From Zero to Senator


(Originally published in 2014)

My 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.


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.


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?”

W2B – Battle of the Bulge Special Event

Photo courtesy Getty Images

From mid-December, 1944, through January 25th, 1945, the US Army, along with a coalition of allied forces, was desperately engaged in what would later become known as the Battle of the Bulge. Over half a million American forces ultimately repelled a frantic and ferocious last-gasp German offensive, but not before suffering unthinkable casualties, including 19,000 killed. It was the single largest and deadliest engagement fought by the United States during World War II.

And so it was that the Menasco Amateur Radio Club of Texas manned a week-long special event operation to commemorate the 70th anniversary of this pivotal engagement, and I was once more honored to man their 40 meter CW station from my QTH in Alabama.

I had previously operated special event station N5VET during Veterans Day on behalf of the Menasco Club, but was still unprepared for the outpouring of emotion that ensued during the W2B event.

A sampling of the numerous messages we received included:

I wanted to thank you for doing this particular special event station. My grandfather fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and was also a ham His call was K2EHJ, which is now a club call for a Crossley Family Radio Club. One of his claims-to-fame is that he served as Eisenhower’s radio-man for a few weeks at one point. Grandpa passed away last February, and I wrote a blog post about him shortly thereafter. I thought you guys might enjoy reading it, so here is a link: A Hero’s Passing (WK2X)

My friend Dale Kind, W7IXL, was in the Battle of the Bulge and just passed this year. (W6HB)

I was there with the Third Army. I am 90 years old and I can’t believe it has been 70 years since this battle. (W4RMM)

I just had the pleasure of working your W2B on 20 meters and would like to make sure that you guys recognize a friend who fought in the battle, KF0CB. Mike Martinez, KF0CB, Ft. Collins, CO, was with the 82nd Airborne and was in Bastogne when the Bulge was being fought. It’s been a pleasure knowing him over the years and a pleasure that he was also able to work W2B on 20 today also. He says that it made his day! (AAØDW)

My Dad, who just celebrated his 90th birthday, arrived at the front in the Ardennes forest on Christmas Eve 1944 to help defeat this final Nazi push.  As you indicated on your QRZ write-up, that was a particularly cold and brutal winter.  He was assigned to the 897th Field Artillery Battalion, 75th Army Division and served through April 1945. (W9YE)

 My grandfather was a Engineer with 862E  at the battle of the Bulge. I don’t have a QSL card and this one is the one I want!  (KF5VWT)

My Dad was in the Battle of The Bulge, was ambushed and captured, and escaped. He wrote a book about it.  (KD8RDG)

Thank you for remembering all those who sacrificed their lives in serving during this important moment in our history. (KM4EVH)

And on and on the emails, letters and calls poured in, to each of the various operators who were part of the W2B event. One remarked that his Dad was continually having shrapnel removed from his body almost until the day he died. Another operator, whose Uncle and namesake was killed in the Battle of the Bulge, remarked that he could barely see through his tears, having been flooded with unexpected memories upon working W2B.

Few of us, however, were prepared for the letter we received from Art Mouton, K5FNQ. Art’s Uncle, Lt. Colonel Art Blair, served during the Battle of the Bulge, and wrote this eloquent and poignant final letter to his family on that frigid Christmas Eve of 1944, prior to his death the following Christmas morning.

Shared with permission of the Blair family
Shared with permission of the Blair family

And we were all profoundly touched by Colonel Blair’s Christmas eve letter. And It was uplifting to know that hope persevered in Colonel Blair’s heart, even during that most hopeless of times, when man’s inhumanity prevailed and all the world seemed consumed with hate. So inspiring were his words that we shared them on the W2B QRZ page.

And then another letter arrived.

Dear Sir/ Madam:

I came across your W2B website when I was researching my Grandfather’s history from World War II.

My grandfather, Charles F. Ziniti Jr., was a medic in the 268th Field Artillery Battalion. According to his notes he tended to Col. Arthur Blair whose letter is posted on your website.

In my grandfather’s notebook it states:

25 Dec 44
Blair Arthur W. Lt. Col. Hq Btry
KIA Shell Fragments in chest.
Brauchler, Herbert J. Capt C Btry
WIA F.C. Rt Humerus, Femur + L. Tibia Died 2 days Later
Rutherford Wm M. 1st LT C Btry
WIA LW Rt Arm, knee + forehead
All by same shell

In an interview I conducted with my grandfather, he said:

“Our objective was to get back to our outfit, I mean, not to our outfit, but to, you know, the 32nd , ah, Artillery Brigade, Heavy Artillery Brigade it was called – 32nd Heavy Artillery Brigade. To fight in conjunction with our comrades in the other, [ah, heavy artillery brigades. So, incidentally, you can put down, incidentally a lucky, for a German, artillery shell exploded on Christmas morning in the midst of, wishing, of, of, Colonel Blaire wishing the officers and the  men of the 268th A. Bn. a Merry Christmas. It resulted in the death of Colonel Blaire and four of five other officers, and, who were wounded, and died of their wounds within a couple of days.” The death of Col. Blair is very sad indeed.

Charles F. Ziniti Jr., Medic, 268th Field Artillery Battalion
Charles F. Ziniti Jr., Medic, 268th Field Artillery Battalion

And so we learned more of the circumstances of Colonel Blair’s passing  from the brave soldier who was the attending medic on that forlorn Christmas morning. In a world sorely in need of hope and compassion, it was that very message of good cheer and fortitude which Colonel Blair was surely sharing with others when German artillery found its fateful mark.

And it occurs to me that Amateur Radio serves to impart goodwill and hope each and every day too, not unlike Colonel Blair’s Christmas morning assembly. Without regard to creed , ethnicity or station in life, each 73 sent over the airwaves is given purely and freely from one to another in the genuine hope that ‘best wishes’ befall the recipient.  May we all strive to become ambassadors of hope and peace during this coming new year, and all the years to follow.





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.


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


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.




Comanches, Mohawks and Chippewa – Oh My!

