Fast forward a couple of years. I couldn't leave it alone, couldn't let this thing defeat me. I still did a fair amount of SWLing and still had the interest. So, I decided that I would set my sights on a humbler, more realistic goal - the Novice ticket. This was to be a "sink or swim" proposition, meaning that if I wanted to communicate in any way via amateur radio I would HAVE to learn to use the code. Also, I was pretty sure I could pass the Novice written test, but just to be sure, I admitted to myself that I didn't know everything and so bought a study guide anyway - just to see what they knew.
My novice license was issued on December 10th, 1976, the day before my eighteenth birthday, though I didn't receive it via the USPS for nine more days. I was suddenly (and proudly) WB5ZKR. That call was issued shortly after the FCC dropped the special prefix for novices, so I was never a WN5.
By the time the mailman arrived on that fateful day I had already saved my pennies and bought a radio (I knew I had passed the exams) - a used Tempo-One. The ever-popular Kenwood TS-520 was the radio I really wanted, but the tempo was more in line with my budget, being a starving college student by this time. The 80-meter dipole had been installed above the house for weeks (much to my dad's consternation) and its SWR checked and found good, centered on 3725khz. All I needed now was the courage to actually call someone or put out a CQ of my own.
My dad knew what was going on. He understood that I was about to make my first amateur radio contact, and so kept hanging around my "shack" all that day. You see, he wanted to be there when I actually did it because he had tried to become a ham himself way back in the late 1940's. He had trouble mastering the code, too and had put the whole idea "on the back burner" for years. Trouble was that he never got back around to it. I will always regret that I made my father leave the room during those halting and failed attempts at my first QSO. I was just TOO nervous to have anyone looking over my shoulder. After several instances of having a station come back to my call and then losing the contact amidst the swirls of QRM (the Novice bands were VERY busy places in those days) I gave up in total frustration that first evening. The "big event" actually took place the next day around noon, when 80M is not so crowded. It was kind of anti-climactic by that time, I have to admit. But, that was it - I was off and running. WB5ZKR was on the air!
In reality, I took to CW like a duck takes to water. I upgraded my ticket to General after being a Novice for six months, and bought a Heathkit keyer kit instead of a microphone. Even today my operating is 95% CW DXing.
Those Novice days were fun times. Everything was new. Everything was a learning experience, and the leaning curve was steep. I regret not having an Elmer, though. It took me quite a while even to find a General class ham who could be bothered with administering the Novice exam to a scruffy kid, let alone anyone in the area willing to "show me the ropes". I guess the lessons you learn on your own are more valuable than those that are simply handed to you, but they sure can be more painful at times - like that "Official Notice of Violation" for not knowing how to properly use a crystal calibrator!
I was saddened by the passing of the Novice license. Those of us who obtained our tickets via that humble beginning understand that for many years the Novice license was the gateway to Amateur Radio, a right of passage and common experience that nearly all of our brother Hams had to master. That is why the FCC's decision to drop the Morse code requirement for all classes of amateur licenses is so disheartening to many of us. Sure, learning the code was difficult. So, what? Anything worth having is worth working for. Morse code was, if nothing else, a filter for separating the dedicated from the superficial. In all aspects of human endeavor, I fail to see how a lowering of standards can be a good thing, in the long run, for any institution. We need quality over quantity, not the other way around.
Charles - K5ZK