Friday, November 09, 2007

Memories as a Ham Radio Operator: A 3WW Post

Bone’s 3-Word Wednesday assignment for this week is to write a piece using the following words: Compensate, Modern, Radio. I thought back to my experiences in school as an amateur radio operator.

I’m not sure all the reasons I got so interested in Ham Radio. Perhaps it was because I was small and there was little chance of me playing sports once I got to junior high. To compensate, I decided to excel at something else. A man from our church, who only had daughters and perhaps to compensate for that, offered to teach my brother and me about radios. His having daughters my age also peaked my interest and I jumped at the opportunity. Once a week, we’d met at his house, and sitting around the dining room table, we’d work on Morse Code for fifteen minutes. That was easy ‘cause I’d already learned Morse code and semaphore, the consequence of spending too many days grounded in my room. After a code session, he’d pull out some paper and for another fifteen minutes, we’d have a math and drafting class, learning how to slice the PIE formula and the meanings of various electronic symbols. Then he’d take us out to his “shack,” a small white wooden building out back by a persimmon tree. The place was crammed with electrical parts and all kinds of radios and test equipment. Here we learned the purpose of resistors and capacitors and how to solder. In time, we built a power supply that was designed to take AC current and, after running it through some kind of bridge, convert it to DC. Then we started building a transmitter, using a 6146 tube. When finished, this transmitter was able to put out 60 watts of power. It was a simple machine, utilizing crystals to control the frequency, meaning that if you wanted change frequencies, you had to pull out one crystal and replace it with another. I had three crystals, two in the 80 meter band and another in the 40 meter band. This was fun; soon I’d learned enough that we passed the test and received my novice license, which arrived about the time we’d finished building the transmitter. It couldn’t have come at a better time as I was in the eighth grade and not doing particularly stellar in school.

Winter nights, as the sun set, the 80 meter band would come alive. The cold air gave the long wavelengths great bounce off the ionosphere. Every day I’d rush home from school and be ready to be online before dusk. It was exciting to hear that first “CQ” of the evening, a call from operator looking for someone with whom to chat. I’d tap out his call letters a couple times followed by “de” (from) and my call sign, WN4YGY. Soon, we’d be exchanging information about our location and age and the weather.

Although my brother (the one who is now a mechanical engineer) eventually passed his test and got his license, the radio bug never really bit him. Maybe this was because I was always online. Since we shared a room, it would annoy him when I would get up at 3 or 4 AM and pull on a headset and fire up the radio, no one else in the house could hear except him. Using CW (code) I enjoyed talking (via code) to folks on the West Coast as well as in South America and Europe. Each new state or country was like a conquest and over time the wall behind my radios were covered with post cards from other operators I’d communicated with from around the world.

The most exciting period of time was when I was online and an emergency net was called to relay messages from Central America. It was right around Christmas 1972, the same Christmas that Mark had been killed in an accident. An earthquake had hit Nicaragua and for hours I monitored traffic for messages were coming to North Carolina. Although I never had traffic sent my way, I felt as if I was a part of something big, especially when I saw the devastation on the morning news. This was the same earthquake that my hero, Roberto Clemente, the slugger for the Pittsburgh Pirates, was killed in a plane crash while on a humanitarian mission. Death seemed to be all around me that year, but it was also enlightening to watch history unfold.

In time, I lost interest in the hobby and by the time I started college, I was no longer logging on regularly. For a time, I played with low power equipment and purchased a small 2 watt transceiver that ran on a six volt battery. Using a portable long-wire antenna, I would take this unit camping with me. But in time, I lost interest even in that. The radios I was working with, which seemed so modern, was really behind times as everything was shifting to transistors and eventually to pre-wired boards. Sometime in college, I gave all my equipment to the man who had helped my brother and I earn our licenses and went on to other hobbies.

Addendum just for Murf: Amateur Radio operators are often known by a series of words based on their call sign. The ending of my call letters, “YGY,” got converted to “young girls yell.”


  1. You and women. I wonder if that's why you work in the field that you do rather than something like mechanical engineering. ;-) I have a feeling Ed will leave a message about his experience with this. You two are freakishly similar.

  2. Liked the way it seemed so modern but really was behind the times

  3. I think Pia just called you old, Sage. ;-)

  4. Oooh, I always wanted to learn MC! :)

    This sounds like fun... and now I know how big of a nerd I really am O:)

  5. Sorry to disappoint you Murf but I have absolutely no interest in ham radio. Citizens band radio perhaps but even then only on really long road trips where even FM and AM radio begins to get old.

    I can however understand the attraction one feels with a hobby such as ham radio as I have several hobbies that attract me in much the same manner.

  6. I think it's wonderful that at an early age you were interested in the world beyond your own backyard.

  7. Thanks for sharing Sage! It is really great that someone was willing to take the time to teach you guys and what a way to learn about other parts of the world!

  8. I remember studying with a neighbor and getting to tap and listen and twiddle a dial...Now, it reminds me a little of the Internet's call, in that news. is. news. Nice post!

  9. Murf, I knew the ending would get a comment out of you--and I don't think Pia's comment is about me being older--besides, I'm younger than her!

    Pia, it's amazing how fast the technological world has changed

    TC, -.-- --- ..- ... .... --- ..- -.-- -..

    Ed, as a Ham, I had about as much use for CBers as I had for big rafts when I kayaked!

    Diane, it was a good hobby

    Kontan, he was a good guy!

    Tumbleweed, good to see you back around--I'll have to check out your 3ww.

  10. Interesting story. I could almost picture the whole thing. Very well described. Michele sent me today.

  11. Hi from me and Michele! Loved this story, although 'ham' reminded me that I'm hungry from missing lunch at work last night. :)

  12. My brother is at it. Or should I say crazy about it! At one time I did share a mild interest.

    Great post!

  13. Sorry I'm so late making it by to comment. I really enjoyed this story, Sage. Tt reminded me a bit of my Dad. He was always fooling with transistors and capacitors and such. One time, he made this very low power transmitter and hooked a microphone up to it, and you could go out in the car and hear it on the radio.

  14. Back about the second year of high school a bunch of us Explorer Scouts caught the ham radio bug. A retired Marine general who lived in our little town taught us the undemanding code requirement for the Novice license and we all got our ticket. Several of kids went quite a ways with it, one of them even later into the Navy where he spent his career monitoring Russian radio traffic. I faded early, as once I got on the air I discovered that I really wasn't that interested and that I had an unrealistically romantic notion of what ham radio was going to be like. I am glad I did it, though.

    I have a huge old radio console stored away in a barn and went as far as ordering some old tubes for it from that antique radio supply place down in Arizona, and maybe I'll get to it some day. I see on the box that the tubes were manufactured for the Navy in 1944.

  15. I got my ham radio license last year for use on our sailboat on an SSB radio. Fortunately, we didn't have to learn Morse code, otherwise, I'm not sure I would have passed.

    Cheers - Ellen