The guy was rusty, as I guess he was mainly a 6 meter AM operator (this was before FM and repeaters had appeared on the scene). He came to the house, played his callsign (W8IGS) slowly on the family piano, I got it right and he said, "If you can do that, then you know 5 wpm code." I was nervous - was this cheating? I played my code record for him and he said, "No wonder you thought it was hard! That's at least 20 wpm!" Many years later, when I knew more, I played that record and timed it. 22 wpm. An uncle told me later that when he was taking code class in the Navy, they started you at 25. If you could not get a grip on it in a few days, then you would never be able to cope with Navy speeds! Evidently this Allied Radio Shack code record was based on a Navy course.
Still, I never felt good about that code test - seemed like cheating.
Theory was easy for me...electronics had been a hobby since grade school and I'd read the ARRL license manual over and over for several years while waiting to find an exam proctor, so I didn't sweat that. The fellow sent off for the exam, and I took at at the kitchen table sometime before Halloween of '73.
It took 16 weeks to get the license...I had QSL card samples (from W4MPY or The Little Print Shop, I can't recall which) long before I had the license, so I already knew my callsign. The license was dated Valentine's Day 1974. WN8RKF. A not-so-great callsign, it turned out.
The assassination of Robert Frances ("Bobby") Kennedy was still in the public's mind at the time, and "RKF" was transposed by many to be "RFK". Including by me...as I sent my first CQ calls incorrectly. Thankfully, nobody answered. My novice logbooks shows my first on-air operations on Feb 15, 1974, with a steady string of unanswered CQ calls. I got my first contact, with WN8MNP the next day. Contacts were few and far between, as I had but one crystal for my Ameco AC-1 transmitter, on 7125 kHz, right on top of a loud Russian BC station.
Divine providence, and many months of income from a paper route, smiled upon me. At the Muskegon hamfest in March of '74, I purchased a Globe Chief 90A and matching model 755 VFO for $30. The greatest benefit from these buzzy gray boxes was of course, being freed from imprisonment on 7125. The Globe Chief also bumped me from 15 watts to 75 watts, a useful increase when your only antenna is a 40 meter dipole close enough to the ground to touch it. The Globe Chief also gave me access to the 15 and 10 meter novice bands. My QSO rate improved dramatically and I even enjoyed a nice run of DX on 15 meters that Oct/Nov. Lots of South American stations, in particular, were fond of working US Novices cross-mode...they operated SSB and we operated CW. I even have a QSL card from a legend, LU6DJX, Luciano. November of 1974 must have blessed us with sunspots, as I logged 70+ countries as a Novice that month, with 75 watts (input - probably 30 watts output) and an 8 foot high 40 meter dipole.
I knew I had to cross that 13 wpm barrier to get to the next class of license, which would give us access to 20 meters, and phone. One of my concerns was that I still didn't drive, and you had to go to an FCC office to take the test. From Kalamazoo, Michigan, that meant Chicago or Detroit, which could have just as conveniently been on Mars.
But somewhere in the summer/fall of 1974, the FCC implemented a brief program that allowed civil service employees to give exams at Post Offices. Whee! I would not have to find an adult to drive me to Chicago (150 miles). My pal Tim WN8ONW and I got on our bikes, rode to the Post Office on the given day (we had to submit mailed-in applications well in advance). They played a cassette tape for the 13 wpm receiving test, we wrote down what we heard and turned in our papers. They were sealed in an envelope, not graded on-site. We then sent code for a full five minutes, recorded onto a cassette. Each cassette had the applicant's name written on it, and placed in the envelope with the receiving test. They then administered the written exam. We took General and Advanced. My fear was that I'd flunk the code test and get stuck as a tech, which would have ZERO HF privileges.
Weeks or months later, we both received a letter from the FCC, advising us that something had gone wrong - the CW sending test recordings were damaged or lost, I can't recall which. We were told to wait, they would figure out a way to get someone to re-administer our code sending exams. No word on whether we passed receiving or the written test.
A few months after that, we both received our Advanced Class licenses...no explanation. I wrote in my logbook that I received the advanced class ticket, with callsign WB8RKF, on Jan 23, 1975. I had been a novice for 11 months. I still had not, in my mind, passed a fully legitimate CW receiving/sending test.
But that was that...I had always known that once I had the authorization to use phone, I would never use the dreaded CW again.
However, my finances dictated otherwise. The cheapest SSB rig I could find was a used Heathkit for over $300, well beyond my reach. I was "stuck" on CW for a while longer.
