Shooting for 100

I’ve written previously about memorable contacts with my elders. I’ve always had a tremendous respect for all seniors, and relish hearing those revealing snippets of their lives and early Amateur careers, and actively seek out those QSOs. And so it was that another delightful contact came my way again today.

I was adjusting a ramshackled Vibroplex bug after spending time removing decades of detritus, and was using my transceiver’s side tone to help achieve a proper ratio of dits and dahs. And as I worked to restore this old Vibroplex to health I heard a booming signal suddenly appear over the air. It was an unmistakable bug fist, and one rich with character … just the sort of signal that always piques my curiosity. And so I paused to listen.

Bob, K5AY, and Muffin sharing a moment together.
Bob, K5AY, and Muffin sharing a moment together.

The sending was rhythmic and melodic and blazingly fast too, easily 30 words per minute or more, and with impeccable form. And the sender’s inflection was delightful to copy with an added space here and the occasional extra dit there, carefully chosen to embellish a laugh or add gravitas to a comment. This was a veteran I was listening to, no doubt.

And I was impressed as well with the flow of the content. It’s tough enough to maintain 30 words per minute using a bug, but to also have a mind quick enough to provide interesting conversation at the same time is a rarity. I closed my eyes and lost myself in pleasurable dialog, catching something about working for Collins and then more about time spent in Australia, and then about having retired in 1979. I suspected I may have misheard the date of retirement, though, as that would have been too long ago it seemed.

And then I heard this: “My age is 97 and I’m shooting for 100.” And I realized I had copied that retirement date correctly after all.

I immediately flushed with excitement at the thought of a near centenarian pounding the brass so exquisitely, and hoped I might have a word with him when he and the other station finished. And I listened on, now with a heightened sense of admiration, as two speed key operators went at it with each other in perfect harmony.

I heard the other station remark that he had thoroughly enjoyed the QSO but must now retire as his XYL had chores for him to tackle. And I knew my opportunity was approaching.

And after each station had shared their 73s, and when the concluding dit dit dits had been exchanged, I called.

K5AY K5AY de WA4FAT WA4FAT PSE K

A broad smile spread across my face as K5AY came roaring back to me, even stronger now than before, and still maintaining that enviable high-speed pace that most can only dream of.

“You have a good signal into Richardson, Texas”, he said, “The name is Bob and I’m running a complete K3 here.” “So how copy OB?” and he passed it back to me.

I struggled to maintain the same high level of sending expertise that Bob possessed as I replied, “Very happy to meet you, sir. This is quite an honor.”

By now I had pulled up Bob’s listing on QRZ and saw that he had matriculated at my alma mater, so I passed along a Roll Tide as I read further. I should have known better than to attempt to steer my bug at high speed while reading Bob’s QRZ biography as I missed a character here and there and finally apologized for my sloppy sending.

Diplomatically, Bob pretended not to notice as he barreled along.

I learned that Bob lived at home alone now, along with his loving canine pal Muffin, having lost his wife a few years earlier. “A girl comes each morning to fix breakfast and lunch”, Bob shared. I inquired if he had children who visited and he said he had a daughter some 50 miles away and a son on the west coast who would be visiting after Christmas. “I’ve already bought a case of wine and half a gallon of his favorite booze”, Bob revealed, showing just how much he was anticipating the time with his son.

And we swapped a few details of our ailments, Bob mentioning that he relied on a walker and hearing aids now, although they weren’t needed with headphones and his K3, and I lamented the arthritis that has stiffened my fingers. I asked if his radio friends in the area came to visit, and he replied that he “wasn’t contagious”, displaying a sense of humor that has surely fortified him through the years.

And I silently wished I lived closer so that I might be one of those visitors.

I made my ubiquitous remarks about still having a childlike passion for QSL cards and promised mine would be winging its way in the morning, and Bob suggested it was time to rest, having given his sending fist a marathon workout that would challenge the very best of the best.

And so I concluded a 40 meter CW contact that I would long remember with a gentleman from Texas who I would likely never meet. And I had been touched in a multitude of ways. I felt a sense of exhilaration at having been a part of Bob’s world for a few minutes that afternoon, and gratitude that the radio gods had brought us together for a while. I also felt amazement and hope … amazement that it was even possible to possess such incredible Morse alacrity at 97 years of age, and hope that it may be possible for me and others as well.

But most of all I thanked my lucky stars for an Elmer’s kindness some 50 years earlier that had paved the way for a lifelong passion. I pledged to redouble my own efforts to sing the praises of the world’s greatest hobby and do what little I might to promote the joy of Morse. As Bob so clearly illustrated, CW just might be the fountain of youth.

