I had a bunch of fun with those walkie talkies, but my imagination was captured looking through the next Allied catalog that arrived in the mail. I was there that I discovered Amateur Radio! It was one of those jaw-dropping moments. I knew THAT was what I wanted to get into. I just had no idea of how to get started. I spent a few years taking apart radios and old TVs to learn anything I could, but I sure didn't learn much. I could fix them, but only because it was usually only a weak tube or some oxidized contacts. That impressed my friends, but not me. In high school I found out that the physics class actually taught electronics in the second semester. I actually forged some paperwork to get into that class the next year.
My physics teacher, Bob Ackerman, turned out to be a ham. At the urging of several friends and I, he reactivated the school's defunct Amateur Radio club. Mr. Ackerman patiently taught us electronics and regulations in preparation for our Novice exams. We were left to our own resources to learn Morse code and paired off with buddies to practice sending and receiving. My buddy and I were the first who felt ready for our tests. In March of 1971 Mr. Ackerman took us to meet another ham who gave us our tests. At first, I washed out with the code test. For some reason, I had a mental block against the letter "G". When I mentioned this, he told me to write down a "G" whenever I heard something I couldnt figure out. So I did just that and passed with no problem. The written test proved to be relatively easy. Mr. Ackerman had prepared us well.
For the next three months I watched the mailbox longing for that ticket. When it finally did arrive in late June I was away at summer band camp. When I got the news all I could think about at camp was going home and getting on the air. I played percussion and now the rhythm to every piece of music seemed to be the Morse pattern for WN4VQY, the call that dad had read to me over the phone. Suddenly I couldn't wait for band camp to be over.
When I finally got home I went right out and bought coax, copperweld wire, insulators, and rope at the local Lafayette Radio store. I built a 40-meter dipole and then clambered fifty feet up a couple of trees to string it up. Finally, I borrowed some rigs from the high school Amateur Radio club -- a BC-348 and a Knight-Kit T-50. Now I was ready to roll -- or so I thought.
I completely froze up my first time om the air. I barely cobbled together the guy's call and QTH, but he stuck with me until I could log that first contact. It shook me up so bad I was too scared to try again for over a month. But with that next contact I calmed down and from then on I was having nothing but fun. I was soon back in school and I settled into a routine of operating every afternoon, late evening, and even around 4 am if I could hear through Radio Moscow. I started out with only one crystal, so I quickly made friends with several guys I was bumping into around that frequency time and time again. From my home in Newport News, Virginia, I worked all up and down the eastern seaboard and the midwest with ease. The wee hours of morning were for trying to pick up those rocky mountain and west coast states. Little by little, I was receiving the QSLs toward my worked all states award.
I was having a ball and it seemed like nothing could slow me down. Nothing except for the dreaded 10 wpm wall. Turned out that I had learned the code all wrong -- by memorizing the dots and dashes from my Boy Scout Manual -- so I really hit that wall hard. Seemed like forever I was stuck at 10 wpm (maybe eight weeks.) But in that time I kept operating while my brain finally learned Morse the right way. Then my speed started rising again. It seemed a perfect linear relationship -- the more I operated, the faster I got. I topped out at 28-wpm on the Novice license only because that's the fastest I could send with my good old J-38 straight key.
I saved my pennies and eventually ordered some more crystals and antennas. This got me on 80 and 15 meters. I strung up a zip-cord dipole for 80 that didn't work very well, but my new Gotham 3-element 15 meter beam was a home run! It got me into some real DX, including Europe, South Ameroca, Hawaii, and even Japan! Here I was, a 17 year old kid and working the world from my own bedroom! For me, this was the stuff of dreams!
Part of my savings strategy to get those crystals and antennas was to not spend money ordering QSL cards. I made my own. My older sisters had created some interesting art projects for school with linoleum block printing. The tools and supplies were still around the house and I figured I could do a decent job with that stuff. So I came up with a design, drew it in mirror-reverse on a block, and rather crudely gouged it out with carving chisels. But it worked! I sized the design specifically for printing on the back of blank pre-stamped post cards that I'd purchase from the post office. Six cents bought my "card stock" and the postage for each QSL card. Super cheap and worked great! I've uploaded photos of the original block (yeah, after 40 years I still have it) and a card I printed from it. I also included a pic of my shack and one of how I looked as a young ham all those years ago.
In my fourteen months on the Novice bands I made over 400 contacts. I didn't quite get the WAS, but I made many new friends, scored some DX, learned good CW operating technique, and most important, I had a blast! With all that that Morse experience, upgrading to General was simply a matter of studying the theory and FCC regs. A short trip to the Norfolk FCC office to sit for the exam and I was on my way! When I received the General ticket I caught that dreaded mike-in-hand disease and turned my back on CW for a while. But eventually I gravitated back to it and CW has since remained my favorite mode.
I am saddened by the demise of the Novice license. New Technicians have all the Novice privileges, but I doubt anyone actually uses them starting out. Man, they just don't know what they are missing.
73 to all,