These days, most Amateur Radio gear is identified with nothing more interesting than simple alpha-numeric designations like a Kenwood TS-570, Icom IC-7410, or Elecraft K3, but the naming landscape was far more colorful and romantic back in the day.

Heathkit chose the Native American to anchor their Amateur Radio product line
Heathkit chose the Native American to anchor their Amateur Radio product line

Heathkit, for example, chose to celebrate Native Americans with a variety of offerings for the Amateur market. Among those were the Apache transmitter and matching Mohawk receiver, the Cheyenne transmitter with the companion Comanche receiver, and a nifty little general coverage receiver called the Mohican. And it didn’t stop there either.  The Heathkit  6 Meter transmitter was named the Shawnee, and it’s rhyming 2 Meter cousin was the Pawnee.

Continuing the theme were Heathkit Kilowatt amplifiers  Warrior and Chippewa. And the VHF offering of the day was the Seneca. I have no clear explanation for the interesting Native American naming convention used by the former manufacturer from Benton Harbor, but I always enjoyed hearing those names on the air as a station would describe his rig. I was a youngster back then, and the mention of an Apache or Comanche always triggered thoughts of Roy and Trigger, or Hopalong and Gene, and a scene from a western would often play out while I vicariously rode the range while riding the airwaves.

And Heath didn’t hold a monopoly on creative license back then either, not by a long shot. The Hallicrafters company made a short-lived line of high-powered transceivers which paid homage to the weather. These included the Cyclone, Tornado and Hurricane. The later of these may be the only 2 KW transceiver ever produced.

The Clegg Company, out of New Jersey, was a big player in VHF gear throughout the 60s and chose names that were literally  out of this world. Imagine hearing something like this on a 6 Meter roundtable during the day. “Your Thor 6 is really punching through today, Old Man, I’m running a brand new Venus here”.  “Your turn, Bob, and let us know how we’re sounding on that new Interceptor receiver of yours”. No, I’m not making this up. And heaven knows what Clegg was thinking when they named their 6M/2M transceiver the Climaster Zeus.

The E.F. Johnson Company is another that obviously had a host of wacky creative talent in the product naming division during the 50s and 60s. I had the pleasure of cutting my teeth in Amateur Radio on a Johnson Viking Adventurer. Other wonderfully named gear from this pioneering company included the Viking Invader, Viking Ranger, Viking Valiant, Viking Challenger and the Viking Pacemaker.

Lafayette Radio had their Voyager transmitter, Swan Radio had the Astro and Cygnet transceivers, and Gonset offered the Commander, Communicator and Sidewinder to the Ham market.

And no conversation about the nostalgic names of gear from yesteryear would be complete without including the many fabulous offerings from the Ten-Tec arsenal of Amateur products.

The extensive Ten-Tec product line has included, or still includes, the Argonaut, Argosy, Century 21, Corsair, Delta, Eagle, Jupiter, Omni, Orion, Paragon, Pegasus, Rebel, Scout and Triton. And to their credit, Ten-Tec maintains a warm and friendly naming convention even to this day for many of their products, perhaps the sole practitioner of a practice that is quickly fading into the noise.

I get it that all things change. Change, in fact, is the one great constant of our Universe. But I still have a warm spot in my heart for all the wonderful names of the past. And lucky for me these names aren’t lost to the historians either. All I have to do is crank out a CQ on 40 Meters most any evening, and then sit back and listen as the Apaches, Mohawks and Chippewas come back from the ether.

Hi Ho Silver!



The Helena, Alabama Hamfest, and something you don’t hear every day.

This past weekend brought the fourth running of the Helena, Alabama Hamfest, held not far from the Birmingham metro area. It was my first opportunity to visit, and the abundant accolades I’d heard were understated.

The large outdoor event was held a midst glorious sunshine and mild temperatures in the heavily wooded Helena Amphitheater, located in the center of one of Alabama’s most picturesque little towns. With thundering train tracks to the east and west, and the bucolic Buck Creek flowing swiftly alongside, the venue was inviting. And come they did too, as a large gathering of vendors exhibited their flotsam and jetsam. It was boneyard heaven.

Buck Creek
Buck Creek
The Union Pacific roaring by.

All the wonderful names from my childhood were there – Heathkit, Collins, Hammarlund, Johnson and more. And every vendor beamed with delight when asked about his beloved old gear.

“Used this when I was a Novice”, one remembered fondly, and “She still works like the day I built her” another shared with obvious pride.

Commerce was brisk, but mostly old friends gathered to share the love and camaraderie of their wonderful hobby.

Heathkit Apache TX-1
Heathkit Apache TX-1
Hickok 533A Dynamic Mutual Conductance Tube Tester
So much to see — where to begin?

And so an enjoyable morning and early afternoon was spent with my brothers in RF, relishing the wonderful Alabama Autumn and thankful to be a part of the world’s greatest hobby.

And there was something else that distinguished the Helena Hamfest from any other I’d ever attended.

Every time the Master of Ceremonies made an announcement from the Amphitheater stage, he made sure he had our attention. Preceding any announcement, Shelby County Amateur Radio Club President Eugene “Geno” Newman, N4GNO,   brandished his bugle and lit into a rendition of Call To Post. I half expected to see a troop of Thoroughbreds and a tray of Mint Juleps each time those familiar notes echoed throughout the park. Very, very cool!

Geno Newman, N4GNO, and Call To Post.
Geno Newman, N4GNO, and Call To Post.

And the Helena Hamfest was radio active in the truest sense of the word as well. An Amateur Radio station was on the air, working the Straight Key Century Club Weekend Sprint event, and showcasing the vitality of our hobby. Manning a vintage J-38 hand key was 15 year-old Alabama Young Ham of the Year Daniel Smith, KV4LQ.

KV4LQ operates KM4AYU, The Young Hams Of Central Alabama Amateur Radio Club station

No, I didn’t win the Elecraft KX3 which was awarded that day, but I left enriched none-the-less. Old friendships rekindled, new acquaintances made, an incomparable Alabama Fall day, and Amateur Radio — It just doesn’t get any better than that!

