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A Dark and Stormy Night

Created by Don Keith, N4KC on 2012-04-22

A Dark and Stormy Night
By Don Keith N4KC
2012 by Don Keith

A deep-throated rumble of distant thunder rattled the two cans of soda pop that rested on the metal patio table. The two people sitting there on the dark, screened-in porch hardly noticed. The rain had let up noticeably and now they could hear the droplets tinkling metallically as they hit the bottom of the nearby downspout. The tree frogs sang happy songs of damp contentment from the far end of the backyard and a cool breeze felt especially refreshing in the wake of the late-afternoon heat prior to the thunderstorm.

"Sorry, Jack," one of them said to the other as he reached for his drink. "I could fire up the generator and we could get to work but I suspect the power will be back on shortly anyway. Probably just a transformer tried to gargle some rainwater."

"Aw, don't worry about it, Mr. Nielsen," the other person said, his voice much younger, obviously still in the process of changing from kid's to man's. "If we don't get it fixed tonight, we still have a few days before my ham license shows up in the database and I'm legal."

"You may as well start calling me `Tom.' That's what we hams do, you know, regardless our relative ages. First names and call signs. That's the way we know each other." Tom Nielsen took a sip of the fizzy drink. "I think we can get that radio fixed up pretty quickly anyway. They had a problem with the PLL losing synch on some bands as it aged and got knocked around and it's usually just a matter of tweaking."

Jack Marshall took a big swig of his own soda.

"I wish I knew as much about radios and antennas and electronics as you do, Mr. Nielsen...uh...Tom. I've got so much to learn I don't know where to start."

"That's the great thing about this hobby. Amateur radio allows you to follow your own interests and, if you want to, keep right on learning stuff for the rest of your life. Or not." Lightning flickered on the distant horizon, a bit dimmer now. "Heck, I learn something every day, still, after almost thirty years in ham radio and engineering. The hobby's still evolving and you can change with it. Or not. Nothing says you have to. You can go at your own pace, and don't let anybody tell you different."

"Maybe so, but I wouldn't know where to start working on that old Kenwood. I just appreciate you looking at it for me at the swap meet. I've sure enjoyed listening in on the bands that work. Even with the dipole, I heard stations in Germany and Sweden and even the Canary Islands. I had to break out Dad's atlas to find where the Canary Islands were exactly."

"See, learning geography, too! This hobby will make you smarter no matter how hard you resist."

Jack was quiet for a bit, then said, "I appreciate you taking so much time with me. You know there are a few folks around who aren't quite so welcoming to newbies."

Tom cleared his throat.

"I suspect that's true in any hobby or pursuit. Some think it's a fraternity and you have to haze people who want to join it. Others are just protective. They don't want anything to change or evolve, even though change and evolution are inevitable. Some are just plain ornery and anti-social. But the hobby's big enough for all of us, whatever our interests. Shoot, the way I look at it, the more the merrier. You guys bring a new perspective on things, fresh blood. That helps keep us old-timers young."

The door behind them opened with a squeak of its spring and someone stuck her head out from the darkness inside of the house.

"You two guys out here growing moss?"

"Hey, hon," Tom said. "You want to join us out here? It's probably getting warm in there with no electricity. There's a breeze."

"Don't mind if I do," she replied, shining a flashlight their way. "What's the topic? Football? No. Let me guess. Ham radio!"

Tom took his foot and slid one of the empty patio chairs her way.

"Wrong! Women. I've been warning young Jack here about the weird and wily ways of the female of the species."

"Just because you've been married to one for twenty-two years doesn't make you an expert on the subject, mister," she responded with a laugh.

"Mrs. Nielsen, I was wondering..." Jack started, but she interrupted him.

"You may as well start calling me `Heather.' That's how you'll do it once you get on the air."

"Okay...Heather. Mr. Nielsen...uh, Tom...and I just went over that. It's going to take some getting used to, I guess." He took another draw on his pop. "How did you get started in ham radio? There don't seem to be as many women in the hobby as men."

Heather Nielsen stretched out in the chair, enjoying the rain-cooled breeze.

