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Becoming a Ham

A few days ago I was tuning 40 meters, I heard some slow CW, about 8 wpm. As I mentally copied the CW, my mind drifted back to 1956 when I first became a ham. Back then, to be a Novice, you had to know CW at 5 wpm and pass a written test. Well, the anticipation of being able to communicate with people by radio from your home was a tremendous turn-on for me.

At an early age, I built crystal radios, and would listen far into the night, sliding my contact arm on the home wound coil and using a cat whisker to peck around in the crystal. My earphones gave just enough volume to hear baseball games, storytellers and even picked up some stations with languages foreign for a ten year old.

Later, I would pull my red wagon up and down alleys, and gather anything that was remotely connected to electricity. Motors from washing machines, junked radios, and on one occasion I hit the jackpot with a television!

With an old coal bin in the basement turned into my “shack,” I would spend hours tearing apart motors, radios, vacuums and getting them running. My greatest accomplishment was repairing a TV, as at that time my parents did not have one! What a surprise when they returned home from work and found me watching a RCA 9″ TV with Howdy Doody!

The year before I entered High School I took my Novice test and passed and became a Novice. With money from my paper route I had bought a used SX-99 Hallicrafters receiver and a Heathkit transmitter. I strung a dipole between my neighbors house and mine. With a few fixed crystals I was ready to talk to the world. Hour after hour I would send out CQ’s and tune up and down for reply’s. I made hundreds of CW contacts from all over the US and even some DX!

I was now ready for the big time. Phone! Voice! AM! Time to get my General. Aha! 13 wpm CW and a technical test on vacuum tubes, power supplies, receivers, transmitters, rules, and operating procedures. Well I had read, studied, used, and practiced CW till I was blue in the face. Test time came and as I set in the cold, dreary FCC testing room in St. Louis, my palms sweated and my hands trembled. What was this 13 year boy trying to do? Fourteen other adults and me.

Then came the CW test. We had to copy 13 words error free out of a 5 minute test. The tape was turned on. The first sounds were like the blast of a machine gun. Just one continuous stream of ‘dits’ and ‘dahs.’ After about one minute I had a jumbo mix of letters and numbers that made little or no sense. Trying to focus I let my mind start leading my fingers with little or no thinking about what I was copying. I did not look back at the words, I just kept copying and writing.

Suddenly the tape ended. The silence was almost deafening. Out of the 15 in the room, four got up and left without turning in their CW copy. I quickly scanned the crooked letters on the paper. There were words! Real words five letters long. Did I have 13 in a row? The monitor quickly gathered the papers. He said that we could not take the written test unless we passed the CW portion. Two more got up and walked out!

Time passed as I watched the second hand on the clock seemingly stop, and at one point it appeared to actually click backwards! The monitor called each individual up to the front. He mumbled a few words and the individual either returned to his seat or if he had failed he would walk out. Then with a thundering roar like God from Mount Sinai, I heard my name! This was the do or die, the beginning or the end, to fly like an Eagle or sink like a rock. I slowly rose, my knees felt weak, a sicken feeling rose from stomach. Did I pass? Would I have to do this all over in 3 months? He looked in my eyes and raised the test paper. Here it comes. “You managed to pass.” he mumbled. Return to your seat for the written portion.

I had not really let it sink in. I had actually passed! I had actually passed! As I fell limply into my seat I knew that I was going to be a General Class Amateur. The technical test would be a no-brainer. In about an hour, he said the magic words. “Congratulations K9LLY.”

Today I am still active with an Extra Class License and former President of a radio club in Florida. I still love the hobby and find the new technical modes exciting. We are getting young people involved again, despite the competition from cell phones, games and PC’s.


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  • Matt W1MST, Managing Editor