Calling CQ

I have been an amateur radio operator for many years and of all my interests, this one is the hardest to fathom. Why in an age of instant global communication would anyone want to play around with good old fashioned and not too reliable radio? “Ham” radio, as it is widely known, undoubtedly has many facets and technical challenges but I’m also discovering it satisfies a deeper need.

I’m almost obsessive about it. I’m either fixing up 30-year-old radios or building antennas from scrap or plumbing supplies from the local hardware store. With the exception of a Chinese handheld VHF radio I have never bought anything new. Some enthusiasts spend thousands on radios but unless you have a good antenna you’re wasting your time.

With this in mind, my latest antenna project grew out of 100’ of chicken wire and scrap aluminum tubing from my decommissioned swimming pool. In fact, the whole contraption sits over what used to be the pool. The structure is anchored by a huge electrical insulator and rises to a giddy vertical 45’. Thankfully it is slim and tidy enough to be barely visible to neighbours. After several weeks of head scratching and tinkering it now works like a charm.

Living in a relatively sparsely populated corner of North America, I find it difficult to be heard above my southern neighbours. Like the vehicles they drive, their stations tend to be rather large and consume huge amounts of energy. When an exotic call wafts in from another continent, a chorus of replies reverberates through the aether shaking the planet to its very core as one station tries to outgun another. I don’t have an amplifier and put out no more power than it takes to run a light bulb so my chances of being heard are very, very slim.

For instance, the other evening I heard a Spanish station calling CQ – the term is a hang over from the days of Morse Code that is an invitation for a response. Before I could even pick up the microphone “Carlos” was being pounced on. The exchanges are so predictable. “Fine business Carlos!  Great signal into Kansas my good friend!” A typical exchange lasts about 30 seconds, a new call sign gets added to a log book and they’re off to find another victim.

So I’m learning to poke around the short-wave bands and sniff-out the weaker, interesting stuff that get’s passed over by the big guns. I twirled the tuning dial and came across a quiet spot in the band. Through the gentle hiss came a faint voice. “CQ, CQ, CQ, this is Golf Three Oscar Mike Golf pedestrian mobile.”

“Pedestrian mobile from the UK? Wow!

I called him and to my surprise he immediately answered.  After the obligatory exchange of names and signal reports I ask, “So where the hell are you?”

“Actually I’m on Blackpool Beach and I’m running fifty watts from my backpack rig into a fifteen foot whip antenna.”

“Wow that’s incredible…and what’s the weather doing?”

“Oh it’s cold and just starting to rain.”

I smiled to myself; as much as I still love my homeland I’m glad I’m in the sunny BC Okanagan. This is really awesome I thought, we’re five-thousand miles apart and we are talking with a few hundred dollars of electronics and in my case, repurposed swimming pool hardware.

After a few minutes we end our chat and I wish him “Seven three and good DX” and really hope he makes lots more contacts.

One thing I am learning in life is that the loudest voices often have little of interest to say. It also dawned on me that my obsession with antennas and radio has a deeper meaning. Maybe it is a reflection of a desire not only to communicate my humanity to others but also to listen for that most important voice of all – the small quiet one within. Like the short wave bands, there’s so much noise in my head that I need to find a quiet spot and just listen.

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Clouds and Silver Linings In A World Where Things Fix Themselves

I love quality; that’s why I have always used Nikon photographic gear. It’s the same with other aspects of my life; I once spent the five years driving a diesel Land Cruiser. A quality product, even if it was nearly half my age. I’m also an amateur radio operator, and a fairly miserly one I’ll admit. I can’t afford quality new gear so I dig around flee markets and “ham fests” for quality old.  Most of my equipment is from the era of large, chunky dials, and vacuum tubes. This type of radio is often referred to as a “boat anchor,” as once “dead,”these extraordinarily heavy devices fit the bill exactly. By now you are probably starting to get the picture.

