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The Long Path to Amateur Radio

from Johnny Angel, W4XKE on May 22, 2013
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The Long Path to Amateur Radio

I became interested in amateur radio about 1960 when I heard a ham on our old Philco console radio while tuning the 80 Meter band. Only one side of the conversation was coming in and I asked Dad what it was. "Oh, you know who that is... that's ol' Brownie, up north of Phlox. He talks on the radio a lot."

I asked, ""Isn't that against the law?"

He replied, ""No. He’s a ham operator. He has a license to do that."

I asked some kids at school about ham radio but the only thing they knew was that you had to have a ‘short-wave set’ and you had to know Morse code. So I made myself a 'key' from a piece of galvanized, furnace duct, sheet metal on a board and hooked it up to a doorbell buzzer and used a salvaged transformer to power it. But the buzzer didn't sound anything like the code on the radio - and the code on the radio was much too fast for me to learn from it.

Time went by and I still listened to ol’ Brownie on the Philco at night on 80 Meters and wished there was some way to know more about how to operate a ham radio. I hitchhiked to Kokomo a couple of times and went to Waldo George’s electronics store. It was a fascinating place with a lot of older guys coming in and they all seemed to know what they were looking for. The place smelled like wiring insulation and soldering smoke and it was invigorating. While all of it was interesting, I really didn’t understand much of what I was seeing.

One day I skipped lunch at school and used the 35 cents to buy an issue of Popular Electronics magazine that had instructions for a single-tube code practice oscillator. Eventually, I managed to put it together from junk TV parts. The chassis was fabricated from a rectangular cookie can and the faceplate was made from another piece of galvanized, furnace duct, sheet metal. The hole for the tube socket was punched out with a spike nail and a claw hammer, but hey – it worked! It even had volume control and I could change the tone by swapping some fixed condensers of different values. I practiced with that for a while but was reluctant to try for the Novice exam.

The way it was, the novice license was only good for 1 year out of an entire lifetime - nonrenewable. Since I didn't have any equipment to use, even if I got my Novice ticket, there wasn’t any suitable way to gain proficiency without a station and so the year would lapse and the license would expire. No way could I begin to pass the General exam and 13 wpm! I decided it would be foolish to waste the 'once-in-a-lifetime' Novice license with no hope of progressing so I put it all away. I figured someday I'd be in a better position to pursue ham radio and I'd pick it up again.

Well, I was - and I did. I finally got my first ham ticket in 1998. (37 years later) Now I have a soft spot in my heart for the young guy who knows nothing, has no friends who know anything either and has no money to invest in books, tools and equipment. He can't even ask a logical question. You have to know at least something before you can begin to ask questions.

And what about ol’ Brownie, W9ENE that I'd heard on the family radio from up north of Phlox? Well, I went up to see Mr. Brown once. He lived out on a farm and had a dipole strung between the roof peak of his barn and a milk house. He invited me in to see his station but I was overwhelmed at the sight of it and I didn't have enough knowledge to ask questions that made any sense. I kind of hoped that he’d do the talking and explain the operation but Mr. Brown wasn't very talkative and had no interest in me or in my fascination with the radio. His son had recently been killed in a head-on collision over between Kokomo and Logansport on Hwy 35. W9ENE wasn't in much of a mood to talk to anybody.

I heard some farmers talking about the wreck up at the little country store there in Phlox. They said Brownie's son, Ronnie, was riding with another boy in the passenger side of his '55 Ford. He was home on leave from the Army - basic training.

One farmer said that the other car had crossed the double-yellow centerline in a curve and had hit the 2 boys head-on and that they had to cut the cars apart so they could be loaded onto trucks. He said when they took Brownie's boy's body out of the car that his leg bones had protruded out the bottom of his army boots and that his feet were still in the boots.

There were about 8 or 9 farmers sitting out on the porch of the grocery store when Brownie drove up. Everybody kind of hushed up. He went in and bought a few groceries and he said 'Hi' to the bunch before he left. He looked pretty subdued. It was only a few months after that when I went to see his ham station. I guess I can't blame him for not wanting to talk to me. Dad told me to not go back there and bother him anymore. I didn't hear him on 80 Meters afterward either.

Looking back over all the years, I wish I’d have done a lot of things differently and could have avoided a lot of mistakes, but that only comes with experience at the school of hard knocks. There’s no way to go back. The last time I was back ‘home,’ nobody there in the community had ever heard of me and even ol’ Brownie was SK. Of all the hams I’ve known, his call sign is still the most prominent in my memory from those times long ago.

