My first introduction to amateur radio

Posted by Nate Bargmann on Sat, Dec 17, 2016

It was early 1977 as I recall, probably just after New Years, I was 13, CB was big in the popular culture and I wished to be able to take part but a CB at the time was just too expensive for my parents to satisfy my radio curiosity on what they presumed may be a whim.

I knew that such a thing as business radio, that was not CB, existed as I’d witnessed the local International Harvester dealership (Bruna Implement Company) use what I later learned was low-band VHF FM radios to communicate between its dealership locations and its vehicle fleet.  But CB, two-way radio, that interested me greatly.  Our parents had given my brother and me a walkie talkie set for Christmas, perhaps a year or two earlier, that ostensibly operated on CB channel 14, but they didn’t work well, and of course, I couldn’t hear the truckers channel, channel 19.  Once in a great while I would hear someone else on the ’talkie and would get excited and try to talk to them.  It never worked out.

One day I came home from school in early 1977 and in the mail had arrived a misdirected Popular Mechanics addressed to my cousin up the road a couple of miles.  I thumbed through it and found, to my great delight, the article Super-radio: The next step beyond CB.  The entire article was intriguing but I was most intrigued by something described as a repeater. Which, in short, is a station, often located at a high location, that simultaneously receives and retransmits a radio signal over a much wider area than a mobile or walkie-talkie (now called a handheld radio in amateur radio jargon) is able.

Whatever else I had read in that article had since been forgotten except for the few paragraphs about repeaters.  That had stuck with me all of these years and just this morning I found the article archived as part of Google Books.  Most likely, this article is the reason I’ve been involved with either using or building/maintaining repeaters nearly all of my amateur radio career—since early 1985 (I was first licensed in late 1983) and later my professional career starting in 1991.  I believe the magazine was given to my cousin a short time later as it’s no longer around here.  (I did a lot of cleaning a few years ago and never found it).

I did get a CB.  It was about three years later in early 1980 as a junior in high school.  Plus we bought a few for use around the farm and I learned to do radio installations (I still do them for a living!).  CB wasn’t what it had been several years earlier but we did make use of them around the farm, settling on channel 39 as it was much more quiet.  Some of my high school friends got one and we used them as high school kids are wont to do.  Some time later, in ‘82 or ‘83, I recall “working skip” to a guy in Pennsylvania.  Of course, he reminded me that we were violating the 150 mile distance limit for CB communications that is in Part 95 of the FCC rules.  No matter, actually talking to someone that far away proved an irresistible thrill.

By early 1981 I was set to graduate from high school “mid-term” which meant that I had enough class credits to graduate and since I would be working on the farm, that qualified me to graduate a semester early.  The end of the first semester was around the second week of January and an assignment for an English class was to write a report on a topic of our choosing.  It was going to probably be yet another report on dairy farming until I got to the school library with the other classmates and it dawned on me that I should do some other topic, but what?  A few ideas were probably batted around and found wanting.  I recall opening an encyclopedia and coming to a page about amateur radio.  Hmmmm.  I searched the rest of the library for more information on amateur radio but it was sorely lacking.  I scratched together a report for a passing grade but the most valuable bit of information turned out to be the mailing address for the American Radio Relay League (ARRL).

After graduating, I wrote a letter to ARRL asking for more information.  A few weeks later an envelope arrived (remember, no such thing as the World Wide Web in those days!) with a bit of information and an order sheet for ARRL publications.  I ordered copies of Tune in the World with Amateur Radio (a manual for learning material needed to pass the Novice written exam that also included a cassette tape for learning Morse Code to pass the associated 5 WPM Morse Code exam) and the ARRL Handbook.  They arrived a few weeks later and I was quickly overwhelmed and hooked!  I was on my way to becoming a ham, or a licensed radio amateur, though it would take me through several fits and starts to get to the point of being prepared for taking the exams for my Novice about 2 1/2 years later.  During that same time I was introduced to Heathkits and built several.

My journey into a very rewarding hobby and career started with a misdirected magazine and opening an encyclopedia to just the right page.  Divine intervention or serendipity?  While I prefer to think it was the former, some may rather think it was the latter.

Oh, and CB?  We used them for several years and then they fell into disuse.  In the mid 1990s I put together a repeater system for the farm and obtained a license for a UHF business band frequency.  20 years later we use this system today though all of the radios and the repeater had to be changed out to comply with the Part 90 narrowbanding mandate of several years ago.

Two-way radio continues to be of high interest in my life.  Some whim, eh?


Comment by Nate Bargmann on 2018-12-24 17:51:24 -0600

That mention of writing a report in early 1981? It’s here:

A Personal Milestone and a Look Back