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Chapter One -
"It's Like This ...."
by Clinton B. DeSoto

"Calling CQ! Calling CQ to any amateur radio station!" A thousand times a night that call goes ringing out over the crowded amateur air lanes. It is the general call to any station--an invitation to any other amateur operator who might be listening to step up and chew the rag about anything and everything under the sun.

It is the trademark of the radio hams--that adventurous crew who roam the world at will, a band of good fellows, happy convivial, carefree. This book is their story. In it are tales of their adventures on earth and in the air. Tales of amateur radio....

Then--the question may be heard--what is this amateur radio? What's it all about? What is it like to be an amateur short-wave operator? Well, it's like this....

According to the official definition, amateur radio is "radio communication between amateur stations solely with a personal aim and without pecuniary interest." A comparable definition might describe a diamond as a "carboniferous solid." Yet, properly mounted, a diamond is a many-faceted gem of dazzling beauty. Amateur radio, too, has many facets.

This is one facet of amateur radio: it is a hobby. "The ordinary life of the ordinary man from whence spring the great majority of hams is a dull, drab and somewhat dreary struggle," according to one amateur. "Psychologists tell us that periodically one should drop his work for awhile and try something else, that if it be interesting enough one will usually return with renewed interest and zest." Then this amateur, a successful professional man, continues: "Amateur radio is my hobby. In its pursuit I find the balm of Gilead."

He might have added that amateur radio is unique among hobbies in that it is the only one established by federal statute and international treaty, the only one whose practice is limited to qualified, licensed practitioners. This is another facet of amateur radio: it is a means of self-expression.

"Being an amateur gives me the chance to meet people I would otherwise never meet," says one. "That's part of it. There's more to it than that though. If I build a new amplifier or something and make it work I feel that I'm creating something. When I hook up a rig I've just finished and I push the key and a fellow in the next state answers me--all this with things I have made with my own hands--why, then I feel like I have accomplished something sort of worthwhile."

Another describes his facet thus: "I have radio pals in all sorts of odd corners of the world whose signals come whispering to me through the night ... out of the jungles of the Congo ... from the tiger-infested districts of Malaya ... from the interior of Dutch Borneo ... from mountain tea estates of Java and India ... from the elephant and lion country of Rhodesia, from the burning sands of Iraq.... We wander over the face of this little old world like a bug on an orange." There are other facets, too: public service by providing emergency communication in the time of disaster, radio contact with expeditions to remote places, experimentation and research, and many other activities that combine to make amateur radio truly "all things to all men."

Radio amateurs live in a world of their own--a magic world not open to everyone. The "Open Sesame" that lifts its portals is the possession of amateur-operator and station licenses issued by the Federal Communications Commission. The applicant for such licenses must pass a stringent examination at one of the district offices of the Commission, demonstrating his technical qualifications, his knowledge of radio theory and law and his ability to send and receive the International Morse code. He must first spend hours burning midnight oil, acquiring the rudiments of an engineering knowledge of radio theory. He must practice for seemingly endless weeks until the meaningless string of dots and dashes becomes an intelligible language. He must learn the regulations of the F.C.C. and the provisions of basic communications law, because all radio--including the amateur brand--is a closely regulated enterprise.

The neophyte does not metamorphose easily into the full-fledged amateur. But when he does leave his chrysalis a new world is opened up to him. First he gets a new name--his radio call letters. Thenceforth he has a new identity--even a new personality and new social status.

He finds amateur radio "the means of communications with others on equal terms, of finding friendship, adventure and prestige while seated at one's own fireside," according to Dr Raymond V. Bowers. "In picking his human contacts out of the air, the amateur is not seen by them.... He is not known by the company he keeps nor by the clothes he wears, but by the signal he emits.

He enters a new world whose qualifications for success are within his reach. A good homemade set gives him more prestige than a commercially manufactured one. There are no century-old class prejudices to impede his progress. He enters a thoroughly democratic world where he rises or falls by his own efforts. When he is W9XYZ the beginner the radio elders help him willingly and when he becomes W9XYZ the record breaker and efficient traffic handler he willingly helps the younger generation. Without a pedigree, a chauffeur or an old master decorating his living room he can become a prince--of the air. At the close of the day, filled with the monotonous routine of the machine age, he can find adventure, vicarious travel, prestige and friendship by throwing in the switch and pounding his signals into the air."

