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.