Chapter Twelve, Hard Knox
I'd looked all over Ft. Knox for a ham radio station but couldn't find one. There were a lot of tanks, but no ham radio antennas that I could spot. I missed my daily fix. I missed my fiancée. I missed Mom and Andover and Jack and the freedom of civilian life in general. How long would it be before I could say to someone after a pleasant QSO that I'd see him down the log?
I realized during Basic Training that I had never been lonely, before now. Back on the Showboat, we had a semi-disparaging phrase for elitists whenever an egregious example somehow showed up. We called them EMFs, the E being for Elitist.
Now, a ham hearing EMF would think immediately of Electro Motive Force, which as we all know is an electric potential energy measured in joules per coulomb. Or, more simply put, a potential difference, as found in a battery, IE: voltage. Not usually capitalized, emf is not what we were talking about on the Showboat. Oh, no. Our EMF was much more common: Elitist Mother Fu**er. You figured that out before I told you, didn't you? If you didn't, you come from a much more sheltered environment than any of my buddies on the Showboat.
To my surprise, I met an EMF in Basic. He was me. When I realized it I rationalized it. None of my barracks buddies' conversations interested me in the slightest. They loved Basic and talked about it all the time when they weren't talking about loose women they had known. The only interest I had in Basic was how to get out of it.
There was a solution to my loneliness. Get married. For some reason before I headed to Basic, Sam and I had decided to wait until I was out of the Army to get married, but Basic brought me a much more realistic view of my situation which, looked at every which way, was pretty grim. I don't do grim well. I told Sam I wanted to move our wedding date up a bit. "How much?" she asked.
"Right after I get out of Basic," I said.
"That's only seven weeks," Sam said. Being a chemistry major, she was good at math.
"My mother won't like such short notice," said Sam.
"I'm not marrying your mother," I said, "What do you think?"
"Okay with me," said Sam.
We were married in a church for reasons known only to our parents. I remember the pre-wedding party better than the actual wedding, which might be because of the pre-wedding party.
As Basic ground to the end, my principal task was to get into some sort of specialty training that didn't involve tanks, marching, mud or shooting. I took every aptitude test that came along and did well on the fundamental electronics tests (which didn't have a 78 rpm record associated with them, fortunately), only multiple choice. I always did well with multiple choice. You didn't have to know the right answer to get the right answer. I thought for a moment that maybe I could be the guy who came up with the totally absurd answers that were obviously wrong for the Army's many multiple choice tests. Then I heard you needed a Ph.D. to get that job. No surprise.
I applied for radar school at Ft. Monmouth, NJ and I got it. I couldn't believe the Army offered me that option because radar school was 39 weeks long and it looked to me like a great gig in an interesting part of the country. By the time I got out of there my Army career would be half over. I envisioned heading up to New York from Monmouth over a few long weekends to catch some plays with Sam. I didn't know that radar school would be intense and tough, requiring some weekend homework (I certainly didn't want to flunk out of Radar school, because it'd be straight to the infantry and from there to Korea, which didn't have good scuttlebutt, even during the truce.)
Sam and I flew from Cleveland to New York for our honeymoon. I had booked a nice room at the Edison Hotel, which was in the middle of the theater district. Eddie Mark (Rap) Rappaport (the fearless Showboat dancer in the loincloth who, playing the bartender I "Luste, Lucre and Liquor" blew his nose on the bar rag) was on the plane with us and in no time everyone on board was buying drinks for the newlyweds! So much for a below the radar honeymoon flight.
On our honeymoon, we went to one or two plays a day for a week and ate well. It was Sam's first visit to Sardi's and the Carnegie Deli, two of my favorites in Manhattan. When our theater-filled honeymoon ended, Sam flew home to Cleveland and I got a train to Ft. Monmouth to get the lay of the land, and hopefully then send for Sam to join me. At school, predictably, the first couple of weeks were basic electronics, much of which I knew. But I also knew (because everybody told me) that after the electronics fundamentals it'd get tough. "They'll separate tuned circuits from dummy loads" was the chatter heard so often it became band noise.
