This is probably the nerdiest thing I can say about myself. I have been a ham radio operator for nearly 40 years. I was first licensed as a Novice class operator while in high school and then went on to my General, Advanced and Amateur Extra licenses.
I can still remember my first contact or QSO¹. I didn’t have a radio of my own, so I went to my friend Ralph Press’ house. Using Morse Code, I was able to span the globe from Flushing, Queens all the way to Nassau County, a little farther out on Long Island.
His callsign was WN2RNG. I remember that, because in Morse it had a distinctive rhythm: di dah dit dah dit dah dah dit.
Growing up I lived in apartment 5E. It was a building where outdoor antennas were forbidden. From time-to-time early in my ham radio career I strung up ‘invisible’ antennas of extremely thin, and very flimsy, wire.
Neighbors who knew complained I was ruining their TV reception. They complained even after I moved out and went to college!
It was all for naught. Only as an adult did I being to understand what it took to have a proper antenna and how important that was.
My ham radio career has been through a number of stages. There would be a few years of activity followed by a period of inactivity. I’m in an inactive stage right now. You can blame that on the Internet, which is more efficient than ham radio doing many of the things I enjoyed.
In my last active stretch I became involved in contesting, trying to contact as many other hams as possible in a set period of time, usually exchanging specific bits of information to confirm the contact. I also started toying with QRP or low powered contacts.
I have made contacts to Europe and Asia and everywhere in between with a transceiver I built on my kitchen table, using less power than a flashlight bulb. Once, on vacation, I took it to the Dominican Republic and operated off of D cell batteries with an antenna draped between two palm trees on the beach.
Early on, I used voice for contacts, but I grew tired of that. It was too much like operating an appliance and there didn’t seem to be much skill involved.
In my last ham radio incarnation I was 100% Morse. Ham operators call that CW for continuous wave. It is the most simple form of radio communications.
I became pretty proficient, able to send and receive at nearly 30 words per minute. At that speed you stop listening to individual letters and begin trying to hear words or phrases.
Once you start sending faster than 10-15 words per minute you can’t use the classic Morse key – the ‘brass pounder.’ Instead I used a paddle, with the dit and dah on opposite sides and an electronic keyer to translate my little finger motions into properly spaced tones.
Recently, my friend Harold become the Chief Operating Officer for the American Radio Relay League – the ham radio organization in America. It is headquartered in Newington, CT, about 40 miles from my house.
League Headquarters is ham radio’s Mecca. I went and visited today. It’s been a while since I’d been there.
It’s a difficult time for the ARRL because computers have stolen many of the geeky kids, like me, who used to go into ham radio. Restrictive covenants in housing developments have also made it extremely difficult to put up a decent antenna. They still have plenty of members, but I assume they’re getting progressively older.
ARRL headquarters is an interesting place because it’s a publishing house, membership service center, laboratory where new equipment is evaluated (and those evaluations published) and home of W1AW.
W1AW is to ham radio stations as Yankee Stadium is to ballparks. It is the best known callsign, without a doubt. Today, before I left the league, I sat down and did a little operating at W1AW.
There is, to me, something very romantic and relaxing about operating Morse Code. In a darkened room, with headphones on, totally concentrating, you can pluck weak signals from the ether and have conversations with people from around the world.
Imagine if the simple act of conversing required skill? That’s what CW operating is all about.
Many of the people you speak to don’t understand English, and I certainly don’t speak any foreign languages fluently. That’s where the telegrapher’s abbreviations come in. It’s possible to have a rudimentary conversation without speaking a common language.
I sat down at the W1AW operating position. The transceiver was down on the low end of 20 meters (14.005 mHz to be exact), a wavelength suited for long distance conversations. The rig’s coaxial cable connected it to a large multi-element beam on a tall tower. I was loaded for bear with a very recognizable call.
I called CQ – the universal request to chat. Nothing. I called again and Tom in Cardiff, Wales came back. We talked for a few minutes and, as I signed off, Ludo in Slovakia called me. That was followed by Valentin somewhere in Russia.
Harold estimated my speed at about 18 words per minute, well below my old CW comfort zone. My sending wasn’t entirely flawless either. A number of times I hit dit when I should have hit dah and had to correct myself and resend.
It really felt good.
Maybe it’s time to throw a wire antenna up over the house again and give it another try? Or, maybe, ham radio’s time has come and gone for me. I’m not really sure. There’s certainly a lot more on my plate right now. Where would I fit it in?
Something to ponder. Who knows?
¹ – Because amateur radio had its beginnings in telegraphy, many Morse Code abbreviations are used, sometimes even when speaking. QSO, QTH, QRZ, QRU – they’re all part of the arcane lexicon.