Member Comments:
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The Long Path to Amateur Radio  
by W0WCA on May 22, 2013 Mail this to a friend!
Good story John.
Thanks
 
The Long Path to Amateur Radio  
by KA1PPV on May 22, 2013 Mail this to a friend!
John,
You see? Amateur radio was always in your blood and vision is always 20/20 in hindsight.
Thanks for the story.
Joe
KA1PPV
 
The Long Path to Amateur Radio  
by W0CBF on May 22, 2013 Mail this to a friend!
Very interesting story. Reminds me of the days back in the 60's when I would got up to the local TV repair shop just to see what the owner was going to throw away. I always carried back home most of what he considered junk. I remember the smell of the shop just like you described in your story. His shop smelled like solder and tuner cleaner.

73's WŘCBF
 
The Long Path to Amateur Radio  
by WO4V on May 22, 2013 Mail this to a friend!
Similar story to mine back in the late 50's. My family had a Sparton parlor radio that had SW bands on it and I listened in fascination to people having 2-way conversations. I had a cousin/neighbor that was a born tinkerer and mechanic, and he was always fiddling with old broadcast radio sets, fixing them up, and stringing antennas to hook to them. I was hooked!

Anyway, where I lived there were no hams, and no one that even knew what they were. So things sorta simmered in my mind until the 70's and the CB craze hit. I was out of college, had a job, wife, house, and a couple of cars. I bought a 3 channel CB set from radio shack and installed it in my pickup and used it to chat with a lot of folks on the way to work, once I overcame my mic fright! I built a receiver kit from RatShack (with a 100 watt weller iron!) and the darned thing actually worked. I discovered that my nextdoor neighbor was a CB'er, and that became a long term friendship that lasted until he died a few years ago. We both eventually had nice base stations and towers and beams, etc. and had a great time (of course we had to operate at separate times...no way we could both talk to different folks at the same time).

Got tired of the limitations of one band, even with the magnificent sunspot cycle of the late 70's, bought a book from Radio Shack (hey, they were the only game in town where I lived) called "From 5 Watts to 1000 Watts" and began to study it. It came with code practice tapes. Well, I worked and worked until I could actually copy 13-15 wpm and could pass the sample theory tests in the back of the book. So I began asking around with some of my CB friends, and no one knew or had a clue about where you could take the test. Closest I came was that "some guy" that lived out in the county had gotten his ham license, but nobody had heard anything from him in 2 or 3 years and nobody really knew where he lived. So, the ham license project got shelved...fast forward to 1989...

I had moved across the state, could no longer talk to my long time friends (yeah, we would phone each other and try to set up a sked). So, once again, I began re-studying my materials. I had made a few CB friends in my new location, and some of them had began to get their ham licenses, so I found a local VEC that was giving exams, and I PASSED! Passed the 20wpm test and the general the first shot, not so the theory...took me 2 more tries to make advanced and extra, and had my general call come in the mail while I was an Extra. I just kept the call for a lot of years, and finally found a SK's call that I liked a few years ago, and got it under the vanity call system.

I know that a lot of you think that finding a place to get your ticket is easy now, and perhaps it is, but in some areas of the country this information is hard to come by, even though that seems incredulous...point is, look how many years of fun I missed just because I really, REALLY couldn't find any information. I have a buddy that had a similar problem, and even wrote the ARRL back in this same time frame (not once did I ever hear of that organization in my search for a place to get licensed) and got NO reply, ever. Remember this was pre-personal computers, pre-internet and pre-Google...

Hey, this stuff is fun (at least to me), I just got back from my 23rd year at Dayton. How about notifying your face and mouth so others might know?

