Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, warning us about the dangers of accumulating toxins in the environment, while Henry Mancini's Moon River soothed us on AM radio.
The 50s were over. The 60s were just getting cranked up.
And, in a tiny five-room apartment in Bloomfield, New Jersey, in a half-mile row of brick, two-story apartment buildings built to house returning veterans of World War II, the thirteen-year-old son of a decorated Airborne Ranger got his Novice ticket in the mail. The call was WV2ZWZ.
His best friend, Chris, who'd made the bus trip into New York City with him to take the license exam at the Federal building in lower Manhattan, also received his ticket. Chris' call was WV2ZXB.
I was that son of a Ranger. That was my ham ticket. And even though the rest of the world seems to remember those other events far more vividly, when I look back on my past nothing in that year was as momentous, or memorable.
Months earlier, I'd built a Heathkit GR-91. The GR-91 was a very basic, entry-level shortwave-listener's radio that had the one feature I really wanted at a price I could afford: a BFO for listening to CW. Our apartment was on the ground floor, and my bedroom window was in the inside-middle of a U-shaped arrangement of buildings. The U was about 100' across. I ran wires from my window to fire escapes in the middle of each side of the U, about twelve-feet off the ground, and led the ends of the wires to my receiver with a feedline made out of lamp cord. The "system" was anchored in place by slamming the bottom sash of the window down on the lamp cord. The "dipole" was an arbitrary length, roughly a half-wave on 80m. The feedline was about ten-feet long. It didn't matter that the antenna failed to conform to sound engineering practice, because the world still came out of the speaker.
Chris and I had learned the code together, and-as is typical of the young-it came fairly easily. Very shortly, we were copying well beyond the 5 WPM required for a license, and long before we ever received our tickets we were excitedly copying hams all over the world.
After passing the exam, while waiting for our tickets to arrive, I built an Ameco AC-1 transmitter, bought a single crystal for the 80M Novice band, and wound the coil for 80 meters. The AC-1 was a very simple, single tube oscillator using a 6V6. Many novices of the era used that transmitter, or an entirely homebrew rig of similar design. My ham buddy, Chris, built his homebrew with a heftier power supply, and a 6L6. Doubling the rated 15W input of my AC-1, his rig had a massive input of 30W! Of course we didn't have wattmeters and had no idea what those rigs were actually putting into the feedlines, but my signal was clearly closer to QRP than QRO. I would have been lucky if 7 watts ever got into the antenna. In any event, I wasn't connecting the rig to the antenna. Not yet. Also without dummy loads, we loaded our transmitters into 25W light bulbs, watched them glow to the rhythmic beat of Morse code, and heard the magical signal on our radios (at that time, without Elmers, we had no idea that the light bulbs constituted antennas-very poor ones, but antennas nonetheless-and the signals they radiated, no matter how puny, were clearly not yet authorized!).
When our tickets finally arrived (both on the same day) we called each other on the phone and set up our first sked. An Ameco straight key plugged into my AC-1 pounded out a nervous call to WV2ZXB. Chris found me on his Lafayette HE-30, and replied with his 6L6. It was the first time I heard my very own call coming back to me through the ether. If you haven't experienced it, there's no way you can know the feeling. If you have, well, I can see you grinning.
The GR-91 soon gave way to a more sophisticated Lafayette HA-225, paid for with money earned by working as a soda jerk at my uncle David's drugstore. I traded up from the AC-1 to a Knight Kit T-60, and along with the arrival of my General class ticket, long before the year-long period allowed for a novice license had expired, came a massive chunk of iron: a B&W 5100B sporting a pair 6146s for finals. It sat on the desk in the bedroom turned ham shack I shared with my longsuffering older brother who was always more into studying Latin than playing with radios. The makeshift 80M antenna was replaced with a properly constructed 40M dipole, fed with coax-but it still swung only 12-feet above the ground. Even with the poor antenna, the radio gods smiled and I was able to work a little DX.
A few years later, I became president of my high school radio club, WB2FLU, and we operated a fine shack of mostly donated gear from the attic of the school building, radiating our signal with a tri-band beam mounted high above the surroundings on the roof of the school.
A story familiar to many hams of my generation followed. In order to help pay for my first year of college, I sadly sold all of my gear, and began a long hiatus during which amateur radio almost entirely disappeared from my life. Disappeared, except for copying ham QSOs on a short wave radio. I was never without some kind of receiver, and I mostly listened to CW.
