K4VIZ and the Mighty RockMite

Throughout my entire ham career I’ve been blessed with wonderful friendships. It’s the nature of our hobby, I think. We hams are nothing if not passionate about Amateur Radio, and who doesn’t enjoy the company of someone who shares your zeal and enthusiasm?

One such longtime friend is Tom Desaulniers, K4VIZ.

Tom lived for many years just outside my home town of Birmingham, in the cozy community of Leeds. At first, Tom lived down in the valley, but later built his dream home up on the highest hilltop around, most assuredly to help radiate his RF farther and wider than before, although I expect he gave his wife Patsy differing reasons for the move.

Tom is one of those exquisite engineers who does everything to the most exacting standards, and the construction of his new home was no exception. And his door was always open, and I visited whenever I could. And I expected Tom would live the rest of his days there.

But now Tom has relocated to Conway, Arkansas, smack dab in the middle of the state.

Some of you may recognize Tom as the master craftsman of the VIZKEY series of Morse sending devices. Tom took his extreme attention to detail and perfection and focused it on one of the great joys in his life – CW.

I had the pleasure of maintaining Tom’s VIZKEY web presence, and was always in awe at the lives he touched through his keys. Comments and testimonials flooded in from all over the world and it became commonplace to regularly hear others using his keys on the air.

And now that business has passed into Amateur lore as Tom and Patsy enjoy their new community of Conway and the freedom that retirement brings. Patsy is ever busy with her volunteer work, and Tom is helping his neighbors and friends, just like always. And Tom continues to touch lives, and mine is one.

And so it was with little surprise that I received an unanticipated package from Tom a few weeks ago. Tom was always generous like that. And inside I found a 40 Meter RockMite, one of those legendary miniature CW transceivers popularized by Small Wonder Labs and developed by Dave Benson, K1SWL. Tom knew of my interest in QRP (low-power Amateur Radio operations) and, in his typical fashion, wanted to share the joy of his tiny titan.

And just like everything Tom laid hand to, his craftsmanship with the RockMite was superb. Tom had cleverly built the diminutive transceiver into a tiny metal box, complete with a small amplified speaker and a tiny VIZKEY paddle.

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The Mighty RockMite
The Mighty RockMite

I couldn’t wait to baptize this beauty!

But conditions on 40 had been underwhelming of late, and summertime in Alabama is ripe with those pesky ubiquitous afternoon thunderstorms, so the timing just wasn’t right … until last night.

I was delighted to find 40 meters curiously quiet and invitingly open as I scanned the band for potential contacts yesterday evening and it occurred to me that this might finally be the opportunity I’d been so eagerly awaiting – a chance to take the RockMite for a spin around the block.

I connected my simple dipole antenna to the Small Wonder wonder, plugged in my Koss Sportapro headphones, flipped the power switch to the ON mode, and wondered what I might hear. But I didn’t wonder for long. Immediately signals began to spring from the Rockmite, loud and clear. This just might work, I thought.

Still incredulous at the prospect of anyone else actually hearing the 400 mW signal from this impossibly small radio, I arranged a schedule with a friend not far away in Tennessee.  He was a QRP expert, had a wonderful radio location, a good antenna and the sensitive Elecraft KX3 at his disposal. If anyone can hear me, I figured, he could.

And so I called CQ, and waited anxiously for a reply.

And there it was! WA4FAT de KC9W. My friend Randy had heard me and we proceeded to have a brief but solid conversation. He gave the Rockmite a 579, too, an exceptional signal report for an HF radio using AA batteries as its power source. I couldn’t help but shake my head in disbelief as the conversation continued, and I experienced emotions I hadn’t felt since those Novice days of so long ago.

I had worked QRP before, mind you, but never on 40, never with power levels so low, and always with the benefit of a high gain antenna. But this was 40 Meters, with a marginal dipole, and less than half a watt of power!

And when we finished our amazing QSO, I reached for the keyboard to log the details of our contact. And then I heard it.

Another station on frequency sent “QRPP ??” And I realized I was being called by someone else. And I quickly responded, “QRZ QRZ de WA4FAT/QRPP”.

And then I copied WA4FAT de KA9YCB K

And another unthinkable conversation ensued, this time with George in southern Illinois some 400 miles away. “Just wanted to let you know your RockMite is making it to Illinois”, he sent, “and that you’re almost solid copy too”, he continued.

