Ham Radio

Ham Radio is an interest that is seen from two viewpoints.

First is: To each is own. I just can’t quite get the passion these guys feel about talking on the radio to someone else. I mean, when you have Skype, and Email, and Twitter, and Facebook and Youtube and……and…. and, how can you find entertainment doing the same thing but being surrounded by a bunch of weird looking radios that you can’t just turn on but also have to mess with and do “god knows what”, and also having to have a license to do so. Makes no sense. But to each their own.

Second: Ham folks.

I readily admit, I am a ham folk. Let me paint the picture.

I was 7 and had never really even thought of a radio other than my mother’s HIFI where she would turn the dial on this thing called FM. The music was boring but really sounded good, quality-wise..I thought radio was basically a source of music. She used the same HIFI to spin “Theme from a Summer’s Place” from the Percy Faith Orchestra. It was a box for music from my view.

Later, for my 9th birthday (1961) I lived in Michigan and my father bought me this thing called a crystal set. I had to put it together. He tried to explain to me what it did. I was always up for such a challenge so I, with a bit of his help, put this thing together. I then hooked this wire from the radio to a window screen, or to the bed frame or whatever I could find. I put on these neat looking earphones and I could move this little contact across the coil and actually hear people talking. No batteries were used. What was this mysterious thing that could pull waves out of the air? It was called a radio.

Interestingly, I never really got the concept that these were folks sitting somewhere else; it was just there. But it was cool. Those were different days.

Fast forward to my 11th birthday. I was living in Dayton. There was this new thing called a “transistor radio”. All I knew was you wanted to have something more than 2 transistors in your radio or you weren’t cool. My father had one – it was a monster. It barely fit your hand. It was a 6 transistor radio. But I really never made the connection other than it was a box that made sounds.

Dad spoke of his youth owning this thing called a Halicrafter shortwave radio. He said you could actually listen to people talking who were sitting in areas around the world.

Now THAT got my attention.

I somehow managed to get my mom to help me buy a shortwave radio from the Base Exchange there at Wright Patterson. It was a relatively little box, covered from about .5 to 18 megacycles (we call them megahertz today).

This was the beginning of my love affair for this media.

You have to understand the times. We did not have satellite’s relaying TV signals around the world. TV news, when reporting on foreign incidents, showed filmed (real film) footage that had been taken a day or two ago and then flown into USA to put on the tube. At most you would get a garbled phone transmission which sounded no closer than if he was sitting on Saturn.

The concept of going overseas, in those days, was like going to the space station today – at least for most of us. We had no Travel Channel, hardly any information from the foreign world.

Yet I had, before me, a box which, at the spin of the dial, could bring me Radio Portugal, BBC, Radio Havana, Radio Moscow, and many others. I would sit there and listen, knowing that the waves that were entering my antenna had left another antenna half the world away. When I strung out a bigger antenna, I could hear more. It was like putting a megaphone funnel to your hear and you could hear little South American countries and far away islands that I had to look up in the Geography book. I was totally spellbound. Many hours were spent, sitting at my desk, listening in and “finding” and even writing down my finds. It gave me a sense that I was traveling – though only in the mind, but that was the closest I could come to being elsewhere. It was my ticket to the world and to a bigger place than that which I occupied.

And I learned. I had a big map of the world on the wall. I’d place pins at locations from where I’d heard a signal. And I felt like I owned the world, just that much more.

I’d sit in class at school and dream of the radio stations and their sounds from so far away. It made me feel, somehow, that my current world was not the only place there was. It gave me hope of possible excitement and places to go. I was a traveler at heart, like my mother. This was my magic carpet to the places of the world.

This is a feeling that I’ve shared with other Hams. It is one that when share has seemed to be universally understood.

Fast forward to my Boy Scout days. We were directing cars to their parking places (and feeing important) when a friend of mine, Paul Baker, pulled out this neat little box and said something into it and a voice came out answering him. Understand that the concept that a radio could be a two way device was completely new to me. I was drawn to that box like a magnet. It was a CB walkie talkie. He had a call sign (that was so cool). He was talking to his dad who was, I now look back and realize,  going up and down the street adjacent to the church lot. He was enjoying it too.

I had to have one. Walkie Talkies did not need to be licensed if the power was below one tenth of a watt. They were a bit pricey for me but word got out to certain grandparents and these appeared under the Christmas tree one year.

Man what fun. The big thing was, “What is its range?” Well it depended, they’d say. But a mile was pretty easy to achieve. Wow – to speak in a box and have your voice show up from a box a mile away. No wires – all the radio waves going through the air. I didn’t know how it worked – but I was totally hooked.

