This really happened, though it's just a blip in the whole tableau of life and relationship. I thought it might resonate with other aging ham radio operator types. Back in the 1990s I was having stuff published regularly by "QST
", the monthly ham radio magazine put out by the American Radio Relay League
(of which I am a "life" member).
Since then half of my life went by. My kids grew up and left home. I got divorced and remarried. I visited Antarctica and many other places. Did lots of stuff. Blah blah.
I figured it was time to put away those things of the past that weren't serving me anymore, and ham radio seemed like a great place to start. For decades I had been dragging hundreds of pounds of gear from state to state - across the U.S. and then up to Alaska and back, at great expense. It probably cost me more to move and store the stuff than it was worth several times over. One day when the wife and I were arguing about having enough space, I called it "enough." I tossed hundreds of feet of RG-8 into the trash. Just opened the can and pushed it in, along with nearly broken MFJ antenna tuners (which are all nearly broken when they're new, anyway), hand held radios powered by niCad batteries that are impossible to get anymore - just tossed it all into the electronic waste bin and walked away.
I thought I'd feel nostalgia and maybe a little grief. Instead, there was nothing.
The most expensive pieces I had left were my ICOM linear amp, which cost me $5500 back in 2000, and my HF radio, which cost about $3000 back in 2002. I could lump in some more gear and say there were some $10K in bits I needed to jettison, so I took it all to the local ham radio store, Ham Radio Outlet to put in as a consignment sale. The best I could hope is to get $5000 out of the lot of it (minus their 15% commission), but getting back 1/2 the value after 13 years seemed like a fine deal to me. I walked out of the store with a receipt and went home to a nice empty garage.
My wife's reaction was utterly unexpected.
So I wrote it all up and sent this doc to QST magazine, figuring they'd publish it for old time's sake. But they rejected it. They actually sent me a physical rejection letter with a long excuse as to why they didn't take it. The excuse seemed overly long given the lack of importance of the whole thing. I sent the submission electronically. They could have just sent me an e-mail, but they're old fashioned types.
I get the feeling the guy who wrote the letter wouldn't have rejected it, but alas, there's a content "committee" he had to deal with. I might have said the word "damn" in the text, which would have been enough to cause rejection from this ultra-conservative journal that's read by probably 200 people on the planet. Maybe.
I get it monthly, and will until either A) I cease to exist, or B) QST ceases to exist. If A happens before B, my wife will need to send them my obituary, which they will dutifully print. It may be the last thing involving me they print, the way things go.
The upshot of all of it is I now have a small ham radio station in the corner of my living room, and a 25' hex beam antenna on my roof. I can talk to Hungarians and South Africans on it when the conditions are good.
I can do exactly the same thing on my iPhone or over the internet. But those are not physics that I can control. Ham is physics completely under my influence, and there's still some joy for me in that.
I remember radio.
I remember watching my uncle wrap magnet wire around an old oatmeal box and having him tell me we'd tune with it, and then pressing the black bakelite headphone to my ear and in my own backyard, next to the tomato plants between the swimming pool and the fence that was a ground even though it was a fence: hearing a man speak in a British voice about things important to people who lived beyond that thin line that separated water and sky beyond the sandy beach.
I remember that radio was lightning: action at a distance -- that with it we'd connect with people who stood with feet bare in jungles we'd never see, upon sands we'd never touch, who knew summers during our winters and told of time that ran through days we'd yet to live, or just had. We hear English accented by mother tongues on continents alive to us only in books or grainy film. We'd bathe in that violation of time and space that limited our waking hours to bedtime and dinner time and the interminable school room clock whose hands slowed as they approached three. They thrived while we slept. Needed umbrellas during our sunshine. Ate unnameable foods, and called themselves things that sounded as if out of alien bibles. Because nobody we knew had ever been anywhere, or spoke anything, or knew anything other than our neighborhood where we all lived, and English that we all spoke.
I got walkie-talkies for my birthday, and with them I could speak to my friends even when I couldn't see them, and I needed to know what made that power from the tiny objects inside the box. Of what sorcery were these batteries? This antenna? What did they know, those who brought these things to my tiny reality? Certainly a kid with a screwdriver could find the magic.
