A Merry Old Soul
by Scott B. Laughlin / n7net
I heard a faint Signal
Late one Christmas Eve
Copy was not easy
And harder to believe.
I pressed one phone
Against my ear
And held my breath ‘til
The signal came clear.
It was jolly St. Nick
With an old straight key,
A K1, and dipole
We QSOed for a time
While elves loaded his sleigh
He did most of the talking ‘cuz
A cat had my fist, you might say.
At last we signed with a CUL
Me and this jolly old soul
His toy bags were loaded
And he was ready to roll
by Scott B. Laughlin/n7net
Jack was not impressed with the Secret Code Ring. And Jim sensed that winning Jack’s confidence would not be easy. He would have to try harder.
He knew fewer Morse characters than he’d thought. But Jack’s teaching method made it come easy. Theory, however, was difficult. There were frequencies and band plans he had to memorize, and some of the math was beyond his comprehension.
“Jim, you’re going to be ready for your novice test next week, and I have every reason to believe you’ll pass it with flying colors.”
“Absolutely. You’ve done well and I think the two of us should have a small celebration. Ask your mother if she would object to the two of us going to a donut shop Saturday morning before you begin your paper route.”
“She wouldn’t care,” said Jim, his eyes gleaming.
“Well, I don’t know that for sure. I don’t want to get us into trouble. You ask her anyway.”
That evening Jim stopped by on his way home from school for code practice. Before they began he said, “Mom wants to know which donut shop.”
“Tell her we’ll got to Nancy’s Bakery a few blocks from your house. I’ll pick you a half hour before you have to start your paper delivery.”
“I spoke with Jim’s mother at the book club meeting yesterday,” said Millie at breakfast. “She said that since this radio business started she seldom sees her son. If he’s not doing homework, he’s at school, on his paper route, or on the radio. “Do you suppose we’re becoming too involved?”
“I don’t think so. What would you do different?”
“We’re not strapped, you know. We could find a way to help financially so he wouldn’t have to deliver papers.”
Jack shook his head. “No. He needs the paper route.
“It’s not easy for his mother to make ends meet, you know.”
“I don’t suppose it is, but a polished apple is sweeter,” said Jack
Millie didn’t argue, but Jack could see that she wasn’t totally convinced.
That evening two radio operators arrived and administered Jim’s novice test. When it was finished, Jim had only to await the arrival of his license before he could start operating with his own call.
“Had you thought about how you could give back for the amateur radio privileges you now enjoy?”
“I don’t have anything to give.”
“Yes, you do. You have time. One evening each week you could give an hour to a traffic net, maybe even become a net control operator.”
Jim listened but made no comment, so Jack didn’t press the issue.
Saturday morning Jim was alone in the radio room when Millie called up the stairway announcing that she and Jack would be out for a time checking on a rental house they owned. They’d left him unsupervised several times before and everyone was comfortable with it, but she called up the stairway with a reminder, just the same: “If you decide to leave be sure to turn the power off and lock the front door behind you.”
The house was quiet and Jim began tuning across the novice portion of the 40-meter band when he came across someone sending a weak distress signal. SOS SOS SOS DE SALLY DEE SOS SOS SOS. Rotating his antenna, he determined that the signal was originating in the north, but he had no idea how far away. He brought the transmitter on frequency and adjusted the maximum power his novice license allowed. When the station paused Jim responded with his call, but after he stopped sending he discovered they had not heard him. He’d watched Jack adjust the power. But doing so would exceed his power limitations. He knew that would be okay if he were the one in trouble, but he wasn’t sure if answering the call justified boosting the power. He decided to take a chance and increased his output another twenty watts. But it did no good. Then he remembered a list of telephone numbers taped to the side of the desk. He found a number for the Coast Guard and dialed it.
“United States Coast Guard,” said a voice over the phone
“Is this where I report a SOS signal?”
While Jim waited he could hear voices in the background and then footsteps.
“This is Ensign Bradley. Give me your name and the phone number from which you’re calling and then tell me about the signal you monitored.