So my life included, among many things, listening to shortwave, logging countries, and playing with my walkie talkie. Among my adventures I put together a Heathkit shortwave radio receive which put my store-bought one to shame. It became the center of my SW listening table. I had a little electric clock with GMT time. Made me feel international. I had dials, and knobs and an actual meter on the radio. These brought me the world.

Fast forward to high school. My good friend Alvin  (a doctor now in Dayton) and I were talking on the subject of radio and CB and he revealed to me there was this thing called ham radio. It was CB on steroids. It put those boys toys to shame. I’d never heard of it – but I had heard these weird dashes and dots on the shortwave. I’d also heard these voices on the radio which I could not understand. Like the voices were talking through water or something (single side band with no BFO I later learned). I had no idea what that was.

How would I know accept to meet this guy and go to his lhouse. We had no internet. Information was tough to come by in those days. Your sphere of awareness was generally about has big as your backyard, the library, your dad’s stories and the occasional TV story or movie. You could have something like that happening right under your nose (think of what else I missed) and it would remain unnoticed or not understood. It is hard to think that those days existed so recently. Today one can find out, instantly, thanks to the Google gods and others.

Alvin took me to his house and in the basement was a room with an array of radios and devices I had never seen in my life. I always loved buttons and gages and dials. And here was a set of boxes and dials – oh my gosh. If it had come to life and whisked us off to the moon I’d not been too surprised. And he cranked it all up, made adjustments that I could not pretend to understand, and then made a contact using his Morse code key. The guy was in several states to the east. What???? That was MUCH bigger than a mile!! I had no idea what was being said, but I knew one thing. I HAD TO DO IT!.

At that time my family was planning to purchase a sailboat and sail around the world. Communication was going to be a possible problem (among many) in those days and one way to solve it was ham radio.

So I had a mission and an intense interest.

So I bought books about what I would have to know. And I bought books on the subject. And I studied.

This stuff was greek. It was about little concepts that I had never even considered. You could not see electricity, like you could water or motors. Yet it produced a kind of magic (even in those days).

We had no question pools in those days as we do today in many government tests (aviation being one of them). To learn something, you had to get a book and study it cover to cover. The material was tough. You had to know and understand it because there was no way to know what the test contained. You could not memorize. You had to know it all – just in case.

And what’s more you had to not only KNOW the Morse Code but also be able to send and receive it at 13 words per minute. How did you learn this? There was a station called W1AW which transmitted code at different speeds for practice. Other than the odd record you could buy (yes records – those vinyl things) with set phrases that you would memorize quickly, there was no other way.

So I studied and studied. And finally, one day, drove, with my mother, to Cincinnati to the Federal building to take my first General Ham license test. To hell with the Novice. I wasn’t going to be a novice. My friend Alvin was a general and, by God, so would I.

But, man, I was nervous.

The first part would be the Code. Then, if we passed, we would take the written part and then wait some 6 weeks to see if we passed. Man, times were different.

The code came. They started with the Novice speeds (5 words per minute). I could pretty much keep up, in practice, but it was not what I needed. Then he switched to the General Speed (13 wpm). I started taking down the words and the random letters. I kept forgetting. Was that an F or an L? Too late – he’s moved another 4 letters along. I was not doing so well. At the end we turned in our papers.


Totally devastated, I was. My mother consoled me, reminded me there would be another time. Her view of life had been tempered by the overview that we have pretty long lives to get things done if we just persevere – at least a kid like me.

But try to convince a young teenager of that. I had that teenage and that Risley passion and fire. I WANTED IT NOW!!!!!!.

So I went back home and I studied and practiced. And practiced. And I got to where I could really do it.

The next test was in Detroit. There were no VE’s in those days with a test around the corner most every weekend.

These tests were EVENTs!

But what if I did pass the Code, I could not POSSIBLY wait 6 weeks for the written test results.

So I schedule the test (by getting a form, sending by mail, waiting for confirmation, etc – weeks and weeks and weeks) and I signed up for the Advanced license. I did this for only one reason. They would grade my General right there and then and tell me the results. Then I would know.

So the day came. I was up a 4:00am and got into my little blue 1962 Renault Gordini and jumped on I 75 and drove 4 hours to Detroit. I listened to Paul Harvey (I miss him) and all the daytime radios shows. I listened to Art Linkletter, and to Arthur Godfry  And I tried to not think about the test.

I arrived at the Federal Building in Detroit. Went to the assigned room. I was nervous – but not as much.

The 13 wpm code section began. I was confident. He graded it – I passed!!! One of my greatest wins at that time in my life.

