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.

Of Trains, Radios, Fishing Lures and Time…

Dad's pocket watch    As of this moment, my third daughter is in with her OB checking on her health and the health of a granddaughter I have not met yet. Her husband, my son-in-law went to jail today. I’m glad he did. It was his first day in his career as a Deputy Sheriff/Corrections Officer! Earlier today, I had a conversation with a fellow who, following in his grandfathers, fathers and uncle’s footsteps, he collects toy trains. He pays top dollar for toy train sets that used to circle every Christmas tree or glimmer in the hopes of little boys as they decided what Lionel train they wanted for themselves. Yet, he worries because as collectable as the old trains are, there is a growing fear among collectors that if the interest does not re-emerge for the small gauge track with the real looking train cars, they will be stuck with thousands of miles of track that lead nowhere.

Then there was a conversation I had over the weekend with a man who buys up old “Ham” radio equipment, not so much for re-furbishing because with the new digital markets the newer radios are smaller, lighter, cheaper, better sound, overall quality and focus on replacement not repair. So why buy up the old stuff? A sense of nostalgia for when times were, in B.C. terminology (before computers) slower, calmer, and even quieter brings those who remember those times looking for a connection to the past. There were times when people on “Ham” radio would Ragchew – in fact, yours truly has a certificate to show that I am a bona-fide ‘Ragchewer’. To prevent questions of my oral hygiene, I’ll explain that to ragchew means to spend time on the radio talking for fairly lengthy periods to someone they do not know, who they will probably never meet and may never talk to again. So taken were they with their long conversations about practically anything and most often nothing at all, that they would exchange post cards, called QSL cards – QSL being the abbreviated Morse Code for ‘confirm contact.’ They usually include the date and time of the conversation, which is recorded for posterity!    The card to the right is an example, showing the author hard at work. QSL

What has become of those who build a small city with mountains and tunnels, with curves and bends that bring the roaring train across the plywood over top of the billiard table which was used for at least two weeks after the Christmas it was dragged into the house, but now proudly holds the Lionel set including the water tower and depot? Where are the all-night ragchewers that are also running phone-patch traffic for maritime mobiles (ships at sea) or missionaries in the heart of the Amazon, even for scientific expeditions at South America?

The phone patch traffic has gone the way of the local telephone operator with the advent of cellular phones, sat-phones, internet and SKYPE. Most “Hams” these days are techies that work only 2 meters or 440 MHz on repeater systems. Thankfully many are volunteering on Tornado Spotter teams and rescue and emergency communications back-up. Now the all-nighter is spent on FACEBOOK or IM-ing someone with texts about the steak they had for dinner. Sure, I know that ragchewing conversations were never going to be the upcoming agenda for MENSA discussions but, come-on… rather than go to some recent FACEBOOK or texting sites; I can get a more intelligent conversation on a Saturday night at Wal-Mart with the unarmed manikin that doubles as a security camera!

The leisure time activities of old have been replaced by twenty-four hour news, text alerts for whatever style of news you desire, computer games that will allow you to land on Mars in virtual reality or draw down on Zombies that are dragging their way across your 87 inch plasma screen with surround-sound so realistic the neighbors have called the cops twice thinking there was a real gun battle at your house and your closest neighbor is two farms down the road about three-quarters of a mile! This is quite different than the good ol’ days of uncle and nephew leaning into the crackling noise of the speaker to try to make out the call sign of that maritime mobile that was looking for a phone patch into Ohio. Gone are the days when, just before the ‘test pattern’ came on to the black and white TV screen there was the footage of a fluttering American flag and background music playing the Star Spangled Banner as the station signed-off for the night. It was night, time for rest to not be haunted by the cable news network talking heads going over the same discussion they have continued nightly for more than a week!test pattern

Oh, yes; I love to be able to pull out my Droid phone and check email as I wait for the plane to take-off or jump on to FACEBOOK and see my grandchildren’s most recent pictures. And at home… the Night Before Christmas might end up re-written “And mother on FACEBOOK and me with my Kindle, had just checked out a NETFLIX film about reindeer…” As much as the nostalgia side of my brain yearns for the simpler, quieter times; I love the electronic toys, the ease of communicating and the instant everything that the Internet brings. So what is the answer to the conundrum?

It must, and I would underscore must come down to Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.” If ever there was a time in our world’s history that people must be admonished to “Be still” it is now. The whirling sounds of computer fans, the clacking of keyboards, the incessant ringing of the cellular phones all bring a cacophony of noise that can drown out the soft sounds of the Holy Spirit directing your heart. So how do we find that delicate balance between the quiet space with the Spirit and thriving in a breakneck paced world that can be exciting and full of great things?

