50 Years of ‘CQ, and Standing By…’

“…it gets into your blood and there’s nothing you can do about it but live it.”

The National NC57 was built as a ‘high-end’ receiver just after WWII.

In the late 1960’s, a twelve-year-old boy was regularly visiting his uncle and staying (on non-school nights) sometimes into the early morning hours. Luckily for him, his uncle lived just across the street! Of course, I was that young boy and my uncle, was Vernon Clarke. He was a ‘ham’ radio operator whose callsign was W8TJS or topless jazz singer! My fascination in the hobby was with the phone-patch traffic Vern would run for U.S. Navy ships at sea allowing sailors to talk to their loved-ones by phone connected through Vern’s radio. He ran phone-patch traffic for scientific expedition stations in Antarctica and for missionaries all over the world. It wasn’t so much that I chose Amateur Radio as a hobby as ham radio chose me. Vern used to say that it gets into your blood and there is nothing you can do about it but live it.

Back in my day… (I’m allowed to say that now, I get ‘senior discounts’ at Denny’s!) Back in my day, to get a ‘Novice’ license from the FCC to operate a ham radio, you first had to pass a sending and receiving Morse Code at a rate of 5 words per minute. I would tune my receiver to code sending stations and try to copy what they sent. I had a Radio Shack practice key that would allow me to tap out code and I’d hear it on its built in speaker. It wasn’t attached to a transmitter so only I (and most everyone else in my house, none of whom cared to listen) could hear my code sending. My father, though never into ham radio had been a radioman aboard the PC1261 in WWII, and could copy code and type it onto an old manual typewriter at a speed of 60 wpm. My attempts at 5 wpm were like nails on a chalkboard to him but he never complained!

“Straight Key” used for basic CW (continuous wave) Morse Code

In addition to the 5 wpm code test, a written test on radio basic electronics, FCC rules and federal laws related to radio operation. Thankfully, the Novice test could be given by a ham radio operator with a minimum of an Advanced grade license which Vern had. I sat at his radio and he gave me the code test. Once I passed it, he ordered the written exam. I sat at his kitchen counter where I had sat more times than I can remember for soup or hot chocolate on a cold winter day, so it was comfortable, and I was as at ease as I could possibly have been. After what seemed like an interminable 6 weeks, I received my Novice license in the mail. I was now officially a ‘ham’ with a callsign of WN8KMP. Vern proudly loaned me a Heathkit HW01 crystal controlled (rock-bound) transmitter. Pictured here are some typical crystals. Each was good for one frequency. If there wasn’t someone available on the specific frequencies matching your crystals, you were out of luck. You could not tune until you found someone. Hence the term rock bound.  I would pound out in code, “CQ, CQ CQ” which is ham radio code for ‘is there anyone out there who wants to talk?’ It is followed by your callsign and then you ‘standby’ or wait to see if anyone answers.

The Novice license was good for just two years and was not renewable. This was designed to push you on to a higher grade license which included Technician, General, Advanced and Extra. Not all of those grades exist today but I still hold my General class license I finally received just before my Novice ticket expired. The code test for General Class was 13 wpm which after two years wasn’t as bad as it seemed, but test jitters having to take the code exam at a federal building in Cleveland, Columbus or Detroit was a bit unnerving. Hence two failed attempts, but the third time was a charm! That was an adventure all its own for another day.

I began enjoying DXing which means reaching out to people in faraway places and often times we would ‘Rag Chew’ which was slang for just talking about our hobby, our families, and what it is like to live where we do. Still, on voice, a ham will call, “CQ, CQ, CQ” when looking to meet a new contact.

When I got my General class license and became WB8KMP, I dropped the ‘N’ and picked up a ‘B’.  I bought a used Heathkit HW 101 which did CW and SSB (voice) on multiple bands and with a VFO or variable frequency oscillator. That meant, basically, I was no longer rock bound! I could go anywhere in the ham bands my license would permit! The HW 101 I bought was three years old when I got it in 1973. I eventually upgraded to the Heathkit SB104 which I still have, and it still works.

The world has changed drastically in my 50 year ride as a ham particularly in electronics! The things a small transceiver can do that will fit in the palm of a hand go far beyond anything the large transmitter-receiver sets of the 60’s! Hams now communicate by satellite and by SSTV and computer links. For me, though, I still love DXing and Rag Chewing! I have radios on bands that use repeaters to rebroadcast signals and are used a great deal in local emergency communications. The world of Amateur Radio is as expansive as the inventive minds of hams can make it. I’m pleased to still be hamming it up after 50 years, but I certainly cannot believe that it got here this quickly!

A QSL Card – a card used to confirm or QSL a contact – exchanged between operating stations

Even now, long after my wonderful uncle became a ‘silent-key’, I am still scanning the frequencies and every now and again, someone just might here, ‘This is WB8KMP calling CQ and standing by…”

In ‘ham speak’ I will say 73’s for now, which is so-long or see you later! Back in the day you could also say 88’s which was ‘hugs and kisses’ if you were speaking with a female ham or referring to a ham operator’s ‘XYL’ – another term probably not politically correct today. You see an unmarried lady in Morse Code abbreviations or cw slang which was used in voice communications, too; was a ‘YL’ or young lady. A married lady was, by someone’s logic, an ‘XYL’ – sell that to Cosmopolitan today!

Best 73’s and I hope to talk with you later on down the log.