Chapter One, The Great Awakening
I remember very clearly my introduction to Amateur Radio, though at the time I didn’t realize that such a fascinating hobby had totally escaped what passed for my teenaged attention. Ham Radio, as it is popularly called, had not yet tweaked my consciousness.
Andover, Ohio, in the spring of 1946 was a picturesque if slightly rundown village in the northeastern corner of the Buckeye state, two miles from Pennsylvania and 30 miles south of Lake Erie. Andover’s only claim to fame was Pymatuning Lake, a shallow, artificial lake, hardly more than a deep swamp, on the Ohio/Pennsylvania border where "...the ducks walk on the backs of the fish..." Absurd as that sounds, it’s a true boast.
But to a 14 year old boy, that boast was old and tired news. What else is new? On a Saturday afternoon with the baseball diamond muddy from last night’s downpour, what was there to do? Discovering the world’s best hobby was not an item on my short list of possible activities. But fate intervened.
My father used to say, "...if you’re bored, you’re boring." So I always worked hard at not being bored but sometimes in this sleepy little town of 1,000 hard working, God fearing souls, boredom was the best alternative to teenaged angst.
If I still had my BB gun I could go out and shoot at squirrels. Uncle Frank had given me the BB gun for my 14th birthday and my mother was horrified. It was just the kind of thing Uncle Frank would do. My mother described him as a ninny. It was years before I realized that if you had a tattoo, rode a motorcycle and were not married to my aunt, you weren’t by definition a ninny.
The first thing my mother said to me when she saw the BB gun was, "You won’t be happy with that thing till you put somebody’s eye out." Every time she saw that gun she said the same thing. She wasn’t disappointed I suspect that I never lived up to her dire prediction. In fact, the gun was cheap and didn’t shoot straight, "...just like Uncle Frank..." my mother said when she heard my complaint. I could hit the broadside of a barn with it, but that’s about all. So when my mother offered to trade me a six tube brown plastic Crosley AC/DC superhet AM radio for my piece-of-junk BB gun, I quickly took the deal. Later I heard her tell my father that with the radio, at least, I wouldn’t put anybody’s eye out. Little did she or anyone else know that the radio would show me the way to the world’s best hobby.
That Saturday I had ridden my bike all over town looking for some action, had my chocolate milkshake at Bloomers, checked in with my mother at the store and my father at his insurance office above the store, both of whom suggested that I go home and do my homework if all of my friends were unavailable. I went up to my bedroom to see what I could do to avoid my homework. I reached over and turned my radio on and waited for it to warm up. In those early days of the communications age everything electronic had to warm up before it came on. That warm up period was a moment of quiet tension. Would it work or would it be "...on the fritz..." as my mother used to say? Well, this fateful day it worked – and it didn’t. What I heard was the most overpowering signal my poor little bedside radio had ever played.
It sounded like, "Jaynineayeayeye!" ...repeated two or three times. When it went off, the piddling little signal of WTAM in Cleveland, 60 miles to the west, could be heard playing the Ink Spots or the Andrews Sisters or whatever pop tune fit the moment. Then the eardrum-punishing litany appeared again, sending the poor, distant broadcast station to temporary oblivion.
"Jaynineayeayeye" the deep, male voice shouted. Then he yelled something like, "Doubleyouweightelleyeoh!" I couldn’t understand a word of it. What to do? For some reason I decided to unhook the aerial. Remember aerials? They were lengths of wire that went from a little clip on the fiberboard back of the radio out the window to a nearby tree or some other handy support. Now and then they would droop enough to snag some unwary passerby on the neck causing all manner of new vocabulary words to spew out and into the ears of a curious teenager.
For reasons as mysterious as radio itself, unhooking the aerial made the loud voice more distinct. It was saying J9AAI a couple of times and then the voice would say W8LIO.
There would be a few seconds of silence when poor, distant WTAM would regain control of the frequency that it had been assigned by the FCC only to lose out to the J9AAI guy once again.
I went downstairs and turned on the fancy floor-model Philco in the two tone wood case and the fancy grill-cloth over the big speaker. The mystery signal wasn’t on our big radio. I went next door. They didn’t hear it on their radio, a giant 11 tube Zenith, polished walnut, dial lights that worked, and a shortwave band that didn’t. I went back to my room. J9AAI was still on there, pulverizing the airways. Maybe I could tune it out. I turned the dial. J9AAI was everywhere. I listened more. My usually impenetrable curiosity had been severely piqued.
At what point did it dawn on me that it was not J9AAI that I was listening to, but someone called W8LIO? I got on my bicycle and went searching for the mysterious W8LIO. Who could find a radio signal looking from a bicycle, even if it was a Schwinn, and the only one in town? I could, and I did. It was West Main Street, the south side, only one block past the school, which wasn’t big but was imposing, bricks and concrete and large windows with dozens of panes of glass, to keep the costs down from the inevitable breakage. It had kind of a stolid, New England look to it. Grade school was on the first floor along with the dreaded office and the auditorium/gymnasium with it's molded wood chairs screwed into the sloping concrete floor facing the stage/basketball court. Grades 7 through 12 were on the second floor.
What tipped me off to the mysterious W8LIO was a gigantic tower. And on top of that tower were strands of aluminum, reflecting the afternoon sun right into my eyes. How could I have missed it before? It must have been put up last night. I rode my bike up the black cinder and weeds driveway toward the tower in the backyard of a house that had withstood years of casual neglect. As I got near the screened-in back porch, I heard the familiar chant, J9AAI, begin all over again, but this time it was not coming through the tiny speaker in my plastic radio, but live.
I stood at the screen door and looked squarely at the back of a large man doing his mystic chant into a chrome-plated microphone. Surrounding him was electronic equipment from floor to ceiling. I stood at that back door for who knows how long before I summoned the courage to knock. "Come in," said the big man without looking around. That was my casual invitation to join the ranks of the anointed few, my introduction into the addictive world of ham radio.
For many, if not all readers, the preceding will qualify as ancient history. What about today? If a stray thought about ham radio lodged for a moment in your curiosity, how would you find those strands of aluminum high in the sky, reflecting sunlight into your eyes? Well, you could go looking on your bicycle, of course, but a somewhat easier and quicker way would be to type "Amateur Radio" into Google. Somewhere in the millions of possibilities will show up ARRL, which might be followed by American Radio Relay League, an organization even older than the time described in Chapter One, if you can imagine such a thing. Searching the ARRL website will turn up active ham radio clubs in your area, with appropriate contact information. Most, if not all of these clubs, will welcome you with introductions all around and load you with more information than you could possibly assimilate, even if you understood the jargon, which one day soon you’ll be spewing as if it were real English..