73, Dave

 
The Long Path to Amateur Radio  
by KC9WIP on May 22, 2013 Mail this to a friend!
My Dad is the original hom in the family. He got his ticket in the early 1950's through Boy Scouts and they had a small club that met in their Elmer's basement. He sold all his gear to but my mother an engagement ring. But he remained active enough to keep his license through building or borrowing rigs from other hams. He let his ticket go after we move from Indiana to Ohio. However he kept the dream alive.
We went to the 1976 Dayton Hamvention and he bought me an already assembled Heathkit HW-7, however it was DOA and he not could afford to the time or money to troubleshoot the problem. So it went into a box.
For the past year or so I had been practicing my Morse Code and reading through a couple of books Dad had bought for me. One was the classic, "So You Want to Be a Ham." With the dead radio went my motivation. I was a member of my High School Ham Club and would love to pull out the NC-183 (heavy metal!) or the Drake R-4, toss a wire out the window and listen away. On those radios I heard the 2-way conversations in voice and CW. Heard the Woodpeckers and Radio Moscow. But never inched forward to my ticket. I did buy that National from my school but that's another story...in the works.
Cars, jobs girls, school, children, responsibilities, etc. kept me from rebirthing the dream until that fateful day a few years back when my youngest asked me what Morse Code was. I told him but he was not interested. But I remembered that HW-7, still in that box, but up in my attic. To make a long story short, pulled it out, repaired and tuned it up and after a couple more years I got my ticket. I aced the tech and only missed a few on the General exam taken at the local club.
I've only made a handful of contacts over the past 9 months, but I do have fun. Now that both Dad and I live nearby each other, I'm trying to reawaken the dream in him too!
 
The Long Path to Amateur Radio  
by KD4S on May 22, 2013 Mail this to a friend!
Thanks for the story, John. You brought back many memories. I grew up in Kokomo just a mile from Waldo George's electronics store. Later I lived in Kokomo for 40 years after college graduation before moving away. I was a member of the Firebird Amateur Radio Club there and was president of it for a while. The club was very active for several years, but suddenly came to an end. I suspect we crossed paths many years ago, but your picture on QRZ.com isn't familiar. Gee, maybe we both have changed a bit since then. 73 & TNX
 
RE: The Long Path to Amateur Radio  
by KJ6SBW on May 22, 2013 Mail this to a friend!
Tnx for the story. The credit goes to you for your persistance and interest in Ham Radio.

73's
Mike
 
The Long Path to Amateur Radio  
by K5HSV on May 23, 2013 Mail this to a friend!
Thank you for sharing this heart warming story.

God Bless & 73s,
Paul - K5HSV
 
The Long Path to Amateur Radio  
by AD5VM on May 23, 2013 Mail this to a friend!
I really enjoy your style of writing. I would love to read this same story, but the ten page version.

'The last time I was back ‘home,’ nobody there in the community had ever heard of me'

I understand what you mean by not knowing enough to ask a question. When I became a ham my only elmer was the Gordon West audio tapes. After I passed my general exam in 2002, I ordered and built a fully loaded Elecraft K2/100, I went to buy the materials to build a dipole at HRO Sunnyvale and asked the guy behind the counter what type of balun I would need, only I didn't know how to pronounce it correctly. I said 'bay-lun' instead of 'bal-un' He laughed out loud, then called everyone in the store over to have me repeat what I had just said. Then they all laughed. I had just assembled a radio kit with like 3000 parts and I was the idiot in the room.
That almost made me want to sell the damn thing and find a new hobby. Glad I didn't tho...
Larry AD5VM
 
The Long Path to Amateur Radio  
by AA9G on May 24, 2013 Mail this to a friend!
Awesome story but where in the heck is Phlox? I lived in that area for over a decade and got my tech in Kokomo and never heard of it.
 
RE: The Long Path to Amateur Radio  
by AD5VM on May 24, 2013 Mail this to a friend!
40°25'16,N 85°55'7,W.
 
RE: The Long Path to Amateur Radio  
by AA9G on May 24, 2013 Mail this to a friend!
Huh. On google maps theres nothing there but pulling up street view reveals what might have once been a 3 building 'dont blink or you miss it' burg. Thanks
 
The Long Path to Amateur Radio  
by JOHNZ on May 25, 2013 Mail this to a friend!
Most of us look back over the years and know we could have done better, if we did it differently. Don't dwell on the past, the future is bright, when your spiritual and personal affairs are in order. Yes, back in the day when Popular Electronics (PE) was 35 cents an issue, they used to feature a monthly short story about the adventures of Carl & Jerry. Their adventures always fascinated me. Also back then, many young men built projects featured in PE. What a way to learn electronics and radio! That was also a time of the military draft, and back then the military recognized a ham license as certification of advanced technical skills, at least that held true in the Navy. I used the GI bill to get a BSEE degree. IMHO, I just don't see young men progressing along traditional career development paths anymore.
 