A couple years ago I acquired a Yaesu FT 901 DM, one of the finest radios from the early 80s. It’s called a hybrid radio, because it has both transistors, and in the power amplifier, vacuum tubes. It’s a heavy beast, weighing in at nearly 45 pounds.

This one was almost cosmetically perfect but I bought it for a couple of hundred dollars knowing it needed some electronic TLC. I’m no radio engineer but I know that 90% of problems in electronics usually arise from a mechanical failure, such as a “dry” solder joint or a corroded contact in a switch or relay. Transistors and vacuum tubes have no moving parts and do not wear out in the conventional sense. So I optimistically dug around in the radio with it switched on – something requiring great care and focus as vacuum tubes in these old radios require a whopping 900 volts to operate.

Sure enough, as I prodded one of the many circuit boards, the receiver crackled into life and after 30 minutes of poking around I isolated the problem down to a little metal can containing a crystal filter – a device which helps tune-out unwanted signals. Lifting the corner of the can caused the receiver to scratch and crackle. With a soldering iron in one hand and the vacuum de-soldering tool in the other, I carefully melted and removed the solder from the wires connecting the can to the circuit board. Freed from the board, I then cut the can open to reveal an interconnected web of precisely ground quartz crystals. Further prodding revealed the culprit – a dry solder joint that was easily fixed.

After hastily reassembling, I fired it up. I now had a working receiver but unfortunately my voice couldn’t be heard on the airwaves. I prodded and pulled wires, removed circuit boards and cleaned contacts but to no avail. Frustrated and lacking some essential diagnostic equipment, I could not move forward. Eventually I took the radio to the basement store room and placed it carefully on a shelf several feet from the floor. I covered it with an old sheet and told myself it would be a winter project – one of many requiring my attention. For more than an instant I thought about selling it – no doubt there were lots of capable enthusiasts out there who were knowledgeable enough to be able to fix it. But then it was in such beautiful condition that I hated the thought of parting with it. After all, it’s a piece of history from the days when men were men and radios were huge, tactile machines and indestructible to boot – not the modern wimpy, nano sized devices driven by multifunction buttons and menus.

A few months later, I stepped into the storeroom in search of some unrelated household item, only to find this beautiful piece of history laying on its side middle of the concrete floor. I couldn’t believe it – how could that have happened? My blood pressure was rising as fast as my heart was sinking. Sparks flew in my mind. Had my dear wife accidentally knocked it off the shelf? Hardly likely and hell she would have known if she had, the impact would have been enough to shake the house down to its foundations. I lifted it gingerly, turning it over to inspect the damage. The rear of the casing was bent and the textured green paint irreparably damaged. I was, to say the least, hopping mad. Several hundred dollars had been wiped from its resale value and God knows what damage I might find inside.

Disgusted, I placed it back on the shelf pushing it several inches back from its earlier position. I shook my head – how in the hell could that have happened?

Several months past before I could bare to look at it again. Eventually I took it into the workshop and removed the bent covers to inspect the damage. The impact had popped the vacuum tubes and a mechanical relay from their sockets. I pushed them back into place. Besides the damage to the paint, the chassis was so badly twisted that one of the supporting feet now hovered a good quarter of an inch above the bench.

I plugged it in, expecting nothing. Strangely everything seemed to work on receive at least. Encouraged, I connected it to an antenna, grabbed the microphone, cleared my throat and announced my call sign. To my surprise power needles flicked to very healthy deflections. Wow! I took a deep breath and called, “CQ CQ CQ,” – the amateur radio operator’s request for contact. Instantly a reply came in the form of a male voice with a deep southern drawl, from the other side of the continent, telling me that I had “five-nine” copy and good audio!

I still haven’t figured out how a 45 pound radio ended up on the floor and I doubt that I ever will. Having crashed to the floor myself – literally and figuratively on several occasions over the last few years, I am reminded that not only had other people “written me off”, that I had also taken to writing myself off. But parts of myself had been shaken up in my falls and and like the 901 DM, despite being a little tattered around the edges, I believe I am now in better working order than before.