When I was a very young child a railroad conductor gave my dad a copy of his QSL card to give to me. This is a special postcard that contains all the personal information about a licensed amateur radio operator, better known as a ham. It has his name, address, and most importantly, his call sign.
From the moment dad gave me this man’s QSL I became interested in international communications. The idea of listening to and maybe talking with people around the world fascinated me. The easiest and cheapest way to get started was by making your own crystal radio set out of some telephone wire and an oatmeal tube. The next step was saving your paper route money and buying a shortwave receiver kit from Allied Electronics in Chicago.
Kit constructed and wire strung from every tree and chimney around our house, I was in my bedroom struggling to hear weak signals from Radio Moscow and the BBC. Save a little more money and buy a couple more plugin coils and you could be listening to ham operators talk with each other. What they called, rag chewing.
My interest in communications took me into the Navy where I graduated from their radio communications school and later served as a shipboard radioman. Part of the schooling was learning to communicate in Morse Code (CW) at fairly high speeds. CW was the primary and most reliable means of ship to shore communications for decades and knowing it was a requirement for obtaining a ham radio license.
Years after getting out of the Navy I again became interested ham radio so I boned up on my electronics theory and CW speed and took my FCC Novice license test. I passed with flying colors and became Amateur Radio Station, KA8ISF. At the time the FCC allowed for five levels of amateur licensing, Novice, Technician, General, advanced, and Extra. Each level permitted greater flexibility. Novice permitted CW communications only but with technician came the right to speak into a microphone and communicate with the human voice. Each level after that came with more frequency allocations and additional communication modes, such as satellite communications. Extra was the highest and that’s what I quickly strived for and attained. Extra class hams were permitted special four-letter call signs and my new call became NE8V.
For hobby purposes, the Amateur Radio Relay League recognizes over 300 countries and offers special honors for achieving certified contact with each. Over the years I contacted slightly over 300 and buried deep in a desk is a certificate of achievement. Contacts are certified by exchanging of QSL cards and in my garage, there are boxes full of these cards from thousands of hams from literally every corner of the globe.
Eventually, I settled on daily conversations with people within a 500-600 mile radius. These talks took place on a fixed frequency and on an evening there would be a dozen or more people talking and dozens more simply listening in. As time passed people disappeared for a number of reasons. Some left the hobby, some faced divorce if they didn’t sell that damned radio contraption, some discovered computers, and the Internet, and some simply got old and died. For these and other reasons I slowly lost interest and sold off all my equipment. I just renewed my license for another ten years but haven’t been on the air for twenty years, or so.
As the Internet and cell phones grew in popularity I just assumed ham radio was fading into history. But on occasion, I see something in the news that proves otherwise. Today I came across a Canadian article addressing the continued need and importance of amateur radio in times of crisis. It is often the only means of reliable communications during natural and man-made disasters.
Here’s a link to the Canadian article that you may find informative. The FCC still regulates the service and a license is still required. However, the requirement to learn Morse Code has long ago been trashed. In the Navy, CW isn’t even taught and today’s radioman is called an Information Systems Technician. Short for a computer geek.
Finally, here’s a little info on QSL cards. Every nation has a set of opening letters that identify it, For example, US callsigns can begin with W, N, or K. Japanese calls usually begin with JA, Canada VE, Great Britain G, etc. There is often a number in the call that normally signifies the part of the country the licensed station resides in. In my call, the N says America while the 8 identifies the FCC’s 8th call district which includes OH, WV, and MI. Here’s a couple of actual QSL cards and you can see each carries a lot of information.