After Jim reported what he knew, Ensign Bradley assured him that someone was already on the frequency. When their conversation was concluded Jim turned his attention back to the radio and tried to copy the exchange, but the code was much too fast and he recognized only a few characters. Eventually, he shut down the power and went home.
“Hello,” said Jack, pressing the telephone receiver to his ear the following afternoon.
“Hi, this is Ensign Bradley of the United States Coast Guard.” After he’d verified the number he asked if Jim Cornwell was in.
“No, I imagine he’s still in school. Is there something I can help you with?”
“Well, I thought he might like to know the outcome of yesterday’s episode.”
“What episode are you referring to?”
“Oh. I thought you knew about the distress signal he reported to us yesterday. His prompt action may have saved the lives of three men in a disabled fishing boat off the coast of Alaska.”
“Let me get this straight. You’re talking about young Jim Cornwell, the amateur radio operator?”
“Yes, I am. The boat initiating the call had lost power and it was dead in the water. They were on battery power and who knows how long that might have lasted?”
“And Jim notified you folks?”
“That he did. You should be proud of your son?”
“Actually, he’s my paperboy.”
“Oh, well, however he fits in there, he did a superb job.”
“Would you mind calling again about a quarter after five and speaking to him personally? He’ll be here by then and I want him to hear this from you,” said Jack.
“I’ll be glad to do that.”
Jack headed into the kitchen to bring Millie up to date.
“Last week I mentioned that he should consider some sort of public service as payback for his privilege of using the bands. But he was reluctant, so I let it drop.”
“Maybe he’s a little overwhelmed and feels unqualified,” suggested Millie.
“That might be the case, but he certainly handled this situation like a pro.”
A knock at the door sounded and Millie went through the living room to let Jim in. He joined them at the table and Jack could see by his somber expression that something on his mind. Before Jim could speak the telephone rang.
“Hello,” said Jack. “Yes, he’s right here. It’s for you, Jim.”
“It’s the Coast Guard.”
Jim froze. Who had told them that he had violated the conditions of his license by exceeding his power limit, he wondered? Reluctantly, he took the phone.
While he was on the phone Jack and Millie went to their bedroom and fetched a key. Then they moved to the living room and took a seat on the sofa. After a few minutes Jim appeared in the doorway.
“Yesterday, while you were both gone I heard a SOS on 40-meters. It was coming from a boat called the Sally Dee.”
“We heard. You did well.”
“Absolutely. You conducted yourself in the true spirit of amateur radio. We think you’ve earned the privileges that would ordinarily be extended only to a grandson,” Jack said, reaching into his shirt pocket. “This key is to the front door. Anytime your mother says it’s okay, let yourself in whether we’re home or not.”
“Are you serious?”
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.
Copyright 2009 by Scott B. Laughlin/n7net
Jack awoke with a start. Had he had missed the paperboy for the third morning this week? Gently, he laid back the blankets, so as not to disturb Millie, then groped for his trousers.
“What’s the matter?” she asked, her voice thick with sleep.
“Nothing. Go back to sleep,” he said, tugging on his trousers. After cinching his belt he grabbing his robe and slippers and headed for the door.
Fisherman’s Wharf lay not far away. He sometimes heard waterfront activity—the shriek of boat whistles and the slow rhythm of ships. But this morning all sounds were muffled except for the throaty moan of a distant foghorn. The corner street lamp cast a grainy luster across the wet lawn.
“What on earth are you doing, Jack?”
Startled, he whirled about to find Millie on the porch, clutching her flowered robe tightly around her neck.
“I’m waiting on the paperboy,” he growled. “Go back to bed before you catch cold.”
The words hardly cleared his lips before the young man appeared on a speeding bicycle. Before Jack could draw a breath to summon the fellow, his newspaper sailed toward him and slid to a halt a few yards from where he stood.
“Hey! I want a word with you,” Jack shouted. He knew it was fruitless, this hollering business, because the speeding youngster had vanished as quickly as he’d appeared. Perhaps it was the curse of his old age that made hailing so futile. He stooped to retrieve his soggy Chronicle when the boy’s voice sounded.
