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!