Though I'd spotted ham antennas on a couple of buildings, which you'd expect at a Signal Corps base, I had to keep my priorities straight. First, find an apartment for Sam and me. I found one too, in Rumson, in the converted attic of a big old mansion, now split up as apartment rentals. It was great. Sam drove my Ford (now our Ford) to Rumson and approved of my choice. Rumson was what my mother would have called a toney neighborhood - full of stockbrokers' homes and private schools, yet only a few miles from the Monmouth main gate.
The second priority was to be sure I had radar repair school figured out. Flunking was not an option. And, unlike Hiram, I took what they told me to take – no easy alternatives. And unlike Ft. Knox, I didn't volunteer to type. Learning all about radar was a lot more fun.
Then, during those few times a spare moment appeared, it was off to the base ham/MARS station to poach a little bit of time at K2USA.
Photo courtesy Keith, W6BCQ
When my visits to the station got a little bit regular and I knew when the MARS (Military Amateur Radio Service) boys had their daily schedules, I could work some operating in between their activities. Of course there were other hams who had the same idea so sometimes there was a line of ops waiting. I told Jack the few times I might be on the air and he caught up with me at least once. He called me by saying, "David? Loudest in Ohio here, over." Back in 1955, if the FCC had heard that they would have sh** a brick, as the colorful if anatomically impossible Army cliché goes. Jack would say whatever came into his head, but I always came back saying, "W8LIO, this is K2USA with W8GUE at the mike." I'd worked too hard to get that license to give some FCC flunky an opportunity to take it away!
Photo courtesy Keith, W6BCQ
I enjoyed my stay at Ft. Monmouth. This Base was the centerpiece of the Army's communications efforts. At one time it even trained courier pigeons, a reliable means of communications when the band conditions were lousy. When the pigeons retired with honorable discharges, they all went to New York City where they panhandled the tourists.
On the fringes of Monmouth were a couple of huge antennas, pointed skyward, the location of Project Diana, so named because the Goddess Diana was the Roman Moon Goddess and she/it became a target of some imaginative ham-thinkers. One day before my 13th birthday, on January 10th, 1946, before I'd even heard of ham radio, one John H. DeWitt, licensed in 1921 with the callsign N4CBC (according to Wikipedia), using a huge radar transmitting antenna, bounced the very first radio signals off the Moon. The little returning echo was picked up by a gigantic receiving antenna, a bedspring-like bunch of dipoles. Jack must have known about that when he recommended that I get that bedspring antenna to pick up those weak Cleveland television stations.
Before the first moon bounce attempt, there were, of course, a lot of skeptics. These were the "radio waves won't travel through outer space" folks. They said, "There's no air in outer space and radio waves need air to travel." But hams, real hams, they were the true believers, then as now. It wasn't long after DeWitt accomplished his historic feat that Sam Harris, W8UKS, and Jack Rodebaugh, W8LIO, plus lots of other adventurous hams, were also bouncing signals off the moon, using homemade antennas and only one kilowatt, more or less. Watching his gigantic final amplifier tubes get white hot, Jack would describe his kilowatt as, "…considerably more of less than less of more" which would leave any FCC inspector scratching his head.
My Sam got a job to help support our little household in the attic of the mansion. Getting married turned out to be a good idea. I was home most nights for dinner, I got chauffeured to work and dropped off at the main gate, and Sam drove herself to the lumber company in nearby Redbank, where she was the bookkeeper. That third floor attic was a nice little honeymoon loft that even had a view. If you strained your neck a little and stood on your tip toes, you could see Sandy Hook Bay from the upper left pane of one of our bedroom windows.