At six years old, about to enter grade one, I had my beloved walkie-talkies in bits. Pried off the back and cut out all the baubles stuck to the boards with my father's pliers and mother's sewing scissors.
My mother scolded: "Your father and I paid a fortune for those! You will never get that to work again."
Oh mother, I will. Yes, I will. So I asked her, "What do you have to be if you want to work on radios?"
"An electrical engineer."
Yes. That's what I am.
My uncle gave me an old book from his attic. It smelled of mildew and war. When I held it by the spine and let it fall open, the pages spoke symbols and code. It was "Audel's Radioman's Guide" 1939 edition. Whoever had owned this spent a lot of time biasing pentodes, whatever that meant.
"If you want to learn radio you need to know what's in here," he told me after we built our first crystal set.
"Do you know? Are you a radioman?"
"I'm an ironworker. I know something about everything but I never learned this. It's my father's book, and now it's yours. You're different than me. You can do it. Become an electrical engineer. Then you'll come back and teach me the rest of this book."
"But Uncle John, I'm not that smart."
"Yes you are. Now look: stay away from this. Don't try to touch it. It's high voltage. It's called a jacob's ladder. Watch."
Then lightning came from nothing.
I had to find out what was happening in this world of voices and light. I took the book home and ran through the pages like an archeologist pouring over codes and hieroglyphics without comprehension. Some day I would understand this. I could not live in a world in which men wielded invisible forces and tamed lightning and left me wondering. The wondering was oppressive. It would kill me if I didn't try.
Yes, mom. Yes I will.
There was no more storage space so things had to be cleaned out. Lots of old magazines and books went to the library donation pile. Boxes of stuff to the Goodwill and the flea market. And then I got to the boxes with the ham gear. Antenna coax selectors. Antenna tuners. HTs wrapped in packing tape years ago, with removable niCad batteries that would hold a charge as well as a slice of watermelon and had to be disposed of in electronic waste.
The ham gear. Taking space. Has to go.
I felt myself think it. My body moved to obey.
I hadn't so much as turned the knob on a radio in years. There was always an excuse. Restrictive CC&Rs and a lack of desire to challenge them. Homes without space for even a 10-meter dipole span. Too much trouble.
And then life changes. A divorce. A relocation to Alaska. Abandonment of my old callsign, AA6YD, and adoption of AL3A - the idea of having a unique call might bring my radio back to me.
But alas, propagation in Alaska was dicey to non-existent at the sunspot minimum. And in 2006 I blew the finals in my linear trying to pipe 1KW into a piece of shorted coax connected to a wire in the pine trees where the bald eagles watched me toss fishing-line entwined tennis balls. Some kind of ridiculous novice mistake. Who was I kidding?
"Look," said one of the local hams who had come to help me debug my attempt at a small Alaskan station. "Just run barefoot. And get a nice vertical. You're right on the sea side here. The salt water makes a great counterpoise."
"Barefoot? A Vertical?" I remember feeling the world had just run out of air and there was none left for me to breathe.
"Are you ok?"
"It's just, an adjustment."
"You must have been used to a more powerful station than I'm suggesting."
"Worse. I was a DXer. Pretty rabid one. You can go back in QST and read my stuff. Back in 1993. I was AA6YD. I had 240 confirmed countries. I belonged to the DX club. I helped Marti Laine when his book came out. I remember my crowning achievement - while my wife waited in the car I nailed Western Sahara on twenty phone running, well, lets say legal limit to a four element yagi. The plastic was melting off the traps onto my roof."
"And your wife was waiting in the car?"
"And it was running..."
"Oh. Dear. I see."
"Maybe I went too far. Well, not 'maybe.' That marriage didn't last much longer."
"I'm sure there are guys who have done worse."
I looked at him to see if he meant it. Didn't look like he did.
The station didn't go much farther. I got called back to California for my job. Kept my Alaskan call, partly for the cachet of having it, but also, mostly because radio wasn't radio to me anymore.
Radio was over when I met a friend at a professional convention and he asked me about it. Was I active?
Not only had I not been active since we'd last spoken years before and I didn't have an antenna up for any band, anywhere.
Worst of all, I couldn't remember my gear. I knew I had some. I could envision it in my mind, but for the life of me I couldn't remember the designator.
