by Scott Laughlin / N7NET

February 2007

A sign reading Estate Sale caught my attention. Slowing, I wheeled into Herman’s drive and dogged the old Ford to a stop. We’d never met and shook. We’d never even QSOed. In fact, I didn’t even know his call. Now it was too late for any of that.

His yard was filled with portable towers, guy wires, coax, heavy transmitters, and antenna tuners, but nothing here would meet my budget. Then I noticed a sign over the door that read, More Inside.

His shack was a museum Equipment was everywhere. On the walls hung world maps and hundreds of QSL cards. However, what caught my attention was a photo of a B-17 with her flight crew.

“Herman, my father, was the radio operator on that bomber,” said a voice.

Turning, I found a short man of slight build. He was perhaps ten years my senior. His head was a glossy bald.

“Which one is he?” I asked, stepping closer to the photo, and studying the faces.

“The smallest of the group, the one on the end,” he said pointing an index finger. “He was five foot four and a quarter, and he probably never weighed ninety pounds.”

“Somewhere, I heard your father was already an operator when Fort Sam Houston came on the air with their Spark Gap.”

“True. He was.” He cleared his throat and shifted his weight. “Were you looking for something in particular?”

“I hoped there might be a stray key lying about, maybe your father’s favorite?”

Stooping, he reached into a pasteboard box and grabbed something. “Here you go,” he said. “This is a J-38, or was. These things are getting more rare with each passing day. My father, being a ham prior to his draft into World War II, spoke Morse. This may have been the one he took to war with him. Many hams did, you know. I guess it’s kind of like a trumpet player always has a mouthpiece in his pocket.”

“That’s an interesting analogy,” I said, plucking the key from his grasp and turning it in my hand. “The armature is rusted in place.”

“I know,” he said wistfully. “But you could breathe life back into this puppy. Then you would own the very key my father may have used over Tokyo.”

A host of possibilities raced through my head. There’s no way of telling what might be hidden beneath this rust.

“How much?”

“Twenty bucks.”

“Twenty bucks?” I echoed. For certain, a J-38 in working order could be found for less money, but not one bringing with it a legacy. What if the B-17 tail number were etched somewhere on this key?

“How about five bucks and I’ll save you a trip the dump?” I countered.

“Let’s get serious.”

“I am serious,” I said, smiling, and shoving a five-spot toward him while slipping the rusty J-38 in my shirt pocket.

He blinked, and shifted his weight again. “Well…, you add another five to that one and you have a deal.”

After arriving home, and taking time for a closer inspection, it was obvious that this J-38 would actually bring twenty dollars a ton on the scrap steel market. What a blunder. I should have walked away. But my remorse was countered by words echoing in my head. ‘This J-38 may be the same one my father used over Tokyo.’ What if…, I thought. My time was cheap. After a liberal soaking with WD-40, I slipped the key into a baggie and pinched the seal.

A polished apple tastes sweetest, say voices from the past. There is truth in these words, for as I labored over this gem, searching for numerals or initials that might disclose its heritage, the possibility of such clues grew less important.

A week later, it was buffed to a high sheen, but something was still lacking. Somewhere, I had a base plate.

From a box of spare parts, I retrieved a Bakelite base that had once served a Southern Pacific station agent. It fit perfectly. Even the nomenclature, J-38, was etched on it. I had something better than a key used over Tokyo

I had a ghost key.