Sleep was slow to come last night as I replayed the events of the evening. My mind raced with thoughts of QRP adventures to come, but mostly I was thankful.

Thankful for such wonderful friends as Tom.

Stone Age QSL

I enjoy QSLs, OK – Let’s get that out of the way up front. I design them, share them, and especially appreciate receiving them. So it comes as no surprise to any who know me that I also particularly enjoy those cards which are a few bubbles off plumb – and this one from 1979 most definitely fits the bill.

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(Click for a larger view)

I suppose I never looked closely enough to observe the full imagery and symbolism of this original art from I1QGZ until just recently.

What you have here is a depiction of a Stone Age man, pounding out a CQ (literally) to the dismay of his neglected significant other. Our early amateur appears to have the very latest in sophisticated gear at his disposal too, utilizing the amplification of a megaphone-shaped hollow tree trunk for signal gain and has mastered the ability to send simultaneously with both hands, greatly enhancing his code speed. Despairing of affection, his forlorn XYL is shown tempting him with forbidden fruit, while shedding tears of sorrow and alienation.

And in the forefront, all that remains of a conquered suitor is a skull, displaying the earliest known usage of a Q-signal … the plaintive QRU.

I have nothing more for you … I’ve given my all.

Indeed!

QSLs – The Final Courtesy of a QSO

QSLs have always commanded a special reverence from me. Those simple 5 ½”  x 3 ½ ” cards we Amateur Radio Operators send to confirm our on-air exploits never failed to elicit a dessert-eating grin every time they graced my mailbox. And I would always take the time to examine every detail too, from the information they communicated to the style of writing and even the postmark and choice of stamp. In my mind they were individual works of art to cherish.

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I always relished the personal touches occasionally found on a QSL too – those glimpses into the hidden lives of the recently-worked stations. I learned that G6RC survived the bombing of London in WW II, and that CO2AH yearned to rejoin his family in Miami. Oh, and WA9CRS was a railroad locomotive Engineer. Imagine that?

VE3PJF is a fireman!
VE3PJF is a fireman!
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And Jeff loves CW – me too!

Or maybe it was just the endless variety and style of cards that flowed to my address from locations both near and exotic. Some were brightly colored, others more generic in design, and even a few made entirely by hand. There was one that featured a full family of hams, another that could have been a Chamber of Commerce endorsement, some with interesting photographs, or maps, or cartoons. And on and on it went with each card a reflection of the operator and all unique in some way or another.

Or perhaps it was simply the holding and touching of the card itself, a tactile culmination of a friendship made through the airwaves.

Whatever the reason, QSLs have always revved my motor.

After a nearly 20-year hiatus from Amateur Radio, I returned to the air last March, and I did so with the same unabashed enthusiasm that fueled me as a kid. And just as QSL cards were an important component of the hobby for me back then, I couldn’t wait to acquire new cards this time around as well.

So where to start?

When I was last active on the air in 1994, you either sent someone a QSL or not. Ther was no middle ground and no electronic option. I suspected things would be different this go around as I scoured the Internet for QSL ideas, but I was still surprised at what I found.

Alternative QSL systems seemed all the rage, at least to hear some evangelize, and the art of physical QSLs was in decline, it was suggested. And so I studied the intricacies of these newfangled options and soon became qualified with the Logbook of the World (LOTW), the ARRL’s electronic system. And I learned too about eQSL, another paperless format for contact confirmation. eQSL, I discovered, issue their own series of awards, but their eQSLs are not accepted for the major awards from the ARRL (DXCC and WAS). While no doubt at the vanguard of modern QSL practices, these two systems were decidedly un-fulfilling for me. Great for DX confirmations, I thought, and an appealing option to avoid the hassle of Bureaus, postage and green stamps, but nothing tangible to hold and admire.

It was undeniable. The paper QSLs of yesteryear still held a powerful attraction for me.

Luckily, the web was filled as well with countless options for real QSLs too, and I began to look at those in earnest.

I discovered a multitude of printers offering Amateur Radio QSLs  in an almost endless variety of designs. And most, it appeared, were more than happy to accept your own custom artwork or QSL design ideas too. That’s the option I elected to pursue.

