ZS6BNE – My Morse Code (CW) Journey

My good friend Mike ZS6MSW, promoter for CW in South Africa, asked for stories like this. This is my story, a forty six year old story.

I was in high school and discovered ham radio through listening on a valve shortwave radio to the South African Radio League’s weekly bulletin transmitted on Sunday mornings using the AM mode.

I joined the SARL, did a nighttime RAE course and wrote the written technical and regulatory exam in November 1974. Morse code was compulsory then for a ZS licence. My younger brother helped me by drilling me constantly on the letters and numbers and their dot / dash equivalents. I bought a hand key but can’t recall what I used as a tone generator. I could send well and pretty fast too BUT the method of learning was not as it should be. I had no mentor. I took the 12 words per minute test at the post office in Johannesburg. I battled with the receiving side but passed. Having passed the RAE and the Morse code test I applied for my ZS licence and got it after swearing an oath of secrecy in February 1975. By then I was in standard nine.

My dad helped my buy my first transmitter, the Yaesu FL-DX400 and I had a second hand KW77 communications receiver. I actually lost my first CW QSO with a Rhodesian ham after he asked me to QSY to a different frequency, I wasn’t sure how to read the dial exactly! Working with a separate TX and RX made it even more difficult.

I had to complete a whole year on CW before being allowed to use SSB. That was a good thing of course. I had met up with a friend, John Smith ZS6BNS and we had regular QSO’s. John was at Wits university at the time. We became such good friends that we alternated having Sunday lunch at each other’s house most weekends.

I even had my station set up in the cupboard while in matric to make a hidden QSO now and then. I used my bedroom window frame as an antenna but of course the transmitter wasn’t happy with that and I destroyed the finals. I eventually gave the transmitter to Norman, ZS6ASL a technician that worked for the SABC if I recall correctly. Norman home brewed the most beautiful valve equipment. We lost touch over the years but John is still a good friend of mine and we still occasionally communicate via Facebook.

All school leavers in South Africa then had to do compulsory military training. I filled in the questionnaire and was glad to see questions like your ability to send and receive Morse code. I was convinced that my abilities would be used by the SADF when called up. I was called up to Kimberley One maintenance unit, nothing at all to do with radio or the Morse code. After basic training I was sent away to an ammunition depot and spent my days there packing ammunition boxes into storerooms the size of halls! Consignments to support the border war also needed to be packed regularly and sent off secretly.

Sometime I had purchased a FT101EE and was paying it off with my monthly army pay which wasn’t much at all. I took it with me to the depot and set up station there for weekends off time. I sometimes used the FT-101EE’s mic PTT button as a Morse code key and this impressed another soldier there who was a “doggy”. They stood guard at night walking with their dogs and R1 rifles. This soldier was Vincent who later became a ham and got the call sign ZS6BTY.

I happened to have a QSO with Brian Austin, ZS6BKW, famous for his BKW open wire fed antenna. Brian was a captain in the citizen force. Within a week he had me out of the ammunition depot and I became a signaler, a radio operator. Initially being called up for a year gave me six months being in signals, that six months became another eighteen months as legislation changed and everyone had to do two years national service.

After the army I went into the post office and trained as a telecom technician. I took my station to the Post Office college at Olifantsfontein where I stayed for three months at a time doing practical in between. I met up with a ham and his wife who lived close by and was often invited for supper. Hostel food was good but something different is always better.

In 1980 I met my wife and we were married later that year. I couldn’t get a transfer after qualifying as a technician so had to resign and in 1981 started work in Lichtenburg where I still stay now, with a cement company as an instrument technician. The workshop was well equipped for building PCB’s and it was here where I built an electronic keyer and a paddle using a hacksaw blade with perspex handle. I can’t recall whether I used a proven design or designed it myself. Logics (TTL / CMOS Gates) at tech was one of my main subjects. The keyer and paddle lasted me till way after 1995 – fifteen years later, together with the FT101EE I bought while in the army! I sold the keyer after buying an Icom IC-706mkiig which changed my ham radio world drastically. It of course had a built in keyer.

By the mid 1990’s I had done a career change away from a technical field and into computers doing systems programming and database administration on a mainframe system.

Many of our local ham radio club members wanted to upgrade to a ZS so I started giving Morse code lessons and after a few months many passed their morse code test. A few are my good friends Gert ZS6SMI, Dave ZS6DDU and Kobus ZS6RPJ. We lost some of our friends along the way R.I.P.

To be continued ……

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