"True, but I think that's changing. We're more comfortable with computers and computers are more and more a part of amateur radio. I think that makes more gals comfortable with the technical side. We're more social than guys in some ways, too, and get a kick out of meeting new people and talking to friends on the air. It'll take a while but there is definitely a positive trend. Same thing with you young folks. How old are you now, Jack? Fifteen? I think a lot of bright kids are getting tired of Facebook and Twitter and are looking for something that is a little more of a challenge, more diversity and things you can do than just post stuff on a wall. And so they can learn stuff that'll help them decide on and get ready for a career, too. Yeah, I know. You can call somebody in India or Australia on your smart-phone. But I dare you to dial a number at random and find somebody on the other side of the world with whom you have instant rapport--something in common with--like you do with ham radio. And use a radio station you put together and an antenna you built to do it."

Jack thought for a moment and said, "You know what? You sound like a commercial for ham radio! I'd guess from your call sign that you've been a ham a long time. Right? What got you interested in the first place?"

"I tell people I inherited the hobby," Heather said with a chuckle. "My dad and mom were both active hams. So was my brother, but he never took much interest in it. I resisted it as long as I could. Back then, the last thing you wanted to be labeled as was a `nerd.' Especially a girl nerd. Kiss of death in high school social circles. Who wants to date a gal who knows Morse code and understands Ohm's Law?" Heather paused for a moment. The thunder was even more distant and the lightning flashes no more than flickers on the far horizon. "Then there was the hurricane."


"Yeah. I grew up on the Mississippi coast. We had a category four when I was about your age. Just to please my dad, I had passed my Technician exam but had not been on the air more than a few times. I worked hard not to let word get out at school, you know. `Heather the ham.' One of the football players I had a crush on nicknamed me `Betty Beepity- beep.' Then the storm hit. All the phone lines were down. Cellular wasn't as widespread then but there was practically no phone coverage of any kind TV and radio were mostly off the air. Even the local police and fire departments lost their communication towers. My family and several other local hams were on the air day and night for better than a week. I spent most of the time at the hospital emergency room, talking with hams set up at the police station and fire department, letting the medical personnel know who was on the way and what their injuries were. I also initiated plenty of health-and-welfare traffic, letting family members know their folks were alive and at the hospital. I was even interviewed by one of the TV network reporters and that was my first taste of broadcast journalism."


Heather tucked her feet beneath her and took a deep breath.

"Wow, indeed. I know we saved some lives that week. And avoided a lot of worry on the part of family members. For the first time, I realized this radio junk was more than just a geeky hobby or glorified CB radio. The rest of it slowly grew on me. I'm still not that technical, but I enjoy some contesting and DXing, especially on PSK31 and CW. But my favorite thing is a net I'm a part of every morning on twenty meters. We've got a great bunch of people, most of whom I've never met in person, yet they're like my BFFs."

"'Hen party' is what I call it," Tom interjected. Heather cuffed him on the arm. "Ouch! Watch it. That's my soldering hand. I may need that to get Jack's Kenwood going if the power ever comes back on."

"So you were both licensed before you got married?" Jack asked. "Was that how you two met? I didn't see that as a benefit in any of the ARRL propaganda I read. Finding your soul mate through amateur radio."

Tom and Heather both laughed.

"I was that stereotypical geek," Tom said. "For as long as I can remember, I loved taking things apart and figuring out how they worked. I read an article in a magazine about amateur radio and I was hooked. There was a guy several blocks away that had a tower and beam in his backyard and, even though I was a bashful lad, I walked right up and rang his doorbell. Thank goodness, he didn't shoo me away like the pest I was. His wife made cookies while we went to his shack for a tour. He worked--I don't remember for sure--but I think it was DX. Of course, the next county would have been DX to me. Throwing out a radio signal that could tickle somebody's antenna halfway around the world was nothing short of magic to me. Next thing I knew, I was going to club meetings, studying, building power supplies and a little one-tube transmitter and about the ugliest antennas you've ever seen, and then I had my ticket. There were years I was less active than others, what with girls and cars and high school and then going away to college, but little did I know where this hobby would eventually lead me and how it would disrupt my life."

Heather laughed again.

"That's where I come into the story."

"Yep, that's where this wench rode into my otherwise wonderful life. I was at the university, freshman year, taking that English course that even would-be electronic engineers have to take. I had already noticed the pretty girl who usually sat to my right in that class but since I was still that same shy and retiring type, I didn't have the gumption to say anything to her. Then, one day I noticed she had an earphone in her ear while the teacher was up there droning on and on about some dead poet or another. She's listening to the Eagles or the Doors, I thought. Those were rock groups back in the Dark Ages, see. Anyway, I couldn't decide if that was cool or if she was just a ditzy blonde."

Heather cuffed him again.

