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Issue #23: Life Lessons from Ham Radio

By Dave Jensen, W7DGJ


What I Remember to This Day about my Earliest Ham Lessons

Today's column is a story that is often repeated on QRZ.com profile pages. This one is unique to me and something very personal, but I have to admit I've read plenty of other operators' pages who have had similar experiences in their early teen years. The mentoring you get as a young kid is something you never forget.

In this week's column, I'll pass along some of the key lessons I learned in those early days. It is my greatest hope that in the years ahead I might be able to pass something of value along to younger operators in the same way. Some were ham lessons that made me a better radio operator and a better "citizen" of the air waves. But many important lessons crossed over into my life experiences as well and became important to me for other reasons. Some of what I learned in an 18-month period still lies at the base of my core beliefs about life and my relations with others, even decades later.

And, of course, I wouldn't know a damn thing about radio without the two friends I'll tell you about at the Veteran's Hospital in East Cleveland, Ohio.

Smart Kid or a Troublesome Young Man?

I wasn't a great boy scout. I'll use the words of our Assistant Scoutmaster (they're now called Scout Leaders) which I overheard one night at a Boy Scout jamboree field. He and the Troop Leader were discussing a small group he wanted to take out for a particular excursion, and it was clear that he was trying to get away from the responsibility of taking me along. Hearing an adult refer to me as a "troublesome young man" (when all I'd ever heard in the past was about what a smart kid I was) set me up for somewhat of a rude awakening.

Of course, there was a reason for that label. At another Scout event that same year, I had been responsible for mixing up some saltpeter, charcoal and sulfer into a big canister and sticking a fuse in it. To say it made a very loud noise and a small crater would be an understatement. While no one ever "fessed up," it was commonly understood in our troop that I was the ringmaster of anything explosive. I made a wise decision after this, and that was to start focusing on other merit badges besides chemistry, and radio seemed like the one for me. I had been a Short Wave Listener for years, and I enjoyed nothing more than lying in bed with a little General Electric transistor radio, to hear distant AM stations and disc jockeys from St. Louis, Chicago and far off places in Canada. 

A Volunteer at the Local Veteran's Radio Shack

There were plenty of volunteer opportunities that were announced to the guys in the troop, but I was apparently the only one who expressed interest in helping out at our local Veteran's Hospital. This wasn't long after the Korean Conflict, and there were a lot of men at the hospital who were terribly damaged in one way or the other from the combat. When I arrived on the first day, the job seemed a little boring. I was asked to cart around a bunch of magazines and books, and to "chat up" the patients in some of the public areas where those who could make it out of bed would gather. 

While doing this job, I found out that there was a radio shack in the building, and I hinted to my volunteer coordinator that I might be able to help out there. I remember him looking me up and down to determine if I was strong enough to handle that job, which was puzzling. It didn't seem any more difficult than the magazines job to me. But in reality, it was a place that could be very depressing. Some of the men in that part of the hospital were really suffering . . . guys with seemingly half a face left, or in the case of my two Ham friends, completely incapacitated with the exception of one hand or a few fingers they could move. 

At my first glimpse of that station (see photo) I was in Heaven. It was an incredible mix of that era's state-of-the-art, with a great antenna farm on the roof of this very tall building (yagi, dipoles and more!). Of course, I knew nothing about what the gear did, although one of the two paraplegic operators showed me how to operate the receive function on day one, and how to listen to Sideband and AM conversations. This wasn't their chief mode of operation, however, as my two new friends were code warriors. With a unique bug that some earlier ham volunteer had helped to implement, they could shoot CW out at an outrageous speed from their wheelchairs; the walls of the shack were covered with QSL cards from all over the world to prove it.

I wish I could pass along Joe and Jim's full names and calls, but my aging brain long ago lost that vital information. Over the first few months of my volunteer gig, I learned about the equipment and how to set up the station for proper operation by the disabled hams. This fine gear was also used by a local radio club and the two guys were always frustrated that the club members never returned it to the settings they liked to use. Within days they were talking to me about the code and what they were doing. No, they didn't slow down to a crawl and start to teach me what each character meant. But they set me up with my own study of Morse, and even lent me a buzzer and key and some practice materials. The ARRL books that we've all seen from that era about "How to Become an Amateur Radio Operator" were so useful, and soon I had stuff strewn all over my house as I practiced. I could finally understand some of the phrases being sent by my two operators, notably signal reports, QTH and so on. It was time for my Novice exam.

