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.
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.
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.