My brother Bill, now N9LSL, had recently graduated from Purdue University in electrical engineering and he was going to night school for a master's in the same subject. I used to look forward to accompanying him down to Allied Radio on Western Avenue in Chicago. Allied was a full-service electronics store where you could get parts for construction and any type of stereo or other consumer electronic gear. Allied also was the home of Knight-Kits, which were the Chicago version of Heathkits. I put together a Knight-Kit C-100 CB walkie-talkie and listened to the CB channels. It was from Allied's used gear section that Bill got me a Knight-Kit Span-Master super-regenerative shortwave radio for Christmas in 1962. That gift changed my life forever.
The Span-Master started me on my way to becoming a ham. Short-wave listening quickly became the focus of my life. I read the issues of Popular Electronics which Bill subscribed to. Popular Electronics issued shortwave listener call signs. I got the SWL call WPE9FSG. Having that call made me feel as though I belonged to a sort of fraternity. Popular Electronics had a column that helped me learn about amateur radio. I would listen to such stations as CHU, the BBC, Vatican Radio, Radio Australia, etc. and get broadcast QSL cards. From Radio Peking and Radio Havana Cuba I received a lot of communist literature like Mao's Red Book. I sent a QSL request with an audio tape to Radio Australia, and they answered me on the air. In those days shortwave radio broadcasting was much more important than it is today. In many instances government shortwave broadcasters were the official voices of governments and often the main medium for them to communicate with audiences abroad. I suppose along with many other young hams in the back of my mind I fantasized about becoming a Radio Elmwood Park to the world.
Before long I met a ham at my grade school named Clark McCarron, WN9FLT (phonetics: "Flight Leaves Tonight"). He had a station in his basement with a Knight-Kit T-60 transmitter and a Hallicrafters receiver. I decided to get my Novice ticket and started to study the code and the ARRL pamphlet How to Become a Radio Amateur. Clark and I visited several hams in Elmwood Park including Elmer Malone, W9LXL. Elmer was a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair who spent many happy afternoons on a 40 meter AM rag chew net. There was a ham dealer a few blocks from my house, Trigger Electronics, run by Irael Traeger, W9IVJ. It was a source for parts and coax which allowed me to see more sophisticated ham equipment such as Drake and Collins.
After I had learned the code I asked Elmer to administer the Novice test to me. It was a 20 multiple answer test administered by mail along with 5 words per minute code sending and receiving. It took several tries to copy the required 25 characters in a row at 5 wpm, but somehow I did it. In June 1963 I received the call WN9INK.
At that time one of the highlights of each year was appearance of the telephone book sized Amateur Radio Callbook in April and October. New hams would go down to ham stores and sneak a peak in the Callbook to see if their callsigns appeared. The first time WN9INK appeared in the Callbook the new WA9 and WN9 calls in the ninth call area were listed sequentially up to about WA9IAA. Two or three pages further on, WN9INK was the lone six-character call on the page. Apparently somebody at the FCC had seen my family name "Signer" and in a moment of ingenuity put it together with "INK" to make me WN9INK. This was about as close as you could get to having a vanity call in those days. I would hold that call and WA9INK for 33 years afterward.
After I got my Novice ticket I went down with Bill to Allied and got a used Knight-Kit T-50 transmitter and R-55 receiver. I sent $4 to World Radio Laboratories in Council Bluffs for 100 QSL cards showing my QTH on the map of the United States. I climbed up on the roof of my home and put up a 40 meter dipole. When operating I used a knife switch to change from transmit to receive. I had a lot of trouble getting the T-50 to work at full power. My first CW contacts were pretty rough, but I slowly developed confidence. I was able to work a few local novices, but no real DX such as Indiana or Wisconsin. I remember visiting the QTH of Paul Miller, K9ATB, and salivated looking at his log including lots of DX stations on 15 meters CW.
I was a fortunate to be a student at Fenwick High School in Oak Park, Illinois, which had an active ham club, W9ANF. The school staff monitor of the club was a ham named Father Robinson. We used to go out to the county forest preserve to operate. I recall operating the ARRL Field Day with the club and discovering how cold it can get at night in Chicago even in June.
About 50 weeks into the one-year term of my Novice license I figured out the plate voltage for the 807 tube in the T-50 was not being supplied due to a plug missing on the back of the chassis. After that I did manage to work VE3OO on Hudson's Bay and ten states with that setup. I heard Novices with KN3 and KN7 calls. I was dreaming of working California but didn't make it that far. Fortunately, I got down to the FCC office in Chicago just before my Novice expired and passed the General Class test. My WA9INK call came in July 1964.
I dreamed of getting a better station looking at the World Radio Laboratories and Amateur Electronic Supply catalogs which were then mailed to all U.S. hams. Instead of eBay, the used radio list in the AES catalog was considered the main benchmark for a radio's value.
My father took pity on me and my primitive station. One day he unexpectedly came home from the Hallicrafters factory in Chicago with a brand new HT-46 and SX-146 transmitter-receiver pair for me. My dad hadn't told me before, but he knew the president of Hallicrafters, Bill Halligan, W9AC, from the West Point alumni society and got a discount on the rigs. That night I worked a station in Denmark, my first DX QSO. I later went on to work DXCC. My early days in ham radio continued until I went away to college. I had to give it up then, but I returned to the hobby several times over the years leading up to the present day. As I write this in 2008, I am working in South Africa where I am ZS6SIG.
Many of us who were Novices look back our experiences then as among the happiest of our lives. I think we were better off for it. It will be hard to replicate the Novice experience now. Then, we started off at a very rudimentary level and looked upward and forward to everything, including voice communications, solid state rigs, RTTY, etc. This replicated life, where beginning from birth we all learn everything starting from a blank slate. People looking at amateur radio for the first time today, with computers, cell phones and satellite TV all around aren't going to get the same gee-whiz effect we got.
I think many former Novices look back at their experience the same way others might look back at their school days or military experience, which may not have seemed as much fun at the time. In retrospect they are remembered with fondness because they were experiences which we shared as a small group and had together. This is not something that comes about just by getting your name in a database of 800,000. The Novice experience is gone forever, but perhaps somehow we can recreate a sense of membership and belonging for new hams that we once enjoyed.