His equipment may be of the most elementary kind, and his complete station may cost less than fifty dollars. Yet with such an outfit--with perhaps ten or twenty watts' power--he can accomplish as much as his operating skills will permit. One amateur in New South Wales, Australia, for example, talked with each of the six continents with a ten-watt transmitter. Another amateur, in Columbus, Ohio, communicated by code with South Africa, Australia and New Zealand--halfway around the world--using only one-half watt of power.

On the other hand, he may have high-powered, completely automatic transmitters rivaling or excelling those of a large broadcasting station and costing many thousands of dollars. A Mexico City amateur is reputed to have spent fifty thousand dollars on his station; another, in San Francisco, is said to have invested over one hundred thousand dollars.

But the enjoyment of amateur radio is not measured in dollars or even in elaborate equipment. It is rather measured by such gauges as service, self-expression, a sense of personal accomplishment.

Friendship is such a gauge too. Even the shyest, most introspective soul will respond to a proffer like this: "Well, old man, let's know each other better. I'm thirty-nine years old. I own a garage in this sleepy Arizona town of five hundred people. I also do electric welding. I have three children. What do you do?--and how old are you?"

The Chicago dentist whose CQ he had answered responded in kind, and between the Chicagoan and the Arizona garage owner there sprang up a strong friendship. Such contacts occur constantly in amateur radio; the community of the air is a friendly one. And, lest those contacts become ordinary and commonplace, coupled with them is the element of unpredictability. The next amateur "worked" may be a grocery clerk or a retired banker or a housewife or a rancher or a film star or physician.

Unexpected encounters are always turning up. A Philadelphia industrial engineer climbed up on the roof of his home one day to repair his transmitting antenna. He noticed a neighbor airing a couple of odd-looking rugs next door and inquired about them. "They're Persian carpets." the neighbor replied. "My son sent them to me from Iran--that's what they call Persia now, you know. He's an airplane pilot with an archeological expedition there."

The engineer was greatly interested. They discussed the expedition for a few moments, and then he mentioned his hobby--amateur radio. This time it was the neighbor's turn to express interest. "Maybe you can talk to Iran by short wave, eh?" he asked. "It's Mother's Day, you see, and my wife is feeling bad because her boy is so far away from home." The father was told that Iran, unfortunately, was one of the few countries that did not permit amateur operation within its borders. His face fell. With quick sympathy the engineer said it might be possible to relay a message through a European station however.

The men went into the house, and soon a message was launched on its way, via Denmark and Egypt. Two days later the reply came. The boy sent greetings to his mother, said that he was feeling fine, but that he needed some film for his camera. The mother went down to the corner drugstore, eyes glowing with joy at the opportunity to do something for her boy. She bought the film and sent it on its way.

Her pleasure at receiving the message so delighted the engineer that he made arrangements with a station located in Russia, near the Persian border, to get in touch with the pilot in Teheran. Some days later, after several exchanges and much planning, the explorer son flew his plane to a point near the border. From there he was taken to the Russian station where he talked with his mother for a quarter of an hour and then hopped back to Teheran.

This is an age of rapid communication, yet situations frequently arise in which swift communication is either difficult or impossible through commercial channels. A young Japanese boy was dying in Chicago not long ago, friendless and alone in the strange city. The physician who watched him as he lay in his bed in a South Side Y.M.C.A. knew he had come there a few days previously hoping to find work. Now the boy's only wish was that his parents in Honolulu might be notified. The physician heard this whispered plea compassionately and turned to the clerk who stood in the shadows of the darkened room. "Do you suppose Mrs Mida could help up?" he asked. The clerk nodded and left. He telephoned Mrs Mida, championship golfer and ardent radio amateur. She was instantly ready to help. An urgent "CQ Honolulu" went throbbing along the air waves.

In a surprisingly short time the clerk returned and told the boy that his parents knew--everything. The lad died a few minutes later, peacefully, secure in the knowledge that his parents would care for him in accordance with their custom.

Amateurs make no attempt to compete with existing commercial channels in handling messages, but as a self-training measure an elaborate network of "trunk lines" and feeder lines covering the country and involving hundreds of stations has been established.

The creation and maintenance of this network is one of the functions of the American Radio Relay League, the national amateur organization. This organization, which has headquarters in West Hartford, Connecticut, represents the amateur in legislative matters, promotes interest in amateur communication and experimentation and strives in various ways to advance the radio art. It stands for the maintenance of fraternalism and a high standard of conduct. One of its principal purposes is to keep amateur activities so well conducted that the amateur will continue to justify his existence.