Lessons for the New Ham

I passed my Novice, set up my home station and moved quickly from WN8VDY to WA8VDY with a license upgrade. But when you are working with the kind of equipment you see in that VA shack, my home station just felt a bit shabby. I remember complaining to Joe about the little rig from Benton Harbor that my Dad had helped me with, and he immediately shut down that conversation.

"Dave, do not EVER put down a ham radio station, whether it is yours or someone else's. No matter the low power or the lack of fancy metering, that rig is going to get you out there. You've stumbled onto the greatest hobby there is, one that you'll carry with you for the rest of your life. You have the ability right now to make friends and to learn more about how signals propagate and travel all over the world. That station of yours is as capable as any of proving those radio theories you've studied." 

He was right, of course. For any station I've been lucky enough to operate, I have appreciated its abiliies and have used my knowledge of radios and antennas to work it at its maximum potential. QRP and "inexpensive" stations have held just as much or more fascination as the station I now operate with full legal limit and modern radios. 

Another lesson came when operating in front of my two Elmers at the VA ham shack. I was proud of my increasing code ablities and on a QSO with an even newer ham, I stomped him into the ground, coming back at 20+ WPM to his 8 WPM call. Both Joe and Jim gave me a dirty look and let me continue, but at the close of that QSO they let me know how disappointed they were in me. I had expected to be complimented on how my speed was improving and instead I had been given a lesson on how to treat other operators.

"Dave, the moment you heard his call you should have adjusted your speed downwards to meet his, perhaps even given him a somewhat slower comeback to what he was sending," Jim told me. "Don't wait for him to hit you with a QRS request. Do it because you respect him, do it because it's the right way to communicate." Joe threw another comment at me about how rude it is to show off (this coming from one of those rare guys who could shoot 50 WPM code if he wanted.)

To this day, I have a respect for other operators that goes back to these early ham experiences. If someone wants to rag chew and talk about a subject that wouldn't normally be of interest to me, I consider it an opportunity to learn something. I'll ask questions and generally go with the spirit of the call and what the other operator intended. If on another QSO my contact wants to just send a signal report and call it quits, that's fine too. I learned to be "simpatico" by my experiences over 18 months with Joe and Jim.

Life Lessons

I promised you at the top that some of my lessons learned moved over and became larger than ham radio. I think this respect for others who I am communicating with is one of those lessons, where Morse code training brought me better communication skills in general. 

But a key "life" lesson that stems directly from the Veterans Hospital in East Cleveland is how important it is to share eye contact when you are with someone person-to-person. I say that because it was very difficult for me to actually look at my friends in the hospital. I clearly remember the man down the hall from the radio shack who grabbed my arm as I was passing and saying hello. He was right to do so, as I had gone past his wheelchar for months, always politely wishing him a good afternoon but never lingering. He held my arm and asked me to look at him when I talk, but doing so was incredibly difficult due to the disfiguration to his face and the pain in his eyes. He was kind. He told me that making eye contact with others was what he missed most during his days out in the hallway. 

At my next visit to the Ham Shack, I made sure to give Jim and Joe the same eye contact I had given that stranger. Upon doing so, I realized it was the first time I had really looked at them, and they had both given me so much. Years and years later, despite the fact that I can't remember their full names, I can see their faces the way they looked when they returned my hello that day. Good men, great hams, and both from a wonderful tradition of Elmers.

73 for now,

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Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

Dave Jensen, W7DGJ, was first licensed in 1966. Originally WN7VDY (and later WA7VDY), Dave operated on 40 and 80 meter CW with a shack that consisted primarily of Heathkit equipment. Dave loved radio so much he went off to college to study broadcasting and came out with a BS in Communications from Ohio University (Athens, OH). He worked his way through a number of audio electronics companies after graduation, including the professional microphone business for Audio-Technica.  He was later licensed as W7DGJ out of Scottsdale, Arizona, where he ran an executive recruitment practice (CareerTrax Inc.) for several decades. Jensen has published articles in magazines dealing with science and engineering. His column “Tooling Up” ran for 20 years in the website of the leading science journal, SCIENCE, and his column called “Managing Your Career” continues to be a popular read each month for the Pharmaceutical and Household Products industries in two journals published by Rodman Publishing.

Articles Written by Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

This page was last updated August 23, 2023 05:22