 

 

N5VET – A Veterans Day Adventure

n5vet_blog

I had the pleasure of a QSO recently with KC5NX, and a perfunctory QRZ lookup during the contact revealed this to be the club callsign for the Menasco Amateur Radio Club in Cleburne Texas. As I visited with Jay, who was manning the station at the time, I read further that the club was sponsoring a special event operation for the upcoming Veterans Day celebration.

Seems as though they had made arrangements with Mike Cockrell, former 82nd Airborn veteran N5VET over in Oxford Mississippi, to use his callsign for the event. How cool is that, I thought, and what a terrific call to use for a Veterans Day special event station.

I remarked to Jay that I hoped to catch the N5VET operation on the air, that I was also a veteran, and that I had a tremendous appreciation and respect for all those who had served.

And when we wrapped things up and concluded our QSO, I made a mental note to search for the event station come Veterans Day. But as it turned out, I heard from Jay again far sooner than that.

Only a day or two later I received the following email from the Menasco Club:

I’m sure you have worked a lot of special event stations in your years on the air.. Have you ever operated as a special event station ? ?  We have permission from N5VET to use his call sign for the November 11th event… Would you be willing to be one of our operators ? You would operate from your location, when you wanted to during the 30 hour event and the mode and freq of your choice…. I am the only CW op so you and I would do all the CW QSOs..

 The invitation came as a complete surprise, as we hadn’t discussed anything of the sort during our earlier contact, and it gave me pause. What an honor, I thought, to have a chance to represent those who had served, and to do so with a special event Amateur Radio operation too. But I wondered about the logistics of it all.  I informed Jay that while I appreciated the opportunity tremendously, he should know I had an effective antenna only for 40 meters. And realizing there could never be more than one operator per band and mode at any given time, I had some reservations about how this might be coordinated.

Several additional emails winged their way between Birmingham and Cleburne and the deal was struck. I would be the sole 40 meter CW operator with carte blanch to run wherever and whenever I wished during the 30 hours of the event, so no coordination needed.

What fun this would surely be, and I shared news of the upcoming operation with my friends in the Straight Key Century Club as well as fellow members of the Birmingham Amateur Radio Club.

The arrangement with Mr. Cockrell to use his callsign allowed operation to begin on Veterans Day eve in the US, at 0000Z, and to continue until midnight CST on Veterans Day itself – a full 30 hour window. Aware that propagation during the daylight hours was hit or miss on 40, I set my sights on the two evenings of the event.

And so it started as I called:

CQ CQ CQ de N5VET N5VET Special Event K

And at first, nothing.

The majority of recent US special event stations tend to use special-issue one by one prefix callsigns, something like W5A or K3Y, and so folks are accustomed to those calls representing some sort of event station. Perhaps listeners thought N5VET was just another station calling CQ. And calling CQ on CW didn’t offer quite the same ability to explain the nature of the event as would be available to those running voice, either.

But then I called again.

CQ CQ CQ de N5VET N5VET Special Event BK

And this time, not unlike soldiers marching in steadfast single file, they came. One after another reached out to N5VET. Some perhaps sought only another commemorative QSL card to add to their collection, but far more wished to offer thanks to those who served in the defense of our great country. “God Bless America” was an expression I heard often, and stations shared their own military service as well.

“Former USN Radioman”, sent one, and “USMC Fighter Pilot” telegraphed another. I learned that a ‘pooch pusher’ was a member of the Canine Corps, and that a “ditty bopper’ was a High Speed Morse Code Interceptor in the Army. One submariner boastfully remarked that there were only two kinds of ships; Submarines and targets. And another aviator proudly shared that he was 90 years old and had been a CW operator aboard a B29 during World War II.

Nearly every contact brought a growing warmth of gratitude for those Veterans we honored that day, and I felt blessed to be in he thick of it with N5VET.

And so it was a particularly poignant Veterans Day for me this year, one that I shared with a hundred or so fellow Radio Amateurs through the magic of the world’s greatest hobby. Thanks to the Mensaco Amateur Radio Club for the opportunity, and heartfelt appreciation to the men and women who so selflessly served. God Bless you one and all.

 

 

 

From Zero to Senator

 

SKCCMy return to Amateur Radio this past Spring has been enriched in a most wonderful and unexpected way.  And it all started that very first evening when I fired up my long dormant Icom 735 on a delightfully active 40 meter band up around 7050 kHz, and then a guy asks me for my SKCC number.

Say what?

“I see you’re already a member”, the station continued, but I honestly had no clue what this SKCC number was, or how I could possibly have one, as I’d been away from Amateur Radio for nearly two decades. Undaunted, the station proceeded to ‘remind’ me of my SKCC number. “You are SKCC 11062”, he advised, and so I thanked him for this number, whatever it was,  and we proceeded to have a pleasant CW conversation.