“Mr. Wilcox, did you call me?”
Jack straighten and found himself looking into the face of a short, thin boy.
“I did. What’s your name, young man?”
“Do you see what’s wrong here?”
“No sir,” answered Jimmy, his dark eyes searching the newspaper that Jack thrust toward him.
“Can’t you see that it’s soaking wet?”
“Well, everything’s wet this morning, sir. It’s the fog.”
“With a bit more force you might have sailed it onto my porch.”
“You want it on your porch?“
“I can do that.”
“Good. For every morning I find it on my porch I’ll add ten cents to your weekly fee.”
The boy smiled, but Jack could see that his mind was occupied elsewhere.
“May I ask you a question?”
“Like what?” growled Jack.
“Is that a tri-bander on that tower?”
Jack glanced toward the antenna, but it was not yet visible in the predawn light. “How’d you know about that?
“I saw it when Mom was showing me my paper route.”
“And what do you know about radio antennas?”
“Not very much, only what I read in a magazine at the laundromat. Do you have a radio room?”
“Can I see it?”
Jack had no tolerance for children. They were noisy and unruly. He knew he’d frightened the boy by the way he’d grabbed his bike and fled, but it didn’t matter. He didn’t care. The little scamp had no business poking around and touching things in his radio room.
“You shouldn’t have been so short with him,” Millie complained, as Jack started for the porch.
“Well, maybe not, but I don’t want a darn kid underfoot. He’s a paperboy, for crying out loud. If I let him in one time he’ll be back every day. I don’t have time for such monkey business.”
“I suppose not, your being retired an all,” Millie said sarcastically. “How long has it been since you’ve turned on your radio? Six months? A year?”
He didn’t answer, but held the door for her, instead. He watched Millie proceed toward the kitchen. By her stride it was obvious that this conversation was not finished.
He opened the Chronicle and scanned the editorial page before placing the paper near the furnace to dry. Then he moved to his recliner, leaned back, and closed his eyes. If only Millie had stayed in bed, he thought to himself. The sun was not yet up and the situation was already out of control.
Jack pulled himself from his recliner and headed into the kitchen.
“One of the Chronicle editors thinks John Kennedy will be our next president,” Jack said as he added milk the bowl of oatmeal she’d set before him. He knew she cared nothing for politics, so maybe a bit of Washington news would derail her crusade.
“How do you feel about that?” she asked as she dried her hands on her apron and joined him at the table. Raising her hand, she swept back a few strands of gray hair that had escaped from her bun and waited for his response.
“There’s probably no difference between Kennedy and Nixon.”
“But isn’t Nixon a self-made man?” she asked.
“So they say, but that’s only because he found the incriminating Pumpkin Papers that put Alger Hiss in prison. John Kennedy is the son of a man who made his fortune bootlegging Scotch whiskey during Prohibition. How can one be better than the other? Where’s a Roosevelt when we need one?”
Millie’s eyes glazed over and she nodded mechanically while she waited for Jack to run down.
“The paperboy is interested in amateur radio. Did you not notice that?” she asked after he fell silent.
“I did. But that’s none of my affair. His father should help him, rather than me,” he said while adding milk to his coffee.
“Jimmy, is that his name?”
“Yes, that’s what he said.”
“I know his mother. She’s in our book club. She told me two weeks ago he was taking over this paper route. She’s fearful that he isn’t old enough. She’s so protective of him, being a single mother and all.”
“Divorced, I suppose,” Jack mumbled between spoonfuls.
“Actually, her husband was killed in Korea shortly before Jimmy’s birth.”
Jack blinked, but he remained silent for a moment. “That’s unfortunate, Millie, but that has no bearing on me. I’m much too old to be of any use to a ten-year-old. Have you forgotten that I’m seventy-five? What on earth would we ever find in common?”
“Radio. It’s the radio that you have in common, the same attraction that occurred between you and that old man you knew when you were a kid. What was his name?”