The answer lies in the remainder of verse ten of Psalm forty-six. God states, “I will be exalted above the nations, I will be exalted above the earth.” If we truly allow ourselves to see God as higher than any President or King; if we truly see Him as above anything in nature, we will find a way to give Him the time  due to Him. I dislike using the following example but let us assume for this one analogy that ,whoever is the President of the United States at the time this happens is THE one President in all history, or yet to come, that you would like to talk to… If the President of the United States calls you and says, “It is very important that we meet every morning for the next two weeks for about thirty minutes each morning…” Chances are you or I would move everything else off our schedules to make certain we were free for that time period. Well, the Sovereign God, Creator and Master of the Universe has told you that He desires to have that thirty minutes with you every morning for the next two weeks (as a start). Will you being willing to at least put down your sports section of the newspaper or turn off Fox and Friends for thirty minutes for the Master Ruler of the Universe?

The best part about ‘giving up’ time like that for God is that YOU are the one that will receive the blessing for it. You will come away refreshed, encouraged, and yes, even the rest of your day will change because you took the opportunity to spend quality time with God.

Someone mentioned to me that, they agree with taking the time with God but, they have their devotional material on their computer. Well, if that is where you want to start reading it, Okay; but after you have read it, switch that screen off and let the Holy Spirit talk to your spirit for the rest of the time. You won’t regret it and, believe it or not, the computer switch will allow you to turn it back on again when you need it.

“Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted above the nations. I will be exalted above earth.” – Not enough ‘time’ to get quiet with God? The One who created Time, will give you all you need. If you cannot find a way to set the time aside yourself, God may do it for you and it may not really be ‘convenient’ if He has to choose what will make you slow down and listen.

 

Dit Dit Dit Dah…

     True North Ministries              Rev. Ross L. Riggs D. Min.        Riggs Ministry Minute: For when there’s only a minute for ministry

www.docriggs.com

11 March 2012

The Longest Day, a movie based on the history of D-Day, the June 6, 1944 Allied Invasion of Europe at Normandy, as recalled in a novel of the same title by Cornelius Ryan in 1959; begins with an ominous timpani playing a Morse  code ‘V’ for victory dit-dit-dit-dah. Though it reminds one of something by Schubert or Handel, perhaps Beethoven, the deep Germanic sound of the drum inspires the Ally’s drive for victory; a victory that was at all times sure, but never certain.  The rhythmic combination of dits and dahs (or dashes) resemble the  code tapped out on a basic  code key that interrupts a continuous signal so that each interruption can be timed to make the sound of a dit (very short) or a dash (a bit longer) and it was done at amazing speeds. The draw I have toward this now, nearly obsolete, form of communication; although still utilized in high speed telemetry in a similar fashion, comes at me through two veterans of that wonderful, horrid war. But if I linger too long on the war, you will leave me before my point is made. Bear with me I beseech you!

The first of the two men is my father. During the war, he was Seaman Ralph L. Riggs, Radioman Second Class, USNR, assigned the Patrol Craft, PC-1261. My father was receiving Morse code over headphones in the radio room mid-ship of the 1261 as it approached the Normandy beaches 35 minutes before H-hour which was 0600 hours GMT. The ship hit by either a torpedo or shore battery, immediately listed to one side and began to take on water. The table and heavy typewriter used to record the code being received slammed into my father’s leg leaving him a lasting remembrance, as if he needed one more. The PC1261 was soon to be at the bottom of the English Channel and is probably still there to this day. My father, thankfully, was among the survivors.

The second veteran of WWII that is forever linked to me and secured with a lock whose only key does not open anything, (the Morse  code key of course), is my Uncle Vernon Clarke. He was not a radioman like my father, but would spend the rest of his life following WWII and Korea, enjoying a hobby of Amateur (Ham) Radio.

A very rapid Morse code key that has its speed accentuated by a series of light weights balanced on the suspended key armature is, in the vernacular, a ‘bug.’ With Uncle Vernon teaching me Morse code on a regular basis as an excuse for me to stay up to all hours of the night to listen and watch him enjoying Ham radio, I caught the bug. I especially enjoyed ‘rag-chewing’ which is the strangely, yet appropriately named pastime simply meaning to have a long talk with someone on the other end of the electronic signal by way of radio waves bounced off the ionosphere. Often, these talks would be interrupted by someone in a far distant land, perhaps a missionary or assigned military personnel; trying to reach their homes in the U.S. when it was impossible to access a phone. My uncle would run phone-patch traffic. This is where the two ‘Ham’ operators, one with the missionary in the Amazon River delta perhaps and my uncle in the U.S., would arrange to meet at a time when the radio signal would supposedly be of good enough quality that Vernon could call the home of the missionary and patch that phone call through the radio to the other ‘Ham’ radio station.

