Chapter Two, Sweet Success
Without turning around the big man said, "Hi, I’m Jack, have a seat." He waved at a wicker chair in a corner that had seen better days. He went back to his chant into the microphone with barely a pause. Every time he spoke, two gigantic tubes, each almost as big as my entire radio, turned from grey to bright white. The tubes were in a metal frame about the size and shape of my mom’s stove, except it didn’t have any sides or top, just a few meters on the front panel, frantically waving every time he spoke. A big fan on the floor blew hot air from around those tubes right toward the chair I was sitting in.
When he said, "This is W8 London, Italy, Ocean," the word London caused the tubes to light the room as if it were the inside of a motion picture studio. "Italy" was a quick, blinding flash, and "Ocean" was like the sun appearing for a moment between the clouds. The tubes got bright and the little light above Jack’s desk got dim at exactly the same moment.
When he stopped talking, I heard a voice coming out of the big olive drab radio on the table in front of him. The little voice was hard to understand. If I remember correctly, and I may not after all these years, the little voice said, "W6AOA this is J9AAI, five/nine." As he listened to a raspy, growley voice say a few words, Jack said, "...those damn sixes."
In a moment, he was at it again. This time he screamed louder and the inside of the old porch seemed brighter than the backyard which was naked to the summer sun.
Suddenly as Jack shouted into the microphone an unearthly squeal filled the room. It sounded as if someone had stood on the tails of a dozen cats all at once. Jack grabbed what looked like an old rubber hammer and delivered one sharp blow to the dented top of an olive-drab box. The squeal stopped.
He turned a little dial on the box down about two degrees and went back to his calling. I watched fascinated as all time suspended. It may have been hours. My host never acknowledged my presence beyond that initial greeting. Every now and then he would say, "Those damn sixes." Now and then he’d say, "Those damn sevens." While I had no idea then what he was talking about, in a couple of months I knew that the sixes were all in California and the sevens were in Oregon, Washington and a few other far Western states and consequently much closer to the much-desired J9AAI than were we, in the northeastern corner of the Buckeye State.
After what might have been an eternity, with my severely limited attention span somehow on hold, a little voice came out of the speaker. "W8LIO," it said, "this is J9AAI, five by nine." Jacked grabbed his microphone and squeezed the lever on the side of the handle until it bowed. "J9AAI, this is W8LIO. Five/nine. QSL?" "QSL, QRZ," said the little voice, and for the first time I heard what sounded like a swarm of bees which had somehow gotten caught in the speaker.
Jack sagged in his chair then leaned forward and turned a knob which made the room quiet. He looked at a clock on the wall that had too many numbers on it, noted something on a piece of paper in front of him, leaned back again, and rolled his head toward me. All he said was, "OH KEE NAA WAAH." He made it sound like a train announcement at the Terminal Tower in Cleveland, loud and clear yet making me think, "What did he say?" From reading articles in the Cleveland Plain Dealer that my father strongly suggested that I read, I knew that Okinawa was a fly-speck in the Pacific Ocean that up until a few months before had been the southernmost part of the Japanese homeland, a territory whose capture mortally wounded the morale of the Japanese people.
I learned from Jack that afternoon that the operator (yes, that’s what they’re called) at J9AAI was a ham/GI who had undoubtedly appropriated a large stash of Signal Corps radio equipment, found some official out there to give him a callsign and got on 10 meters, causing what Jack called a pileup. It was a massive pileup it seemed to me. Jack sat there looking at his porch full of ham equipment and said, "That was a bitch, wasn’t it? Not knowing one single thing about what I had just seen, I said, "Yep." "So, are you a ham?" asked Jack, knowing the answer.
Not knowing what to say, I said, "I’m Dave."
"Jack," he said, holding out a big, beefy hand.
"Hi." I said.
"Good to meet you, David," he said. He always called me David. While that was my name, everybody else in town called me Dave, except the teachers, and they don’t count.
Years later, when I was in college, building scenery in the old house that served as the drama department scene shop, I used to listen to a late night talk show hosted by Jean Shepherd, who now and then divulged that he was a ham, K2ORS. Jean was an exceptionally talented guy, who did a lot of things, including write the Christmas Classic TV movie, "A Christmas Story." When Jean Shepherd talked about Ham Radio, he often divided Hams into what he called, "them" and "us." The "them" were the guys who ran a kilowatt, give or take a couple of thousand watts, and the ones he called "us" ran a hundred watts, thirty watts, five watts. He referred to the "us" as being "barefoot."
Jack and his friends were not "barefoot" and consequently were not among the "us." They were the "them" and since Jack became my mentor in Ham Radio, I quickly became a member of the "them." When I met Jean Shepherd years later at the Dayton Hamvention, we had a really nice chat about a documentary film I had produced about ham radio. I never told him that I was one of the "them" though I suspect he knew.
Many hams told Jack that he was the loudest signal on the band, which made him proud. The phonetics he sometimes used for W8LIO were, "Loudest In Ohio."
