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Joe K8MP

Dr. Strangekey or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Code...

It was autumn, 1961, and I had just begun seventh grade at Bay Village (Ohio) Junior High School. Over the summer, several buddies and I had been bitten real hard by the radio bug. One guy had a small transistor radio that received short-wave broadcast frequencies. We'd listen with rapture to Radio Moscow, HCJB in Quito, HER3 in Berne, and others.

For my home listening pleasure, I had a Zenith AM broadcast-band receiver, with the famous "Wave-magnet" loop antenna. At night, I'd listen in bed and pick up stations like KMOX in St. Louis, WWL in New Orleans, and a station in Waterloo, Iowa whose call-sign escapes me right now. OK, enough background info. I think you get the picture.

Seventh grade was my first year with what we had previously called "The big kids." (aka Junior high schoolers). That meant extra-curricular activities like math club, football, chess club, and..."What's that?" "There's a radio club?" Wow, I was in fat city.

A local ham, K8JHZ, was the club's leader. Six-meter old timers may remember Art as Kilowatt-8-Jolly-Happy-Zombie or as his radio-buddies called him, "Gravel Art", because of his rough voice characteristics. Art really taught us. He drilled us with theory and the code.

I hated CW practice. It was hard and I was sure I'd never master the 5 words-per-minute to pass the Novice test. I can't remember if I voiced it or just thought it, but I distinctly remember wondering: "Why in the world would anyone ever want to you use Morse code on the radio when you can just talk?" But worse news was still to come.

After several weeks, our radio club got canned. It turned out there was a rule stating that club leaders had to be part of the school staff. One of the science teachers volunteered to take over, but it just wasn't the same. "Fat City" had shriveled up. Or had it?

Ol' Gravel Art came to the rescue by referring us to the West Park Radiops club. They were running a Novice and Tech class in the area. Most of the school clubbers joined that class and we all had our "tickets" by the following June. That's right, they taught us for several hours every Saturday for nearly the entire school year. It was a good thing too, because it took me that long to get my code speed above 5 wpm.

For the record, I can't remember a single thing they taught but boy do I remember the stories they told. There were stories about DXing, and lightning hits on towers, and being able to hear your own signal after it went all the way around the globe. Those things lit up the imagination of a 13-year-old.

I still remember the day my license arrived in the mail. I wasn't home when the mail man came but I remember walking in the side door and reading in big letters on mom's black-board: "CONGRATULATIONS WN8ETC !!!"

It took a few seconds to register. After all, the only Ham calls I had ever heard were those of my elmers (Art, K8JHZ, Steve, W8DIA, and Dick, K1RAW/8, (or "Numero Uno" as they call him in Ten-Ten International) and maybe a few calls at the Novice class.

Eventually it sank in... That's a Ham call on that black board !!! In those days, you didn't know if you passed your test until the license arrived in the mail. That was an excruciating 8 to 10 weeks. But I now had my own call-sign !!!

The next step was to acquire a rig, a key, and get an antenna up. My dad bought me a Heathkit DX-40 from one of the local guys and a high-school-aged Ham (Steve, W8DIA) moved in across the street who lent me a 40-meter dipole. I can't remember where I got my first key from. Oh, I also needed a crystal for the 40-meter novice band. I bought one locally and was ready to go.

QSO's were short and infrequent at first. But after a while, I got the hang of things and began making friends on the air. I worked most of the guys who had crystals within 5 or 10 Khz of my crystal. There was also a sort of pecking order amongst us. Guys who had WN8XXX calls issued before mine were given special honor as "the experienced ones", while those whose calls followed mine were expected to pay their dues.

But we all stuck together, especially when do or die time came around, even though each of us had to face it individually. We each had a year to upgrade or die an agonizing radio death.

(OK, that's exaggerating a bit, but most folks who didn't upgrade to General during or soon after their one year sabbatical to Novice land, ended up permanently QRT, or worse yet, stuck in Ham radio purgatory as a life-time Tech)

A couple of us tried the General test a tad prematurely. We pretty much knew we weren't ready, but we wanted to know what 13 words-per-minute sounded like. We took the test at the Cleveland Hamfest in the winter of 1962/63. I flunked the code miserably but heck, I still had several months of life as a Novice left, so I was OK. And I got to meet K8ETC at the hamfest, so that was cool.

By the way, in those days, if you flunked the code, you were done for the day. You only got a crack at the written exam if you passed the code test. Another bad thing was that the FCC only had permanent staff in a few cities. In Cleveland, they only came around quarterly, unless it was for a hamfest or other special event. And it was an intimidating thing when those Feds walked in for a testing session. When you're 13 or 14 and have been drilled and grilled about the FCC rules and regs, you kind of got nervous around those guys.

