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