"You never told me you thought I was ditzy!"

He ignored her and went on.

"But then I could see that it was a handi-talkie poking out of her purse. This ditzy blonde--sorry, cute gal--was scanning the two-meter repeaters instead of listening to Professor Calabash."

Heather laughed.

"See, I really knew how to impress the guys, didn't I? I never dreamed that old HT would land me a husband! Truth is the local ARES net was a ton more interesting than Dr. Calabash."

"After class, I went up to her and asked her which repeater she was listening to. Don't ever tell me I didn't have a gift of gab!"

"Last of the great romantics! I have to admit, that was the most original pickup line this gal has ever heard. `What repeater you listening to, little lady?' That's okay, I got a free hamburger at the cafeteria out of the deal. And the rest, as they say, is history."

Jack listened to the tree frog serenade for a moment.

"So you guys got married and have lived happily ever after on the ham bands?"
"Not hardly," Tom said. "We were both way too busy with school...both of us had to work our way do much with radio. I had a little QRP rig in the dorm room and a piece of wire out the window, but I mostly just listened while I studied. And got on the air some when I went home between semesters until my mom moved all my gear into the closet to make room for a bunk bed for my little brothers."

"I only had that HT at school," Heather said. "And still do, in a drawer around here somewhere, but it doesn't even have a tone board in it and I'd probably play heck trying to find a battery that would fit it anymore. I tutored football players for tuition so that kept me busy, anyway. I did steal Tom's QRP rig a few times and set up under a tree on the quad. Guess I had long since gotten over being labeled a nerd. I remember I worked Japan once with 5 watts and that piece-of-wire antenna. And got some strange looks from the guys playing flag football out there when I started squealing and doing a little jig over working the JA."

Tom chuckled as he gazed into the darkness.

"We had a ham club on campus but in that day and time it was mostly inactive. The club station was in the Student Union but it looked like something out of the early days of wireless. We kept saying we were going to fix it up and get it back on the air but never quite got around to it. Calculus was kicking my hind end."

"But we made it, didn't we, Tommy?" She squeezed his arm. "Our wedding was the day after graduation. Tom had an offer from an engineering outfit here in Atlanta and I landed a job with a little newspaper out in Douglasville, then hooked up with one of the radio stations here in town, doing news. The program director was a ham, and even though he was inactive at the time, I know that connection helped me get my foot in the door."

"You're sounding like a ham radio commercial again, darlin'."

"Sorry. There have been times when neither of us touched a mic button or CW key for months. Sometimes we didn't even have a working station on the air. But the hobby has always meant a great deal to us. And not just because it brought us together in the first place or helped us get our careers going. Seemed like every time the bug bit again, we enjoyed radio even more than before. Always something new to experience. New people to talk to. New technology to take a look at. I love it!"

"Couldn't tell, could you?" Tom asked with a wink, but young Jack couldn't see it in the darkness.

"You guys have kids?"

"A daughter," Heather answered.

"She's up at the university, majoring in spending mom's and dad's money," Tom added.

"She a ham, too?"

"Naw," Tom replied. "We exposed her to it but didn't push. She never developed an interest. Again, like most hobbies, ham radio is not for everybody. Some never get the itch. You can't force it. You nurture it, help those who show an interest. Answer their questions. If the spark is there, suddenly the light will come on one day."

As if on cue, the lights inside the Nielsen house suddenly flickered and then remained on. The air conditioning unit just beyond the end of the covered porch roared to life and the ceiling fan over their heads spun on.

"Thank goodness!" Heather said. "Just in time for `Desperate Housewives.'" Tom rolled his eyes. "Hey, mister, we all have our guilty pleasures. I see you watching those pawn shop shows."

She stood and stretched.

"I really appreciate you guys telling me your story," Jack said. "And for the sodas and cookies."

"You are welcome," they both replied, in unison.

"Let's go get that old Kenwood working," Tom said. "If it is easy as I think it is, we might be able to chase a little DX with it on 20 meters before the band goes to sleep for the night."

"You boys have fun," Heather told them as she headed for the door. "I've got supper dishes to clean up now that we have light. But if you hear anything exotic, let me know so I can log `em, too. The DVR will catch my show."

"So that's your game. We find `em, you work `em."

Jack Marshall picked up his soda can and followed his new friends into the house, toward the basement room where Tom's and Heather's radio shack was located.