K4IBZ, the rig de jour, and a Beefeater Cootie

Is there any other hobby whose enthusiasts are more passionate than those of us in Amateur Radio?

I think not … not even close.

Just yesterday, a fellow I was chewing the fat with couldn’t wait to let me know that he was using a 95 year-old bug, while another proudly proclaimed he was sending with his original Novice key from back when Kennedy was president. Still another chap recently publicized the fact that he was transmitting with aluminum folding lawn chairs as his antenna. And then there’s John who hasn’t missed a daily QRP DX contact in several years, and Biz who programmed a robot to call CQ, and on and on it goes.  And examples such as these are merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to the depth of love and passion I hear manifest for our wonderful hobby every single day.

Heck, If I didn’t know better, I’d think the conversation I hear swelling from my transceiver was made by giddy school children, rather than seasoned veterans. But then that’s the nature of our hobby, isn’t it? It transforms us all into wide-eyed evangelists, young at heart, filled with the wonder of radio, and compelled to share our joy.

And so it was that a goodly portion of this joy spilled out  one morning on 40 CW when I met Bill, K4IBZ.

As I’ve written previously, I’m just naturally attracted to a good bug fist, and it was the sweet melody of K4IBZ’s CQ that drew me to him. I learned that Bill was in Crestview, Florida, just about midway between Defuniak Springs and Pensacola, and that he had been originally licensed at around the same time as I in the early 60’s. His station that morning was a pair of Kenwood Twins, but I soon discovered that he had over 40 working rigs in his shack. “And I use a different rig most every day”, he nonchalantly remarked.

I let the thought percolate for a moment as the gravity of the comment settled on my shoulders.

More than 40 working rigs in his shack, all ready to use? Who does that, I wondered?  We’re all prone to moments of excess and exuberance, and I guess Bill just got a bit carried away with himself, I rationalized. He must be awfully gifted with old radio repair too, I imagined, able to recite the resister color code without even looking.

And before I had completely digested the fact that this fellow had 39 more rigs than I, he proceeded to tell me about his key, and it wasn’t a bug after all.

“I’m sending with a homebrew Cootie”, Bill told me, “made from a steak knife and a fork.”

And not just any knife, he continued. “I prefer the Beefeater variety with a plastic handle. Can’t be too careful with the voltage of cathode keying”, he cautioned. “Only plastic handles for me.”

And somehow I knew Bill was as serious as an exploding transformer.

If a guy uses a different complete station every day of the week, why should I be surprised he uses a key made from cutlery?

Beefeater Cootie
The K4IBZ Beefeater Cootie

I switched from the old Japanese bug I had been using during our QSO  to my own Cootie, and proceeded to engage in a cootie-to-cootie contact with Bill, although with not quite the same finesse as Bill exhibited with his Beefeater. And like a venerable teacher patiently coaching his students, Bill suggested “you have too much stiffness with your hacksaw blade cootie, OM”, “The Beefeater will help with your spacing”.

And for just a moment I wondered what a non-ham might think of the language Bill and I so casually tossed about. Cooties? Wasn’t that something the unpopular kids had in grade school? And isn’t Beefeater a type of gin? A different rig every day? And homebrew too?

And as Bill and I finished what was the first of several contacts to come, he invited me to Google K4IBZ for his YouTube video.  And I learned that complete plans for Bill’s Beefeater are available for download too.

And so I have a Beefeater on my to-do list now, with plans to visit the local dollar store soon for supplies. Believe you me, I know better than to use one of our regular steak knives for the project though. My sweet XYL is incredibly tolerant of my Amateur Radio hobby, but I’m not about to rock the boat. You see, we have a deal. She doesn’t disturb my keys and I promise not to steal any cutlery.

Bill, K4IBZ
Bill, K4IBZ
Another operating position at K4IBZ,
Another operating position at K4IBZ,

Update – A recent visit with Bill reveals there are now 68 fully-functional rigs in his shack, one for every year of his life! And there’s a new video presentation too:

Another Nonagenarian CW Contact!

In only the past few months, I’ve had the pleasure of several enjoyable CW contacts with nonagenarian operators – hams at 90 years of age or older.

And it happened again just a few days ago.

I was doing my very best to scare up one final CW contact of the day, unwinding at last as I called CQ on 40, my favorite haunt of late, when K9UJ answered my call. I strive to engage those I work in meaningful conversation, so in addition to the basic RST, name and QTH, I shared my age (65) and the type of bug I was using  at the time (a Skillman Hi-Mound Japanese Coffin Bug).

My Japanese Skillman
My Japanese Skillman

And K9UJ replied, “GE OM”, he said. “Good copy. My name is John here in Normal, IL” and then he blew me away with his next comment.

“The bug I’m using was my Christmas gift in 1941.” His Christmas gift … in 1941?!

And so I quickly did the mental arithmetic. My gosh, I thought, he received his bug for Christmas 8 years before I was born, so that would make it about 73 years ago. And I wondered how early he had started out in Amateur Radio. But I didn’t ponder that for long as John continued; “and my age is 90” he sent.

John asked me to stand by while he looked at the bottom of his key, and then told me that his bug was made in Iowa, an “Electric Special”, he said. I’d never heard of it, but I resolved to do some research after our QSO.

And I learned that John lived alone at home now, after losing his wife 4 years earlier, and that he was an Eagle Scout, graduated from Ohio State, was a Second Lieutenant in the military, and a professional engineer for General Electric. John’s keying was delightful to copy, with just the right amount of character that a good bug fist imparts.

And as our QSO neared its finish, John lamented the passing of time that had transformed his former workplace into “an empty warehouse” now. I thought to myself, that old warehouse may be empty, but this former employee is chock full of wonderful memories, and what a blessing to have had a peek at a few. And I shook my head in amazement too, at the thought of someone who had managed to hold on to a wonderful Christmas present from 73 Christmases past.