I’ve been in the Internet business the past 20 years, and one of the tools I use almost daily is a computer application called Photoshop (by Adobe). It’s a whiz-bang graphics program that, while sophisticated, expensive and challenging to fully master, never-the-less makes it relatively easy to design and create art. (Many alternatives to Photoshop are free or inexpensive.) And so I put something utilitarian together, emailed my handiwork to a QSL vendor, and soon had cards in hand ready to send to those I hoped to work.

New QSL
My first new QSL in 20 years!

I spent about $85 for that initial order of 500 cards, and they arrived on my doorstep in a couple of weeks, and I was a happy camper… for a while.

As is true for many Amateurs, radio isn’t my only passion. Another all-consuming interest is photography, and it occurred to me that I might be able to combine this additional hobby with my QSLs the next time. I could even introduce a glimpse into my own life through photo QSLs that others might find as intriguing as I often did . But spending another $85 was not an option. And so I began to search for other more affordable avenues, and I found one, and it was literally just down the road – my local Walgreens.

If you’ve ever ordered prints of your digital photographs, you’re likely already familiar with the Walgreens photo department. You sign up for a free online account, upload your images, and then select the number and size of the prints you’d like. And faster than you can say 73 OM CUL, your order is ready for pickup. You can order as few or as many prints as you wish, and the cost is reasonable. 4″ x 6″ glossy prints are often featured for as little as 10¢ a piece, and discount coupons can regularly be found online as well.

And so I thought I’d employ some of my photography, plug in a callsign and address  information with my graphics software, upload the results to Walgreens and have a look-see. And so I did.

I added the contact information to the reverse of these prints, using a grid I designed within my word processing software and printed to self-adhesive labels that looked like this:

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And for the most part I was pleased with the results. I especially appreciated the ability to order as few as I wished, and the turn-around was amazing … practically always ready the same day I ordered.

And so I began to alternate between my printed QSLs and my limited-edition photo print cards, sometimes sending one of each.

And I was really a happy camper this time.

But there was just this one thing … several things, actually.

The Walgreens photo print of 4 x 6″ is larger than the typical Amateur Radio QSL of 5 ½” x 3 ½” , making it an odd fit in many ham’s QSL albums, and some of the vinyl wall-hanging QSL displays won’t accommodate this size either. And then there’s the issue of mailing a 4 x 6. These larger prints require a legal size envelope, or a dedicated 4 x 6 envelope. And the photo prints are not as durable as a standard QSL, either.  They’re photos in the first place, right?

Some of my friends suggested you could design a 5 ½” x 3 ½” QSL to fit within a 4 x 6″ template so that the finished product from Walgreens could then be trimmed down to a conventional QSL size, and I tried that too. More work per card than I was willing to invest, and the prints are pretty flimsy, as I mentioned above … not a satisfactory solution for me.

So suddenly  I was back to square one. If I wanted a new personalized QSL, on the standard card stock, and in the conventional 5 ½” x 3 ½ format, It appeared a QSL dealer was my only option, and another $85 or so was the going rate.

And then I discovered these folks on the web: Got Print

Got Print appeared to be the Amazon of online printing. They featured a slick website that allowed easy online ordering with an instant proof of the finished product. And they had mammoth printing facilities in multiple locations in both the US and Europe too. They even invited you to watch their operation in one of several videos posted online.

But they simply looked too good to be true. How in the world could they charge less than $10 for 500 cards? And you know what they say about too good to be true … to say I was skeptical would be an understatement.

Even with shipping, an order of 500 cards was just $20, and so I figured I’d give ‘em a try. What’s to lose, right? Only $20 and I’ll soon learn what’s up with this outfit.

I put another QSL design together in Photoshop, this time featuring something personal – a sketch of my favorite bug, an old Japanese High Mound Coffin key.

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And off it went to Got Print, and I waited … but not for long.

Within minutes I received a confirmation email, thanking me for the order and confirming the details of my printing job. And then within another few hours a second email, this time telling me that my order had been accepted for printing and was being sent to press. I’d never been sent to press before!

Furthermore, I could check the status of my order whenever I wished, they said, by going to a special link provided, and could even call toll-free if I had any questions or concerns.

I was enjoying my Got Print experience thus far, but still had reservations.

The price just seemed suspect.

