HAM Radio 101

Remembering My First Ham Radio License

Like many hams of my generation, I got my Novice license as an 11-year- old in junior high school (1958). I was active in Boy Scouts and already had an interest in electrical things. My scoutmaster, John Boyd, K6HVV, was operating primarily VHF in local nets and emergency preparedness.  I earned the Radio Merit Badge and was especially intrigued by HF communications that provided communication over longer distances. Morse Code also captured my interest, particularly when communicated via CW rather than semaphore as in some of my scouting activity.

My father had a latent interest in radio communication, having served as a radar officer out of Pearl Harbor in WWII. This provided an ideal father-son project, and we both got our licenses. I was WN6AYK. I used the ARRL daily code practice sessions to get my code speed up to 5 wpm and the ARRL License Study Guide for the regulations, operating, and theory questions.

We installed a 40′ galvanized telescoping TV mast with a 40-meter Inverted-V. My parents graciously allocated part of a workbench in the garage (!) for me to set up my station. They were concerned the racket would disturb the household tranquility. Eventually, I convinced them that with headphones I could quietly operate from my bedroom.

My first receiver was a surplus military box and a Heathkit DX-40 crystal-controlled transmitter. My dad later popped for a Drake 2B after seeing how deeply I dove into the hobby. For a young kid, this was heaven. A few months later I upgraded to Technician, then General, which changed my call to WB6AYK. I constructed a Heathkit Cheyenne mobile transmitter with VFO to replace the DX-40. Now I was off and running big time on 40-meter CW.

My very first Novice contact was another Novice 40 miles away in Southern California. I was hooked and continued to log such “DX” contacts, eventually working outside the state. I got hooked on 40-meter CW DXing into Asia in the pre-dawn hours before school. My first DX contact was JA1XS, Mako Takazawa in Yokohama, Japan. Mako was starting his lifelong engineering career at Sony Corporation and was in his early 20s. During the QSO I mentioned my age of 13 and that he was my first DX; a few days later his QSL card arrived in the mail. That remains one of my most memorable life moments. Mako and his family quickly became close friends. Over the years we have exchanged many visits in each other’s homes. We even attended his older daughter’s wedding in Yokohama.

Part of the inspiration that focused me on early morning Asia CW was Mac Powers, WA6WJG, an Air Force major who ran the March AFB MARS operation. In those days the MARS building had what seemed like an infinite inventory of surplus equipment and parts that were mine for the taking. Mac had already snatched up the Collins S-line equipment for his own home shack and that was on top of my mind for when I graduated from college and could afford such used radio equipment. Mac was one of several Elmers as I began my ham radio journey. Mac was on 40-meter CW every morning, primarily as a means to spread his commitment to Christianity in Japan and other Asian countries.

Another influence was Harry Blackford, W6AXV, who was a retired military radio operator who had a literal ham shack building in his backyard. Harry was an expert RTTY operator with racks and racks of military and commercial (Teletype) equipment that would rival any military installation. I marveled at his operation, but it was far beyond what I could get involved with at home, so I continued to concentrate on my 40-meter CW activity. It wasn’t until decades later, in 2004, that I worked my first RTTY QSO in the ARRL RTTY Roundup. This came at the behest of the Northern California Contest Club, notwithstanding my outspoken resistance to operating this “silly mode.”

Yet another Elmer was Ted Crosby, W6TC, a retired RCA engineer living south of us in Sun City. Ted wrote a series of receiver construction articles in QST, called the HBR-xx, where the xx was the number of vacuum tubes in that particular model. The design used 3 plug-in coils to change bands. One of my favorite aspects of ham radio was construction projects, so I saved my money and built my first HBR-8.  Ted published an upgrade every few months, with more features and more tubes. He included the mechanical instructions as well, all of which were performed with simple hand tools as he designed and constructed the receiver on a small table in his bedroom.

By the time I had progressed to the HBR-16 deluxe version, I was having trouble with cross-talk and other performance-degrading problems. My dad drove me down to Sun City one day to visit Ted, who tore into my pristine wiring and proceeded to redo a lot of it using the point-to-point technique. This was in contrast to my meticulous and gorgeous right-angle wiring so carefully executed as to be nearly a work of art. I was devastated at what appeared to be a total hack job on my radio. The performance improved by an order of magnitude, and the lesson learned was that RF doesn’t necessarily care about “pretty.

Upon entering college, my plate was too full for ham radio, and I inadvertently dropped out until early in my engineering career.  Eventually, I packed all my equipment in boxes and it was stored in our garage. One day I was commuting with a coworker who had a CB radio in the car. We were about to take our first extended vacation, a road trip throughout the Northwestern U.S., and this seemed like exactly what we needed for emergencies and to inquire about restaurants and cheap gasoline when entering new towns. I impulsively purchased a CB and antenna and was literally installing it in the car when the proverbial lightbulb fired off above my head. I had a lot of ham equipment stored in the garage, including a mobile 2-meter rig. Problem was, my ham license had expired from years of forgetful neglect.

I quickly aborted the CB installation and returned the equipment to the store. Next, I unpacked my Drake 2B and started brushing up on my code copying with the daily ARRL CW Bulletins and Code Practice. I got a copy of the latest ARRL License Manual and started brushing up on the written test material. The technical parts were easier now that I had an EE degree.

After three weeks of crash study, I drove down to the Denver FCC office to take the exam, or actually exams. At 9 am, I passed the Novice code and written exams along with about 50 other applicants. After a short break, I passed the Technician written exam with a smaller group of people. By late morning, I had passed the General code and written exams and the applicant pool was dwindling fast. After lunch I passed the Advanced written test and by 2 pm I had also passed the Extra code and written tests. I was the last applicant present at that point and the FCC administrators were plenty baffled by my marathon license caper. I soon had WB0WNU as my new amateur call sign since the prefix had to match the call area in Colorado where I now lived. Less than a year later the FCC instigated incentive licensing and I selected W0YK, which I’ve held since 1974.

It’s pretty remarkable to me that a boyhood hobby has remained so strongly entrenched after worldwide radio communication has been soundly displaced by Internet capability. That’s probably why I enjoy contesting so much—it provides the means to pursue ham radio to its fullest despite the march of communication technology.

This seems similar to another hobby my wife and I enjoyed for a couple of decades: sailboat racing. While few people travel the world via sailboats these days, there is a large sailboat competitive activity ranging from the America’s Cup to many one-design racing organizations to local beer can fun racing. Same can be said for horse racing. While horseback transportation has evaporated, it remains a major hobby and competitive sport, both racing and shows, judging conformation, and various riding skills.

It still amazes me how many in my generation have very similar personal stories of ham radio—this childhood hobby that has stayed ablaze throughout our lives, albeit sometimes with short recesses due to pressing life events.

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