Little did Santa know that old bug would still be speaking so eloquently all these many years later.

We both promised to exchange QSLs, and as I signed off I wished John happiness and good health. And I swear as I drifted off to sleep that night I thought I heard the rustling of tiny hooves up on the roof.

Later, in an effort to quench my curiosity, I consulted the web for information on this curious bug that John was using – an “Electric Special”. Turns out it’s actually an Electric Specialty Manufacturing Bug, known colloquially as a Cedar Rapids Bug. This unique key holds the distinction of having been offered either assembled or in kit form. Consequently, surviving models often feature variations in color or hardware, reflecting the individuality of their owners.

The elusive Cedar Rapids Bug. Note sharp-edged paddle and rubber bumper on the damper.
The elusive Cedar Rapids Bug. Note sharp-edged paddle and rubber bumper on the damper. Image courtesy

And I learned why John had examined the bottom of his key when I asked him about the particular bug he was using, as the name is embossed on the underside of the heavy metal base.

No doubt as to the manufacturer of this fine sending instrument

Research on eBay revealed one of these interesting keys for sale, along with a photo of the original box, still in great shape after three quarters of a century.

Notice the CR logos, for Cedar Rapids.

Furthermore, I was more than a little surprised to discover that the Electric Specialty Manufacturing company remains in business to this day, now focusing on custom machining for a wide array of industries. They’ve adapted with the times, no longer producing telegraph keys, but their legacy lives on in the capable hands of gifted operators like nonagenarian John Shumaker, K9UJ.

All aboard Thomas the Tank Engine – KØT


Among the change I’ve observed since returning to the air recently after a 20 year absence, is the proliferation of special event operations. Yes, there were radio events commemorating one thing or another as far back as 20 or more years, but absolutely nothing to compare to today. Now days you’ll find some sort of special event station on the air almost every single week. In fact, there are no less than 9 Amateur Radio special event stations on the air the week alone!

And I think that’s a very good thing.

Special event operations no only draw attention to a historical or commemorative event, but they bring the public in contact with our wonderful hobby too. And well orchestrated events have literature on hand that invites interested folks to attend a local radio club meeting, or other material that explains the magic of Amateur Radio.  And what’s better that actually watching someone send Morse by hand, or hearing a voice from across the country in QSO with the special event station? Why that’s the kind of publicity you just can’t buy at any cost.

And so I made a special point of thanking the operator of KØT when I snagged him on 40 CW a few evenings ago. “Great job helping to promote our hobby”, I said. “And how cool to celebrate Thomas The Tank Engine”, I added. My children admired Thomas’s tenacity and perseverance, for he was a role model we can all look up to.

Note: KØT Special Event for Thomas the Tank Engine will operate from September 11 to 22, 2014, as Thomas the Tank Engine visits the Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad, in Boone, Iowa.

And now, the rest of the story!

I wrote a while back about an amazing CW QSO I had with a fellow operating portable from the bank of the Suwanee River, and the joy and admiration I felt at receiving his custom QSL and learning he was 90 years young. We should all be so lucky, right?!

I had the pleasure of a repeat contact with Jim, KB2JWD, just recently, another 40 meter QSO with Jim running his tiny NORCAL QRP rig, operating from near the Suwanee River, and sending beautiful Morse, just like before. We chatted for a bit, and it occurred to me that Jim might enjoy reading what I had written about our first encounter.

I asked if Jim had access to the Internet, but he indicated that he didn’t have a computer there at the retirement facility, or that perhaps he wasn’t comfortable with the web, and so I elected to print and mail my little story to him.

And so I did, and promptly forgot all about it.

A week or two passed, and I received an interesting email from a chap in Michigan, Hank Greeb, N8XX. Seems as though Hank was contacted by Jim’s brother David who was searching for repair work to Jim’s rig. At 90 years of age, Jim was no longer able to diagnose or repair his issue, and so his younger brother David (83) took up the cause and reached out to Hank. And Hank, in the true spirit of Amateur Radio, generously assisted in more ways than one.  I learned the details in a letter from David, where he wrote:

For the past few years Jim has been living at Advent Christian Village in Florida, a large progressive retirement village. He first lived in his own apartment, driving his own car etc. He has been a ham for a number of years, building his own QRP kits. I believe the card you featured he drew up many years ago when he was living in N.J.

Last year Jim’s health went downhill and he could no longer have his car and he ended up in Advent’s nursing home. This year with improving health he is living in Advent’s assisted living.

His radio shack at the Village has been an outdoor pavilion about a mile from the assisted living. Until recently,when he got a golf cart, he had to depend on the Village shuttle bus,and their schedule, to get to the shack and back severely limiting his on-air time.

When he did get back on air after the nursing home stint his rig was not operating and he was no longer able to diagnose or repair any problems.

Creighton (the third brother) and I talked several times about buying Jim a new rig so he could get back on air but neither of us had any idea of what or where to buy.  Playing with this tablet one day I googled QRP, MICH and came up with a list of officers in the local club. Only one of them listed a snail mail address, Hank, N8XX. Not being sure of email at the time, on a Wednesday I mailed a letter to Hank explaining Jim’s problem and a desire to buy equipment including my ph. #, email and home address. On Friday I got both a phone call and an email from Hank. And he had tracked Jim down by phone and talked ham talk with him!

Our first approach was that Hank was going to watch Ebay for a suitable replacement and let me know so we could purchase same. As we continued to talk, Jim felt comfortable enough to send his unit to Hank for repair. Hank diagnosed the problem, ordered parts, and made repairs but another problem developed. More parts were ordered and another ham assisted Hank with repairs.

During this time, Hank got on the internet wondering if any ham had an extra rig they would “loan” to a 90 year old ham while his was being repaired. Next thing we know a ham from California has mailed Jim the rig he his now using. And he insists it is a gift, not a loaner!

This wonderful ham is Phil Wheeler,W7OX.

