I took my Class B amateur radio exam on November 25th, 1949 which was the day after Thanksgiving. In early 1950 my W2DEC license arrived in the mail, I was the happiest kid in the state of New Jersey. My pathway into operational ham radio was a home built transmitter and a purchased receiver. A generation of Novices would soon pursue this same route.
I worked the entire summer prior to getting my license saving enough money to purchase a Hallicrafter S-40A. My first transmitter was based on a QST article and contained a crystal controlled 6AQ5 driving a 6L6 amplifier I had no idea how much power I was running, who could afford a meter? My first antenna was a folded dipole constructed using 300-ohm twin lead commonly used to feed TV antennas. The antenna ran around the ceiling of a first-floor apartment. The performance of this antenna could charitably be described as abysmal.
With this rig my QSO rate was about one every third day. I did learn an important lesson, if you have a weak signal don’t waste your time calling CQ because only those skilled in clairvoyance would be attracted to answer a signal that was 90% imagination. However I could, on occasion, get someone calling CQ to respond to my reply.
My home was Hillside, NJ which is between Newark and Elizabeth. All my contacts were with the first, second and third call areas plus a couple of VEs. My best DX was a QSO with a very patient operator in Northern Maine.
After about five months using this rig, I talked two neighbors into allowing me to string my folded dipole between their clothesline poles and things started to improve dramatically. Suddenly, station in the fourth, eighth and ninth call areas were within my grasp. My best DX was Miami FL, I was on my way with flying colors.
My Elmer, Jim McGintey W2YYP, helped me set up a BC459 (WWII general use transmitter) with a power supply scrounged from parts from a discarded TV set. The difference when using when using a VFO controlled transmitter was dramatic. The transition from an indoor antenna to an outdoor antenna and from a crystal controlled to a VFO rig had taken my QSO rate from one every second or third day to frequently five, or more, Qs per day.
One evening I heard KG4AN calling CQ NYC. KG4, at the time, was exclusive Guantanamo Bay Cuba. Since I was close to NYC I called him and back he came. I was so nervous I could barely send coherent code. KG4AN was a Marine stationed on Gitmo and his wife had just given birth to a baby girl. He asked me to call his parents on Long Island to pass along the good news , I happily complied. I was now on my way to becoming a DXer with three countries, W, VE and KG4, worked and soon to be confirmed. The KG4AN QSL hung on my wall for many years; unfortunately, the card became a victim of hurricane Sandy.
Almost all of my operating was in the afternoon after school or the early evenings. I heard a few Europeans but didn’t have enough confidence to even call them. I had yet to work anyone west of the Mississippi.
One night I woke up about 2 AM with a toothache and couldn’t get back to sleep. I wondered if anyone was on the air at that hour and got up and turned on the rig. I didn’t touch a single dial and there was a W7 calling CQ. I called him and much to my surprise he came back. In those days you were located in the call area where you call indicated unless you were signing /some other call area. Sure enough, he was in Arizona. I was so excited I sent him an air mail QSL card. In 1950 postage to send a QSL card was a penny and an air mail QSL cost 4 cents. I sprang for mailing my card in an envelope which set me back 6 cents. The card from W7RA hung in a place of honor on my wall for years to come. I sometimes wonder if Mark Zuckerberg’svFacebook idea of putting important things on a wall didn’t originate with radio hams.
Taking one more look at the band before heading back to bed I hear another W7 calling CQ. Can I be lucky twice in the same session? Yes sir and Washington State was added to my growing list of states worked. That glorious night taught me two important lessons; learn about propagation and if you want different states and try operating at times you usually not on the air.
The next night the toothache was gone but I was again up a 2 AM. I worked a W6 and a couple of W0s stations. A few nights later I was tuning the band and there was a KH6 working another W2. I waited until they were done and called the KH6. Another miracle, he came back. A few nights later a ZL was added to my log and the DX hook had been firmly set. The rest, as they say, is history.
Although I worked my way up to being one country off the top of the honor roll in 1965, none of the contacts putting me at that lofty level equaled the thrill of working the first KG4, W7 and KH6. If it hadn’t been for a toothache who knows how my ham radio career would have unfolded, I may have never become a DXer.