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Voices From Space Sparked my Interest in Radio
It seemed like magic at the time to hear the voices of astronauts talking with ground stations on Earth
I was a young boy in the era of Sputnik and the race to put humans in space, and eventually, on the surface of the moon. Listening to the conversations between astronauts in orbit and ground stations on Earth seemed like magic to me at the time. I understand a lot more about radio now, but that little spark of wonder still lives on in my heart and mind.
I didn’t get my amateur radio license until fairly recently. I was licensed as a Technician with call sign KF7DGF in June 2009 which I soon changed to a vanity call of W3ROK (“we rock”). In July 2009 I passed the General exam. After a winter of studying, I became licensed as an Extra class operator in April 2010. Because I encountered some negative feedback about being licensed with a “3” call in “7 land,” I switched my vanity call in 2010 to N7ROK. In July 2013, I made the jump to KJ7T, my current call sign.
Why did it take me so long to get licensed? Honestly, I got hung up on Morse code while on the pathway to get to First Class in the Boy Scouts. Morse code just didn’t resonate with me at all and I formed a mental block, i.e., a belief that I couldn’t learn it. Based on that belief, I simply set aside my interest in radio for a long time…probably too long a time.
But I was always interested in radio. After college we worked in Indonesia. This was in an era before the internet so all we had for communicating with the outside world was a telex machine, postal mail, and shortwave radio. I listened to a lot of Voice of America in those days, as well as picking up other stations from around the globe on an early 1980s Panasonic receiver connected to a fairly short wire inside the house. To hear people speaking in so many languages from all over the planet was just as magical as listening to astronauts speak to us from space.
And then life got in the way. I had a career in mining geology and we had a growing family. Because of mining, we bounced around from place to place for a while. When I switched careers to join the conservation district community in Washington State, I had to invest a lot of extra time in learning the ropes and finding funding, so there was no time for radio.
One of my uncles was a licensed ham. I didn’t learn until after he passed that as a teenager, he had a station in the attic with a long wire out the window to a nearby tree. In retrospect, I wish I had taken the time to get to know him better. I would undoubtedly be a much more accomplished amateur radio operator today had I received some tutelage from him. Other than Uncle Jim, I had no relatives who were engaged with ham radio.
While I was getting settled into the conservation district world, my spouse was teaching K-12 music in our small, rural school district. I became her roadie, helping to set up and take down chairs and equipment for the frequent concerts. Much of the electronic equipment had been abused a bit: wires pulled out of plugs, broken cords, occasionally a damaged resistor or capacitor. I did a surprising amount of repair work, much of which seemed to come pretty naturally to me. I think this experience made the idea of getting my amateur radio ticket a little more accessible, despite my mental block about Morse code.
Some years later, as my employer started to explore the idea of a network of conservation districts all reporting data via radio, my interest in radio resumed. I got a Yaesu handheld radio and learned how to use it. I bought the Technician manual, studied, and took my test. Suddenly I was a licensed ham!
I did the same thing for my General license, i.e., I bought the book, studied on my own, and again passed the exam. But when I looked inside the covers of the Extra manual, I realized that I had reached my limit of understanding. I needed help grasping much of this material, so I took a class from David Brooks, N7HT. Dave was very patience with me. I believe he recognized my desire even while he recognized my ignorance. Any question I asked got a full and thoughtful reply. I learned a tremendous amount and passed the Extra test.
Today, I’m discovering that amateur radio isn’t just a single hobby but a hobby of many hobbies. It is satisfying my desire to continue being a lifelong learner. I discover something new almost every time I fire up a radio or work on an antenna.
Today, we have so many ways to communicate that radio seems a bit archaic. Many people are carrying around computers in their pockets that have more power than we used to put men on the moon! Many folks don’t realize those smartphones are, essentially, software defined radios. We have the internet with all the ugliness and beauty one can imagine available through that medium. People can chat with people in foreign countries, across our country, or across town with a click of a mouse button or a finger tap on a smartphone screen. Where does radio fit in today’s generation of technology users?
I do think there is a social aspect to amateur radio that we sometimes fail to recognize. That seems like an opportunity to spark some interest in people who aren’t yet hams. There is also a general acceptance within our ham radio community that even if your interests in radio seem esoteric and even a little odd, you are part of the community. Acceptance of differences is part and parcel of our ham radio way of life.
I wish I had better ideas for how to excite people enough to learn more about amateur radio. If we keep this sense of magic and excitement to ourselves, how are others to learn of the wondrous fun radio can bring? I think the best advice I can give myself and suggest to others is: be excited about ham radio when you talk with others. Doing that one thing may be enough to spark interest, and if we can then share some of the magic we feel when we “play radio,” we can bring new hams into our community.
Oh, and on my winter list of things to do is try for the third time to learn Morse code!