I touched bases with Phil, W7OX, who confirmed that the NORCAL 40 is most definitely a gift, and not a loaner. Phil also shared that he has a passion for building, and takes special pride in his Elecraft K2 “because I soldered ever part in it and keep adding to it (next week a Bluetooth interface).” Quite an interesting fellow, Phil told me a bit more about himself.

I started out as W7UOX in the northwest in 1953-1960. Then I relocated to So California to design satellites and such for 32 years. Retired at 55 in 1992 then went back to work for another 13 years consulting and such in aerospace. Until 2004 or so I was an avid mountain climber — Himalayas in 1994, Andes & Patagonia in 2004 — but mostly in the Sierras and Cascades. 

 At 78, Phil is going strong yet and still hits the hiking trail, “though with less lofty ambitions.

Phil, W7OX, and Hank, N8XX, both remind me of the many generous and compassionate fellow hams I’ve known throughout the years. And they also provide inspiration to redouble my own efforts to reach out a helping hand whenever the opportunity arises.

Here’s to you, Phil and Dave, shining examples of all that’s right with our wonderful hobby!

Jim and his new transportation!
Jim and his new transportation!
Jim and his Jeep Golf Cart, ready for some hamming!
Jim and his Jeep Golf Cart, ready for some hamming!
Jim's Suwanee River operating pavilion!
Jim’s Suwanee River operating pavilion!



Another Hamfest, another bargain, and an amazing coincidence too.

Sacrificing time for the SKCC Weekend Sprint operating event on the radio this past Saturday, I chose instead to travel to Gadsden, Alabama for my first Hamfest there. Who could refuse an offer of free admission, free tables, free coffee and free donuts? Not I.

Conveniently located just a block or two off the Interstate, the Gadsden Hamfest was a typical small-town USA event. The fest was held at the county fairgrounds, home to weekend Bingo, and featured a modest outdoor boneyard. And true to their word, they charged nothing for admission, and provided ample parking too in a nearby pasture.

After the prerequisite exploration of half a dozen truck beds and nearly that many car trunks in the outdoor flea market area, My wife Mary and I entered the large metal pavilion at the fairgrounds.  Similar in size to the Cullman Hamfest a month or so earlier, the Gadsden show also boasted a name tag vendor and an MFJ representative in attendance. And there were table after table of vintage radio gear, better known as boat anchors in our hobby, and other eclectic items for sale, including a marvelous German beer stein collection, with only a few cracks I learned, and two handsome Alabama watermelons.  I inquired about the melons, and was told they might make a great dummy load, although they weren’t for sale. Seems as though a debt had been settled in full with payment of the fruit from a neighbor’s garden.

Unlike the earlier Cullman hamfest, where I was in search of an SWR/Power meter, I had nothing particular in mind this time. I did instead what most attendees do at such an event. I scoured every table and box for something I just hadn’t known I couldn’t live without.

And sure enough, partially obscured in a box of odds and ends underneath a laconic fellow’s table, I spied a key. Without reaching for it, which might have signaled my interest, I asked instead “Is that your key?”

“Yep” was all he said.

“Given up on code, have you?” I continued. ”

Yep”, he expounded.

It was obvious he was either absorbed in something else, or just not interested in a conversation, so I didn’t pursue it and simply meandered on. But the thought of that key, abandoned in a box of electronic detritus,  troubled me.

I was once referred to as a Morse Preservationist, and I think the moniker fits. Ever since I was a young boy first learning the code, I’ve held a great reverence and admiration for the skill. And I seize every opportunity that presents itself to do a bit of evangelizing about the art and joy of Morse. And along the way, I’ve acquired a number of wayward keys and bugs, providing them a loving and nurturing home with the promise of regular use. And I reflected again on the idle key in the box of parts and resolved to attempt an adoption if the price was right.

After several conversations with old friends and new acquaintances, I found myself standing once more in front of the home of the orphaned key.

“How much for the key?”, I inquired, feigning only mild interest.

A puzzled look spread across the face of the current owner, and as he tilted his head to the side to better catch my question, I observed a pair of significant hearing aids. Could that explain his unwillingness to engage in friendly banter, I wondered, and is that the reason he has forsaken code as well? And I was suddenly awash in empathy for the fellow.

I can’t fathom a life without hearing. Music has always been a huge part of my existence, being raised in a musical family, and the idea that I could no longer enjoy the melody of a favorite refrain, or engage in my coveted Morse Code was unthinkable.

And I repeated my question, a bit louder this time. “How much for the key, sir?”

And then, as if mulling over its relative worth to him, the seller replied. “$2.00”.

“I’ll give it a good home”, I promised, as I handed over two one-dollar bills and pocketed the key, but I still felt great compassion for my withdrawn friend.

My new adoption!
My new adoption!

And I had yet another serendipitous experience at the Gadsden Hamfest. One that definitely defies the odds.

A bit of backstory on this one …

While enjoying the Cullman Hamfest in August, I was enthralled with a presentation I observed. A vendor was pitching his homemade tower contraption, a motorized device on rollers that scooted up and down a tower as pretty as you please and would surely make antenna work a breeze. “Why climb your tower when you can bring your antenna down to earth whenever you need to service it?” was the pitch, and a convincing one too, if only the device wasn’t so pricey … and if only I even HAD a tower.

The seller was wearing a bright red ball cap that sported his callsign – W8RAT.

Not to interrupt his presentation, I visited with his wife who was manning their booth, and casually inquired about a CW schedule with her husband. “You see I collect word call QSL cards”, I explained,  “and was sure I didn’t have a RAT card in my collection.” Alas, I learned that W8RAT only worked voice, and there would be no CW schedule in our future.

So now back to Gadsden.

I continued to peruse the various and sundry offerings at the hamfest, newly acquired key clutched lovingly in hand, when I spotted another fellow with his callsign emblazoned on a ball cap.


I was struck with the irony of two RAT callsign encounters in back-to-back hamfests, and stopped to engage the owner. An affable fellow, he explained that his call was original, a random callsign, except for the fact that an ex-wife worked at the FCC when his license was issued. He paused at the telling, observing as the significance of his words slowly registered across my face, but then admitted it was only a joke. And we all shared a hearty laugh and I once again made my plea for a CW contact to swap QSLs for my collection of word calls.

