The Christmas Present That Changed My Life

No one called me a nerd when I was growing up in Hillside, NJ although I could have been the poster boy for what we know today as a nerd. Maybe it was because it wasn’t until 1950 that Dr. Seuss created the nonsense word “nerd” for an imaginary animal in “If I ran The Zoo.” By then I was already W2DEC.

During my pre-teen years some of the most common titles used to describe me were precocious, crazy, studious, and a loner to name a few of the nicer names. I lived on a small farm and there were no kids my age close at hand so I became an expert at entertaining myself. It wasn’t easy but I convinced my parents that I should have a subscription to Popular Science when I was 11 years old. When the magazine would arrive every month I would disappear for a few days while reading the magazine cover to cover, including advertisements. One month the featured article described the manufacturing of industrial diamonds. “Ah ha,” I proclaimed to myself, I can do that. The end result was almost a disaster but that’s a story for another time.

My Favorite Christmas Present of all Time:

My parents realized my isolation was starting to make me both crazy and anti-social so my 1944 Christmas present, shortly after my 12 birthday was a one-tube radio kit. It was so cool. It was built on a one foot square piece of plywood. The components were mounted using Fahnestock connectors screwed into the plywood. The kit had a “A” battery that was the size of a small shoe box. There was another box of parts including a one piece earphone. My folks gave me the present about nine in the morning and they assumed it would keep me busy for at least a week. By lunchtime music was emanating from my earphone.

Back in those days very few radio stations stayed on the air 24 hours a day. They would sign off at either 11 or 12 o’clock and like magic; another station farther out West would take its place. Since it was late December you could follow the clock with stations to the Rocky mountain area before the east- coast stations started signing on again. It was great fun but my grades were not helped with my midnight DXing.

Big Discovery:

After a few month of broadcast band DXing and spending a good part of my allowance on replacement “A” batteries I started to get bored. I had become fascinated with the variable capacitor (back then I had no idea what it was called) which controlled the frequency as the capacitor was rotated. I wondered what would happen if I spread the end plate out a little. What the heck, I could always bend it back. I grabbed my long-nosed pliers and give it a tug and it broke right off. I was crestfallen; I had destroyed my favorite toy. I spun the knob around and low and behold I was hearing non-broadcast station that I had never heard before. I was listening to stations above the high end of the broadcast band!

After a few weeks of mapping my new territory boredom again started to set in once again. Dare I take off another capacitor plate? I thought no, I had pushed my luck to the limit as far as capacitor modifications. However, I did notice there was a large coil of wire connected to the ends of the capacitor (again I had no idea of parallel components.) This time I was smart enough to think through a modification that could be reversed. I got out my trusty soldering iron and disconnected one end of the coil and took off about five turns and soldered the newly exposed wire back onto to the mounting lug. Eureka, I was hearing a wholly different group of stations. Up until this point almost all of the stations produced by my experimentation were one-way broadcast. One day I heard two guys talking to each other; it was an event that would change the whole direction of my life. I was fascinated, these stations had call letters but they were different, they had a number in the middle! I wanted to become one of those people.

I went to an Uncle who had a lot of worldly knowledge. His advice, ignore them, they’re ham radio operators and they’re harmless. When I wouldn’t give up my goal I told my Uncle that I wanted to become one of “them.” He told me to go to the library and ask for a book about ham radio. The librarian pulled out a copy of the ARRL Handbook and I started reading it religiously. I renewed it so many times she finally said, “Keep it we’re getting a newer version.” I would read about a half hour a day and practice Morse code as well. Back then you had to do 13 WPM straight away. I was making good progress until the hormones set in. I was about 14 and I discovered girls. Ham radio went onto the back burner for almost two years. Fortunately, I came to my senses and picked up where I had left off. On the day after Thanksgiving in 1949, when I was 16, I made the trip to NYC and took and passed my first FCC ham radio license exam. It was for a Class B license and predated the Novice license by about two years. For good measure I passed my Second Class Radiotelephone license on the same day. A year later I returned once again to the FCC and upgraded to a a Class A license and a First Class Radiotelephone ticket.

Epilogue:

It is now obvious, receiving that one-tub radio kit was the most fortuitous event in my young life. It pointed me to several careers, was responsible for getting me into a six and a half month school at Fort Monmouth, NJ and kept me out of combat during the Korean War. In addition, ham radio introduced me to a huge number of fantastic people. During my late teens through my late twenties, I keep showing up at the right place at the right time, frequently for the wrong reason.

Mom and Dad, as you look down upon your wayward son, I want to say thank you both for the greatest Christmas present ever.

