How I Became A Ham
I've pretty much had an interest in electronics since I was a kid. In the 5th grade I got a portable AM/FM radio. I thought it was cool that I could hear radio stations in different states. I also used the radio during hockey season to listen to the Buffalo Sabers play. My bed time was during half time, so I would miss the remainder of the game. I would put the radio under my pillow and listen to the rest of the game. When my mom would peek in to see if I was asleep, it sure looked like it from the bedroom door! I got busted with it when the Sabers won a very close and heated game. I heard my dad yell from the living room, and my parents heard me from the bedroom! That pretty much put an end to my nocturnal AM DXing for awhile.
My parents were good friends with a family and the husband was a ham, Dennis Langhier K2CEC (SK). He was demonstrating this new technology called an autopatch. For those that don't know, it is a way to make a phone call using a radio. He had this box that he'd put over the front of his mic, punch a few buttons and my mom was coming over the radio! It took awhile for her to understand that if dad was talking to her that he couldn't hear if she was talking. I think husbands and wives do this in person too, half-duplex marital communication.
Few years later, my family moves out to California - circa 1979. We take this huge vacation, took a month. We drove from Vacaville, CA across to my grandparents in Buffalo NY. We got together again with Dennis and his family and took a trip out to the barn. Needless to say, I was totally blow away from the gear he had. I seem to remember it was surplus radio gear from a B-52. When we completed that trip. my dad made a small wager with me. If I could get my Novice ticket by the end of summer, he'd buy the radios. If I couldn't, I had to mow the lawn for free. I had a small lawn mowing business at the time. I started studying for the Novice license with the Radio Shack 5 to 1000 Watts book at the end of ninth grade. Sort of self conscious about learning the code, I would practice verbally under the covers at night. My mom stopped checking in on my by this time.
It took the whole summer and I passed my Novice exam in the garage of a ham from the local club. I don't remember his call or his name. Not sure how I managed to pass the code test I was incredibly nervous. My dad was watching the entire time! I did pass the code and written that day. I was on my way! About a month later, I get a letter in the mail from the FCC. What I thought was my amateur radio license ended up being the return of my application - Form 610. When the government says to sign your name as stated in block 1, you better do it. Block 1 contained my first name, middle initial, last name. I signed my original 610 with just my first and last names. So, resigned it, sent it back. Six weeks later another envelope from the FCC was in the mailbox. It looked just like the previous envelope and I'm thinking, what did I do now? Opening it up, it was my license! KA6WKE was printed on it, with my name and home address. I finally made it!
By this time my dad and I went to a few meetings of the local radio club. Made some friends but I was the only kid there. We go to talking with another ham at a meeting and he said he had the perfect rig for me. Went to his place and there it was in all of its 85 pound glory - a Hallicrafters HT-32B HF transmitter. It was awesome, even if I couldn't pick it up! To add to the transmitter, the ham had a receiver I could borrow - Drake 2A WITH Q-Multiplier!! Man, I was stoked! Hallicrafters was $100 and I was like, wow, that's expensive. A deal was a deal so my dad bought it! I could carry the receiver, so my dad and this other ham carried the transmitter out to the car.
We get them home and put it all in my room. All that was left was the antenna. We lived on a small suburban lot, so the only antenna I could put up was a vertical. Another ham from the club gave me a Hygain 14AVQ vertical. My dad and I installed it on the eve on the side of the house. We spread the radials out the best we could and went for it. Everything seemed to be working good with the antenna, SWR was good. For weeks I called CQ, or tried to answer a CQ. No luck. Not sure what I was doing wrong, I put both radios on the exact same frequency. I don't remember how I figured this out but one day while messing around with the receiver, I noticed I could hear the transmitter on the dummy load. I used a 100 watt lightbulb as my dummy load. Being a high school kid, didn't have much money to buy accessories. I had read that a light bulb would work and it did but it still acted like an antenna of sorts. I took a look at both dials and they were off! This time I went up on 15M, tuned the Hallicrafters into the light bulb on low power, found the peak signal on the receiver and I was golden! On November 3rd, 1982 I sent out another CQ. Switched back to receive and waited. Then I hear dah-dit-dah, dit-dah - I'm panicking, what were those?? I hear the dah-di-di-di-dit, oh that's a 6 then, di-dah-dah, dah-di-dah, dit. I wasn't reading as I went along so when I looked at my paper, I had 6WKE - hey, that was me! The op starts sending his call. I missed the first time, ok di-dah-dah, W, dah-di-dit-dit - B, di-di-di-dah-dah 3, dah-di-di-dit - B, dah-di-dit, G, di-dit - I -> WB3BGI!! I give him a call back and I'm off on my first contact! I looked up WB3BGI and he's also a silent key. A few weeks go by and I'm on the air nearly everyday. One night though a very strong station gives me a call - KB6JK. I gave him a call back and we chatted. He was just a street over and found me on my 2nd harmonic. I was like, what? 2nd who? I was on 40M novice band which at the time was between 7.00 MHz to 7.150 MHz. That put my 2nd harmonic between 14.000 Mhz and 14.300 Mhz. He told me I was weak but readable in the 20M phone band of which the novice license doesn't allow me to transmit. He came over and helped me tune up the Hallicrafters so my 2nd harmonic was no longer there. Funny things happen when radios are not tuned properly.
