Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Such a Ham

I have memories from before age 7 of lying in my bedroom in the basement of our house in Havre, MT, and hearing my dad talk on his amateur radio. He had many post cards hung up on the wall with the call signs from fellow ham radio operators he had contacted from all over the world. I think his call sign at the time was W7ZOV.

This was before computers and many other technical marvels, so short wave radio was pretty exotic stuff to a growing boy. At some point along the way I was motivated to learn morse code, and got very serious about it when I was in junior high. I listened to practice code tapes and got to where I could copy code at 15 words per minute, plus or minus.

After I graduated from college with an electrical engineering degree my dad suggested I apply for an amateur radio license. With my schooling in electronics and my morse code background, it shouldn't take much study and practice to pass the exam. I started out with a novice license, and got the call sign WD6CCR. My dad gave me his old Heathkit radio and we were able to communicate with each other--I in Ridgecrest, CA, and he in Riverside. His call sign then (and now) was W6WUG.

I obtained more code tapes and practiced. I needed 13 words per minute to pass the general class or advanced class license exams, and 20 words per minute for extra class.

I studied from the license manual to bone up on radio and electronic theory.

In addition to added privileges and frequencies, each upgrade in license class provided a more exclusive call sign, with a 2X3 for general class or lower (e.g. WD6CCR), a 1X3 or 2X2 for advanced class (W6WUG or KD7JS), and a prestigious 1X2 for extra class (N6ID). I studied the book's theory sections for general and advanced class pretty hard.

In the exam room the first test was morse code at 20 words per minute. The code came flying at me and I doubt I copied more than two thirds of the characters. But for the multiple choice questions I was able to piece enough together to pass the exam at 20 wpm!

Next up was the general class theory. I passed that one without difficulty. I went into the hallway and briefly reviewed the section on advanced class, and then passed that exam as well. I had already exceeded my expectations at this point and was very pleased. But since I had 20 wpm code I was eligible to try for the extra class test. I again went into the hallway and frantically studied the extra class section. I had nothing to lose by taking the exam. After they graded it I learned I missed it by one question. Oh, so close! If only I had studied more beforehand.

I moved to Meridian, ID, and got my new 2X2 call sign of KD7JS. I strung up a simple antenna on my roof and scheduled weekly radio chats with my dad. Most days we got through okay. I would get my kids on with me to say hi to grandpa. It seemed pretty exotic and was cheaper than calling long distance on the phone.

After moving to Beaverton, OR, I put up an antenna in my attic and bought a better used radio.

I continued talks with my dad, though sometimes conditions were so poor we would go weeks without success. Then new communications technology caught up with and passed ham radios. With computers and cell phones it became much more convenient and reliable to communicate with these vs. the ham radio, and now my rig just gathers dust in the corner of my desk. Email, Facebook, blogs, and texting are the norm today.
However, I did get a 2M radio from my dad so I could communicate on the LDS Church emergency radio network. A few months ago we had an emergency drill and it worked out fine. So I guess my ham license still has value and purpose in this computer age.


  1. Before you wrote it I could have told you the W6WUG and KD7JS. I remember that so well!

  2. Bridget, I think your early memories of Dad's technology in your bedroom would be me typing on the "bumputer".

  3. I remember that too!

    I like how you set the scene as "lying in your bedroom listening" when I would have described it (in my experience) as "being woken up early on a Saturday morning by."