assembly. As the fleet of three helicopters descended, there were screams and thunderous applause from about 850 students at Martin Elementary School.
But it wasn't so much the sight of the trio of Navy copters that had the children in a tizzy, but rather who was aboard-- Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The nation's top military man. The general who helped mastermind the Desert Storm campaign.
"I just wanted to blow up," 10-year-old Adriana Perez said after watching a helicopter drop off its very important passenger.
"This is the first time I've ever seen someone like him. He's the top person in the whole military!"
Powell came to Santa Ana at the invitation of his sister, Marilyn Berns, a teacher at the grade school. The general's arrival may have been flashy, but his message was simple. He urged students to "resist the temptation of the streets--violence, drugs and gangs" and to "stay in school."
The 54-year-old general reflected on his childhood in the Bronx when his immigrant Jamaican parents stressed the importance of having an education.
"It all started when I was the same age as you," Powell told the crowd. "My parents insisted we follow certain rules. . . . There were drug problems (in his neighborhood). They both worked. But my sister and I never did drugs."
Powell encouraged the students, 98% of them Latinos, to work hard in school and to listen to their teachers. "Without education, you will not go very far in life," he said.
But the students seemed much more interested in the four-star general's career path, his medals and daily work routine.
During a question-and-answer period, he described his job as "very hard," saying the best thing about his post was "traveling around the country and meeting people." The worst, he said, was having to go to war.
The lightest moment came when Powell was asked why he didn't visit the school before.
"My sister didn't invite me until I got famous," he joked.
Berns, 60, said she asked Powell about a year ago if he would visit the school when he was next in California. Two weeks ago, he called wanting to know how far Martin Elementary was from El Toro.
"I told him it was a 15-minute drive," said Berns, who bears a striking similarity to her brother. "We had no idea he was planning to come by helicopter. . . . When the kids learned, the excitement just mounted."
Earlier in the day, Powell took on far different matters during a short visit to Los Angeles, warning in a talk to civic leaders that Southern California's painful adjustment to the post-Cold War era has only just begun and predicting that the shrinking U.S. defense budget is here to stay.
"Everyone needs to wake up and smell the coffee," Powell said. "Anyone who thinks this is cyclical, I think is mistaken. It is not cyclical. It is a fundamental restructuring. It is going to affect many regions throughout the country, but especially here in Southern California."
After a stopover at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, the general flew by helicopter to his sister's Santa Ana elementary school. Berns and her husband, Marvin, and daughter, Lisa, greeted Powell when he arrived at the schoolyard, which was decorated with blue-and-white balloons, some emblazoned with the U.S. flag.
During the Gulf War, Berns' students kept her up-to-date on the general's latest appearance on the TV news. She has become a celebrity teacher at the school, where she has taught for the past eight years.
Her classroom is decorated with pictures of Powell. There is a photograph of him in the Oval Office with President Bush and former President Ronald Reagan. There is another of him being sworn in as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1989. Above the photographs is a biography of the general.
Berns said Powell was very eager to speak to the students and wanted to stress the importance of education.
On Monday, the students in Berns' class received a special treat when Powell signed autographs and shook hands with them and visiting parents before leaving for Washington.
"I'll never wash my hands again," said 10-year-old Elizabeth Smith.
For Nina Sarmientos, it was a special moment.
"I waited three years to see him," she said. "She told us he would come."
One student, wanting to impress the general, wore a red, white and blue dress, specially made by her mother the night before.
Although Powell's visit was short, it was enough time for 8-year-old Lucy Maza to decide she did not want a career in the Army.
"There are things I like about the Army, like the uniform and the traveling," Maza said. "But I'm afraid of the war."