With today’s instant cellular, Skype, internet, texting and messaging; I am sure this sounds like something from the stone-age. The analogy is not far wrong… well, not exactly. In those earliest days, Hams did not always have VFO’s or Variable Frequency Oscillators which would allow them to move their radio frequencies anywhere in the bandwidth. Instead, they had crystals. These were not something that scattered light and brought one to a faith healing utopia but were simply a crystal set that was exactly the right thickness so that when it oscillated, it would put the radio on a specific frequency. Those crystals were, in the vernacular, called ‘rocks’ and if you had no access to a VFO you were ‘rock-bound.’ Hence the stone-age hyperbole!

I have had the honor to have a part in the funerals of both Ralph Riggs and Vernon Clarke. I have the joy of knowing that both are in heaven today because of their personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.  I will someday join them, not because of anything I have done to earn a place; but rather, that I acted by faith alone. Even that faith was given to me by the Holy Spirit who opened my eyes so that I could see my guilt and my need for a Savior, Jesus Christ. I accepted His gift of salvation and now I know that heaven is my home.

This has been a long circuitous route, you say, from The Longest Day to our hope for today; but that, as good as it is to talk about, is not my reason for writing. Go back with me to the “V.”  dit-dit-dit-dah, dit-dit-dit-dah… What is it that stirs a memory for you? Some say it’s a great (or not so great) smell. There is the certain sound of a creaking screen door that puts me on the back porch of my grandparents’ home in Delbarton, W.Va. Tonight, it was the ‘V.’ A rush of synapse electrical impulses reminded me of my Uncle Vernon. Sure, in WWII and in the movie, ‘V’ is for victory but when I hear, dit-dit-dit-dah, ‘V’ is for Vernon. He was one of these two great men who loved me, guided me, protected me; (probably in more ways than I will ever know) and he went home to be with his Lord just a couple of short months ago. In fact, it was two months ago on the 9th that Vernon entered glory and Tuesday, March 13th will be two months since his funeral. Perhaps that is why he is so much on my mind this evening (early morning now I believe) or maybe it is because his daughter, Deb; my first cousin, is on my heart that stirs me to write this much longer than normal ‘Ministry Minute.’ I trust you have stayed with me on my long travels from The Longest Day, through my father’s D-Day crisis which from the English Channel’s icy waters God brought him, and to Vernon’s joy of sharing Ham radio with his so very young nephew. Perhaps this month, in QST, the American Radio Relay League’s magazine for ‘Ham’ radio enthusiasts; ‘W8TJS’ will be honored as a “SILENT KEY.”

QST is Morse code shorthand for ‘stopping transmissions.’ Vernon’s  code key has been silent now for some time. His call sign will remain unassigned for the foreseeable future, unless perhaps my cousin Debbie picks it up, or someone else has a specific use for the call to memorialize Vernon’s achievements and his life. You see, Vernon was the epitome of a ‘Ham’ radio operator because he cared deeply for his faith, his family, his country and his community. Doing a hundred and one volunteer services, Vernon was a ‘volunteer’ before it was the chic thing to do on a Wednesday afternoon when the press is around. Vernon was a middle of the Xenia tornado relief when there are no bathrooms or shelters or hot meals kind of volunteer.  Vernon was the freezing cold winter nights out with a fire department, trying to film the scene to help them train better in the future volunteer. He was the stay way past 11:00 at night working on the electrical display for the high school band even though he had to be at work at 6 the next morning type of volunteer. Vernon was the volunteer chaperone staying in “rustic” cabins on horrible cots with ice cold showers, to watch over a hundred band kids at camp in the middle of August and taking personal vacation time from work to do it kind of guy. When it came to figuring out how to fix something without the right tools or materials; Rube Goldberg would have come to Vernon for advice, if he could have.

I hope that perhaps some group of ‘Hams’ somewhere picks up on the idea that Rag-chewing and DX’ing on the low bands is worth hanging on to, but, more importantly that unabashed love of God and country and caring for your fellowman through community service is something worth hanging on to too; and they ask the FCC to allow their club to carry his moniker. Nothing would have pleased Vernon more, particularly if it meant reaching out to young people to teach them the joy of radio. Believe me, I know that there are a lot of clubs out there that do a ton of community service and I know that Amateur Radio has been blessed with many such people over the years; but this one could be uniquely a personification of just such a man.

Thank you for coming with me on my trip to spend a little time with my uncle.  As we Christians go about doing good in the Name of Christ, a Name that is above all names; I hope that when our ‘keys’ go silent, if someone could go back and somehow replay all of the transmissions those keys made throughout our lives, that they will be as selfless, as giving, as non-judgmental and forbearing as W8TJS. May God bless you richly throughout this new season and throughout the year.

And as we say, “farewell” in ‘Ham’ radio “VERNacular” – 73’s