Dear History Corner readers:
Everyone has a story to tell.
For more than seven years, History Corner has told stories about people, events, places and things. Someone wrote the information down and that’s why it survives to this day. You have your stories too, and they should be preserved in writing for posterity.
We call them Popcorn Stories — “tasty little morsels of personal history.”
We invite you to write yours. Your descendants will be glad you did.
Here’s one of my Popcorn Stories. It’s not important, but millions of small stories become the history of a nation.
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It was New Year’s Day 1976 and I was watching UCLA play Ohio State in the Rose Bowl on TV when the doorbell rang at our home in Santa Monica. The visitor was a young lady who lived next door.
“Hi Syd, do you have time for a short visit? I’d like you to meet my boyfriend?
“Sure come on in,” I replied.
His face looked vaguely familiar, as we shook hands.
“Meet Buzz Aldrin.”
Wow! The second man to set foot on the Moon was in my living room!
What an honor!
My wife, Chickie, walked in and I introduced her. Then after the shock of meeting the great astronaut, she left to make coffee and snacks for all of us.
“Buzz is a scuba diver and he’s looking for someone to dive with,” our neighbor said. “I know you’re a scuba instructor …”
Naturally, I told him I’d be delighted to take him diving.
“The Star of Scotland used to be a gambling ship and brothel and is now sitting on the bottom of the bay about three miles off Santa Monica Pier,” I told him. “How’d you like to take a look at it? I’ve got a small outboard to get us there.”
“That would be great, let’s do it,” Buzz replied.
We set the date for Saturday morning two weeks later.
“C’mon over to our house at six and we’ll have breakfast and go from here.”
“You’re on,” he said.
After about an hour of getting acquainted, Buzz and girlfriend left and I went back to the bowl game.
I had plenty of extra scuba gear, but he already had his own. The water is cold in January, so I suggested he wear some long johns, T-shirt or panty hose under the wet suit — like I did.
I promised Buzz I wouldn’t tell anyone.
An extra layer of clothing between the body and wetsuit slows the water that had been warmed by body temperature from seeping out.
My scuba students would laugh when I made the pantyhose suggestion, but it didn’t take long to make believers out of them.
(Don’t need to do that when scuba diving here in Idaho. The water is so cold that divers have to wear dry suits.)
Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. was born in 1930 in Glen Ridge, N.J. His father was a colonel in the U.S. Air Force and encouraged Buzz to become a pilot.
The future astronaut graduated third in his class at West Point and became a fighter pilot. Later he was a flight instructor at Bryan Air Force Base, Texas, where I completed pilot training, earning commission and wings, Class 56 Bravo.
I don’t know if Buzz was there at the same time.
Our training aircraft at Bryan were the North American T-28 (loved that plane!) and the Lockheed T-33 jet — a two-seated version of the F-80 Shooting Star, America’s first combat jet fighter in the Korean War.
During the Korean War (1950-1953), Buzz flew the F-86 Sabre jet — the dream plane that I never got to fly. He flew 66 combat missions and shot down two Soviet MiG-15s.
He later earned a Doctor of Science degree in aeronautics from MIT and then joined NASA’s space program.
As lunar module pilot on the Apollo 11 lunar flight, he became the second man to step foot on the moon on July 21, 1969 — 19 minutes after Neil Armstrong’s “One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”
Chickie was cooking breakfast when Buzz arrived on the day of our dive. She invited him to have a seat at the kitchen table, while I finished loading the scuba gear into the van.
“I was so nervous, I didn’t know what to say to him after I gave him his coffee,” Chickie said. “I went back to the stove and there was a long silence.
“Then Buzz said, ‘Do you want to hear about it?’”
“I sure do,” she replied.
Then as she was cooking, the great astronaut began telling stories about the lunar landing — much to her delight.
I’d called Santa Monica lifeguard headquarters a few days earlier, telling them I was taking Buzz for a dive on the Star of Scotland. They told me how to find the wreck by triangulating landmarks. No GPS or other fancy locater equipment in those days.
We launched the boat from a ramp at Marina del Rey and headed out into the bay.
Arriving at the site, we were lucky to have clear water that day and could see the wreck about 85 feet down, and dropped anchor.
Buzz was a trained scuba diver from his NASA days, so all I had to do was make sure we both understood the same underwater hand signals.
