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The Way It Was: Recalling the dawn of amateur radio

By John Straka | Columnist Published: March 23, 2016 12:00 AM

I graduated from high school in 1935, just about the time when radio was still very new. Amateur radio operators were having fun building their own transmitters and competing to see who had the best ones. The government assigned certain frequencies just for amateur use. Some frequencies would only reach a short distance, while others sent signals that bounced off certain layers in the atmosphere and reached halfway around the world.

I tried to get into that, but it required the ability to transmit and receive a minimum of 10 words per minute Morse code in order to get a license. I just barely managed 10, when the minimum was raised to 12, and I quit trying.

My high school classmates George and Ed had their licenses. A third classmate, Joe, got into ham radio, and that led to his getting a job in the police radio department of a nearby city. Another friend and neighbor, Pete, was not much interested in talking to other "hams," as he was in being able to build a working transmitter. So he built a "rig," and needed some way to see if it worked before applying for a license. For a very brief time, he used someone else's call letters. Of course that was not legal and he could have been in trouble, but he was on the air for such a short time that it did not matter. During the war, he served as radio operator on a destroyer, and I still have a few letters he sent me.

At about that time, our family radio had shortwave capability, and I could listen to the chimes of Big Ben directly from London, as well as music from Czechoslovakia. I even had the opportunity to talk to a ham in Australia, from the home of one of my friends with a shortwave transmitter.

I would spend hours waiting for the local police to say something on the police radio, but they seldom did. What did work, was being able to listen in on pilots talking to the airport as they approached Cleveland. When I heard a pilot say, "United 437 over Goshen," I knew he and his plane would roar over our house in exactly so many minutes. Goshen was a city in New York state, and when the plane passed over it, the call alerted the airport control to watch for the arrival and landing of the plane.

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I had fun with that, because I would wait until just before the aircraft flew over my house, then I'd go outside and tell my buddies I could hear the airplane approaching. Of course they didn't hear it, and neither did I, but I knew it was coming. A few times, after dark, I aimed a flashlight at one of those planes and the pilot flashed his landing lights at me. Can you imagine the trouble I'd get into if I did that today? There have been some recent reports of lasers being used that way, but that's much more dangerous than my little flashlight had been.

Now we have cell phones and email. In those bygone days, if two friends both had transmitters, they could arrange a set time, and one would call the other at that same time every day.

Verification cards were a large part of amateur radio. Every operator wanted to know how good his home made transmitter was. Every time one operator reached another, they would exchange verification cards. If you had a transmitter, you would get those cards printed up to your own specifications, and some were very creative in their design.

When atmospheric conditions were just right, a signal might bounce or skip, and travel a lot further than it normally would. That generated a lot of activity as hams scrambled to get verification from seldom reached stations. On one such occasion, I happened to be tuned in, and heard a very pleasant sounding lady's voice calling from Nova Scotia. Female hams were in the minority, and this one, from the sound of her voice, must have generated many fantasies as to what she looked like.

I remember being on a bus as the driver and a passenger were having a conversation. Now drivers are not allowed to talk to passengers while driving, but this was long ago. I had never seen the passenger before in my life, but there was something different about her. Something familiar about her voice. As the lady was getting off the bus, the driver said, "Goodbye, Molly!" With those two words I realized she was the ham on the air most afternoons, talking to friends while preparing supper in her kitchen.

I can pick up my cell phone and talk to anyone anywhere in the world. Or I can send an email. Today's young people may find it hard to believe there was a time when you could not do that. Not long ago, a disaster such as a California earthquake would totally isolate an entire region from the rest of the world. Amateurs with battery operated transmitters provided the only way to communicate out of stricken communities.

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