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.

Guy Johnson, N4DEL, is a special contributor to and writes from Florida, USA.

8 Responses to “Becoming a Ham”

  • Richard KWØU:

    Great story, Guy and it is too bad few young people take such a route today. The sense of learning and achievement is tremendous. I must admit my route in the 1970s and ’80s–I turned 30 in 1980–was considerably easier, just reading books and practicing code tapes. It still felt terrific to make it through the 13 & 20 wpm hurdles, though, and you are right about the cold old government buildings, they were intimidating. Today’s more relaxed atmosphere at written tests makes a big difference, and I think that is a real plus for the hobby. People can still test on code if they wish to with the ARRL on-air certifications; even get a radiotelegraph license if they want a challenge (I did for fun), but it is a whole different scene. Thanks for sharing the memories.

  • Colin GM4JPZ:

    Guy, you awoke nostalgia in me, describing your experience back then. I remember being an SWL in the late 50s, listening to the WN and KN callsigns on 40 metres and thinking they were the gods themselves, occupying a height I could never hope to aspire to. My parents had long ago gone to bed and I was listening on my old R1155 ex-RAF WWII receiver thinking that one day I would be able to transmit on that band and communicate with these people. You had no idea back then who you were inspiring. Thank you and 73!

  • Dick. K6BZZ:

    Mine is almost an identical story. 1953 in Los Angeles. It was intimidating taking the test before the FCC examiner downtown as a 12 year old. Radio was magical. It still is to me. First rig was a 6AG7 to a 6L6. Receiver was an ARC 5 and then a S-38.
    We all got pretty good at cw because we were kids and couldn’t afford modulation transformers. Tried screen grid modulation for awhile but went back to cw.

    I used to go around and ask the neighbors if they had any old radios. That’s how we stocked the junk box. Most of them had something to contribute .

    Dick. now 78 years old. Still hamming. New stuff plus digital. Will always remember the exciting first days of hamming. It was a privilege to have been there.

  • David, KJ4CMY:

    Thanks for sharing your memories! We may not have to go through so much in today’s world, but each one of us has memories of passing our tests. Thanks for sharing yours.

  • Dennis, KA8SAW:

    I read your story with delight. I remember walking into a friend’s house (Rich, K8HGY sk) and admiring his equipment. This was around 1980. He asked me if I knew code and I told him that I knew a little. He told me that he was curious to see how my code was and asked if I wanted to copy some. I laughed, I didn’t think that I could copy at 5wpm. After what seemed an eternity, he said to me that I should take a quick test. After about 15 minutes, he told me that I had copied 25 characters in a row, and that I should be hearing from the FCC, he was mailing my test to them! He became my elmer and shortly after I received my Novice ticket! Using an old Tempo 1, I would check into the 80 meter West Virginia Novice Net. I miss those days!

  • Ross, K9FUA:

    Your story was exceptionally familiar. I took the Novice test in 1961 and the General in 1962. I was 14 when I got the Novice license. Bought a used NC-188 receiver and borrowed a home built 807 transmitter then followed that with my own home brew transmitter. I lived and breathed radio in those days. All of which led to a degree in Electrical Engineering. I have been licensed for the entire time since my general ticket. I took the general and advanced tests from the FCC Office in Chicago not at the same time. There were several hams my age or close. We lived in Northwest Indiana and would ride the South Shore train to Chicago for the tests and to shop at radio row, the war surplus electronics stores where 1625’s were 6 for a buck. Those were the days. South Michigan Avenue was a bit seedy then and we were kids. It was a great time working all over the US from our homes. I still get a kick out of talking to someone across the country or the world. I now am retired and live in Southern Utah. 73 Ross

  • James; VE3AFV:

    Shock and fear! That is my remembrance of trying to learn code as a young 14 year old kid. A classmate of mine who lived 1 mile away also had a keen interest in learning Morse code, and having no “Elmer” or Internet for instruction we decided upon a way to do it together. We both hooked up 100 Watt light bulbs in our houses directly to the 110 VAC and cheap Radioshack keys. “Transmitting” from our perspective upstairs windows we slowing copied the dahs and ditts. Unbeknownst to us the flashing light and blue glow of the spark arching across the keys drew the immediate attention of the neighbors. Within 5 minutes the police were banging on both our doors demanding to know what was happening. After severe reprimands from both the police and our parents we dismantled our make-shift equipment and forgot about becoming Hams. Ten years later we did manage to pass the tests to obtain our licenses.

  • Cliff, KU4GW:

    Thanks for posting and sharing this wonderful story Guy and all the great comments from other hams who went through similar things when getting licensed. I love reading stuff like this! I didn’t get my novice ticket until 1996 and 9 months later my Extra Class license. I had spent the previous 20 years operating single-sideband with a couple of sideband radio clubs on 11 meters, the 12 America SSB Group (# 12 because NC was the 12th state to join the union) being the one I remember the best. I went to a VE Test Session in Yadkinville, NC to take my General written test and 13 wpm code test and the VE’s talked me into trying the 20 wpm code test that day. When the code tape sent the callsigns at the beginning I was a nervous wreck and missed both calls, but thought I’ll get them at the end when they repeat them, but unfortunately the test session was being held at the local rescue squad building with the local volunteer fire department building right next to it and right when the tape got to the part where they repeated the callsigns the fire department alert siren went off and drowned everything out! Thankfully because of what happened the VE team let me try a different version of the code tape that day and I passed it that time! I went back 3 weeks later and aced the Amateur Extra written test which at that time the Extra exam was more like a review test of the Novice, Technician, General, and Advanced exams all rolled into one. The Extra test nowadays is much more difficult since they took all the mathematics formulas, etc that used to be on the Advanced license exam and put it on the Extra exam once the FCC dropped the Advanced class license. The Advanced was one hard test for me, but after I passed it I was sure I’d go all the way to Extra class. I will have been enjoying the world’s best hobby for 23 years as of October 16, 2019 and still enjoy it daily working phone, CW, and several digital modes as well. Very 73 de KU4GW

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