In the early1990s, when my son was in middle school, he made several voyages on a sailboat cruising from Southern California to Central America with his mother and stepfather. Both his mother and stepfather had acquired ham licenses in order to maintain contact with friends and relatives back home, and a local ham agreed to meet them for daily skeds. I was able to speak with my son while he was away by going over to the shack of that local ham, Jim Scott, W9KV. It didn’t take long for me to discover that Jim was an extraordinary person. Knowledgeable, wise, and gracious, he was also, at that time, the liaison for our local ARRL VEC affiliated VE team, and well informed about the licensing process that had changed so much since I’d been active. Talking with my son on the boat at Jim’s station soon sparked renewed interest in ham radio, and Jim encouraged me to get licensed again. This time, for the first time, I was able to do it under the guidance of an extraordinary Elmer.
Jim arranged for a novice examination to be given with the help of another local ham, N0JYL (SK). My code speed at the time was in excess of 20 WPM, but I took the Novice code element sent to Jim by the ARRL VEC—a 5 WPM test. I remember impatiently tapping my pencil while waiting for each character to complete. I finished the written test, and if I remember correctly, was told immediately that I had passed it. Then I waited for the license to arrive. I was assigned the call, KB0LCN, on April 6, 1993.
Initially, I went back on the air with a kit-built QRP transmitter from Ramsey kits, and the SWL receiver I’d had for some time—a Radio Shack DX-100, using a 40M dipole.
As quickly as I was able I worked my way through the license classes, receiving the Extra Class call AA0QF on February 15, 1994. I exchanged the 2X2 call for my current 1X2 call, W0AZ, when the vanity callsign program came into being, receiving the call W0AZ in 1996.
Very shortly after getting back on the air, I purchased a used Yaesu FT-101E from a local ham who had become inactive, and I watched in wonder as my brilliant Elmer modified it for use on the WARC bands. If you were to ask Jim, he’d graciously offer that we did the project “together.” But in reality, I did little more than hand Jim tools. The conversion was quite complicated, and involved some very tricky procedures. I remember Jim discovering stray RF in places he didn’t want it, and the ingenious way he both designed and built tunable traps to eliminate it. The parts he needed, some of them quite rare and hard to find (like the tiny, open plate, Hammarlund trimmer capacitors used in the traps) were always near at hand in his seemingly inexhaustible parts bins. There were new taps to place on an already crowded tank coil, tabs to be installed on previously unused positions of the bandswitch . . .
The project may well have been the most interesting electronic construction job I ever witnessed, and you can imagine the conversations that ensued later, when I was in the middle of a QSO with somebody on 18MHz, and casually reported that I was operating an FT-101.
“I didn’t think that rig had the WARC bands on it?”
“It usually doesn’t.”
“Then how are you . . .”
I operated that wonderful modified Fox Tango for several years, loving every minute of it, until it blew the power transformer one day while sitting on my desk warming up for a sked with Jim and some of his old ham buddies he’d introduced me to. The radio sizzled like frying bacon, and filled the shack with acrid smoke before I could yank the plug. I discovered that a replacement transformer would cost far more than the rig was worth. Luckily, about that time, Jim decided to upgrade from the TS-440S he’d been using to a TS-850S. I bought his 440 at a truly ham-friendly price, and am using it to this day. Knowing I'm operating my dear friend Jim's radio makes every QSO just a bit more special.
When I came back, the modes had multiplied. By the early 1990s, I was operating CW and SSB, FM on VHF, and getting my feet wet in VHF packet and the HF digital modes. A few years ago, smitten with a bad case of nostalgia, I put together the sort of shack I could only dream about having when I was a Novice. A friend gave me a Hallicrafters HT-37, and very little work put it on the air. I found a Hammarlund HQ-145AC on eBay, and paired it with the HT-37. My dear friend and Elmer, W9KV (a retired television broadcast technician with a limitless store of knowledge about electronics and much else), donated a necessary Dow-key antenna relay, and I was on the air with a lashup that could almost make you feel it was 1962 all over again. (There's a picture of this vintage station posted with my listing at QRZ.com.)
The vintage rig is a great joy to me, and I believe I have more fun operating that old gear than I do watching PSK31 print on the monitor of my computer as my solid-state rig handles the receiving and transmitting without a hitch. No drift. No tuning up. No tubes glowing.
I've never been a hardcore contester or DXer, although I've had my share of fun doing both-managing to assemble more than enough cards to put a some DXCC plaques on the wall, and having a ball at any number of Field Days and November Sweeps. I even had the pleasure of working as a spotter at a multi-multi mega-station that finished second in our region in the CQWW-CW a few years back (and seeing how the other half operates!). There have been a lot of wonderful QSOs over the years, but none will ever replace that first sked with my buddy, Chris, who lived only a few blocks away. The day I first heard a fellow member of our wonderful fraternity answering my call. The day I first heard WV2ZWZ, shaped on a straight key, turned into RF in a 6L6, radiated from the dipole that sent it off into the ether and into my receiver.