RE: The Long Path to Amateur Radio  
by W7WQ on May 25, 2013 Mail this to a friend!
Nice story John. My situation was similar, I received a portable Toshiba AM/FM/SW for Xmas on year and would listen to the hams on AM. Not knowing anyone who was a ham, I built a Knight kit code oscillator and listened to a 33 album of morse code. I'd also tune in and hear the coastal stations like KFS and others. This, mind you, without benefit of a BFO. Anyway, I got up to the nerve to go down to the stern-faced FCC examiners, and passed the general exam first try. Few years later when incentive licensing came along I moved up to advanced, then extra. WA7KJA was my first and only call for nearly 40 years when I decided to get something not as cumbersome, especially on CW. I'm now W7WQ, still use a Drake 4 line I've owned for over 40 years, along with my "modern" rig, an Icom 737A. I became a radio operator with the government in the mid 1970's and had fun operating as DX from several different countries while working at U.S. embassies. I have never grown tired of listening to the radio. The XYL totally hates it and my shack is an outbuilding on the property where I can go and crank the volume up so my aging ears can hear. 73 to all de Bill, W7WQ.
 
RE: The Long Path to Amateur Radio  
by KB6QXM on May 25, 2013 Mail this to a friend!
Great Story!

I myself have found memories of my youth and my first fascination with radio. My first radio, my first short-wave receiver, my first ham rig, my first scanner, then TV-DV, FM-DX, AM-DX, then longwave.

Radio communications has been always in my blood. It is what drove me to a career in high-tech in the Silicon Valley, which the area that I grew up in which was originally orchards and open land to the concrete madhouse that it is now. The reason why I moved deep into the mountains. Just because you work in the Silicon Valley does not mean that you have to live in it.

The days of amateur radio have changed and the deep rooted love of radio may wane in my life. Decades ago when you mentioned that you were an amateur radio operator, it meant something. It meant you knew something. I used it in a job interview. The director of engineering was a ham. I mentioned ham radio and he hired me on the spot.

Now I listen to 80 meters. It is full of old men using all flavors of profanity. I listen to all of the other bands and it is full of contesters and DX paper chasers. No more conversation and getting to know someone. Just 5/9 QRZ. I want to spend thousands of dollars to do that. Am I missing something here?

I had a ham that was licensed in a ham club meeting who asked what a repeater was. Huh? Also, I heard a ham on a repeater ask another ham. "how am I hitting you?" Huh?

As much as I love radio communications from DC-Light, I just wonder how much ham radio is in my future. When you lower the bar on anything, you dilute it.

Now people ask me, Ham radio.....do they still do that?

With all of the hams moving into CC&R homes, the days of 75+ towers at the house are slowly disappearing.

Also the average age of hams is 50+. Where will ham radio be in 30 years? License free, I am going to guess.

Great story and I related to the way it was then when most if not hams 30+ years ago were technical in nature. Now many hams can't even solder an RF connector onto a piece of coax.

BRAVE NEW WORLD WE LIVE IN!

73
 
RE: The Long Path to Amateur Radio  
by N1DVJ on May 26, 2013 Mail this to a friend!
I actually played around with CB walkie talkies in the 60's. Big klunky sets. Then my parents got my brother and I a 'top line' 2-channel set that really worked. Even had receive crystals and you didn't just receive the whole band. I made an antenna and a friend and I climbed the mountain (ok, hill) by my parents house and would put the antenna up in a tree (in central PA) and listen to guys from Nova Scotia on the thing.

When I go to college in 1971 I ran into a few hams, and one even had a Swan 250, which we all played with.

But I never got my ham ticket until 1981. I was interested, but the hams around my hometown were the propeller beanie type. The kind that would go into the Radio Shack and berate the employees to show off how 'brain proud' they were. One guy even used his 2M HT in front of other customers to 'show off' and call the store, but when the manager of the store asked about it and what frequency, the ham got real snide about it being a 'secret'. Once the guy left the consensus of the other customers and the manager was pretty much a solid 'idiot' sighting. No one would have showed any interest in ham at that point.

But I did finally get my ticket when I lived in Texas. The company actually gave me paid time off to go to the FCC office in Dallas to take my test because it was 'technical'. But unfortunately there were still some of the 'idiots' around. Only now they were the 'UHF' idiots and didn't want anyone to know their frequencies. They were 'secret'.

But ham radio survived. And I survived. I'm embarrassed by some of the 'wackers' in ham radio, but hey, there's a place for everybody. Find your own spot and if you enjoy it, more power to you.
 
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