But I'm off track again. Just how did I learn to love the code? I don't know. I just did. I didn't have a choice. It was CW contacts or stay off the radio. The loving came with just doing it. If I had never been forced to learn and use the code, I would never have known what I was missing.

I finished up those last few months as a Novice and had a ball. I got to have eyeball QSO's with other teenage Hams in the area and we'd always compare notes about what far-off stations we had worked. When WN8DXB told me he had worked Hawaii, my mouth dropped open. (or was it Jim's brother Jerry, WN8DXA?). Either way, nobody can do that on 40 meters, or at least that's what I had thought.

Well, I finally passed the General test, even though it took me 3 more tries. Ironically, the code wasn't the problem. I was copying close to 20 wpm at the end of my Novice year, but I flunked the written test twice before finally passing. Boy that was a good feeling. But it only lasted until 1968. That's when something called "Incentive licensing" came along. That's another story for another time.

So what's the point to this writing? If you think you might like code, try it out. Not just a QSO a week or even one a day. Pretend you're stuck on CW like we were in the 60's. In a few months you won't know yourself. Your code speed will double or triple just by doing what's fun, which is being on the radio and making contacts.

One more thing that will enhance your CW experience is to do an internet search for "Your Novice Accent" and read it. Some of the info is out-dated but most of it will be helpful. Forty-six years later, I still practice some of the things in that article.

And now a la Paul Harvey, here is the rest of the story. Joe emailed me this in February 2016 as a follow-up to this article.

About three years ago (November of '08, actually), I wrote about Dr. Strangekey and how I learned to love the code. In that article, I mentioned something called Incentive Licensing and how it would have to be another story for another time. I guess it's about time I told it.

First, let me give you some background info. When I was first licensed, there were five classes of Amateur Radio licenses: Novice, Technician, General, Advanced, and Extra.

Novice privileges were extremely limited in mode, frequency coverage, and life span. It was only good for one year and could not be renewed. (All others were good for five years and could be renewed over and over) Its purpose in life was to motivate and prepare you to upgrade to General Class where you would then have access to all Amateur modes and frequencies. It served its purpose very well.

I believe the Technician license was primarily intended for folks who wanted to experiment with VHF and UHF and were not interested in the DX that was found on the HF bands. "Techs" were restricted to 50 MC and above. (Yep, we really did call them megacycles in the '60's)

General, Advanced, and Extra Class licensees all had access to all Amateur frequencies and modes. For that reason, the vast majority of Hams obtained a General ticket and didn't even think about going any further. I achieved that status in 1963. I had "arrived." I'd never have to take another exam and I could go "anywhere."

As a General, I quickly learned that the DX on 40 and 80 meters was at the low end of the CW segments. Wow, I just had a flash-back and remembered buying a crystal for 7004 kilocycles (in 1963, a Hertz was a rental car). Now I was able to transmit down where the DX was. (I had not yet bought a VFO to go with my crystal-controlled Novice transmitter) That should give you an idea of just how important those lower band edges had become to me.

I eventually did get a VFO and over the next several years, I worked a lot of DX. Ham Radio life was great.

Finally, "It" arrives...

During those same years, there was background noise about something the ARRL was pushing called Incentive Licensing. They reasoned that no one had any incentive to ever upgrade past General. (And they were obviously right) But surely they could never get the FCC to put it into the regulations, right? WRONG !

I believe it became official in '68. And it would be phased-in, in two steps. The big change that really arrested my attention was that Generals were going to lose the bottom 25 KCs of the CW bands and a similar portion of the phone bands. Only Extra Class licensees would have full Amateur privileges. "Please say it ain't so !!!!!" But it was so.

The two-step phase-in worked like this:

(HMMM...Is it just me or does that sound like a new dance craze?) Anyway, if you upgraded to Advanced by a certain date, you would keep your full Amateur privileges for one more year. After that year, you needed to have an Extra Class ticket to keep them.

Did incentive licensing work? You bet it did, for me and many thousands of other Hams. In '69 I passed the Advanced test and a year later the Extra.

Since that time, it seems like things have regressed. A lot of incentives have been removed. I have my own opinion about things but who is to say which way is better?

That's about it. "The other story for another time" has been told. I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas and 2012. And I hope to see you all at the McConnell's for the Holiday Bash. Otherwise, I'll see you next year...At Joe's Place.