And two more days passed and I received another communique from Got Print advising that my order was finished. “No way!” I thought to myself, having mentally prepared for a far longer wait. But sure enough, the email even included a link for tracking my order’s delivery, so they must be telling the truth.

And good to their word, UPS delivered my Got Print cards in short order and I was amazed once more. Rather than an extremely light paper stock, which I was expecting, my new QSLs were printed instead on heavy card stock. And the printing itself was crisp and bright, complimenting the glossy exterior.

Here’s a photo of the finished product:

skillman_card

Some of you may be thinking that I must be in bed with these folks, but you would be wrong. I simply had a far-better-than-expected experience, and I’m delighted to share the details. I realize that this isn’t for everyone, and also that countless excellent ready-made card designs are widely available from a multitude of hard-working QSL vendors. But if you’d like to have a go of it on your own, because you’re inventive or creative, have a unique idea … or would like to save some cash for that KX3 you’ve been coveting, then this just might be a lot of fun.

And finally, if you can recommend a good therapist, my wife will gladly take your call. I’m afraid she thinks this obsession with QSLs is just a bit over the top and that I already have more than enough cards for all the contacts I could possibly ever make. Not so, I told her, band conditions are bound to improve one day and then watch out!

I didn’t mention the fact that I have another 500 cards on the way!

My new SKCC QSL!
My new SKCC QSL!

Hamfest bargains are alive and well, or a Diamond in the rough

No Amateur Radio Station is complete without a mechanism for measuring forward and reflected power. Transmit into an antenna with too much reflected power (high SWR) and you endanger your output tubes or transistors. We all know this, and that’s why I have been in search of late for a fully-functioning SWR Power Meter to replace my ailing Daiwa.

I’ve used the old Daiwa for years, and it has served me dutifully, until recently. Lately, though, the forward power indicating needle appears to have reached an invisible barrier on its way up, and stops dead in its tracks at about the 25 watt level. I’m still able to measure reflected power with the Daiwa, and to utilize my trustworthy MFJ antenna tuner, but not knowing the relative output power was troubling.

I’ve not previously attended the Cullman, Alabama Hamfest, but given my need for an SWR power meter, today’s spectacular July weather, and the delightful fact that my XYL agreed to accompany me, this seemed an ideal opportunity  to attend my first.

I was reminded on the way northward toward Cullman that I live in a truly remarkable state. From the tranquil and picturesque Gulf Coast region, through the bucolic flatlands of the central portion of our state, to the awe-inspiring majesty of the hills and mountains of north Alabama, the diversity of the landscape here is stunning. I couldn’t help but wonder if this fact entered into the consciousness of the countless travelers racing along Interstate 65 with me this morning. Or were they only aware that Alabama is green, really really green this time of year?

So we arrived at the Cullman Hamfest venue, after an uneventful hour or so jaunt up an incredibly active Interstate, only to discover not a single legitimate vendor in attendance, not one. I had no illusions of seeing Icom or Kenwood there, mind you, but I still expected someone selling new gear or coax. Instead, the half-filled Civic Center complex looked just like a traditional bone yard with an abundance of old 2 Meter radios, several Browning Golden Eagles, and an assortment of gear that would have done any Novice proud back in 1960.

Undaunted, my wife and I did the Hamfest shuffle, which to the uninitiated is a sashay up one aisle and down the other, nodding politely as you go and speaking to those familiar. And there was a sizable contingent from Birmingham too, which made for pleasant camaraderie … but nary a sole new equipment dealer, and no SWR Power Meter in sight.

And just as we were prepared to depart the scintillating company of a few hundred or so of our fellow Radio Amateurs, I spied it. In an unassuming corner of a sparsely filled table of eclectic radio bits and pieces, was a meter.

sx20c
Diamond CX20C SWR Power Meter

As I reached to examine it, the gentleman bellied up to the rear of the table exclaimed, “It works!” And with those reassuring words, I proceeded to inspect the meter. It appeared quite similar in construction to my failing Daiwa, and had a white scrap of paper taped to the bottom. $20 was all it said.

And the seller continued. “Someone told me it was for VHF, but I used it on HF just fine.”

Even at the paltry price, I was still unsure if this was the meter for me, and carefully removed the price tag to reveal the specifications printed beneath. “3.5 – 150 MHz” it read, “Diamond CX20C”.

