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Rebirth of a Ham

01/22/2009

I am sitting in my shack (an upstairs room in my suburban New Jersey home), a ham again, relicensed in 2007 after a span of 50 years in the wilderness.

Crystal Control -- a Novice in the '50s

It is the early 1950s and a young teenager, dreaming of becoming an Electrical Engineer and trying to connect to anything technical (including the boring task of sorting color-coded resistors in high school). I travel to the FCC at Varick Street in New York City to take my Novice test and become a ham operator, KN2MUN (the "N" clearly labeling me as a Novice.) And so I began my first adventure as a ham.

As a Novice in the 50s, you were limited to 75 W crystal controlled operation. Using an E. F. Johnson Viking Adventurer 50 W CW transmitter and a legacy Hammarlund HQ-129-X receiver, I tried to make my first contact (QSO) on 80 meters. There was no response to my repeated CQs, that is until I received my first QSL card (or rather letter). The brief letter explained that I had been picked up, loud and clear, by an FCC monitoring station in Florida (or some such exotic place outside NYC) operating on a 40 meter frequency not assigned to Novice operators. I had tuned my transmitter to the second harmonic of my Novice crystal frequency!

Soon after, my early Novice career blossomed into a number of CW contacts across the US and I became K2MUN, a licensed General class ham. The summer I was 15 I had the opportunity to spend at a farm in Pennsylvania. From there I worked distant friends using an 80 meter cubical-quad antenna and my trusty Viking.

I worked most of the US and quite a number of foreign countries with my Viking and added AM voice (SSB was rare in those days) by grid modulating my transmitter. This led to my next great ham experience -- dealing with angry neighbors who said I was now appearing on their (poorly filtered and shielded) TV set.

Eventually I tackled homebrewing a "full gallon" (1 kW) amplifier (the maximum power allowed at that time) built from a salvaged medical diathermy machine. The amplifier used a pair of magnificently large 810 tubes and a power supply that could have served as a WWII battleship anchor. I learned a lot from this experience, including not putting your fingers onto capacitors until they are fully discharged.

Time passed as time does and I found myself in college. While trying to become an engineer there just wasn't time to indulge in ham radio. My license lapsed and 50 years passed.

21st Century Hamming -- the Internet and ISS

After a technical career lasting more than 40 years combined with a family that included triplets, I was clearly closing in on a real retirement. Fearing a stagnant phase in my life I thought about what activities I missed from the past. Amateur Radio crossed my mind several times.

I knew nothing about what my teenage hobby had turned into since the 50s. Then, an article about a planned "Kids Day," sponsored by the New Providence Amateur Radio Club, caught my eye. On the advertised day I went over to the small park where the club had HF and VHF rigs set up outside.

There was light attendance (although later Kid's Days I participated in have pulled very healthy crowds) and I was one of the few "kids." At 67 years old, I doubt that was what the club anticipated as an audience but the members were very gracious and welcoming, encouraging me to rejoin the ranks, come to a club meeting and to join them for the upcoming Field Day.

That was the push I needed. Some quick cramming and a visit to a local Volunteer Examiner test session and I was relicensed as KC2RWP, a newly reminted General class ham. I borrowed a handheld transceiver from a club member (something that didn't exist in my former incarnation), spent some time on the local Sunday net and did a deep dive in the Extra class manuals. I relearned a lot I had forgotten from engineering school and learned a lot that was new about my regained hobby. Digital modes, amateur TV, Internet connectivity, Earth-Moon-Earth (EME) and satellite communications were totally unfamiliar to me and hinted at the technical excitement of the field. I felt like a kid in a candy shop.

About a month later, I passed the Extra class license exam and was fortunate to regain my old call sign, K2MUN, as a vanity call. Now came the big question. I was enjoying the camaraderie of the radio club and had fun at Field Day (also new to me) but I didn't think contesting was my bent. I talked to many fellow hams who had followed similar paths and found, in them, a wealth of experience to help me on my way. It was clear that there were as many areas of focus as there were hams and I had no idea what to do next.

The Radio Riches of the Future

So now, sitting in my shack, with my Elecraft K2 (home built with loving care and equipped with paddles and a microphone), a home-designed off-center-fed 40 meter dipole over my head and scores of new friends on the air and in my local club, I have found that my teenage hobby has developed a richness I didn't see before.

I have regained my CW skills, learned how to deal with now ubiquitous SSB operation and have become a Volunteer Examiner. I have participated in emergency training exercises including a local Memorial Day parade, where I helped locate a missing marching band, and the New York City Marathon. I have been part of two Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) contacts between local kids and hams on the ISS sharing the kids' camaraderie and excitement. These are all wonderful (and mostly new) experiences.

I still don't know exactly where I am going, but it is clear that there is plenty of room and excitement in 21st Century ham radio to engage me for many years to come and, I hope, to draw other hams, like myself, back into the hobby.

David Berkley, K2MUN, is a retired AT&T executive. Returning to ham radio after hiatus of 50 years, he is now a regular member of the New Providence (New Jersey) ARC, an active participant in NPARC's Emergency Radio Team and the oldest "Kid's Day" recruit in the club. Dave can be reached at 20 Canterbury Ln, Summit, NJ 07901.

David Berkley, K2MUN



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