Copyright 2009 by Scott B. Laughlin/N7NET
The day the paperboy was to visit Jack’s radio room came too quickly. After retrieving the morning paper, he sank into his recliner. As a rule, he first digested the editorial page, and then he scanned the entire newspaper front to back. This morning, however, Millie’s remark about how much time had passed since he’d last been on the air was still nagging him. How long it had been? Why was she keeping track?
“Jim will be here this afternoon,” Millie called from the kitchen.
“You mean the paperboy?”
“Jack. You’ve got to start using his name.”
Jack grunted and dropped the paper in his lap. Pushing his recliner back, he closed his eyes and tried to recall his last visit to the radio room. Propagation was probably in the ditch that day. It had been for months. As if that wasn’t enough, a faulty transformer was creating havoc with the signals, driving the noise floor through the roof. He’d made two formal complaints to the utility company, but to no avail. Perhaps, during his hiatus the problem had been located and corrected.
Jack gazed up the narrow stairway to the radio room door. His shack had once been a portion of the attic. Today, however, he would be sharing his asylum with the paperboy.
Millie’s ability for getting her way was phenomenal. And he thought about the sign hanging in a tobacco shop on Van Ness Avenue that read: HISTORIC LOCATION: A MAN WON AN ARGUMENT WITH HIS WIFE ON THIS SPOT ON FEBURARY 3, 1932.
Sighing, Jack remembered that the room needed a going over. Laying the newspaper aside, he pushed himself from his recliner and headed up the stairs. After reaching the landing he pushed the door open and reached inside to flip the light switch. That’s when he caught a whiff of Millie’s furniture polish. “So this is how she keeps tabs on my radio habits,” he muttered. He admired the scores of QSL cards and certificates he’d collected. Directly behind his desk hung a world map on which scores of colored hatpins marked significant locations he’d worked at one time or another—Pitcairn Island, Azores, a North Pole expedition, and a dozen small islands off Japan. A lone pin marked Marion Island, an icy chunk of real estate hugging the Antarctic Continent.
The leather protested as he settled into his high-backed chair and swung it into position at the desk. His radios were large and occupied much of the desk area. He’d purchased them prior to World War II, months before communications equipment became rationed items. To his right a J-38 was anchored on a heavy brass plate. On a separate table stood an ancient Underwood mill he used for copying high-speed CW traffic. At the back of the desk, in custom-built shelves, were four telegraph keys that had seen extraordinary service. Had they been capable of telling their stories, each might have startled the world with events of which they’d taken part—the sinking of the Titanic, World War I, the Scopes trial, the 1929 Crash, World War II, sinking of the Bismarck, and the Korean Conflict, not to mention the daily livestock and grain reports, Wall Street, and hundreds, if not thousands of baseball games transmitted to remote studios in Morse code.
After checking the cables and wires, Jack switched on the power and watched the tubes came to life. Their orange glow gave him comfort and he didn’t object to the scent of hot dust.
While the radios stabilized he recalled his stint in the Army. Drafted at forty-six, he was too old for combat, but as an electrical engineer and amateur radio operator he was a skilled Morse instructor.
The code school where he taught operated around the clock. Students assigned to night classes often fought sleep. Most of the code drills were prerecorded on 78-RPM records, so he was free to leave his desk and physically shake students awake. However, he soon found an easier way. He could isolate any position he chose and plug his Vibroplex into that circuit. Then he would begin sending the Morse characters that resembled the rhythm of The Old Gray Mare—PE 777 PE7 JA. He couldn’t recall ever finishing the first line before the snoozing person was jolted awake and back on the mill copying code.
The sound of the doorbell brought him back to the present. Then he heard Millie’s footsteps in the kitchen.
“Remember, you’ve got to stop calling him the paperboy. His name is Jim.” Millie said as she passed the foot of the stairway.
Moments later Jim appeared in the doorway, his eyes bright, his mouth gaping as he took in the radio room
“Wow!” he finally said.
“You still want to become a ham radio operator?” Jack asked.
Before he could answer his mother was at his side. She was a tall, attractive redhead and he saw the boy’s clear blue eyes and high cheekbones in her face.
“I’m concerned about what Jim’s getting into here, the electricity and all,” she said, before introducing herself.
“As you should be,” said Jack, swinging his chair around to face her, “but let me assure you there’s nothing in this room that’s any more dangerous than turning on a table lamp. Everything is properly grounded. However, I shall watch over this boy as though he were my own flesh and blood, Mrs. ahh—.“
“Mrs. Cornwell,” she said, and for the first time she seemed to notice her surroundings. “This must be how a War Room looks.”
“Well, I don’t know about that, but there’s been times that I’ve battled the elements—propagation, noise, and lightning,” he said, rising from his chair and motioning Jim to take his place.
“I want you to watch this young man do the most dangerous thing he’ll do while he’s here.”
Reaching past Jim, Jack rotated the receiver dial until he tuned to a familiar voice. Then he adjusted the transmitter frequency, keyed the microphone, and transmitted his call.
“There you are, Jack. We were just talking about you…OVER.“
“It was all words of praise, I’m sure. HI HI,” he said, laughing. “George, I have some third-party traffic, a young man here in my shack wants to become a ham. His name is Jim and he wants to have a word with you. Standby.”
Turning to Jim, he said, “When I push this button I’ll be keying the microphone. That’s when you say ‘Hello. My name is Jim. Over. Got that?”
Jim followed the instructions and he smiled at Jack, and then at his mother after he heard George say his name over the radio.
His mother seemed satisfied and followed Millie down the stairway.
“You have to learn Morse code,” Jack said, after signing off on the radio.
“I already know code.”
“Yes sir. I learned it from the Secret Code Club. See?” explained Jim, holding his right hand up so Jack could see his ring.
Jack adjusted his glasses and squinted at the ring and watched with interest as Jim opened the top exposing a tiny magnifying glass.
“Where’d you get that?”
“I sent in twenty-five cents and a cereal box top to Battle Creek, Michigan for it.”
“And you learned the code from that?”
“Most of it. Some of it.”
Jack was stunned. It sounded like hogwash to him, but he tried not to show it. He’d witnessed some pretty wild notions in years past, but this one, in his opinion, took top honors. His first impulse was to terminate the ham radio scheme, but that would never be an option as long as Millie was still breathing. If he tried to back out now she’d hound him to his grave. He was boxed.