Spring 1983 rolls around. I have a small stack of QSL cards, I've worked Japan, I have my code speed up to about 15 WPM. I've been studying for the written portion to take the General license exam. I'm fairly confident I'm good to go for the morse code and theory tests, but this time, it's not going to be in another ham's garage. I have to go to San Francisco and make a visit to the local FCC Field Office.
My dad had to take a day off of work and I school. We take the 90 minute drive to San Francisco. We find where the Field Office is located, and he drops me off on the corner and says "you better pass". I take the stairs up to the second floor and enter what looks like a classroom. Up front, the curmudgeon, I mean FCC proctor and the rest of the class about 5 other guys. I'm by far the youngest. The proctor starts the 13 WPM code exam tape and we're off. 5 minutes is the length of the test - just 5 minutes. Those 5 minutes felt like 5 hours. I missed some of the beginning - the code seemed to be going faster than 13 WPM. I settled in and copied the best I could. There was a 10 question test regarding the transmission, had to pass with 7 correct or better. If less than 7, the proctor would see if I had copied down a full minute error free. I was sweating bullets because some of the answers were close. What was the temperature? I copied 78, but 77 and 79 were possible answers. Just one dit or dah between right and wrong. It was my day, I passed the code with 7 correct answers! Next up was the theory portion. Had to memorize a bunch of formulas, basic schematics for oscillators, filters - were they high or low, stuff like that. I actually got a 100% on the theory! I was now a General class licensee and could use my new privileges as soon as I got home!! My callsign stay the same except for the addition of /KT on the end. I would say KA6WKE temporary KT at the end on voice, just slant KT on CW. When I got home I was ready to hit the golden band of 20M SSB, there was only one problem. I didn't own a microphone, just a morse code key. I still have that key today.
By the time it was summer vacation again, I got my driver's license and a job doing weed abatement for Solano County. If you don't know what weed abatement is, the city would inspect properties and other open areas. If weeds were too high, the owners were given notice they need to take care of the weeds. If they didn't, the county would step in and take care of the weeds for them and take the cost on to their property taxes. I'd go out and use a gas powered weedeater to clear the weeds below 4" tall, 8 hours a day, 40 a week. It was hot, dirty, strenuous work but I made enough money to buy my first computer, a Commodore VIC-20. I connected the VIC-20 to the HT-32B so I could type and send CW. If I'm remembering correctly, I wrote it in Commodore Basic. The hardest part was getting the timing down so when I changed speeds, the dahs and dits were weighted properly: 3:1 . My dad was rather upset, the VIC cost $400! "Nothing will ever come of desktop computers" he said, well, we know how well that worked out. HIHI
We moved to San Diego in the fall of 1983. Had to give the Drake back as it was on loan. I found out down here in San Diego there's a store dedicate solely to amateur radio! My dad and I head over there to take a look around at the receivers. Ended up purchasing a Kenwood R-1000 to go along with the Hallicrafters. I made a few contacts but I was stuck with a ground mounted vertical because we lived so close to Naval Air Station Miramar - yeah, that one, where they filmed Top Gun. Having the antenna on the ground didn't work all that well. I sort of lost interest in radio, discovered girls and was all absorbed into running cross country and track. I graduated high school in 1985 and did a year in college before joining the Naval Reserve.
1987 I come back to San Diego, move into an apartment, and there's no place for an HF antenna. While between jobs, I studied for my Advanced license. I start reading about HF mobile, so that's what I did. Yaesu FT-101E into a 1982 Mercury Capri and TenTec mobile verticals on the hatchback. It worked like gang busters! 10M was a blast mobile too! Shortly I got on this new fangled mode called packet radio. Think of wireless internet chat just over a walkie-talkie. Packet also let me do email to my Naval friends and stay in touch. I had upgraded to a Commodore 64, with PK-64 controller. I put a 5/8 wave 2M antenna in the window of my room, used 5 watts on 2M with an Icom 02-AT handheld. I also still have the 02-AT today.
I went on another radio hiatus for a couple of years - back to college, married, kids, you know, stuff like that. I had sold most of my gear by this time. I managed to scrape together an IC-735 from another ham I knew from reserves. Gave me a good deal on it and I purchased a set of Hamstick antennas. I spent over 10 years running HF mobile in several different vehicles. You can see those on my HF Mobile pages.
Around 2000 I passed the Extra Class theory. I had been a CW operator in the Navy but it had been years since I'd done anything with morse code. I could still copy around 18 WPM, but needed 20. I was in the process of getting my speed back up and then the FCC changed the Extra Class requirements and they just mailed me the license. Guess I'm an Extra Light.