Lawrence explained that he was just getting back into CW and would have to practice some off-air before mustering the confidence for an on-air rendezvous. I leaped at the chance to mention SKCC and their many wonderful offerings for CW operators of all skill levels, and Lawrence promised to look into it.

(Little did I know then that Lawrence and I would correspond, and that I would help him design the very QSL card I hope to one day add to my word call collection!)

And so Mary and I reflected on the Gadsden experience as we motored back to Birmingham. We wondered aloud about the former owner of the key and his particular circumstance, and both remarked how nice our chance encounter with Lawrence had been. Silently, I thanked my lucky stars for the lifelong hobby that continues to provide such joy and amazement.

KA4RAT's new QSL design!
KA4RAT’s new QSL design!




Vintage is the new modern

I’ve observed a wide variety of changes to Amateur Radio since I was last active nearly 20 years ago. A return to the air this Spring opened my eyes wide to the evolution of our wonderful hobby these past two decades.

QSL cards, while still a passion for some, have been swallowed to a large extent by the digital revolution. Factor in the not-insignificant cost to mail a card these days, and it’s no surprise that online services have proliferated and thrive. And with the ARRL honoring electronic cards for DXCC and other major awards, this option is a no-brainer for many.

And QRP, while an important niche since the very beginning of Amateur Radio, has now assumed what appears to be an even more significant role in the lives of many. I attribute that, in no small measure, to the wealth of wonderful factory-available low power rigs now on the market.  If I had a nickle for every KX3 I’ve worked, I could buy one of those beauties for myself.

And finally, I swear that I’ve worked as many period stations as I worked when they were new. Vintage really is the new modern.

A huge tide of baby boomer hams is now retiring, and in record numbers too. And this new found leisure brings with it opportunity to revive childhood memories, and resurrect the rigs that business and family forced into neglect. And when we seniors reflect on the hobby that has meant so much to us, we naturally visualize the wonderful early gear that made it all possible. And what’s better than just daydreaming about those old Hammarlund, Heathkit and Johnson rigs? Restoring them and  putting them back on the air – that’s what!

I had the pleasure of encountering one such vintage station recently when I met W3DF on 40 CW. Coincidentally, I was running my freshly aligned Heathkit HW-8, so Dan and I shared a rare Heathkit-to-Heathkit contact. You see, Dan was running a DX60 and Hammarland HQ-170-A. But these classic beauties were modernized too, the DX-60 with a DDS (direct digital synthesized) VFO, and the HQ-170 with an assist from an Ameco PT-3 Preamplifier. Justifiably proud of his vintage station, Dan shared a photo along with his QSL, the real, paper kind.


And as I studied the photo that Dan had sent, I couldn’t help but imagine the operator behind the key, with a broad smile of satisfaction across his face .

Anyone who says time travel is impossible just doesn’t know about Amateur Radio.


The QSL that was half a century in arriving!

Better late than never, they say, and a recent Amateur Radio experience echoed that sentiment for me in a big, big way.

Many of us longtime hams experience ebbs and flow in our level of activity, and I’m no exception. Licensed in 1962, I was an impassioned 12-year old then who just couldn’t get enough of our wonderful hobby. Aside from school and sleep, my days and nights were filled to overflowing with Amateur Radio. I mean I was on the air every single day, usually for hours, and I made a lot of contacts. Not only domestic QSOs, mind you, but a ton of DX too. It seemed as though an envelope would arrive every few weeks from the ARRL DX QSL Bureau,  jammed full of wonderful and exotic cards from locations most kids had never even heard of.

And this continued mostly unabated right up until the time I turned 14. That was the year a Honda 50 rolled into my life, along with the sublime discovery of girls, and Amateur Radio took a major back seat.

And there were other times along the way during which Amateur Radio resumed its leadership role in my life. Throughout college, shipboard in the Navy, and then again after my children were nearly grown I found bursts of activity, but this past March brought the most poignant return to hamming. You see I’d been inactive for 20 years while life and business and other pursuits took center stage. And suddenly I found myself not unlike that 12-year old again who just couldn’t get enough. It’s different now, of course. I find rag chews more warmly satisfying and curiously seem to have much more in common with the other old timers I meet on the air. The lure of DX isn’t quite as compelling and the competitive nature of contesting requires more time than my schedule allows. But the hobby is just as stimulating and thoroughly enjoyable as ever this time around, and for that I’m extremely grateful.

I’ve rekindled a joy of QSLing too, and was thumbing through old cards from long ago when I spied one that caused me to laugh. Right there on the front was a caricature of the guy I’ve become. A little man down on his knees, tears streaming from his eyes, and begging for  a return QSL. Yep, that’s me these days, I thought.

Please QSL!
Please QSL!

And I should have put away the card and ended it right there, but I didn’t. Instead, I placed the QSL on the bed of my scanner and captured a digital image. And then, in a moment of inexplicable spontaneity , scanned QRZ for the guy’s callsign. And sure enough, there he was, still apparently kicking after all these years, and his email address was listed along with his postal address too. And you can imagine what I did next. That’s right, I emailed Walt in Germany an image of his QSL from 52 years earlier.

Hi OM, sure hope you receive this, I wrote. Ran across your QSL from 1962 and though to myself that you must enjoy QSLs as much as I. Hope you’re well, my friend. 73/DX, Bill

And that was that, and I didn’t seriously expect a reply. Walt would have to be an old coot like me by now, and who knows if he’s still active in Amateur Radio anyway. He could well be in the middle of one of those lulls that punctuated my career, or perhaps even out of the hobby altogether.

And several days elapsed and thoughts of the little man down on his knees beseeching a QSL faded. But then, late one night,  my phone rang. And it was Walt calling from Europe.

And I learned that Walt was indeed still very much an active operator these days. Not only that, but Walt had meticulously logged every contact he had ever made, including whether or not he had sent a QSL or received one in return. And I was busted.