“Can you make change for a 50?” I asked, and then our deal was struck.

I contemplated my good fortune during the soporific return to Birmingham. Just when I had all but abandoned hope of finding what I came for, there it was right in front of me. I supposed this could be a metaphor for life as well. We’re always searching – for love or happiness or wealth, when very often just exactly what we need manifests itself, and frequently too when all seems lost.

Note: The Daiwa works perfectly and reaffirms that my geriatric Icom 735 is still surprisingly spry for its age, radiating a whopping 110 watts on 40 Meters, my band of choice. Furthermore, the low power setting on the CX20 will be ideal for my refurbished HW-8.

So when is the Huntsville Hamfest anyway?

I finally cleaned that big bottom drawer, and magic ensued!

We all have them – those drawers we hesitate to open for fear we’ll never be able to close them again. Those drawers filled to overflowing with the detritus of a life well lived. And we hams are especially notorious for our clutter and dishevelment. Just ask my wife.

So it was with trepidation and caution that I began to clean the large bottom-right drawer of my venerable office desk. This is the very same desk that once housed my first amateur radio station back in 1962, and has served as a work desk for the past 25 years, supporting multiple monitors and external hard drives these days.

Most of the relics I mined from that big bottom drawer no longer held any relevance for me now, and were unceremoniously exiled to the trash. Old stationary from my forey into the world of real estate, long- ago-filled orders from a previous web business, a portfolio of clip art whose accompanying disks are nowhere to found… and on and on it went, item after nostalgic item that elicited memories but no longer warranted a home in that big bottom drawer.

And there near the bottom, as if a reward for my long-neglected fastidiousness, I spied a treasure. A modest stack of QSLs, culled from the herd, was neatly arranged in the corner of the big bottom drawer.

And of course I immediately put the brakes on any further cleaning and began to relive those contacts from the past. Most were DX cards, and some rather esoteric ones too. There was a YASME card from Walvis Bay, an artful collage from Ecuatorial Guinea, a handful of QSLs from Conway Reef, several from Chatham Island, Sudan and Tokelau and Malawi … and I was transported to those exotic locations and imagined how different my life might have been had I lived in any of those distant lands.

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drawer_cards_2 Continue reading I finally cleaned that big bottom drawer, and magic ensued!

A Wonderful and Poignant QSO

I had just finished an enjoyable 40 Meter ragchew last night with a fellow SKCC (Straight Key Century Club) member, and was filling out a QSL card to commemorate the contact, as a CQ caught my ear.

Something about this particular CQ intrigued me. It was obviously being sent with a bug, and I tend to gravitate to that sort of call, but there was something more. Each letter had a distinctive shaping and the character of the sending was impressive. It was already late, but my loving XYL is so supportive of my passion for CW that I knew she would indulge me a bit more radio time. I had already done a quick QRZ lookup, but the listing revealed little more than a name and QTH.

I was curious, and so I replied … W4YIH de WA4FAT

Continue reading A Wonderful and Poignant QSO

Could this be a first in Amateur Radio?

Two radio amateurs had a successful contact recently on 40 Meter CW. What makes this contact incredible is the fact that these two operators first worked each other at exactly the same time, on exactly the same frequency, using the same mode as before … but 50 years earlier! 

That’s right, these hams first worked on May 30, 1964, (with both amazingly still holding the original QSL cards from that first contact) and then recreated the contact exactly 50 years later.

50th_QSL_559
Members of the SKCC (Straight Key Century Club) had been alerted in advance to the possibility of this momentous contact and several were tuned in and listening. When WA4FAT and K3WWP successfully reunited after a 50 year span, one SKCC member wrote “Wow I actually heard this QSO today, great job. I can say I heard history in the making.”

WA4FAT has created a special commemorative QSL, and K3WWP plans to do the same. Both vow to try again in another 50 years, and we wish them well.

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In the Beginning

rocket_radioI suppose it all started the day I ordered a crystal radio from an advertisement on the back of a box of cereal. I was your typical 11-year old, plugging away through grade school, cruising my bike around the neighborhood, avoiding the bully Jim Adair, and playing spin-the-bottle with Lolita Hodges from across the street. Just generally being a kid. Little did I know my horizons were about to get broader – much broader.

Continue reading In the Beginning