When I was young, my Dad woke me up late at night and whispered, “Shh, come listen.” Mother would have never approved of me being up so late, but Dad was the kind who tended to break rules if there was an adventure to be had. And I was always ready to be his side-kick in them.
Most kids fell asleep listening to bedtime stories and lullabies: not me.
Long before the Internet and cell phones, my Dad talked to people around the world from the comfort of his home and favorite chair. He was an Amateur Radio Operator.
Because our home was small when I was little, I could see him at his radio desk from my bed. Today most “Hams” as they call themselves and their hobby, would only need a small hand held radio. Back then his equipment took up that whole desk. I would lay there and watch his face, softly lit by the dials and large vacuum tubes and fall asleep listening to the odd alien like noises of high pitches or Morse Code clicks as he tried to tune in the right frequency before he tossed out his verbal fishing line of “CQ, CQ”, hoping to catch a far away voice. For his long range “fishing”, night time was the best time, less clutter he would tell me. Many times he would wake me when he “caught” something interesting like a unique voice on the other side of the world.
It was one of those nights. He woke me because he wanted to share something special. “Listen.” he said and pointed to his radio’s speaker. “It’s the Northern Lights.” I wrinkled my little face and wondered, “How can you hear lights?” He smiled and explained the Northern Lights, known as the Aurora Borealis, to me. He told me the conditions of the atmosphere were just right and talked about invisible waves of energy bouncing about up there, following the curve of the earth. I was in awe.
Then as I listened to the varying tones, he spun the visual for me, of tall waving curtains of beautiful colors in a far off northland. There we sat, me in my PJs, him sipping coffee from his cracked mug, imagining those colors that were miles and miles away, yet my Dad had snagged them with his radio’s antenna and transformed them into odd static for us to hear. I will never forget how special and magical that moment was.
From hearing Northern Lights, he would go on to have me “hear” solar flairs and of course, voices from around the world. When he successfully reached someone, his face would light up and he would write down his contact in his logbook. Over the years he made contact with other Hams on every continent including Antarctica. He also contacted ships and submarines, a Space Shuttle, and a cosmonaut on Space Station Mir. As soon as he made contact with someone, he would get their information and send out a postcard to them as proof of their “visit”. Soon a postcard would arrive from the other Ham. I loved when they came in the mail. Some had such interesting designs on them, and it was fun to see what part of the world they came from. Up on the wall it would go, a prized possession.
It wasn’t till I was older that I learned about his military experience in the Navy Air Corps during WWII. When he was not transmitting and receiving information for his long-range bomber as their Radioman, he had to stand up and use the guns of the top turret. At age 19 he was trained to do both. Thankfully when his service ended, he did not leave radio behind. From something he was forced to learn and use during wartime, he turned it into something pleasurable after.
If you think about it, Amateur Radio was the original long distance social network. He met people from all over, developing good friendships. If those friends were within driving distance, outings together were arranged. While the adults talked and shared equipment, I would meet and play with their children, or I would explore “worlds” I would have never been in contact with, like Mal’s huge dairy farm that I was allowed to freely poke about. Besides those picnics and visits, they got together for Field Day activities, where they often would have competitions to target a signal (called a Fox Hunt) and to practice emergency response situations. Service to others is important to Amateur Radio Operators. Many like my Dad were volunteers for local Civil Defense. You have seen those disaster movies where all communication goes down except for radio? Those may be works of fiction, but it does have a strong ring of truth. I wonder, though, if all technology does goes down, will there be someone who knows Morse Code? It’s not a requirement anymore to get an Amateur Radio license.
Yes, I grew up surrounded by radios, in our home and in our car. I suppose to outsiders, having a home “decorated” with all that equipment might seem odd. Who else had a Sci-Fi looking forty-foot tower in their backyard? Or had all manner of antenna attached to their cars, even ones that looked like odd metal basketball hoops. (We won’t mention how all these radio waves he sent out disrupted the neighborhood’s televisions. Oops!). To me it was all normal.
Dad enjoyed radio so much, he would teach others, and that passion was passed on to his wife, son, and his grandsons. As Dad aged, he did embrace each new technology right up till when he passed away. He was fascinated by the advent of the internet and how that could enhance his hobby. The other night I sat with my son who picked up the radio bug from his Grandfather. He took my iPad and pulled up websites where you can now “see” and hear radio transmissions called “waterfalls”. I was fascinated as my son went on to explain the different patterns, and I smiled imaging my Dad over my shoulder listening, too. Curiosity about new technologies was a gift he gave us that stemmed from his love of Amateur Radio.
The kids today are very lucky. They just turn on their computers and can see and talk to people around the world. No need for giant antennas taking up their backyards. But to me, as a kid, I felt very lucky. No one else in my school had the experiences I had. They didn’t have a Dad who opened my ears to the world, or brought the Northern Lights to me. Thanks, Dad. Even though your radios are now silent, those happy memories will live forever with me.
You can actually listen to the Northern Lights and hear what I heard all those years ago.
To learn more about Amateur Radio that is 100 years old, go to the American Radio Relay League site : http://www.arrl.org/what-is-ham-radio.
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Terms I grew up with:
Ham: Casual name for licensed Amateur Radio Operators. As a kid I always thought that was weird and never really understood how hams connect with radios. Search the net for different theories… Ham Shack; Where an Amateur Radio Operator sets up his equipment….“CQ, CQ” letters used when trying to connect to someone, which stands for the Morse Code phrase of “calling anyone.”…..“Rig”– the radio which can be transmitter, receiver, or transceiver…..“dit-dah”, how to speak Morse Code dots and dashes….Call Sign: The registered letters given to each Operator. You generally say them as they are, then quickly follow with the generally agreed upon words, such as Kilo for K, or Mike for M. ….“Net” A group of Operators that meet on a specified frequency at a certain time. I remember my Mom belonging to the WRONE, (The Women Radio Operators of New England) and they had “net” meetings. ….Phone Patch: Dad often completed these. He would connect this radio to a telephone to help someone in the military talk to their parents, or someone in an area without good telephone systems. ….Roger: I understand…..Silent Key: A deceased Amateur Operator….73: Good-bye
When Dad upgraded, he no longer used certain vacuum tube radios. What do you do with all the extras?? Guess he and I had some ideas!
I had to stop having fun with the tubes because one of my other sons took up restoring old radios. The circle of radio life: My Dad went modern and my son has gone retro!
Happy Father’s Day to all the great Dad’s out there!
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