When graduation from radar repair school came around, I was given three choices of places for my next (and probably last) Army assignment: Korea, Fort Huachuca, Arizona, or 7th Army Headquarters at Boeblingen, Germany, just a few clicks from Stuttgart as the Sergeant who told me my choices said. Fort Huachuca, I was told by several Sergeants who'd been there, was a desert hell-hole. I'd probably pick up rocks on one side of the base, put them in a truck and drive them to the other side and dump them. Then, next day, I'd do the reverse. Korea, of course, was where the truce was porous and the fighting might start at any moment and you couldn't take a wife. So, no surprise, I chose Germany, and after the shock wore off, Sam agreed with my choice.
I said goodbye to the guys at K2USA and a couple of my favorite Sergeants/instructors. One of them gave me what turned out to be a piece of unbelievable intelligence. I was told that if Sam took our car to the Army's port in New Jersey, just across the water from New York City, and showed them my orders, they'd put my car on a boat for Bremerhaven, West Germany, and when it arrived, my Company Commander would be notified and he'd have to give me a 3 day pass to go pick it up.
I doubted this information. I'd researched it. Sergeants and above could have their cars shipped. Privates were out of luck.
My smart Sergeant-intelligence-agent said, "You know that, and I know that, and the Army knows that, but the guy putting cars on the boat doesn't know that. You get your car to that boat with a copy of your orders and it'll be on the boat."
Sometimes military intelligence is accurate. My approach to it was, if you want it to be true, assume that it is.
My father always told me to be on the lookout for the brass ring, because you never knew when it's going to come around. Despite not wanting to be in the Army at all, I kept my senses tuned to opportunities, for indeed there are opportunities in the military. Some came with a little bit of risk. For instance, I was driving past what I knew to be the Ft. Monmouth surplus equipment warehouse once and I noticed a really big roll of what looked like coaxial cable right at the end of the loading dock. Curious, I turned around and stopped at the dock and asked one of the warehouse guys if this cable was surplus.
"It's going to the dump," the soldier said.
I looked at the coax. It was an unused, 500 foot roll of RG-8. My favorite.
"Do you mind if I take it?" I said.
It must have weighed 200 pounds.
"Would you mind helping me put it in the trunk?" I said.
Into the trunk it went. The poor Ford rode low on its leaf springs which had already put up with a lot through my college years. Would the guard at the gate notice I was driving a lowrider? I didn't have any paperwork on the RG-8, so what I did could be viewed as stealing by some hardass MP (they were all hardasses according to them). But I was waved right through the gate. My next hurdle was that Sam wouldn't be happy seeing that gigantic roll of coax in the trunk, but I don't remember her saying anything about it. She was practicing the stoic resolve that all hams' wives develop, especially if they want to stay married. I was just doing what hams do.
I got a week off between radar school graduation and shipping out. Sam and I filled our Ford and headed back to Ohio to store our stuff, including of course, my HQ-129X which I thought I'd use in our little attic apartment, but with K2USA down the road a ways, it just sat there gathering dust on it's crackle finish.
It was a whirlwind trip to Ohio to say goodbye to everybody, including Sam, temporarily, and it was back on a plane to New York City and from there to my shipping out point in New Jersey.
I joined a bunch of GI's at Andrews Army Air Force Base, not far from Ft. Monmouth. I looked around. There was no one there from my class. The field was filled with Army planes of all shapes and sizes, all khaki, and one Navy plane, all blue. We of course were marched right over to the Navy plane and took our seats. The stewardesses were swabbies, all men, and for a while nobody said anything about the anomaly of a bunch of Army guys on a Navy plane. It was fairly apparent that most of these guys had never flown. My seatmate squeezed my arm so hard during takeoff I thought all blood circulation had ceased to my hand. As land was left behind, he loosened his grip. The sun had set. It was a clear, cool, late fall evening on the East Coast.