Urb LeJeune, W1UL, is the creator of Ham-Cram, a ham radio test preparation website. He writes from New Jersey, USA. Contact him at [email protected].

13 Responses to “The Christmas Present That Changed My Life”

  • Dave, WD8CIV:

    “…they’re ham radio operators and they’re harmless.”

    For some reason that statement makes me giggle.

    That’s a great story Urb. My start in radio was similar, although with Dad being a Navy radioman my parents were a little more encouraging. At least until I took apart Mom’s electric can opener and couldn’t put it back together.

  • Matt W1MST:

    Great story, Urb!

    (And Dave, my parent’s basement was LITTERED with stuff I took apart and couldn’t get back together… hihi)

  • Kyle - N4NSS:

    Mine started about the same as well. My Dad had an old radio chassis and I took apart the black thingy that had many wires coming out of it (power transformer) to find a magnet. Ooooh did he get mad. Later I was given an Allied 12-in-one kit. One of the items was a broadcast Qrpppp transmitter. It said to use a 10 foot wire for the antenna. Well, I had to try the 130 ft. wire antenna I had up to see how far I could walk away from it with my portable transistor radio. That experiment always fascinated me.

  • Burt K7HVN:

    What a wonderful story! It reminds me of the ham who said he was distracted from ham radio as a teen because of fumes. “Exhaust fumes and per-fumes.”

    This is a good reminder that we all ought to help kids get those same magic moments. It may not be just in ham radio, but in music, art, science, astronomy, biology, etc… give the kids a good start according to their interest.

  • CR7ARF, former CT1DIO:

    Had a similar story, except that it was in the early eighties and it envolved a couple CB walkie Talkies. Changed my life.

    Many thanks for the memories.

    73,

    Cochicho
    CR7ARF

  • Fred AE2 DX:

    Ah the memories, started about the same way in the late 50s and early 60s paper route money saved and bought a Hallicrafter S38E spent many a hour listening to broadcast stations Radio Moscow, Radio Japan. London calling, listened to many hams which I sent out SWL cards to and received back. Spent time at 2 neighbors who were hams k2iqa (sk) w2iys no longer active. Finally in 1979 got my ticket ka2fki novice then n2dcp advanced then extra in 2012 ae2dx. My most treasured cards are my first contact and a dx ham whom I sent back in the very early years and swl report and received a qsl back from him and about 15 years later actually worked him and have that card also both framed and on my wall. am now 75 yrs young and very active on cw and digital love to ragchew on psk31. Am a VEC for both arrl and w5yi and glad to help get new hams into this wonderful world of ham radio.

  • Mark W4MMR:

    Thanks for sharing that awesome story, Urb. Both heartwarming and exciting and it brought back very fond memories for me of entering the hobby. I don’t think any other hobby I have has given me the same strong feelings of excitement that amateur radio has.

  • Vlasta OK1DNQ:

    Verry nice story. It`s nice story, my story and for many others, too. I think.

  • Anthony K8ZT:

    Similar story here, but it was a Graymark kit with plug-in coils that I experimented with. Here is copy of a recent column I did as ARRL Ohio Section Youth Outreach- “SWL in a Digital Age or How to Listen to Radio Without an Antenna or Give a Kid a Radio for Free” – http://tiny.cc/dswlr

  • Frank ON6UU:

    Pse more of these stories !!

    Magnificient !!

    73
    ON6UU

  • Brian, AB9ZI:

    Similar story but two decades later, at age 12, I received a Knight Kit 12 in Experimenter. Here is a link to a photo of one:
    https://www.nutsvolts.com/uploads/wygwam/NV_0413_Goodsell_FIG1.jpg
    Note the metal cover sheilding the high voltage and the tube. Unfortunately that metal cover was connected to one side of the 120 volt AC input and because this was before polarized plugs, you had a 50-50 chance of that cover being ‘hot”. Years later I was told I had built the thing wrong and that cover should not have been connected to the mains. Somehow I survived being shocked many times. That kit sparked (yea bad pun) a life long interest in radio, ham radio, and electronics.
    Brian, AB9ZI and General Commercial Radio Telephone License formerly First Phone

  • Harv K2PI:

    Great Story Urb! Mirrors a bit similar experiences in my own life, with corresponding outcomes. Amateur Radio strated me on a very good path in life, and I have to credit it with most of my success.

    73
    Harv
    K2PI

  • Laurin WB4IVG:

    Good Story Urb Mine started a lot younger and at times was far more dangerous, Maybe I’ll Put it all down someday and send ya a copy. A bit of it can be read on my QRZ page.
    73’s Laurin WB4IVG

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