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.