Another tale on my entry to amateur radio

Posted by Nate Bargmann on Mon, Jul 18, 2011

Looking for something unrelated I ran across this post I made to back on 8 December 2007.  I’ll add more of such posts as I find them scattered about the Web.

Here are two of my earliest memories concerning radio. I can remember the folks having an AM radio/turn-table unit with a remote speaker. They generally left it tuned to KFAB in Omaha while they did chores and I was mostly left to my own devices in the house. My grandparents from my mom’s side had a tall Philco (if I recall) console that included three shortwave bands in addition to the AM broadcast band. I recall one of my cousins sitting at it and turning the bandswitch which elicited a heavy grinding thump from the large speaker (now I know it was a dirty switch), but what a way to impress upon a youngster the idea of switching that receiver to hear the world! During the same period, my dad, who had been in the Army 510 Signal Corps during Korea, repaired TVs on the side for the neighbors. He gave me a good basic instruction on radio theory as it applied to receivers. He wasn’t a radio operator as he was in the repair end of it. So, my curiosity was piqued even further.

By the time I was ten or so, the ’70s fuel crisis was in full swing and CB came to the forefront of popular culture. Some grade school classmates (KB0FBH and his brother) had a pair of CBs and that was my introduction to two-way radio. My interest in radio continued to fester and even having my own Panapet helped but didn’t cure the disease.

As the ’70s wore on, my folks bought my brother and I a pair of cheap CB walkie-talkies that worked only on channel 14. Occasionally I’d hear coyote hunters or some other traffic and the bug’s bite would be a little harder.

In 1980 the local Radio Shack store was offering a 40 channel CB for $50 or thereabouts. So we decided that communications might be a good thing as we were expanding our farming operation and it finally got me into two-way radio. Well, the results were somewhat less than stellar (we now have a 450 MHz repeater in place). Wanting to know more I found a book at the Radio Shack store that did a good job of discussing the technical aspects of radio is they applied to CB, but also included several pages on amateur radio. Now I knew where my final destination on the radio journey would be (or, so I thought)!

Just before graduating high school I had to do a term paper. All such prior papers had been done on some aspect of agriculture, but for this one I ran across a mention in an encyclopedia about amateur radio and that formed the subject of the paper. I would probably laugh if I ever found that paper and read it today. I did get one useful bit of information out of my research and that was the address of the ARRL. Not long afterward I wrote them for more information and received a nice packet.

Then I discovered I needed to learn Morse Code.

So began a two and a half year personal struggle against Mr Morse’s brain child (actually, I would learn later, the international version of it). ARRL and Heathkit self study tapes proved no match for my inability to learn it. In early 1982 I built a Heathkit code practice oscillator and a month or so later an SW receiver (which was a tick above an AM receiver for code use) that was quite a poor performer. Finally, in 1983 I succumbed to a QST advertisement for Code Quick and managed to learn Morse well enough to get my Novice ticket and KA0RNY in early November of 1983.

Theory was always easy for me as I loved to read. And read I did as I didn’t have much else to do in my free time. Tune in the World, Understanding Amateur Radio, and an old Radio Shack book 5 to 1000 Watts got me started and fairly well grounded in radio theory. I also had a couple of copies of the ARRL Handbook, but a lot of that was rather dense reading.

I needed a radio so I built an HW-8 as it was in my budget at that moment. It had some problems and I had no test equipment. Consequently, I stayed off the air until I got it going after a fashion. Until New Years day 1984, that is. 15m was wide open and I found the Novice band and gave a call to another station. In the ensuing confusion and nervousness I forgot everything I knew about Morse and never completed the QSO. I would never operate as a Novice again.

A few weeks later I ordered the Heathkit HW-5400 and spent the rest of the winter building it. My lack of experience and test equipment along with some other problems left me with a dead radio. Heathkit honored their warranty and I sent it off to the Heath store in the Kansas City area where it was aligned and fixed. When it came back it still didn’t work so I sent it back and we determined the power supply was the culprit. With that fixed I was able to spend the rest of the year listening. Because I was waiting.

Waiting for what, you may ask. The Volunteer Examiner program to get under way. In 1982 President Reagan signed PL-259 which gave, among other things, the FCC the authority to establish the VE program. As I recall, the first exam sessions were held at the Dayton Hamvention in 1984 and the rest of the country would come up to speed later that year. Since the FCC was no longer conducting exams, I had to wait because I wanted to get my Technician license. As it turned out, an exam session was scheduled for mid-January 1985 in Topeka and I walked out with my CSCE in hand, but I had no 2m gear. I fixed that the next week buying an IC-290A and a Larsen mag-mount 5/8 wave antenna.

Now I could TALK! Ham radio was reality for me and I had a ball. For six months, that is, and then HF began calling, but I had to conquer that monster called Morse Code first. I learned there would be an exam session at the KS ARRL convention in October so I was determined to get my speed to 13 WPM by then.

I set about this task during the last week in July. My goal was one CW QSO per day. Some days I had zero and some days two or three. I kept at it and I also kept pace with the W1AW practice transmissions. I was also determined to leapfrog right to Advanced. I passed Elements 1B and 4A and walked out with the biggest smile and a CSCE for Advanced. I was on top of the world for only a year earlier I’d thought that I’d never get beyond Technician.

Not long after someone suggested I continue on and get my Extra. I ignored the advice as I was happy as a clam. Besides, 20 WPM was just too fast.

Life changes then came into play. I discovered that farming wasn;t “my thing”. or that I was going to have a heck of a time trying to make a living at it and supporting my technology habit. My brother was quickly proving to be a better farmer than me and I realized that communications technology was very interesting to me. A family tragedy pushed me toward tech school and in late 1989 I began the Electronics Technician program at DeVry in Kansas City.

Every aspect of the program was interesting and challenging. I graduated in 1991 and later that year hired on to Union Pacific Railroad as a telecommunications tech. The only “problem” was that I would be moving to Enid, OK. Fortunately, the Enid Amateur Radio Club was an active bunch and I quickly became a part of the group, first via packet and then on the repeaters. They had an active W5YI VE team so the challenge was on and I conquered Morse at 20 WPM and earned my Extra in July ‘92. I would’ve gotten it in May, but I forgot to answer one question on the 20 WPM exam sheet and missed the exam by one. Note: ANSWER ALL THE QUESTIONS! It was the only amateur radio exam I failed. I got my VE credentials and have enjoyed being a VE and establishing VE teams in Wichita in ‘99 and here in Marysville in ‘02.

I celebrated 16 years in my career with UPRR as a Senior Electroncis Tech in October. My curiosity in radio has led me farther than I ever could have imagined and the ride is far from over!

Oh yeah, about that Philco console. My grandfather passed away in ‘96 (Grandma had passed away shortly before I started at DeVry) and the personal possessions were sold at auction. Several relatives thought I’d buy it and I did have a slight interest in it, but I opted not to buy it, and it’s now somewhere else which I do regret at times.

I didn’t have any one Elmer, although I learned something from many different people over the years. Instead I was self-motivated and I proved to myself that no obstacle is too high when one is motivated to overcome it.

I have done many things in my ham career and I look forward to doing many more. My interest has resurged this year and I;m looking forward to Cycle 24.


Comment by Nate Bargmann on 2019-06-16 18:27:24 -0500

The report mentioned above was found in late 2018 just right around the 35th anniversary of receiving my Novice license. As I note, I got a lot of things right and some things dreadfully wrong!

A Personal Milestone and a Look Back