At the conclusion of our contact, curiosity aroused, I searched the web for SKCC in hopes of discovering more about this strange number that I had apparently already acquired somehow. And there it was, the Straight Key Century Club.

I learned that the Straight Key Century Club was an organization of Morse Code enthusiasts with a focus on doing it by hand – sending code like they did it in the old days, with a straight key, bug or cootie. Membership was free, I read, and the group offered a multitude of operating achievement awards, all also free of cost. A search of their membership revealed that, sure enough, I had been issued my personal number the previous year. But how could this be possible, I wondered?

And then I vaguely recalled having heard about SKCC from a vendor at the Birmingham Hamfest the year earlier. I must have visited this website back then, I surmised. This is the sort of group that would have revved my motor as I fashion myself a bit of a Morse preservationist, and I likely checked them out in hopes of one day returning to the air. And I must have perfunctorily requested a number too, even though I wasn’t on the air at the time. Not surprising that I had completely forgotten, though, as life around here is pretty complicated these days. You see my two wonderful granddaughters, ages 6 and 3, live with us now, and it’s a glorious but hectic three-ring circus most of the time.

And with the mystery of that SKCC number now solved, I read further about the group. And I learned of the advancement opportunities within SKCC. By exchanging my SKCC number with other members, all the while using a handkey or bug, a member could become a Centurion after 100 such contacts. And there was even more after that. Hey, this sounds like a lot of fun, I thought. After all, I was just back on the air after a too-long absence, had an abundance of hand keys that had also been silent for far too long and a modest station not really suited to contesting or DXing, so this seemed a wonderful way to shake the rust off a long inactive fist.

And so it began.

I learned of the monthly Weekend Sprints conducted by SKCC, and of the 2-hour Straight Key event each month as well. I found those operating events a joy to engage in, without the frenetic pace of most contests and with no pressure to perform – just pure unadulterated Morse Code pleasure. And my number of SKCC contacts swelled, as did the number of new on-air friendships. And my paper log soon grew unwieldy.

Keeping up with all those SKCC contacts quickly taxed my flagging memory but I luckily found a wonderful logging assistant. Listed on the SKCC website were computer logging programs designed especially for making sense of a growing number of SKCC contacts. Even better, these wonderful programs would generate applications for the various award offerings once the necessary requirements were satisfied. And so I downloaded one of the programs, the amazing SKCC Logger from AC2C, and installed it on the Linux machine at my new operating desk. Within minutes of configuring and exploring the software, I suddenly knew what the computer logging fuss was all about. This program was absolutely spectacular! Not only would it keep an unfailing record of who I had worked, but it would populate the log with information on each new SKCC entry, including name, QTH and SKCC number. In a word, it made keeping up with my all SKCC contacts easy. Now I could concentrate on making contacts, and leave the logging to my new assistant, and so I did.

Within fairly short order, my new computer logging assistant reported that I had amassed 100 contacts with fellow SKCC members and could now apply for the Centurion Award. And so, on May 25th of this year, I became the proud holder of a Centurion endorsement to my SKCC number amd was able to append the letter C to my exchanges. Woo Hoo!

OK, so what’s next?

Studying the SKCC website, I learned that the next level of advancement was known as Tribune. All those folks I had worked who appended the letter T to their number were proud holders of Tribune status, and so I set my sights to join them.

And within a week or so, on May 31st, I found myself the beaming new recipient of my very own Tribune endorsement. Why this is no step for a stepper, I thought. Casual operating during the evenings, and on 40 Meters mostly, had earned me this advancement within SKCC. Onward and upward to the next level! But then reality hit me squarely in the face.

The ultimate advancement within SKCC was known as Senator. Of the nearly 13,000 members of SKCC, less than 90 had made it that far. And for good reason, too. This wasn’t something that could be quickly conquered but would take persistence and tenacity instead. I calculated there were maybe 800 or so members with either a Tribune or Senator status, and I would have to work almost half of them en-route to Senator.  This might be do-able, I thought, for folks with multi-band capability. And especially for those with big-gun antennas on the upper bands for whom DX contacts were a breeze, but I had only 40 … and a modest dipole hidden in the trees of our twin-home condo complex. And 40 was almost useless during the daylight hours, and I still worked too, without all the free time it must surely require to ever reach Senator level. And almost before I started my quest for S, I had nearly talked myself out of the attempt altogether. It seemed nearly impossible.

