Amateur radio – From high school to retirement
How amateur radio is introduced to anyone who may be interested may come in many forms. Some are lucky and for others the opportunity may pass never to be presented again. I had had an interest in electricity and chemistry from a young age and in primary school had built a crystal set which worked. That must have been somewhere in the late 1960’s.
We moved to Alberton early 70’s. My uncle had given me an old valve shortwave receiver which I set up in my dad’s garage. Early one Sunday morning I was tuning around the shortwave bands and picked up a strong AM transmission. It was the SARL’s news bulletin. This was my first introduction to amateur radio. How ever else was I to find out about such things? I wrote to them and became a listening member ZS6-102 my certificate signed by A.H. v.d. Merwe ZS1AZ Dated in Cape Town 1st January 1974. My official start date with this really awesome hobby.
In 1974 I enrolled with Alberton High School in standard eight. It was the highest standard being a new school and each year thereafter till matric in 1976. I belonged to an electronics club hosted by Pam Barnes who was the mother of Paul Barnes also a high school student there. Paul’s dad was Reg Barnes also a radio amateur. I visited their home once and their impressive radio room. Many of my school friends were also members of the electronics club but never became radio amateurs.
Classes for the RAE were offered and presented at St. John’s College in Houghton and for many weeks my dad would drive through in the evenings and drop me off that I could attend. I was probably the youngest in the class. I recall a headmaster who was also attending and he paid for a cup of coffee for me which cost five cents. I didn’t have five cents with me to pay for it. We wrote the exam, technical and regulations in November of 1974. I passed fortunately!
I can’t recall exactly when but my dad had taken me to a hobbies faire hosted in the Johannesburg town hall. Very near to the entrance was a counter, behind it a few radio guys and someone on the radio listening and decoding Morse code telling the other guys what he had just received. If that didn’t attract me to amateur radio then nothing else would. I was hooked! To this day I truly believe that Morse code is the heart of amateur radio. Anyone can talk using a radio mic or telephone or cell phone, anyone can type on a computer or send emails or WhatsApp messages but only radio hams can send and receive the Morse code. (Not to mention ex navy / military / commercial Morse code operators). I was rather disgusted when I called a SSB station only a few years ago using Morse code and he mentioned hearing some digital mode after numerous calls. In the early days I regularly joined SSB nets on Morse code and there was almost always someone who could decode for the group. My first year as a ZS radio amateur had to be Morse code only and only after that year was I allowed to go onto SSB. It was a good thing!
I had learned the Morse code in completely the wrong way. Me and my younger brother out of a book. Remembering the dots and dashes and not ever thinking that the sounds were the key. I later bought some long playing records that had Morse code lessons on them and could be played at different turntable speeds 33, 45 and 78. That maybe helped a little and I only just passed the twelve word per minute Morse code test at the Johannesburg post office. Because of the wrong way of learning the Morse code I was pretty much stuck at this speed for many years, well until I discovered “Morse runner” an interactive virtual reality program written many years ago. Using this program improved my speed up to thirty words per minute in five minute sessions. Higher speeds makes the reading of Morse code so much easier. The speed barrier just needs to be overcome and “Morse runner” does this for you.
I got my licence in February 1975, called up onto the stage one morning by the headmaster congratulating me on getting my amateur radio licence in front of the whole school. Wow, what an honour. My dad helped me to buy my first transmitter the Yaesu FLDX400 from Hamrad in Johannesburg and a second hand receiver which I think was a KW77. So I had to start my communications career using separate receiver and transmitter and impossible to link the two. It was difficult but I managed somehow.
During my matric year in 1976 I had to pack my radios away. I did, into a cupboard but everything was connected. I still made regular QSO’s even if I had to do it secretly. At the end of 1976 I had a going away braai and invited John, then ZS6BNS, and Gary ZS6YI. I was to report for duty in January 1977 at Wits command where I was taken by train to Kimberly for basic training. The army didn’t care much that I’d make a good signaller and I didn’t care much for the army and after basic training I was sent to 91 ammunition depot where I spent my days loading ammunition boxes.
I had my FT101EE there on top of the hill and one weekend made contact with Brian Austin ZS6BKW. He was a signals captain and within a week I was transferred to Wits Command signals where I spent the last eighteen months of my national service (It was increased by a year). I was given the rank of lance corporal which I carried into the citizen force at 71 Brigade’s signals. I did many camps mostly at Tempe, Lohatla and White river and just existed as a radio operator. I used ham radio to hear how things were at home, either via other hams willing to make a phone call, or directly with my XYL Elrika which wasn’t all that legal to do but we got the message through.
Not much happened for many years while building a career and raising a family. My son Edwill showed interest in ham radio and computers, learned Morse code at five words per minute in a week, passed his RAE and becam ZU1AAI, later changed to ZU6AAI. We did packet radio together. He lost interest as he discovered new and modern things.
Fourteen years down the line from initial national service I volunteered for a troop seargents course in Heidelburg. It was my last camp but meant more to me than any other military related activity I was required to participate in. For one thing I was in the heart of signals. It taught me skills I could one day use in the commercial world and to promote amateur radio, the ability to stand in front of many people and do presentations on interesting subjects.
I’d go as far as to say that the SARL’s RTA’s (Radio Technology in Action) were the best thing the SARL could have ever introduced. It certainly opened up a whole new world for me. I had also eventually invested in something more modern than a Yaesu FT101EE. I bought an Icom ic706mkiig. This radio allowed me to participate in digital modes, meteor scatter and satellite communications. I was introduced to satellite communications at the very first RTA that I attended. What a journey! I built my own satellite antennas and it wasn’t the rocket science that I was afraid to face. It was quite achievable.
I was interested in field communications and through the years aquired a FT-817ND (QRP Radio) and eventually a FT-897d too. From my experience these were some of the best radios ever made. If you own either or both don’t ever think of getting rid of them no matter whatever replacement you may be convinced in making. You already have the best. These radios are well suited to portable operating and are pretty good with battery power too. They allowed me to develop the concept of RaDAR, a very unique way of practising amateur radio.
For a few years now I have enjoyed early retirement. I always thought that I would have lots of time for amateur radio when I no longer had to spend my time serving the dreams of corporations. Not so, I’d rather spend my time being productive. Being productive gives a sense of achievement where amateur radio really feels like a waste of time. Amateur radio is constantly on my mind though. I run a WSPR transmitter 24/7 on 40m as my interest is NVIS. I have spent many hours writing online systems for NVIS reporting and of course last but not least the online community logbook and evaluator. I still drive the concept of RaDAR as that was my brainchild over a decade ago.
To me amateur radio should serve a purpose. Sure it can be used as a pastime too just for fun. I now have an Icom 7200 as a 100 Watt rig but it is rarely used. I’d much rather go outside and do some Morse code using a simple 40m QCX radio as that gives me all the sense of achievment I need now and then.
Just the other afternoon I was sitting down by the local river at a jetty I’d done some hard labour to create a few days before, making contact with Eric A2/ZS5EL/m touring through Botswana and getting a situation report and GPS position from him. Also ensuring all is OK. Two guys approached me, a guy and his son both having the same name, Pieter. They saw and heard my CW coming from an extension speaker as I sent Morse code on my straight key and the QCX sending five Watts into an end fed half wave wire. They too may have been inspired like I was at the hobbies faire in Johannesburg almost a half century ago. I gathered a few books for them, they want to become radio amateurs …..