Six weeks before, he did not even know these folks, other than having seen Heather doing news reports on the local CBS television station. Now they treated him like an old friend or a favorite nephew. But most of the club members--except for a few curmudgeons who seemed to resent anyone who did not get a license in the 1950s or who dared to enter the hobby before his sixtieth birthday--had shown the same welcoming ways. There were even a few guys and gals his age in the club.

"You really think we can get the rig going on 20 meters?" he asked Tom.

"Maybe. And I've been thinking about a simple wire vertical antenna you could hang up in that big pine tree in your backyard. Might be just the ticket for 40 meters..."

Jack grinned. Grinned and wondered why he had waited so long to get started in this amateur radio stuff.

N4KC 2012-05-22
RE: A Dark and Stormy Night
I'd be honored for you--or anyone else who wants to--to re-post the article. I'd appreciate it if you'd just credit me by name and call sign and include

I don't know how you'd do the +1 deal. Copy and paste should work, though.


Don N4KC

KC0QNB 2012-05-20
A Dark and Stormy Night
I would like to repost this on my Google+ page GPAR, (Great Plains Amateur Radio) But I don't see a +1 button.
I did however +1
N4RRL 2012-05-17
A Dark and Stormy Night
Jack is a typical Suthun' boy - can't get used to calling someone older than him by their first name...
At 53, I still have the same problem. That good ole Suthun' respect is hard to get over - don't think I ever will - at least I hope I don't.
Don, Great little story - Take care of my home state til I can manage to get back. I have an aunt & uncle who live a few miles west of you, on Stratford Place, I think it is.
Take care and 73,
Joe, N4RRL
W7XLR 2012-05-06
A Dark and Stormy Night
Great Story! Thanks...
WR1U 2012-05-03
A Dark and Stormy Night
That was good reading. It had the same feel as a book I read when I first got my license in 1989. The Complete DXer. I would love to read that again.
KC1MK 2012-05-01
A Dark and Stormy Night
Great story Don! I really enjoyed it, and hope to read more from you in the future.
Jeff, KC1MK
K2FOX 2012-04-27
A Dark and Stormy Night
Thanks for the great story. Enjoyed it very much :)
N4KC 2012-04-27
RE: A Dark and Stormy Night
WB4LCN: I was born in my grandmother's house in St. Clair County, Alabama...probably 30 miles from your birthplace. No time to even get the doc out there in the sticks so my grandma delivered me. My dad was on the way to fetch him when the headlights went out on his old pickup truck. He drove halfway to Birmingham hanging out the window with a flashlight!

KC8YXA: My dad (WA4AZJ, now SK) was the first TV repairman in our part of the state. Right after WWII, someone told him this television thing might be big and somebody would have to fix broken sets. He built our first transmitter from TV parts and an 807 tube. He made up his mind early that he could never learn 13 WPM CW so he only made Technician class before he died. That's just one reason I -- a devout and dedicated CW op -- welcomed the no-code license.

Good to hear about your "Elmers," everybody. And even your Professor Calabashes. Mine was Dr. Peck, freshman English, University of Alabama. The initial theme I submitted was the first "F" I had ever seen in my educational career to that point and almost made me give up writing! It just made me mad. I ended up minoring in English and have published 23 books!

73...and see you all "on the wind!"

Don Keith N4KC

KC8YXA 2012-04-26
A Dark and Stormy Night
Very Nice Story. I Came Into Ham Radio In About The Same Way. He Was A TV Repairman And She Worked In A Hospital.
Once Again Very Nice Story..

WB4LCN 2012-04-25
RE: A Dark and Stormy Night
Sweet! I was born in 10st. Hospital in Anniston, AL in 1953.

dave ;)
WA7KPK 2012-04-25
A Dark and Stormy Night
Heh. Great story. I see a lot of myself in both Tom and Jack, which is one of the things that makes it a great story.
N4KC 2012-04-25
RE: A Dark and Stormy Night
Thanks, all! My own "Elmer" was a true "rocket scientist" who commuted 200 miles a day to Huntsville, Alabama, just so he could live on a pastoral mountaintop...suitable for antennas. Yet he found time to start a weekly class at the high school. And to load us up in his old beater and take us to Atlanta, back when you had to wait for a field engineer's visit once a year or travel to take the General exam.

All hobbies have curmudgeons and gruff old-timers. But I'd say ham radio indexes lower than most on both counts, according to my representative sample.