When I started studying the rules and regulations I’d have to know to pass my license test at the FCC, Jack told me he "...knew there was an FCC rule that says you aren’t supposed to use any more power than necessary, but necessary for what? How are you to know that somebody running 10 kilowatts hasn’t moved in just down the block? That guy might fire up his rig on your frequency anytime...and blotto, there you go." Jack didn’t say that the "thems" don’t turn off their amplifiers if they’re overloading some guy’s receiver so bad that he can’t understand what they’re saying, but he certainly implied that he would think twice about it, before he did it, just in case it was some kind of trick.
These many years later, I know how Jack viewed me that first time we met, because I have viewed people who showed up in my shack and gotten hooked in exactly the same way. Jack saw me as raw meat. I was his new beef trust. I got to carry all the heavy stuff. I was the one at the top of the tower. I did all the stuff for him then that I won’t even do for myself now.
Jack had this thing about antennas. His good friend, Sam Harris, W8UKS, coined a phrase well known to hams: "If your antenna didn’t blow down last winter, it wasn’t big enough." A lot of hams I met back in those early days privately thought that Jack and Sam were nuts. Since these two both became friends of mine, I preferred to think of them as visionaries. Perhaps the line between nuts and visionaries is in the mind of the beholder.
One of my first "learning opportunities" as Jack called the scut work he had in mind for me was to help him put together his soon to be famous 33 element beam antenna. I discovered by looking up on top of the tower and counting that his current antenna consisted of 3 elements. My teenage mind couldn’t conceive of something over ten times as big as what was up there now. "Just imagine," Jack said as we stood in his backyard looking upward, "a 33 element beam for ten meters." I couldn’t imagine it. What was ten meters, for that matter?
Ten meters it turned out was a so called "ham band" - a group of frequencies above the AM broadcast band which on my little Crosley radio went from 550 to about 1500 Kilocycles. The Ten Meter band is between 28 and 30 Megacycles, which was the first bunch of frequencies returned to the hams at the end of World War II. I say "returned" because it was just one of a half dozen or so bands that pre-war hams had been assigned by the FCC and the International Amateur Radio Union. In 1947, as Jack often said, "ten was hot," so he was happy.
Jack anticipated this restoration of ham radio privileges. As he got out of the Army Signal Corps, he somehow managed to take with him a ton or more aluminum of all shapes and sizes, plus dozens of big rolls of coaxial cable and copper wire, steel cable and it seemed anything shiny or khaki. He had the original garage that you couldn’t get your car into. Jack was way ahead of his time. Clearly, he was a planner. Some would say a dreamer. These were two traits which I somehow took away from my friendship with Jack, traits which I have come to really appreciate, not only in ham radio, but in life.
There are many hams today as enthusiastic about getting a "new one" as there were when I knew Jack, in the mid forties. Many more. Probably ten times as many. To get started in Ham Radio you have to find only one. Most of these hams are members of DX Clubs, DX being an abbreviation of "distance." You can find your local DX Club on the ARRL website, a local radio store, the Internet, or even the phone book. You can also be on the lookout for big antennas high in the sky. While traveling, I’ve spent a lot of my life looking off toward the horizon, trying to spot a stack of multi-element beams. Under those beams you will find a ham whom, among other things, is on the lookout for new countries. Virtually all hams like to show off their "shack," even to someone who shows up unannounced and asks if a ham lives here. "Could you give me a demonstration some time?" is usually the only question you need to ask.
Once, many years later, my wife, Sam, and I were driving through Switzerland when I spotted a three-element beam on a house by the side of the road. I stopped, knocked on the door, and when the lady of the house opened it I held up my QSL card and said, "Hi. I’m a ham from America." She held up a finger for me to wait, turned into the house and yelled, "Pierre, there’s a friend of yours here."
Jack snagged his prize, the hard to get J9AAI, while I was sitting in his sagging wicker chair watching in wonderment. What he had done was "work" (meaning make contact with) the only ham station on the island of Okinawa. This was "rare DX" indeed. For Jack, it was a new "country" for his log. It could be argued whether Okinawa qualified as being a country, being barely an island, but to hams in those days, this little speck in the Pacific was a country. Nowadays it would be called an "entity" which is probably a bit more accurate, but not nearly as interesting, at least in my opinion. Somehow I can’t imagine a DXer going into the shack saying he’s going to "...look for a new entity." Whether entity or country, you can be sure that at this minute there are lots of DXers looking for a new one, or just looking for an old friend in Finland or New Zealand or a new friend wherever. The "QSL" and "QRZ" (pronounced Q R Zed by all hams) are two of the dozens of so-called "Q" signals, used originally by telegraphers as shorthand. QSL means "I copy" and a QSL card is a postcard with all of the contact and station information printed on it, confirming that a contact was actually made. (Nowadays, confirmations can be done on the internet via a database called "Logbook of the World" but QSL cards are still exchanged, especially for the important or unique contacts.) QRZ means "is anybody calling me?" - an unnecessary question from J9AAI, but understood by all, except the unwashed like me.