And now for the written. There was no memorization here. You had to know the material. You had to hope the questions would not go beyond what you had studied. I took that part. He collected up the tests. Since I was up for the Advanced, I knew that I’d have to pass this one to move to the next stage.

This guy took his job seriously. He did not smile. He said very little. He was a G man and played the part like a pro. I could not even look at him – just simply waited.

And then, quietly, he brought over my Advanced test.

That meant only one thing.

I HAD PASSED. I was now a GENERAL ham radio dude.

The Advanced questions were Greek. I did not care – not even a little. I WAS A GENERAL!

I drove home – triumphant. – Oh, by the way. I flunked the hell out of the Advanced.

I had a license. But I had no radio. I had no money.

But, in the spirit of needing a communicator on our upcoming trip ‘round the world on the sailboat, my father offered to help me purchase a Heathkit ham radio. As I recall, he paid half. And I was to supply the grit to put this thing together. He would offer only so much. I perused the catalog – dreamed and drooled. I finally decided, along with him, on the HW-100. It was not the best by a long shot. But it was not the worst either.

I ordered it. I waited, and waited. And I waited. Weeks went by. No tracking codes in those days. It came when it damn well came. Each day, coming home from school, was an event. Was it there?

The weeks passed until that memorable day. There it was – on the floor in the living room. My mother stood beside it, smiling. knowing…… I do miss her.

It came in a box. A large box. And when I opened it up, it was like nothing I’d seen. It was plastic bags and cardboard racks of electronic parts, dials, meters, the cabinet and faceplate (green) – the board to which I would be attaching all the parts I saw. And, thank goodness, the yellow book of instructions.

And the smell… How do you describe it? How does one try to convey the importance of that smell? It permeated the entire experience and for weeks to come as I worked and worked towards this completed masterpiece.

If I smelled it again today I know it would return me to my little bedroom and that old door I placed over the stacks of concrete blocks making the desk upon which my Heathkit radio came into being.

It took hours. Those led to weeks, and even months. I do not recall how long it took me – but I know that I had but one aim at the end of every school day – that was to get back home, to my desk, to the smell of the kit, my soldering iron, and the parts whose names I could barely pronounce, which I was assembling into this magic box that would contact me with the world.

And I built an SWR meter and an antenna tuner. I barely knew what they were – but I knew I’d need them. I was going to use them on our sailboat. I worked, and planned, and set things up, and it culminated one day with my rig sitting on the table, hooked up, as best I knew how.

I studied about antennas and bought some TV wire and made, following instructions, a dipole antenna which I stuck up on the roof just above my window. I bought a 50 ohm dummy load at an electronics thrift shop (for 25 cents)  and I tuned the radio into the dummy load and it got so hot I could not touch it.

I was ready.

Now, if you’ve stuck with me so far, you get the idea that every move, every love I’d had with radios, all my dreaming as I heard HCJB from Quito Ecuador, my friend with his CB box, my walkie talkies, my training, my building, all culminated to this point. This was a young teenager who had dreamed a large percentage of his young life about this time. And now it was to hand.

In speaking through the years to fellow hams I’ve grown to believe that our love for Ham, those of us who have it, are couched for each of us in similar stories which culminate to that first point in time where we are ready to make their first contact. Each had their own grip upon the magic of radio and each remembers that point in time where they were about to embark upon the little adventure where they would be able to place their voices or their code into the planetary ether of the world. They would be able to create something that would bounce between ionosphere and earth to parts beyond the imagination. Our voices and our ears (and hearts) would go where our bodies could not, and reach out, from our antenna to theirs, to make friends in far away places. To be able to listen to the airwaves, with an intensity and focus, attempting to pick out that one code, that one voice from beyond, and actually be able to talk back.

And that day came. And I, in Dayton, heard a call from a guy with a VE designation. That was Canada. So I answered back.


And he began rattling off the Code in the way he had grown accustomed, and I forgot the entire Code and could only get his call sign and the occasional word.

But it was my first contact. We had to log our contacts and thus my first log. I got to go find that book – it must be around here somewhere.

That moment was no less intense, for me, as the years rolled by, than my first airplane solo, my first kiss, even my first child or a myriad of firsts that I’ve been so privileged to have in this life. And I am not alone. I would never compare the value of any of these things – but the emotional intensity of their beginning moments share a certain emotion which I truly hope to experience again many more times.

Any ham guy or gal, it seems to me, to fully appreciate the feeling has to have lived a bit in those times when the world was a larger place; when vast distances could be sensed and be appreciated. When one could get a thrill sitting in a quite place, with his or her little device of magic, fingers on the dial to the world, with an acquired skill, and connect up with a larger universe than himself or herself.