But I continued to enjoy the warm fellowship with my brothers and sisters in SKCC, relished many a rag chew re-living exciting Novice days, and my contact totals continued to creep ever closer toward that un-achievable level of Senator. And along the way I learned of the secret aids that had helped many who went before me. I discovered the CW Clubs Reverse Beacon Network, some sort of unfathomable sorcery that magically scans the airwaves for callsigns, and then displays those who are members of the esteemed SKCC (or other organizations).  And I also found a handy online scheduling site that catered to similarly minded  folks on a quest for S, a website known as the K3UK Schedule Page.

And with a steadfast commitment, made possible only with the loving and enthusiastic support of my wife, and with the genuine encouragement of fellow SKCCers too numerous to list, the goal of Senator drew ever closer. And finally, on October 13th, I cleared the next to the last hurdle – an achievement known as TX8. That meant that I had worked 400 unique members of SKCC who held Centurion or higher endorsement and had only one remaining dash now to reach the pantheon of SKCC membership – the noble Senator endorsement.

Thank heavens for my AC2C logging assistant, I thought to myself time and time again, for it enabled me to know within a moment whether I had had the pleasure of a QSO previously or was initiating a first-time contact. Like an accountant’s accountant, the AC2C SKCC Logger never had a senior moment and was never on coffee break,  but could tell me with certainty just exactly where I stood with the various SKCC achievements. And most importantly to me at the time, my logging assistant kept account of the steadily dwindling number of contacts needed for my Senatorial quest.

So I studied the requirements again for this final push toward a goal that had truly seemed beyond reach, and soon learned what was needed. Another 200 contacts were required, and with only Tribune or Senator stations too, but I could work folks I had previously worked prior to reaching TX8. 

And so I continued on, enjoying Amateur Radio with the same zest I felt as a kid, operating most mornings for a contact or two, band permitting, and then again in the evenings after dinner and nighttime prayers with the granddaughters tucked safely in bed. My wife was well aware that I was drawing closer to an unthinkable conquest. When I would return from an evening stint on 40, she never failed to ask, “Any new numbers?” And she was quick with a congratulatory hug whenever I had added to my total, and an even longer hug whenever I formed a zero with my hands.

And many of my wonderful friends within SKCC knew I was on the final leg toward Senator, and a day rarely passed without a kind comment or vicarious pat on the back. And I leaned on my invaluable logging assistant for encouragement too, for there I could see the magic number remaining … and sure enough it continued to grow ever smaller.

The finish line came into sight on the evening of November 3rd, and it had already been a productive day.  I had sweet talked my 40 dipole into semi-resonance on 20, and had managed to work ZS6JBJ there for number 193 of the 200 contacts needed. And then 40 proved especially lucrative too as I snagged W1LIC in Florida, K7EP in Washington state, KDØV in Minnesota, KB4DXV in Arizona and KB3CVO in Pennsylvania for number 199.  The excitement was palpable, and can likely be fully appreciated only by those who’ve been there before.

And then, as I scanned the band for number 200,  I heard a smooth and strong bug fist in conversation, and I waited for his callsign, and it was K8TEZ.

I recognized the call.  I had worked Larry previously and even had a mental image of the great childhood photo on his QRZ page, but I hadn’t worked him in a while. And if our last contact was prior to my TX8 date of October 13, he would be the one.

And my benevolent logging assistant reported that we had previously worked on  September 24th. And my mind raced as I struggled to compute whether or not that was actually prior to October 13.

Finally, flushed with the realization that this wonderful journey might be nearing its conclusion, I took a deep breath and waited. But I didn’t wait long, as Larry was wrapping up his QSO. I heard a 73 from each station, and complementary dits both ways, and then I called.

K8TEZ K8TEZ de WA4FAT WA4FAT PSE K

And then nothing. Had Larry shut it down for the evening? Had he pulled the proverbial big switch?

And so I called again, fingers barely resting on the key as I was clearly shaking.

And then, in a wave of relief,  fueled by adrenaline, I heard him returning.

WA4FAT de K8TEZ

GE Bill, he said, Nice to hear you again.

I tried valiantly to compose myself as I thanked him for the reply and then proceeded to explain the he was the final contact in my long quest for S. I glanced up at the K3UK schedule page to see that my friend Al, KD8DEU, who was obviously on frequency, had written “He’s a T, Bill. That’s 200. You’ve done it!”

And the rest is a bit of a blur now. I’m afraid I thanked Larry once or twice too much, and my hand never did completely stop trembling. And then I sat there at my desk, still now and with the headphones off. And I said a prayer of thanksgiving for the joy SKCC had brought to my world and for a lifetime of wonderful memories and moments in the world’s greatest hobby.

And then I asked myself, “OK, so what’s next?”