I reviewed logbooks recently and boy did they bring back memories. I actually did work some SSB, sometimes from the home of one or another friend who had an SSB rig, sometimes by borriwing a rig for a time. I am also reminded that I cobbled together a "balanced modulator" from diodes and capacitors. I fed that VFO into one "port", a crystal mic into another "port", and declared the output of the mess to be "suppressed carrier double sideband". I logged it as "A3A" emissions. I'll bet it sounded horrible on the air. But my logbook shows an occasional QSO with it.
It's great fun looking over these nearly 40 year old logbooks. I did not remember this event:, exactly one year after I first got on the air, Feb 15 of 1975, I sent CQ with that hay-wired DSB get-up and was answered by the ARRL HQ station W1AW. I don't remember that event, but it sure seems noteworthy today! There is is in my logbook. I gave them a 57 report, they gave me a 56, and it took place on 3.990MHz at 0214Z.
I went off to college in 1976 and was pleased to operate finally from a Big Station, W8UM. I recall the gear being a Collins 75S3B receiver, Heathkit SB-104 transmitter feeding an SB-220 amplifier, to a many-element beam atop a tower on a six story building. I worked more SSB than any time in the past, but was finding CW more comforting, for some reason. I went home for the summer of 1977, and was back on my home station with a very modest antenna, and CW was the only mode that worked. On the air one day, talking to an old timer, I complained that I wasn't very good at CW, so I'd never be an Extra, and he said, "we are doing about 28 wpm right now, you should go take your test."
The FCC Post Office experiment had been shut down, so I had to go to Chicago. I'd had my driver's license for a couple years by then. My parents allowed me to borrow a family car to make the trip, but only because I took an older, although blind, ham friend. So, it was in front of a real-live FCC examiner that I took that 20 wpm test, during a rare period when you took a "comprehensive" exam but still had a sending test. I walked out of there with my completion certificate. A 19 year old Extra. I saw a guy there who looked maybe not quite as old as my dad and asked him what he took, ready to brag about being a 19 year old Extra. He said, "Oh, I'm not a ham. It's my daughter. She's 11 and just passed her Extra." I didn't bother bragging.
According to my logbook, I had passed the test, and was able to use the Extra Class frequencies as of June 10, 1977. Outside of the Advanced Class frequency limits, I identified as "WB8RKF/CG". On phone, "WB8RKF intermin CG". The CG indicated that my certificate had come from the Chicago office of the FCC.
Shortly after receiving that certificate, I received a letter from the ARRL indicating that the FCC had dropped the requirement of 25 years of licensure for those who wanted a shorter callsgin. They included a list of available 1X2 callsigns. While my initials were available, I did not want an "H" in a callsign that I'd be using on CW. I was obviously still a mainly CW man, as the callsign I chose, W8NF, is dreadful on phone, but has a good rhythm on CW. My logbooks show that I received the paper license for WB8RKF as an Extra in Aug 1977 and one month later, the callsign W8NF. So, WB8RKF as an Extra, existed for only one month. The RKF/RFK confusion had continued during the entire time I had the RKF suffix, so I was glad to have that ended. Whoever WB8RFK is, he received a lot of QSL card intended for me.
The W8UM Big Station had been closed at some point and the only hamming I could do from my second year of college onward would be from my own apartment. I'd landed a part-time job that allowed me to purchase my own multi-mode rig, a Kenwoos TS-120S. However, I was antenna-limited, and SSB was a big struggle. I ended up going right back to home base - 40 meter CW. The bottom 25kHz of 40 at night was a great place to work Europeans who got on the air before going to work. I almost had a daily sked with F2FM for a while, as he shows up in my logbooks frequently. I can thank poor antennas for helping cement my place as a mainly CW op.
Ham radio has definitely been instrumental in my career. My first job after I received my college degree was with Scientific-Atlanta. The fellow doing most of the interviewing was Tim WA9WNF (now ND9T). I was puzzled, during the interview, why there were more questions about ham radio than my college classes. He explained to me later that most college grads were book-smart, but hams often had real-world experience designing and building things. So, he found the questions relating to ham radio to tell a lot more about how a given candidate will discover and fix real-world problems. One of my tasks today is to help develop a rapid circuit prototyping facility at work - and I'm drawing from much experience with the QRP/homebrew crowd, using techniques such as Manhattan construction, to get that off the ground.
It's been 37 years for me since I received that first license.
My first ever QSO was 40 meter CW. Since that first QSO, I've worked fast-scan ATV, built a 2 meter repeater, done a lot of DXing and contesting, been the DX briefly, used most non-digital modes and a few digital ones, run QRP and QRO, made contacts on bands as nigh as 10GHz (and run experiments on the job as high as 275GHz), did radio broadcasting, etc. But no matter where I am, what I'm doing, when I moved to the particular house I'm in, 40 meter CW still feels like my home. I always come back home.