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).
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.
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.
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.
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.