The League was founded as a cooperative movement for the relaying of messages, the ranges of amateur stations in the early days being limited to a few miles. When, in 1914, Hiram Percy Maxim was unable to reach a fellow amateur in Springfield, Massachusetts--thirty miles away--from his station in Hartford he arranged to have his message relayed by a third amateur in intermediate Windsor Locks. Impressed by this solution to his problem, he conceived and organized the A.R.R.L. to put such relays on a nation-wide basis.

As the range and effectiveness of amateur stations increased the need for relaying decreased, but the League continued as a protective and fraternal association providing legislative protection and leadership in research and operating activity. In 1919, when the U.S. Government was reluctant to give up its wartime control of radio, the League carried the fight to Washington, brought the amateurs back to the air and kept them there. Later, whenever other radio services or coalitions of foreign governments tried to encroach on amateur privileges the League, aided first by the Department of Commerce under Herbert Hoover and then by the Army and Navy, successfully fought off the attacks.

In early days amateur stations used code alone in their transmissions. These days they use both voice, or 'phone, and code, or c.w. (continuous wave) telegraphy, the proportion being about one third 'phone and two thirds c.w. Actually, all amateurs must be able to understand the radio code. A 'phone transmitter, involving microphone, speech amplifier and modulator, is more complex and expensive than one for c.w. alone which needs only a telegraph key. There is a traditional rivalry between confirmed addicts of the two methods, a rivalry comparable to that between sailing-boat and power-boat owners or between sailplane and airplane pilots.

Amateurs operate in specified bands of frequencies allocated to them by international treaty. In these narrow slices of radio spectrum, sandwiched in among broadcasting, police, marine, aviation and all the other radio services, they are free to roam as they will. Each band has its own peculiar properties and is most useful for a particular distance and a particular kind of communication. In general, the higher the frequency (or the lower the wavelength) the greater the distance that can normally be covered. The 1.7-megacycle (160-meter) band, for example, is commonly used for distances ranging from cross town up to a few hundred miles. The 28-megacycle (10-meter) band, on the other hand, is chiefly useful only for transcontinental or international work; in fact, a phenomenon called "skip distance" ordinarily renders signals inaudible the first few hundred miles from the station, making reception at near-by points impossible.

Occasionally this phenomenon leads to extraordinary situations. During a flood emergency in New England some years ago an amateur operator, attempting to make an important contact, found his signals being jammed by another station downstate who happened to be talking with a European amateur. Repeated calls did not succeed in attracting the interfering amateur's attention. The emergency operator grew frantic as time passed and his urgent message stayed on the hook. Finally he had an inspiration; he called the European station, "raised" him and explained the circumstances.

It would be difficult to describe the interfering operator's reactions when his foreign contact came back on the next transmission, saying: "Get off the air! There's an emergency going on, and you're QRMing (interfering with) important traffic."

Amateurs talk a language all their own. Anyone who has tuned an all-wave receiver through those portions of the dial marked "Amateur" has heard it. On voice it is a strange jargon made up of terms like "73" and "QSL" and phrases like, "Well, old man, how's my modulation?" or "I've changed over to a 6L6 tri-tet, and the drive is up to twenty mils now." And if the mysterious jumbles of dots and dashes are translated they may read something like this: "GE OM TNX FR QSO UR SIGS RST 599X HR IN PODUNK MO." Which, being interpreted, means: "Good evening, old man. Thanks for communicating with me. Your signals are: readability--five, strength--nine and tone--nine, here in Podunk, Missouri."

This seemingly senseless jargon is a language that outdoes "pig Latin" and Esperanto and even "boogie talk." Brevity, they say, is the soul of wit. It is also the essence of ham language or, as it is sometimes called, "QST English"--from its occasional use in the amateurs' magazine, QST. The basic principle is abbreviation--the elimination of all but the indispensable elements of expression in conveying intelligence--combined with a collection of technical and pseudotechnical terms and a few choice colloquialisms that belong only to radio.

The abbreviation of words to save transmission time has long been the habit of American amateurs. Thus "very" becomes "VY" and "operator" becomes "OP", and "old man" is shortened to "OM". By international agreement a long list of "Q" signals permits the statement in three letters of almost any expression used in ordinary radio exchanges--for instance, "QSO": "I can communicate with----" and "QSL": "I give acknowledgement of receipt." "CQ", too, is an international symbol, meaning "General call to all stations." From the land telegraph lines there came such expressions as "73," meaning "best regards," and "88," meaning "love and kisses."

An idiomatic radio shorthand, these abbreviations have become an identifying characteristic of ham radio.

