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A New Ham and Proud of it!

07/28/2008

I'm a new ham operator and I say that with real pride. I have an undergraduate degree, several master's degrees and doctoral work all under my belt, but the day I passed my Technician exam was one of the best days of my life. Ten days later I passed my General license and I couldn't have been happier. (Okay, I will probably be even happier when I pass my Extra exam -- I admit!) I passed both tests in December of 2007, so the last couple of months have been incredibly exciting for me as I fulfilled a long-held dream of becoming an Amateur Radio operator.

My interest in ham radio started over 35 years ago when I saw my cousin's bedroom wall filled with all kinds of radios. My uncle custom made a storage rack built into the wall for all Mark's equipment, and it was an impressive sight to say the least. I was about 10 or 11 at the time and I talked my mom into buying me a Realistic DX-160 receiver, which my cousin had recommended. Those of you who remember that radio know that it had SSB and something called a variable BFO (Beat Frequency Oscillator) -- that meant I could play with the dial and make those Donald Duck sounds I heard sound normal -- way cool! And of course, I was able to "tune in the world" on the shortwave bands. I was in heaven! This was even better than covertly listening to my transistor radio at night under the covers when I was supposed to be asleep. Tuning in AM stations from as far away as St Louis, Chicago and New York was great, but listening to the BBC from London was even better!

I began studying for my Novice exam, devouring everything I could get my hands on and listening to Morse code tapes. About the same time I was getting near to taking the test, I moved in with my father and everything changed, causing me to leave my childhood dream behind. As the years passed I often had a spark of interest, but life always got in the way. You probably know the story -- it happens to all of us in one way or another.

Vintage Receiver Fans the Flame

Fast forward to the present when I decided innocently enough to take up shortwave listening and playing around with radios again. I found an old DX-160 on eBay and in a moment of nostalgia, bought it just for the good memories it held. When I told my wife about the fond memories I had of my cousin and his ham radio addiction, she said "Who knows, maybe one day you will have your own room filled with radios." I harrumphed and brushed the thought aside, mumbling something like "those days are long gone."

One thing led to another (my wife had planted the seed, confound it, and it just kept nagging at me.) and soon I started reading up on HF radios and antennas and all the new things hams were doing and I knew I was a goner. The itch, the bug, the unrequited love of all things radio took over and I started plotting and planning how I would get my first license, and then my General, so I could start talking to people around the world. I purchased both of the ARRL study books for these licenses, the Antenna Book and the 2008 ARRL Handbook for good measure. I studied like a fiend for several weeks for the Technician exam, then several more weeks for the General. I checked every day online for my name to show up in the FCC database and let out a yell when it showed up December 5, my wife's birthday.

And was I ever ready! I had purchased a used ICOM IC-718 transceiver and a used Astron RS-35a power supply, and was waiting on my G5RV antenna to arrive in the mail. In the meantime, I used a 50 foot long-wire out the window and made my first contact almost a week after getting my General license. I really did intend on making my first contact right away, but I was plenty nervous and the timing never seemed right. I would hear people talking, wait until one of them was signing off and then try to make contact, only to have the band shift a bit or have someone else jump in before I did.

That First Contact

When I finally made my first contact I couldn't have met a nicer fellow if I tried. John, N4SXJ, from Jackson, Tennessee was as pleasant as could be, welcomed me to ham radio and was honored to be my first contact. Believe me, the honor was all mine! We talked only for a few minutes, but when we were done you would have thought I just climbed Mt Everest! I was almost breathless with excitement and I wore a grin big enough to split my face in two! I meticulously wrote down the details of my first contact and was overjoyed several days later to receive my first QSL card from John. I hope to talk with him again someday as we traverse the bands.

I still find it hard to enter into conversations and, of course, as any experienced operator will tell you this part of the sunspot cycle can make DX contacts very hard. My house and my yard are not conducive to good antenna placement; I live near a moderately large city with a lot of electrical interference. Also, I haven't found a particularly good way to avoid interference issues through our two sets of computer speakers, but I am having a whale of a good time nevertheless!

More Experiences -- More Excitement

Here are just a few of the exciting moments I have had already. I heard a fellow from Australia just the other day (my "barefoot" system couldn't reach him) and I was like a kid in a candy store. On another occasion I was catching a CQ from the back side of a fellow's antenna in Colorado calling for DX across the Pacific and heard just the faintest scratching of someone responding to him from Johannesburg. While I couldn't make out what he was saying, I could hear something and that was exciting all by itself. And to top it off, I recently spoke to a fellow over my Kenwood dual band mobile who lives in England and was using his PC/EchoLink connection to hit a 2 meter repeater in my area. Is this a great hobby or what!

In addition to DX one of my main interests in ham radio is working some of the satellites. While it all seems a bit like magic to me at the moment, I know it won't be long and I will make my first contact from space and I can't wait! I know right now is a special time as almost everything is a "first" for me, but I have a feeling this is not going to get old or boring to me anytime soon. I recently joined a local amateur club here in northern Kentucky and met a number of people who seem to be almost as excited about all this as I am, and they have been operators for many years. With ARES, MARS and other public service opportunities, I know there are many ways to give back to the community and I look forward to these experiences as well.

Stepping Into a Wide World of Radio

Ham radio has a lot to offer folks with a wide range of interests and I am the type of person who never wants to stop learning and trying new things. I am also the type who has to share what I learn and so I look forward to someday teaching others about Amateur Radio and hopefully sparking the same interest in them as I have in me.

I envy those of you with many years of great experiences, which certainly overshadow my meager ones, but I know many more exciting times await me as I take my first fledgling steps in this lifelong journey. Through some of the contacts I meet I hope to find an Elmer who will take me under their wing and help me get the most out of this hobby. I have so much more to learn and I've already let too much time go by (35 years!) not to make the most of every opportunity.

Here's to hoping you never lose the joy of your first contact, or the excitement of trying something new that renews your passion for radio all over again. If you hear my CQ I hope you'll answer back and just maybe you'll be another "first" for my logbook and we'll have the opportunity to share a good story or two!

Robert Gulley, KJ4AXU, passed both his Technician and General tests in 2007 and upgraded to Extra in May of 2008. He spends most of his radio time on HF, but has also made some friends locally on VHF and UHF. He is a member of the Northern Kentucky ARC and his local ARES group. When not operating, Robert is an adjunct college professor and a retired minister. He also teaches classes in woodworking and dabbles in photography, digital imaging and computers.

Robert Gulley, AK3Q



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