“Wilson. Old Man Wilson.”
“It radio that brought you two together, was it not?”
“Well, it was his wire antennas that first caught my attention. That old man taught me so much.” Jack’s voice trailed off as he focused on the past.
“How old were you?”
“I’m not sure. Eighty-something, I think.”
“Eat your breakfast, Jack.”
by Scott Laughlin / N7NET
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.
“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.
by Scott B. Laughlin
Taylor Sullivan was in the fourth grade when he found a damaged issue of Boy’s Life Magazine. It was lying on the curb of a Portland street and the wind had flipped it open, exposing an illustration of a boy speaking into a tomato can. Pausing, he stooped and studied the picture. The article described how to build a crude telephone using things commonly found around the house—a length of string and two vegetable cans.
His mother had scolded him about handling things he found on the ground. He considered her words, but this seemed important enough to put her warning aside. Rolling up the tattered publication and shoved it into his hip pocket and then he headed home.
Taylor built a tin can telephone and he and Carl, his little brother, used it on the staircase. That’s where he learned that the string had to be taut and in a straight line. If the cord touched anything it stopped transferring audio. It seemed like a perfect solution for communicating between their bedrooms, so he built second system and cut a hole through the wall solely for that purpose.
“Hold the can still, Carl.”
“No, you’re not. You’re letting the cord touch the edge of the hole.”
Carl didn’t have a steady hand. After several failures, Taylor enlarged the hole. When that didn’t solve the problem he expanded it even more. Then their father discovered the damaged wall.
The telephone didn’t work well outside and Taylor quickly lost interest in it, but he was hooked on communications. Commercial radio had taken the nation by storm and he couldn’t get enough of it.
In 1937 Taylor’s father purchased a large, floor model radio. The adults gathered around it for the evening news, and he watched them await Gabriel Heeter’s opening statement: “Good evening folks—there’s good news tonight“. While he was curious about the AM broadcasts, he found more adventure in listening to the three shortwave bands. That was where Taylor became acquainted with Morse code and heard his first ham, a man called Marvin.
A neighborhood hardware store sold radio parts and the owner knew Marvin well. He even gave Taylor directions to his house. On his third visit he began learning Morse. In a short time Taylor experienced the thrill of making his first two-way contact, operating under Marvin’s call. After that he began preparing for the test that would fetch him a radio license of his own. Then he set out to earn his WAC (Worked All Continents).
Taylor was 19 when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred and the United States entered World War II. For national security reasons ham radio privileges were revoked. He enlisted in the Navy and soon thereafter, he was a radioman aboard a submarine. After a week at sea he found two others who, as civilians, had plied the night skies with electromagnetic waves.
Because receivers transmitted a weak signal that the enemy could follow to its source, radio silence was invoked, keeping strict transmission schedules. When not in use, the antennas were disconnected.
However, operating a receiver without an external antenna while the boat was submerged didn’t breach radio silence, so Taylor created a spare time radio activity of his own.
With the Captain’s permission, he used a receiver and began transmitting verses from the New Testament.
When time allowed, a receiver was moved from one strategic location to another. The noisy environment of the boat while underway coupled with a very weak signal made copy a sincere challenge. At a given point in time Taylor declared the quest finished.
Both hams scored high and were issued a WAC, a certificate stating that the bearer had successfully Worked All Compartments.
I achieved a Morse code speed of 13 wpm back in 1990 while still living in Oregon. I did it by participating in the West Coast Slow Speed Net. The operator who took our slow speed messages to the high-speed section net was called RN7. Win, a Canadian, was our RN7. Though we never met and shook I knew his FIST well. Near midnight on 16 June 1991 while plying 80 meters with a Swan 350 I found Win CQing on 3702, the old net frequency. We chatted for perhaps a half-hour. During this exchange he told me he was operating portable from a family owned cabin located the Northwest Territories. He was using a fistful of D cells, and a Heathkit HW-8 sending one-watt going to an inverted V antenna.