“Dear Bill”, he spoke, with only the faintest hint of an accent. “Thank you for sharing that image of my card from so many years ago. And do you know we also worked on 40 CW too?”, he questioned. And I almost knew what was coming next. “I’m afraid I never received your QSL”, he confirmed, “and I would very much like to have it.”

Few of us have an opportunity to repair our youthful transgressions, but fate had given me a second chance and so I leaped at the opportunity. This time, when I told Walt my QSL was on its way, I meant it, and I scarcely let my shirt tail touch my back as I raced to the Post Office for International postage to seal the deal.

And I sent two custom cards, one for each contact, along with an apology for the QSLs that must surely have been lost in the mail, all the while knowing with chagrin that I likely never sent a card in the first place. And the mailing of those long overdue cards to Walt filled me with warm satisfaction, even a sense of pride, and I beamed for the entire day at the thought of it.

And another week passed by, quickly too, as is the case for me now. Isn’t it curious how time seems to accelerate as we grow older? And then an email arrived from Walt.

Hello Bill, tnx for your QSLs. Now my 2 new designed QSLs are via AIRMAIL on the way to you. You can see it on the photo. Hope we have a QSO in the future. 73 Walt”

Making amends after 52 years!
Making amends after 52 years!

And so this is how it came to pass that a QSL took more than half a century to arrive. And if I tell you my QSL is on its way, you can bank on it.



How amazing is this wonderful hobby of ours?

I’ve always been blessed with a curious condition, but a wonderful one at that, I think. I’m easily amazed (some would say amused).

The smallest things have always revved my motor. Perhaps it’s just a common item I’ve found discarded by the side of the road, or a cicada in steadfast grasp of the trunk of an Alabama pine tree, or the hopeful azure hue of a crisp fall morning, or any number of seemingly mundane and average events, but somehow, most manage to give me delight.   I feel joy as a result of many of these experiences, no matter how insignificant. I’ve been accused of having hair-trigger emotions.

I believe that may be one of the great keys to a rewarding life, though. Never loose your youthful enthusiasm and wide-eyed excitement and your path through this life will be punctuated with wonder and amazement. Expect joy and you will find it everywhere.

And that’s one of the reasons I love Amateur Radio so. It’s a hobby ripe with adventure, excitement and the unexpected. And one of those unanticipated joys occurred last weekend, and then all over again today when our postman arrived.

So here’s the story.

I was smack dab in the middle of a radio contest, more an informal operating event really. It was the monthly Weekend Sprint (WES)  conducted by the Straight Key Century Club (SKCC).  I discovered the group after an almost 20-year absence from the hobby when I returned to the air this past March. It wasn’t long after I erected an antenna and fired up the old Icom 735 that I began to hear CW operators calling CQ SKCC, or swapping SKCC numbers. A bit of research on the Internet revealed this was an organization of CW enthusiasts, with an emphasis on mechanical sending of the code. Doing it the old fashioned, purists way with a straight key, bug or sideswiper. “Why these guys are right up my alley”, I though, and so I joined. Why not? I’ve always had a passion for Morse Code, and membership was free and for life. How cool is that?

And so here I was in the middle of one of their monthly on-air get togethers, contacting stations far and wide, now exchanging my own SKCC number and working toward advancement within the organization. And many of the stations I worked were pounding in, a breeze to copy, loud and clear, while others were submerged deep in the depths of the noise level, far down in the 40 meter muck, and some were almost imperceptible. And one such station answered my call and I strained to  hear.


And I was determined to pull this fellow out, even though my logging software had already confirmed he was not a member of SKCC, so likely not participating in the event. I’ve always taken no small measure of pride in being able to snatch a weak signal from the jaws of the noise level, and I was going to do my best for this station too. Besides, I might have an opportunity to evangelize about SKCC.

It’s not uncommon to have a non-member call during these events. Some are curious, others missed the SKCC part altogether, and then there are those wonderful exceptions that always amaze and delight me. And this was one such contact.

I didn’t copy him 100%, but only managed to snatch bits and pieces of his conversation. “running QRP”, I heard, and also “portable setup”.  “Good luck in the contest”, he said, and I clearly copied his closing – “You have made my day.”

“Wow! I made his day?” I thought to myself. How often can we say we’ve actually made someone’s day? And the thought of it made my day too. It was an unexpected interlude in the midst of the WES event, and one I couldn’t wait to share with my wife.

I wondered about his portable setup, and was curious just how much power he might have been running. I envisioned a family camp out or perhaps a station operating from a park. I made a notation to send my QSL card, and did so.

And I received his QSL card today, a striking and ecclectic design, obviously handmade and hinting of experience and talent.


The QSL features a Marconi folded dipole, providing a perch for a hand-colored song bird in full throat, and an operator with one hand on his key and another scratching his head with the Morse question mark emanating from his fingertips. And the rig itself appears to be a one-valve job, austere in its construction and resting on an outdoor table.

But it was the reverse of the card that really made be beam with joy.

More  hand drawing on the back side of the card with Morse dots and dashes spelling out the name Jim, a grid with the particulars of our contact, including WES prior to my callsign, and then these comments:

“FB Copy OM. Thanks for nice report. QRM and QRN was terrible, but you have a good fist – very readable.  RIG: NORCAL 40A putting 2 watts to a wire dipole at 35′ setup on South bank of Suwanee River. 

Age 90 

CW still a delight.

God Bless and 73s”


And I drifted away as I read Jim’s remarks. I closed my eyes and imagined the timeless waters of the Suwannee, and one man’s delight on a moonlit night, and I felt a great sense of fellowship.

Thank you Jim, for reminding me that happiness and delight know no boundaries of time or place. Here’s to you, my friend, to your health and happiness, and to many more nights under the stars accompanied by the sweet and timeless music of Morse.