Then over the side we went.
The Star of Scotland was built in 1917 and began its career at sea nobly with the Royal Navy as the HMS Mistletoe, and then 25 years later would end it ingloriously at the bottom of Santa Monica Bay.
During World War I, the 252-foot long vessel was used as a decoy in the English Channel, disguised as a merchant ship to lure German U-boats to the surface for an attack. Then the Mistletoe’s hidden guns would open fire.
That happened twice. The first time, both the U-boat and the Mistletoe survived. The second time, the U-boat was sunk.
After the war, the Mistletoe went into merchant marine service, changing owners and names many times.
Throughout the turbulent 1930s, the ship was anchored just over three miles off the coast of Santa Monica — outside of legal jurisdiction.
Those activities included boozing during Prohibition days, gambling, dancing, and other adult activities. Around the clock, launches ferried costumers back and forth between ship and shore.
The ship’s last assignment was as a fishing and party barge, with its final name — Star of Scotland.
The owners and ship could handle rowdy customers and determined law enforcement agents over the years, but in the end could not handle the weather.
On Jan. 23, 1942, a powerful storm hit the Southern California coast, with high seas pounding the aging vessel — opening up leaks.
About four in the morning, the pumps failed to stop the incoming water and the Star of Scotland sank into a watery grave — taking one of the five crewmen with it.
Buzz and I marveled at the blanket of sea anemone and other creatures covering the wreck. Fish big and small were everywhere — including a few large sea bass. I was hoping to see some blue sharks, but we didn’t.
A large torpedo ray perhaps 5 feet long was slowly approaching us. Buzz began to swim over, I guessed to pet it, when I quickly signaled him not to touch it.
They can zap you with an electric shock of up to 220 volts.
The wreck was snagged with countless fishing lines and there were a few rods and reels and trash scattered across the sandy bottom.
We didn’t go inside the wreck because of the danger.
It was a great dive. Buzz enjoyed it and we planned to dive again.
Though we ran into each other from time to time in Santa Monica, we never dived together again, and then he left California.
I found Buzz to be charming and modest, and I wish our friendship could have lasted longer. He didn’t seem to crave the public spotlight that has shined on him ever since the moon landing.
His focus was inspiring others to get the best out of themselves and always look for the silver lining — even in the darkest of times.
“Take a good, long, honest, positive look at what good can come out of every situation you’re in,” he told an interviewer. “Wherever you are, that’s where you are. You’re there with it. This is your history you’re living right now. So do what you can to make the most of what comes along.
“And please, don’t try to do everything on your own. There are a lot of people out there in the universe who wish you well and want to be your friend. Let them help you. You don’t have to carry it all on your own.”
My alma mater UCLA beat Ohio State 23-10, and I had the honor of making friends with one of history’s greatest astronauts. It was a great day.
Amazing what can happen when the doorbell rings!
READERS: Please send your History Popcorn stories to Syd Albright c/o Coeur d’Alene Press with a signed note permitting them to be published. When we have 100 good ones, we will publish them in a book, with full credit to the authors.
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For more information, contact Syd at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Buzz Aldrin was awarded the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal (DSM), the NASA Exceptional Service Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and many other honors.
Struggles in life of glory
After leaving NASA in 1971, Buzz Aldrin became Commandant of the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School before retiring after 21 years of service. In his autobiographies “Return to Earth” and “Magnificent Desolation,” he wrote about his battles with clinical depression and alcoholism.
Astronauts train in Idaho
A month after Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the Moon, other astronauts scheduled for future lunar missions trained at Idaho’s Craters of the Moon National Monument near Pocatello to study geology and able to better discern which rock samples to bring back on future lunar visits.
Viewing the wreck
One report said the Star of Scotland sank within two minutes after water pumps failed to keep up with water pouring in to the aging hulk. Because the wreck had become a navigation hazard, the masts and bridge were dynamited off. A failed water pump is easily seen on the wreck looking somewhat like a toast maker covered with sea anemones and nudibranchs.
Family feud over
In recent years, Buzz Aldrin has been plagued with a family feud. He sued his children Andy and Jan Aldrin and former manager, accusing them of financial shenanigans and slander after they filed a petition calling him delusional and paranoid. He has now dropped his civil law suit against them.
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