Don N4KC

PD2R 2012-04-25
RE: A Dark and Stormy Night
Great story Don. I rember getting called on 11 meter by a HAM one day when I was about 17 years young. Of course he wasn't supposed to do that but he did it anyway. He offered to teach the four of us at his home so we could pass the exams and become radio amateurs. We took him up on his offer and eventually all four of us passed our exams. He and his wife were much like the Nielsens from your story.

I'm looking forward to the next one :-)
KI4OZG 2012-04-25
A Dark and Stormy Night
Fantastic story! As the Public Information Officer for the Calhoun County Amateur Radio Association in Anniston, AL I'll certainly have to "Share" this one with others.
KD8AMN 2012-04-24
A Dark and Stormy Night
Great story ejoyed the reading 73 jim
WB4LCN 2012-04-24
A Dark and Stormy Night
I read it out loud with a southern redneck accent. Good stuff! ;)
K4JC 2012-04-24
A Dark and Stormy Night
Great story, Don! I remember being that teenage kid awed by the fact that an older, experienced ham would take the time to elmer me. One fellow in particular went out of his way to give me a ride to club meetings, where I could be properly castigated by the resident curmudgeons.

I also had my own "Professor Calabash" in college. This guy (I don't recall his name; I think it was Simon something) was the quintessential Absent-Minded Professor - including the Einstein hairdo!
WX0V 2012-04-24
A Dark and Stormy Night
Anyone willing to write a story like this doesn't have a life, sorry.

Haw! Got-ya, Don!...TROLL! :-P :-)

Seriously, thanks for another great read.

To those looking for a new sub book, Don recently released "Undersea Warrior", a story on Dudley "Mush" Morton and U.S.S. Wahoo. I am reading it now, and if you have read "Wahoo" by Dick O'Kane, this is a great companion to it, as it gives you added perspective.

There's your plug, Don...73!

Scott - WX0V
NU4B 2012-04-24
RE: A Dark and Stormy Night
Great Story -

I can't figure out if I'm not evolving or just ornery and anti social! :-)
WA0TML 2012-04-24
A Dark and Stormy Night
Great story - kind of how to be an Elmer. I remember being the kid going up to the house with the antenna some 45 years ago. Really brought back some great memories. Thanks.

I am now showing my fiancee my love of amateur radio - it has already opened new doors for us here in the Philippines, I've only been here 8 months.

Really enjoy stories like this - it is a great hobby.

N4UM 2012-04-23
RE: A Dark and Stormy Night
I liked it. I think K2ORS(sk) would have agreed with me.
W0FM 2012-04-23
RE: A Dark and Stormy Night
Great story, Don. Wonderful realism. Draws one right into it. Much like you're saying, "hey, pull up a stool and join me here".

Your writing style reminds me of that of James Kennedy George, Jr., N3BB, author of "Reunion". Check it out if you haven't already. You guys have the same reminicing approach to story telling:

I hope you're next article is already in the works, Don. Thanks again for sharing.

Terry, WØFM

K8TIY 2012-04-23
A Dark and Stormy Night
A good read. Especially liked "Professor Calabash".
W1NK 2012-04-23
RE: A Dark and Stormy Night
Another very enjoyable read! Thanks Don!

(and a nice tip of the hat to Jimmy Durante!)
K1CJS 2012-04-23
RE: A Dark and Stormy Night
Thanks for a great story, Don! 73!
W5HLP 2012-04-23
RE: A Dark and Stormy Night
Ditto on the wonderful story Don. Just a few short paragraphs and I was pulled in about 4 different emotional directions AND cared about the characters. Really captured what ham radio can do for folks and what they can do for it. As well as why we need new blood and need to not forget the old timers.

Now - About that next submarine book??? Some of us are really starting into withdrawl.

Thanks and 73
Herm - W5HLP
N0PSH 2012-04-23
A Dark and Stormy Night
Way Cool! This should be required reading for all Ham Radio Curmudgeions. Hee Hee
K4LJA 2012-04-23
RE: A Dark and Stormy Night
Don, N4KC ---

You're always the greatest. Thanks for sharing with us.

Randy K4LJA
KA8VIT 2012-04-23
A Dark and Stormy Night
Don, always love your stories.

Isn't it time for a new submarine book ? <smile>

73 - Bill KA8VIT
USS COD Amateur Radio Club, W8COD
WW2 Submarine USS COD SS-224
Cleveland, OH
K5END 2012-04-23
A Dark and Stormy Night
Nice story. Very enjoyable to read.