7163 – Home Sweet Home on 40 Meters

My first Novice address
My first Novice address

You’ve heard of numerology, right? It has to do with numbers and their relationship to something else. Dreamers often add the ages of their children to arrive at hopeful lotto combinations. Few would marry on Friday the 13th, and many tall buildings completely shun a 13th floor altogether, skipping from 12 to 14 instead.

Numbers definitely have sway, alright, and one number once had a mighty hold over me too.

And that number was 7163.

And the year was 1962.

You see, I was a wet-behind-the-ears brand spanking new Novice Amateur Radio operator. Back in those days, Novice licenses were valid for only 365 days. You either buckled down, increased your code speed, and passed a General exam within a year, or you were rudely booted from the hobby. Hard to imagine that we treated our fragile newcomers with such lack of compassion back then, but that’s the way it was. Upgrade or find a new hobby. Oh, and there were other challenges too, such as power restrictions, mode limitations, and abbreviated frequency spectrum, but nothing, absolutely nothing compared to the greatest obstacle of them all.

We second-class radio novices were rock bound.

That’s right, we were forced to use a plug-in crystal to lock down our transmitting frequency to a single spot. And my spot was 7163. 7163 Khz, or 7.163 Mhz or just plain ole 7163 … that was the frequency I called home and where my CQs originated.

And so it went like this. You called CQ, usually longer rather than shorter, hoping to snare a tuning ear, and then you listened yourself for a reply. But you rarely heard one, not on frequency anyway. What were the odds someone else would have your very same crystal frequency, right? And then you proceeded to tune your receiver, either up or down, in whichever direction felt lucky at the time, and you searched for your callsign coming back to you. And if it was a successful CQ, why sure enough there would be someone answering. And that station might be far removed from your calling frequency, because he too was likely hamstrung with the very same affliction that sickened all Novices – that insidious license restriction that called for crystal control.

But we Novice class operators were nothing if not resourceful, and we quickly learned the drill. Call CQ. Listen. And if nothing is heard, start spinning that receiver dial as swiftly as possible, hoping to hear your own callsign coming back to you.

And this worked in reverse too. You’d be scanning the band, listening for a CQ, and then you’d answer. And your crystal frequency might be a country mile from the station you’re calling, but you answered anyway, hopeful that the sender was as skillful at sleuthing out a reply as you’d become. And it didn’t take long to realize that the closer you were to the station you called, the better your odds at an answer. And sometimes the radio gods were especially kind and someone would answer your CQ from clear at the other end of the band, or a station you called would respond to you, even though your signals were separated by a vast difference in frequency.

And so it was back in 1962. And my single greatest motivation for upgrading, aside from saving my license from expiration, was to enjoy the freedom known only to those lucky ones who transmitted wherever they wished.

VC3JUNO and the Canadians on D Day

It was during a 5th grade geography lesson that it happened. Mrs. Cox asked if anyone could point out Europe on the map, and I was the brash kid who raised his hand. And so she let me show the class, which I did. And it should have ended there, but it didn’t. I proceeded to spontaneously identify The Belgian Congo, The Canary Islands, Algeria and Ecuador.

I wasn’t boasting of any academic prowess, but simply pointing out recent Amateur Radio contacts that had excited an 11-year old who just wanted to share.

And so it’s been throughout my life. Amateur Radio continues to open wonderful windows into exotic locations and to teach me as much about our world as any college class ever did. Just last night was another example.

As I tuned to the bottom of 40 meters, a particularly strong CQ caught my ear, and I stopped to listen. And it was a curious callsign, VC3JUNO, obviously some sort of special event station. And so I returned the call, not really expecting him to answer me with my pipsqueak station and modest antenna, but he did.

“Thanks for the call”, he began, and we proceeded to have a better than 30 minute rag chew, quite unusual for special event stations. Typically it’s a signal report only and then on to the next station calling.

“The name is Pete and my QTH is Ontario”, he continued, “and this is a special event callsign commemorating the Canadian Army landing at Juno Beach in France 70 years ago”.


I expressed my gratitude to the Canadian troops and all those who served and sacrificed, and mentioned that I had been a high-speed CW operator in the Navy during Viet Nam. I learned that Pete was retired from law enforcement, and I thanked him for his service as well. I shared that I had visited Canada only once, when my ship, the USS Blakely, pulled into port on Prince Edward Island enroute to Europe. And Pete remarked that I should visit again, and I detected a sense of pride in his invitation.

And when our unexpected conversation finished, I turned to the web to learn more about the Canadian involvement during D Day, and I was surprised at what I found.

Although we tend to hear more about the invasion of Omaha Beach during the Normandy action on D Day, 4 other beaches were part of the invasion scenario and the Juno spearhead was significant. The success on Juno was critical for flanking support to the British who were storming Sword Beach, I read. And without their cover of fire, the British would be in even greater peril. And the troops who had the responsibility for taking Juno were mostly Canadian. Two brigades of the 3rd Canadian Division were involved, along with assault companies of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles and The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada. As I delved further I discovered that the Canadian forces incurred devastating losses on Juno, as did their American counterparts elsewhere, with 359 dead, 574 wounded, and 47 captured. But the Canadians fought valiantly and ultimately prevailed. In fact, the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division succeeded in pushing farther inland than any other landing force on D-Day.

I’ve always had an appreciation for our neighbors to the north, but on this night it swelled. Once again Amateur Radio had broadened my horizons.

Have you heard the one about an Indian, a Cowboy and Marilyn Monroe?

In this vintage QSL from Swiss station HB9AAG, the operator appears to be making a plea for harmony. If an Indian, Cowboy, Eskimo, Asian, African and Marilyn Monroe can all get along, then we should  be able to do the same, right?

Click for a larger view

I find the hope for unity just as poignant today as back in 1962. And notice too that HB9AAG apparently operated either QRP or QRO … 25 watts when conditions were good, and a pileup-busting 35 watts when he really wanted to heat up the ether.

The world needs more optimists like HB9AAG.

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.


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.

(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.


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.

card4 card5 card6

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!
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.

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.

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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:


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.


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:


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.

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.


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.

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.


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