I received my first license, KN0VBU, in 1959 at the age of 14, and upgraded to General Class, K0VBU, later that same year. Soon after incentive licensing was introduced, I got my Extra Class license (1969.) My interest in radio, however, began many years earlier.
As a little boy, I remember the beautiful radio/phonograph console in the corner of my grandmother’s living room. It came with a mysterious blue “tuning eye”, and a shortwave band. There were voices in different languages, and all sorts of odd thumps, beeps and whistles for my listening enjoyment. In addition to the phonograph player, there was a microphone and a record-cutting arm, allowing my grandparents to make their own recordings. When no one was around, and if I could push the right combination of buttons, I could get the mike working, and hear my own voice coming out of the large speaker. That sure beat listening to the stacks of kids’ records there for me to play.
My dad was a Navy pilot, and we traveled from base to base every few years. While we were stationed in Denver, my parents gave me a pair of toy Western Union telegraph sets for my birthday. They came with a built-in key, buzzer, and blinker, and they had the morse code printed on the top of the little blue and white metal unit. After buying a large dry cell battery at the local drugstore, a friend of mine and I strung bell wire from my 2nd floor bedroom window, over the roof of the adjacent apartment building, and into his bedroom window. We spent many hours “sending code” back and forth to each other, but not only did we not know what we were sending, we didn’t know how to read yet!
A few years later, we moved to Pearl Harbor, in the then “Territory of Hawaii” and I remember another friend who called me one Saturday morning and told me he was coming over to my house and we were going to build a radio! I was to get a small board, some screws, a pencil, and a razor blade. He would bring the necessary wire, an oatmeal box and some headphones. The razor blade and the lead from the pencil were to act as the diode in this simple setup. We worked on the project all day, and I’m sorry to report that I don’t remember hearing anything! We moved away the next spring, and thirty years later, after searching by name in an early computerized callsign directory for sale at the Dayton Hamvention, I was able to get in touch with my old radio-building friend. He now lives in Wappingers Falls, New York, with the callsign W2GIJ. He was very surprised when I first called him there, but I was even more surprised when he told me that he had already had his Novice license back when we built the ill-fated receiver!
We moved back to Kansas City when my dad left the Navy, and I found a book in the library entitled “Elements of Radio” by Marcus and Marcus. It made little sense to me, but on my first day of high school the following year, I found myself sitting next to a boy who had placed a red and black booklet, “How to Become a Radio Amateur” on the corner of his desk. Before class began, he had been reading another red and black book, “The Radio Amateur’s License Manual.” I asked him if I could look through the books, and he invited me to accompany him to Associated Radio, a ham shop just a few blocks from the school. (Associated Radio, under different ownership and in a different location now, is still the Kansas City area’s ham headquarters.) This classmate, John Brosnahan, W0UN, is sadly a silent key, after an active career in the electronics and amateur radio field. We became good friends, and we studied together for our Novice licenses, spending many enjoyable Saturday afternoons first visiting the downtown Kansas City library to pore over old hard-bound editions of the Radio Amateur’s Handbook, then going from one electronics shop to the next until it was time to take the bus home.
John got his first license, KN0UTX, about a month before I got mine. When my new callsign, KN0VBU, arrived in the mail I was ready for the airwaves! My dad and I had just finished building a Heathkit DX-20 transmitter I had received as a birthday present from my aunt. When the dummy load (a 50-watt light bulb wired to a PL-259 connector) started to glow after I increased the load control and dipped the plate capacitor for the first time, my dad was the first to let out a whoop of joy!
I had acquired an old Hallicrafters S-38B receiver from a professor at school, and I paired it with the new transmitter. I ran a random length of wire from my bedroom window to the garage behind the house, and I switched the antenna from transmit to receive with an old ceramic knife switch.
Listening and CQing on 80 meter CW (3,717 kilocycles, to be exact) proved fruitless for an entire afternoon. But right after the last call for me to come down to dinner, I heard my call come back through the summer QRN. It was KN0SKD in north Missouri, and my first QSO was in the log!
Within the next few days I made a contact with KN0VXU, Russ, in nearby Independence, MO. It happened to be his first QSO, and, after we signed off that night, we had a nice long telephone conversation and immediately became good friends. Now, more than 55 years later, we still see each other for lunch almost every week.
Russ, John and I pooled our gear for our first multi-op contest (or first contest of any kind, for that matter) – the November Sweepstakes. In 1959, Sweepstakes ran for two weekends, so we spent many hours with 50 watts and crystal control, amassing a grand total of 75 Q’s. We were proud of our effort, and we had no idea that 50 years down the road we would be disappointed if we started a Sweepstakes with a rate less than 75 Q’s per HOUR! But I was hooked on contesting, and the November Sweepstakes is still my favorite…in 2010 I led the Midwest Division in the low-power CW category.