It made us feel large. There were few other ways at the time.

And that may be part of why I love Ham radio.

Its devotees are by and large older folks, it seems – people who remember a world where yonder was really yonder. And we try to infuse this thrill into the younger folks and, thought we understand, feel slight sorrow that some may not get it. How can they when they, with ease, can experience live feeds from space sitting in front of their high definition TV’s, where they can text their friends from their pocket phone anytime they want; where Youtube can bring to them essentially anything, to their hearts’ content – and they can place their own videos there for viewing by others.

To many of these folks this is a world where England and Canada and the Congo are only web suffixes of .GB .CA, and .CD. A map is just a picture. Countries are simply details to be passed by like a flower bed. It is amazing to me the number of folks under 30 who have scarcely an idea of what a continent is, or what countries are where, or where north is.

I think that to many younger folks, growing up in an era post world wide web, everything is HERE. And HERE is a much larger place. THERE has disappeared, to some extent.. The world is indeed smaller.

I wonder if they feel larger or smaller than did we – in those earlier days? Frankly, I believe that awareness of vastness is a wonderful thing. It does not make me, at least, feel smaller. It makes me feel larger. The ignorant man believes he is brilliant. The one unaware of space may indeed feel large – but the real feeling, as does the real appreciation for knowledge only comes after one becomes aware, of vastness comes with an awareness of its existence.

I, too, love the internet. I am the Googler from hell. I have my websites and Youtube accounts. I listen to streaming radio and have my Itunes account.

But I still “get it”. I am amazed by all this but I still know that this world is pretty big and I kind of enjoy feeling that way.

None of this is a bad thing. It is just different. There are many new people getting into ham radio. Probably for great reasons that maybe I don’t get. Who cares? Welcome.

I continue in the hobby.I’ve obtained my Extra ticket over the years. The radio I own makes my Heathkit look like a paper weight. But it, in its amazing circuitry, will never capture the feeling I felt as I spotted that package and my mother’s loving and supportive  smile.

When I talk to fellow hams, there is a friendliness, an understanding, regardless of other differences, and I have grown to consider ham radio to be the greatest chatroom there is. It is composed of a bunch of folks eager to chat, eager to share, eager to learn and to teach, eager to speak of the rigs and of the bells and whistles of their craft.

Basically, these are folks who share these things but underlying it all is that unspoken appreciation for the vastness of this planet we call home. These are folks eager to say “hi” and have that signal leave their little shacks, go to their antenna, and out into this vast world, bouncing and skipping across the lands; ending up in that small and remote little shack on a green and hidden mountain in Honduras, or in the quaint village home near to a herd of goats whose bells can be heard ringing in from Czechoslovakia, or to the field rig being operated from the backwoods campsite on a trail in the Rocky, or Andes or Alpine mountains, or the research hut in Antarctica with that lonely ham just looking for a voice from the north. Who knows, he might even be heard by an astronaut in the space station looking down with true knowledge of vastness. And then, listening to that spacial vastness, he hears that reply, “hi”. In that moment they are joined, regardless of anything else,  as fellows  of the hobby of ham radio.

In all the places in the world, where there is a ham, there is a fellow or lady, youth still in his or her heart, who hears and replies and has stories.

To my younger friends, we need and want you to join us. There are many of all ages that are entering this hobby daily.  I hear its growing.

If you haven’t yet, I hope you’ll take a look.

The world of the internet, which I noted above, is now used by most of us.  It has become a big part of Ham Radio. It has made Ham Radio even grander in its scope.

But as you join us, I know you will put your own magic into the medium. I am certain you will teach all of us new ways of seeing  and appreciating the hobby of ham radio. Yes, you may see the world, given your different background, a bit differently than those of us who cut our teeth in different times. But that perspective will add so very much depth and new ways and trails for our hobby just as that your new perspectives ares adding to our entire world.

But, and I think you will agree, the basics of this hobby will never change.

73’s from a Ham Dude.

Ken Risley W8VD.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

James R. Therrell July 6, 2009 at 2:25 pm

Great history! Common interests. I was an International Morse Intercept Operator connected with NSA/Air Force Intelligence. 30+ speed with all special characters. Long range spy work and analysis of such. Very interesting things of the world situations. around the globe. No ham but continued to monitor Morse until it was shut down. No side winders. Found many Christian outreaches, especially to commi and iron curtain countries. For them it was like feeding an elephant through a straw. Thank God for the more adaptable modern day stuff to get the Word out!
A few more things from,
JIM Therrell >

Alanna December 4, 2016 at 6:05 am

Hi,after reading thius amazing article i am as well glad to share my experience here with mates.

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