After we'd gained some altitude and it looked as if we weren't going to crash after all, the squawk box came on. It had a terrible hum. "I could fix that," I thought to myself. Then the voice: "This is the Captain speaking. I know you're wondering why a bunch of GI's are on a U.S. Navy plane. I think the reason for that is that while I've been in the Navy over 20 years, this is my first command in the Navy Air Corps. I just transferred over from submarines. My Admiral mentioned something about not wanting to risk any Navy men on my first flight while I got used to my new command."
I was probably the only person on the plane, other than the flight attendants, who thought that was amusing. Before anybody had a chance to get too nervous, the box came on again. "Off to your left there is Philadelphia." In the background you could hear some off mike conversation going on, and then, "Correction. That's New York. Our next stop is Frankfort, er, Munich, that'll be tomorrow morning, err afternoon. Sleep well."
I, for one, put my seat back and went to sleep.
When I woke up, it was about dawn. I looked out my window and could see the Atlantic (I hoped) about 500 feet below me. The wheels went down. The squawk box came on. We got lower and lower and lower. We heard undistinguishable murmurs amidst the hum. The ocean got closer and closer. Then we heard the Captain's voice shout, "Well, goddammit, it's got to be around here somewhere!" Everybody panicked just as the wheels touched down in the Azores. The runway extends right out over the beach, unbeknownst to any of us. The flight attendants were laughing. The swabbies got one over on the GIs.
The next thing we heard from the Captain was when we were flying past Frankfort. The squawk box came on and he said, "I was kidding about just transferring from the submarine corps. You probably figured that out. And how was that landing in the Azores? Was that great or what? "
Some of the GIs gave our Captain a tepid applause. He got a big hand from me.
The Captain continued, "Actually, I learned to fly over this part of the world. The only difference was that then they were shooting at me and I was dropping bombs on ‘em. Next stop, Munich. I told your CO that I'd be happy to fly into Stuttgart, which is where 7th Army is, but he said he didn't want to spoil you, so you'll be bussing it from Munchen (giving it his best German accent) to Boeblingen, headquarters of Rommel's Panzerkassern, which we're borrowing because he doesn't need it any more. One piece of advice for you GIs: just remember we beat up on these Krauts pretty good, and some of them are still pissed off about it. But don't quote me, I'm just a flyboy."
When we rolled into the 7th Army's 39th Signal Battalion Headquarters the first thing I did was look around for ham antennas, and there, about six feet above the slate roof of the headquarters building, was a 3 element 20 meter Yagi. Hot dog, I'd be on the air!
This was the first time I'd ever set foot outside of the United States, and for reasons unknown, I was eager to explore Germany and Europe, which from the air, looked very different from home. And it was different, and I was eager to explore. As soon as Sam got here, I envisioned being off on our first big adventure!
Sam and I lived in Rumson, NJ, in what my mother called a "toney" neighborhood. It could also be spelled "tony" but my mother figured that if it's really toney, then it's "toney."
I feel the need to comment on the Korean War, or conflict as the high muckity mucks in government had labeled it. It's been called, "the forgotten war" because, well, for the most part it's been forgotten, or perhaps more accurately, overlooked. It was an unpopular war, coming as it did only five years after the end of WWII. I knew from first-hand accounts that it was an extremely nasty war in a miserable part of the world. You were either freezing or frying. I also know it was, unlike VietNam, a necessary war, or today the whole Korean Peninsula would be like North Korea, an entire country of brainwashed fanatics who would pose an even bigger threat to world peace than the current North Korea does.
I mentioned a "tuned circuit" which generally is a condenser/capacitor and a coil that is tuned to one specific frequency, sometimes called the "resonant frequency." You've seen people in old black and white movies frantically turning a couple of knobs while watching a bunch of meters on a transmitter? They were probably tuning for the "dip" which would indicate resonance. I know, I've lost you. If you want to know more, get a ham ticket.
"Munchen" as our Navy pilot called Munich, is the way the Germans spell it and pronounce it. They didn't know how to spell a lot of their cities as far as we GI's were concerned.