Category Archives: Memorable QSOs

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.

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.




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.

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.

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.