I met KE9V at the Dayton Hamvention a few days ago and told him this story. Jeff invited me to share it with you in the interest of public safety…
I was licensed in 1959 having been bitten by the radio bug when I was a just a wisp of a boy. I spent every possible spare moment building gear, antennas, and learning the ways of radio. At some point fairly early in my journey, I fell in with a bunch of 4’s who met on 75 meter phone almost every night for long-winded late night bull sessions. We all lived within a five-hundred mile circle except for one fellow who told us his name was “LG” – just letters, no name – and when asked, he would swear on his mother’s grave that they weren’t his initials, it was just his ‘name’.
That caused a few of us to privately wonder about the character of a man without a real name but LG was a nice enough fellow except that on most nights would ask everyone in the roundtable to open their icebox and look carefully at our bottles of milk.
He wanted us to report back on the color of the cap and the type of milk. I couldn’t see much sense in it though LG was insistent. He was working on a theory that enemy spies were signaling each other about big events by changing certain colors. For instance, if 2-percent milk usually had a green cap, but was suddenly switched to blue then that meant that something bad was soon to happen.
“Stuff and nonsense” was the usual reply though we were all more than a little shook when shortly after the skim milk cap colors were changed from red to blue a DC-10 crashed on takeoff from Chicago killing everyone onboard. “Could have been an inside job”, LG said and who were we to protest having been eyewitnesses to the change in milk cap colors just a week before the tragedy?
Having known about the milk caps and yet not alerting the local authorities weighed heavy on me like a man condemned. So much so that before long I dropped out of the roundtable.
I didn’t want the responsibility that comes with such great power and foreknowledge.
Besides, I needed a bigger challenge and somehow got it in my head that I would become a world-class CW operator. That was just the sort of thing I needed to challenge me and to hold my interest. Though I had passed the Morse test years earlier to get my ticket, I thought of the code mostly as an annoyance, a barrier to keep dimwits out of the fraternity.
But after a year or so of constant practice, on the air, in contests, and off the air with a CPO, I couldn’t get comfortable above about 18 words per minute. I was blocked and becoming obsessed with a growing desperation to break through that barrier.
And it was at about that time that I attended a hamfest in Texas and happened to bump into old “LG” from the 75 meter net while I was there. We sat down with a few frosty 807s and he spoke at length about the milk caps and the way they were facilitating chatter among the spies that had infiltrated the USA…
Wanting to change the subject, I confided in LG the challenge I had laid out for myself – to become a world-class CW operator – and I admitted that I was falling seriously short of that goal. That’s when he looked at me for a long moment, leaned a little closer and said, “follow me and don’t say a word”.
Not wanting to be rude, and admittedly a little curious as to what he might be up to, I followed him to the RV lot where his motorhome was parked and we went inside. The unit was clean, though very small with a rack of radio equipment on one side. He said that he was now living full-time in this rig and was enjoying his retirement by traveling all over the country “wherever he wanted to go”.
We sat down in the only two seats available and after looking out all the windows, I guess to make certain we had some privacy, he began to speak in a hushed voice.
“I spent thirty-years in the military. Special ops. At the end of WWII we spent a lot of time critiquing the war effort – what worked, what didn’t. Truman was impressed with what the Brits had done at Bletchley and he wanted us to do the same. One of the weaknesses of that time was that most of the radio communication being passed by spooks was coded messages sent by humans using Morse.”
“Teaching agents the code wasn’t difficult – but like you, most of them would top out at about 20 words a minute. Since shorter transmissions were less likely to be traced, high value was placed on field ops who could send and receive Morse at much higher rates…”
“And so the nation’s top scientists were given a challenge – give us a way to take an average ‘Joe’ and make him a high speed CW operator in a month or less – Project Celeritas became one of the first top-secret, high-tech projects of the Cold War era.”
“What they came up with was a drug. First, you learn the code at a rudimentary level, then you take one of these pills and your ability to send and receive Morse grows exponentially. It’s a miracle – though not without a few side effects. I have a small supply and would share them with you for – $500 – which would be enough to get this gas guzzling rig back home – you interested?”
It sounds crazy, I know, but I was desperate. And it just so happened that I was flush with cash having planned to blow a small fortune at the hamfest. I pulled out my wallet and had $550. It must have been fate. LG took my money then told me to turn around and close my eyes while he collected the pills from a secret stash.
He handed me a bottle with 100 tiny pills inside. “Don’t take more than one a week and don’t show off your new found skills too openly. Uncle Sam thinks that these are long gone and if you draw much attention to yourself it will be trouble. You understand?”
I told him that I did and wandered off anxious to see if I had just wasted $500 or not…
Back in my own shack I took one of the pills and began to tune the bands. I didn’t notice an immediate improvement and was beginning to think that I had been ripped off by a nut with a milk bottle cap obsession but then, wait … what was that? I was reading the mail on the lower end of 20 – in my head. I listened carefully and decided these guys were running about 35wpm. Eureka!
Over the next month I faithfully took a pill once each week and found myself easily copying high speed code in my head while cleaning the house, working on a crossword puzzle, and once I even answered the door to talk to some disciple inviting me to his church – and I never missed a single bit of the conversation that was whirring along in the background from my receiver on 20 meters.
I could detect no side effects. In fact, the biggest problem with the drug was that I could find no one fast enough to really challenge me. I retrofitted paddles with high speed bearings but was beginning to run up on the physical limits of sending because the hardware couldn’t keep up with my burgeoning ability. A fact I found horribly frustrating.
Six months later I heard about an annual high-speed Morse code contest in North Carolina and decided to enter the fray. Before long I was seated at a table with a dozen other ops all with cans clamped to our heads copying code messages limping along at just 60wpm. When the speed reached 90 words per minute there was just me and one other guy left and he bowed out at 100wpm.
Amazed, they kept cranking the code speed up – it was being sent by a machine capable of sending at 160wpm and I easily copied paragraph after paragraph of random text, right up to the limit of the machine and was all the while taunting them to “go faster”.
I took home the trophy and $1000 prize without realizing that the results of the event would be published in the local newspaper. That story was picked up a day later by the wire services and within 48 hours there was a knock on my door. Two G-men escorted me to a local office where they asked me a lot of questions about how I was able to copy code at such speeds.
I hadn’t heeded LG’s warning not to show off the results of the drug and now there would be hell to pay.
After being transported to a dank office in Langley, Virginia I was interrogated but there was no need for them to go to extremes. I coughed up the details in a heartbeat figuring that now wasn’t the time to be coy. I had 43 pills left and told the Feds exactly where to find them in my home. And I told them everything I knew about LG … and the milk bottle caps. After two days of incarceration and hours of high-speed Morse tests they took me home.
The remaining pills were gone – taken by the government I assume.
Withdrawal from the drug began driving me crazy. I heard Morse when there was none to hear. Every sound in the house, from rain dripping off the roof to the popping of the water heater sounded like code to me and it only became worse. When I heard people talking my brain was trying to convert their words into code and that distracted me from having even a brief conversation with anyone. It kept getting worse until I could no longer work for a living or enjoy ham radio.
I sold my house and all my gear and moved to a solitary cabin in Michigan’s UP where even the chirping of birds sounds like a message that my brain strains to decode, but there’s nothing there to be decoded. I think I may be going completely mad.
I’m telling you this story because the Feds contacted me a year after all this went down for some additional information. It seems they never found “LG” and for all I know, he’s still out there dealing that magic drug to some unsuspecting radio ham who just wants to improve his code speed a little. After all, what ham doesn’t want that?
You’ve been warned…