"Ham" radio? That term itself deserves explanation. Its origin probably goes back to the nineteenth-century English sports writers whose slang term for "amateur" was "am" pronounced "ham" by the cockneys. It came to amateur radio from the landlines where it originally applied to "cubs" or neophytes; now its meaning is that of "unprofessionalism." In origin and significance the term in radio is quite different from that of the theatre where it is used to denote an actor of indifferent ability. Amateurs view their appellation with considerable pride. To be considered a "good ham" is just about the highest mark of honor there is.

Thus from one source or another--the abbreviation of English words, an admixture of international code signals, a few relics of the old Morse wire-line expressions--the amateur's language has emerged.

It is based on the English language but it is understood by amateurs who comprehend not a word of English, who understand "DX" as a term implying communication with a distant station but who do not realize that it is a contraction for a word called "distance" or who use "CUL" as a parting phrase equivalent to "au revoir" without knowing it as a symbol for "see you later." In the course of time most foreign amateurs learn this form of radio "pidgin English."

As a language it is useful only over the air however. The difference between understanding English as sent by code and actually carrying on a conversation by voice is as great as the difference between a written and a spoken tongue.

A New York City amateur named John Preston discovered this some years ago. He answered a buzz on his doorbell one day to find a swarthy, dynamic individual standing at his apartment door. The visitor sprouted unintelligible gibberish that bore only a vague resemblance to English. It was only when the stranger produced a brightly colored QSL (acknowledgement) card and offered it with a bow that Preston realized his visitor was a European ham he had worked many times over the air.

The visiting amateur did his best to make himself understood, but his QST-English was simply unintelligible. Preston became aware of another man in the background who finally stepped up, smiling, and introduced himself as an interpreter. Through this intermediary the two hams carried on a lengthy and interesting conversation.

When dinnertime arrived Preston called his wife, and they went down to the dining room together. Everything started off well at dinner, but before long the interpreter became interested in his food. The conversation died....

Suddenly the visitor picked up his spoon and started tapping. Preston looked at his wife who also knew the code. She smiled, and they picked up their spoons and started tapping too. Their guest's face split wide in a delighted grin.

The interpreter looked up, puzzled, and then went on eating. The hams no longer needed him; they were talking their own language once more.

Among radio amateurs there is a genuine brotherhood and informal camaraderie Everyone is called by his "handle"--his first name or nickname. The president of the Chicago Stock Exchange and the mechanic in a Birmingham garage are just "Paul" and "Joe" when they meet on the air. It's not a question of what a person is in private life, but is he a good operator, and what is his standing in the Brass-Pounders' League (total messages handled) or DX Century Club (number of countries worked) ?

"Hamfesting" and "ragchewing" are active verbs in amateur radio. The bond of brotherhood via the air waves excels that of many fraternities and lodges. When a ham goes traveling, no matter where he goes, he knows he will find friends who will welcome him with wholehearted hospitality, invite him to stay for the night, show him the sights and give him a royal good time--whether it be in Oscaloosa, Durban or Nome.

An amateur from New Zealand planned to visit the United States. He wrote ahead to several amateurs he had met over the air, explaining that he did not expect to have much time to spend in America and wanted to make every minute count. Would they meet him on arrival to say "Hello"? Word of his coming spread like wildfire, and he was met at the dock by scores of welcomers.

He had intended to stay but a day or so in San Francisco and then go on to New York, but the hams willed otherwise. He was two full weeks in San Francisco and another week making various side trips to West Coast points, but the hams willed otherwise. He was two full weeks in San Francisco and another week making various side trips to West Coast points, visiting amateur stations, "chewing the rag" in person with his other friends and seeing the sights.

Finally he got started on his trip East. But the San Francisco gang had made his presence known to all the amateur fraternity. They knew his train schedule and route. The trip from Coast to Chicago resembled a presidential campaign tour more than a cross-country railroad trip. He hadn't intended to stop in Chicago at all, but the national ham convention was only a week away, and he was persuaded to stay over for it. A week after the convention he was still in Chicago, being shown a royal time and enjoying it immensely. His trip East was no different. Clubs took him into custody, passed him around from city to city. Before he left the United States his planned "short visit" had grown into a several-months trip.

Not long afterward an amateur from Switzerland arrived in the United States for a three week tour of the country. But the warm welcome extended by amateurs in New York City kept him there for the full three weeks. He never got west of Jersey City!

Fraternalism ... good fellowship ... ingenuity ... public service ... the power to annihilate distance and bring oneself closer to mankind throughout the world ... the ability to build and create and put the products of one's hands to work to overcome the miles and hours ... thrills and sport and adventure....

That's what amateur radio is like.