"I haven't got out the old ICOM IC-1532 in a long time."
"I'll bet. What the heck is that, anyway?"
I looked at my shoes. They were still on my feet. Yes, they were. I said to him, while making sure I didn't lose my shoes, "Can you believe I can't remember what type of HF rig I have?"
"Come on. You have to come back. How can you stay away?"
I wanted to tell him it was pretty easy. I yanked my iPhone out of my pocket. "I can play Scrabble with people in Vietnam and Armenia at the same time..."
"Oh, put that away. I'm sick of hearing things like that. I know what you're going through. I've seen it in a lot of guys. You get older. Life changes and technology grows. It's satellite TV and 3D first-person video games. Sure. But radio is eternal. It's a fundamental law of physics. We didn't create it, and we can't kill it. It called you. Just like the rest of us. And look, we have all these cool digital modes. The gear is better than it's ever been. But that's not the reason to come back. Take a minute and think back. Don't you remember radio? Don't you remember how it felt when you started?"
"I was very young."
"We all were. It starts when you're young. And what about our kids?"
"They'd rather learn object oriented programming."
"Because nobody's showing them that you can still send data around the world with a CW key, some wire, and a three-volt battery."
"A lemon," I said. "You could do it QRP with a lemon and a rusted razor blade. But I think those days are over, my friend. For them. For us. We're just dead guys who don't realize it yet."
"Oh, cut it out. You used to love CW. Come to field day. I'll put you in front of a CW station for 10 minutes and you'll forget you ever said any of that."
"Don't think so," I said. We shook hands. I never showed at ARRL Field day.
In fact, on Field Day I dug out my rig, an Icom IC-756 and I put it in my car and went to Ham Radio Outlet and handed it over to consignment. I told the sales guy I was planning to upgrade to a newer model, but the truth was I felt nothing amid the radios and antennas and wire. Where before a trip to HRO would cost me the better part of a thousand dollars on a slow day, I got out without spending a cent. Far as I was concerned I was done.
It felt like a great weight had lifted from my shoulders.
It felt like I should have been really happy.
Instead, it was hard to keep my eyes clear on the drive home.
"Didn't you do ham at the south pole?" my wife asked. I'm remarried. Since we've been married there hasn't been much radio in our lives. She was making dinner. I flipped through an issue of QST that had come in the mail and had been sitting on the counter for the past week. I scanned it and tossed it into the recycling bin.
"Hey," she said. "You're just tossing out your ham magazine? Why don't you let the subscription expire if you're not going to read them?"
"I'm a life member. They're going to come forever. When I die you'll have to send them a note and tell them I'm a silent key. Otherwise they're just going to keep coming."
"What's wrong with you? You love your ham. Didn't you do ham at the south pole when you were there?"
"Yes, I did," I said. I'd operated the KC4AAA station at the south pole for a couple weeks back in 2006 and 2007.
"Wasn't that cool?"
"Well, the propagation sucked, so I didn't hear much at all."
"That's not what I asked you. When I met you in Antarctica, I thought you were one of those hams. I mean, aren't you a radio guy? I thought you were."
"Really? Well that's a surprise. I didn't think you could stop being one. Isn't that like saying you're not from New Jersey anymore? How does that work?"
"You just don't do it, and that's it."
"But you're still a radioman."
"If I wait long enough my license will expire and that will be it. That's sort of the plan."
"I'm not sure I like where this is going," she said. "And I noticed -- what happened to all the ham equipment in the guestroom closet?"
"I chucked it."
"Well, I Craig's listed the stuff I could sell, and I took the radio into the ham store and put it on consignment. It's probably gone by now."
"I can't believe what I'm hearing."
"Well I can't believe you care about this. Most wives would be happy to have their husbands give up a hobby."
"Are you trying really hard to be an idiot? It's working." She took a pot of spaghetti and dumped it into the sink. "I'm not feeding you tonight if you're going to act this way."
"Hang on. Where is this coming from?"
"The ham store. Is it open now?"
"No, it's five o'clock. But..."
"Tomorrow you're getting your radio back. You get it back or I will."
"It could be sold."
"Then you'll buy a new one."
"What the heck? What's got into you?"
