Chaz Cone

How I got started in Ham Radio

    I grew up (if "grown up" is what I am) in Little Rock, Arkansas.  The neighborhood was extremely "Ozzie and Harriett" but I loved it.  Here's our house at 1923 Shadowlane:

    This story begins in 1954.

    Just off the front hall in the living room was one of those gigantic floor-standing radios with a walnut case.  I think it was a Crosley all-bander:

    I don't remember how I discovered that you could click a switch and listen to shortwave radio -- higher in frequency and a world away from the AM sounds of Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis.  I remember sitting on the floor in front of it, reaching up and tuning back and forth listening to Radio Free Europe, Voice of America and other broadcasts in mysterious foreign languages.  It was cool!

    Shortly, though, the radio was rocked back on its cabinet by a very loud signal.  So loud that you could hear it squawking away far up and down the dial.  As I carefully tuned it in, it was some guy talking to someone else in some kind of jargon.  At least I thought he was talking to someone else -- I could only hear one side of the conversation.  It was fascinating and, I reasoned, the guy must be close by as he had a southern accent and was louder than any other shortwave signal I'd heard. He said his callsign was W5TIZ, his name was Dick and his "QTH" (whatever that meant) was Little Rock.

    When my Dad came home from work, I told him about my new listening adventure.  He said, "Oh, that's probably Dick Freeling up the street."


    Dick Freeling lived six houses up the street at 1822 Shadowlane:

    He had two kids (one older and one younger than I) and I was only vaguely aware of him.  He was, after all, an adult (turns out, only sixteen years older than me) and I was a 14 year-old kid.  Dad said that Dick was a WWII veteran who had lost his sight in combat but was a "ham" radio operator.  Dad wasn't too sure what that meant, but offered to call Dick, tell him I'd heard him and asked if he'd tell me about this nifty radio-thing.  Dick was a great guy.  I didn't know then that one of the responsibilities of being a Ham Radio operator was advancing the hobby by encouraging young folks to get involved.

    BTW, the proper name is "Amateur Radio"; there are dozens of stories of how it got to be nicknamed "Ham Radio" -- I don't think anyone knows for sure which one is true.

    I don't know if you remember your first friendship with an adult other than a family member, but Dick Freeling was mine.  In ham lingo, he was my "Elmer", the one who introduced me to this great hobby, Amateur Radio.

    Dick invited me up the street to see his station (he called it his "rig" and it was in his "ham shack").  In a sunroom off the master bedroom he had a desk set up with a transmitter, a receiver, an amplifier and a bunch of other accessory gizmos.  The transmitter and receiver were connected via thick black cables to several antennas in the back yard:

    Amazingly, Dick (who, remember, is blind) was able to operate the radios by touch!

      (this photo is a recent one of Dick)

    An aside: Amateur Radio has been around nearly as long as radio itself.  The Amateur Radio Service is licensed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with the mission of honing radio communications skills (and having fun) so that operators will be available in emergencies.  For a beginner's overview of Ham Radio, click HERE.

    To become a ham, you have to get a license.  There are several license classes (at the time I got involved there were five classes).  The "entry level" license was the Novice Class.  In 1954 you had to take a 75 question technical exam and demonstrate your ability to send and receive Morse code at five words-per-minute.  (Note: The requirement to know the "code" has recently been dropped; for decades "learning the code" was the most significant barrier to the growth of Ham Radio).

    When you pass your ham license exam, the FCC issues you a "callsign"; the way you're known to other hams. Click HERE to read about callsigns and how they're assigned.

    I soon became an after-school and weekend fixture at Dick's house, helping him with tasks more easily done by someone with sight, soaking up radio lore and technique, learning the code and studying the exam questions and answers.  Just two months after hearing Dick on our old console radio in the living room Dick gave me the Novice exam and I passed it.  And another month after that, my license with the callsign KN5AZL arrived in the mail!

    Now to get "on the air" myself.  I was approaching confirmation at our Temple and I begged my (rich) Uncle Dave to buy me a receiver as a confirmation gift -- a first step to setting up my own station.  My folks had already agreed to my stringing a wire antenna through the trees in the back yard.  Uncle Dave came through with the radio, a Hallicrafters S38-D:

    I remember that (brand-new) it cost $50.00.

    Wow!  A receiver and an antenna! I could listen -- but I couldn't "talk" without a transmitter.  My mom came through; I "helped" her find a used Harvey-Wells TBS-50D "BandMaster" transmitter for $75.00:

    ..  and KN5AZL was on the air!

    The Novice class license which I had earned only permitted transmission via Morse code.  You'd tap out the callsign of the station you were calling and, when/if they responded, you'd exchange names and locations (location? So that's what "QTH" meant! Click HERE to read about ham "Q" signals.) all by operating a radio-telegraph key.  Here's my first key (I still have it):

    My first radio contact was, of course, with friend Dick, W5TIZ, up the street.  But my next was with a ham in Ohio (more than 1,000 miles away) and I quickly made contacts all over the country and Canada.  A week or two later I contacted (we call it "worked") a ham in England!  Amazing!

    Hams confirm contacts by mailing postcards (called "QSL" cards) back and forth; many are quite colorful and paper the walls of "ham shacks" world-wide.  Here's my first QSL card (circa 1954):

Here's Dick in August 2004