"No, what's got into YOU? Something is very wrong and we have to fix it. The man I married is a lot of things, a husband, a father, a pianist, an explorer, and a radioman. My husband is not my husband without the things that make him essential, and for you, radio is one. You're getting your radio back and you're setting it up."
"And I'm going to have to put up an antenna."
"You will put up an antenna."
"You're not going to like this. You don't know the size of a good HF antenna."
"Shut up or you won't eat for a week."
"Nobody really understands why these things are important to us," said the HRO sales guy. He scanned the bar code on a box with a brand new Icom 7600. "Great radio. That 756ProIII is a great radio, too. Still in demand. It sold fast."
"I forgot I had it. Didn't you see all the dust? " I said, and he looked at me like I'd just burst into flames.
"Really? And you're buying this one?"
"My wife is making me."
Two of the other guys at the store snickered and snorted.
I said, "You don't believe me. I hardly believe me, either. But there it is."
"Why?" said the counterman, shoving a Visa pay slip in front of me that I signed.
"Why are you a ham?" I asked him.
"I like radio," he said.
"And why is that?" I said. And he shrugged, and the other guys shrugged and looked around as if an answer was crawling around somewhere in the store.
"You know, I went to Antarctica on a science expedition for the National Science Foundation," I said. "I'd always wanted to go there. Ever since I remember. As a kid I read all the books about Shackleton and Scott and Mawson. In fact, the first short story I ever had published was in QST in the early 1990s and it was about the two things that I loved most in the world: ham radio, and polar exploration. Well, ten years later I got a shot at going to Antarctica and the pole so I took it. And the first day I was in Antarctica was like I had stepped into a dream that I'd been having most of my life.
"Well, I went to one of the bars they have there at McMurdo station, and I sat down and ordered a beer. And one of the guys who was there came up to me, recognizing that I was new, and introduced himself. He said to me, 'ok, so why are you here?' and I told him about the project I was on. But he said, 'No. I mean, why are you HERE?'"
I paused to see if any of them wanted to jump in with the answer, but they didn't. Eventually the counterman said, "So?"
I said, "So I told him I didn't have a clue why I was there. Only that I had felt compelled to be there for my entire life. I don't know why. And when it came my time to go to Antarctica all the pieces fell into place as if it were magic. And I was there. And you know what he told me? He said that everyone - all of them in that bar were there at that moment for the same reason. We all knew from the time we were kids that we just had to go to Antarctica and when it came time to go, the fates turned their wheels and there we were."
A couple guys nodded, if only to be friendly. And then I said, "It's the same with radio. You're here because, who knows why. Because you had to do it. From the time you were a child you wondered about it and now, here you are. Radio called you. Like it called everyone who comes in here. Like it called me."
"I like your thinking," said the counterman, finalizing the sale.
And now I knew what my wife meant. A pianist is still a pianist even if he is without a piano, and a radioman is still one without a radio. But the calling is not erased by force of will or lack of material to complete the dream. And the draw never stops. The voice within does not stop because it is difficult or inconvenient to follow.
I put the boxed rig in my car. I got in. I started the engine. I was going home.
I couldn't sell my Brass Racer, because nobody wanted it. Fortune struck, and I hadn't realized it.
Because what good is a CW op with no key.
I told my wife, "The antenna works good. I just talked to someone in Hungary. And before that I heard South Africa but he faded before I could get him."
She said, "All I hear is beeping."
"Me too, but I understand some of it. I used to be really good at it. Now I can only catch about half of what they're saying. It will take some practice."
There was a new Hex Beam antenna on a Glen Martin roof tower up above the house. My wife said she didn't mind. The Hex Beam is so whispy looking it blended in with the trees and you couldn't see the tower from the street.
"Look at you smiling," she said. "I haven't seen you like this in a long time."
"It's radio," was all I could think to say. "Isn't it amazing? It just works."
"You were clearly missing it. You need radio. Now look - in small doses, ok. Don't go getting obsessive on me. None of this DX stuff that you had problems with before."
"You do know I was pretty serious at it, right?"
"You can go back and read. The ARRL has all the stuff they published of mine in their archives. It's been twenty years. I go back and read it and it's like it was written by someone else. And it was. I'm a very different person now. But radio is still radio."
And always will be.