The Master Woodbutcher’s Callsign and Licensing Story

Here’s the long version of my ham career—it’s not covered in detail elsewhere here on my website, and it may be only another ham would really understand it, so feel free to back out and visit another part of my site. My early ham years, in Hollywood, FL, are on theWA4BAOpage. He was my Elmer—explained on that page. Now for the rest of the story:

In 1968 I moved to the Jacksonville, Florida, area and I first lived in a motel-converted-to-efficiencies in Hilliard (about 35 miles NW of JAX, and where the air traffic control center is located) for the first five or six months I was there. I had my Heath SB110 (6 Meter transceiver, which I had built) with me and even went so far as to put it out on a nightstand table in my cramped apartment, but I never fired it up or even hooked it up, as I recall.

Then I moved to a house in town which I rented from a local. Again, I set up the SB110, but I also recall assembling the five element Cushcraft Yagi antenna up on the roof. No tower or mast—just laying on the roof, sort of pointed toward Jacksonville. I know I turned the rig on once or twice and tuned around, but I don’t think I ever heard anything. If the house still exists, that beam may still be there.

Then about eight months or so into my job, I discovered partying and catting about as alternative pursuits (I’d done some catting around in Hollywood, but it’s tough when you’re living at home), and packed everything up and moved into Jacksonville.

The history of my rigs (I still owned my DX-100 transmitter and NC-300 receiver, too) is a little murky. I think one of the locals in Hollywood that I used to talk to eventually bought the SB-110. I know I had the NC-300 for sale on consignment at some store in Jacksonville and probably sold it there. I don’t remember how I disposed of the DX-100. It may have been sold before I moved from Hollywood, nevertheless, by 1969 I was pretty much radio free.

An aside, SWMBO and I met and married in 1970. Somewhere along the way—probably from being settled down—I started to get interested again. It may have been because one of my crewmates was a ham—Carl, W4EAT. I remember taking a code practice oscillator (CPO) into work on midnights and discovering that another of my coworkers used to work on the railroad and had sort of been interested in ham radio but never got past the electronics. He could really fly on the CPO—in both International and American Morse!!! That was very intimidating and disconcerting.

Carl and I went to a hamfest together and I think I went to a local ham club meeting with him once or twice, but I just couldn’t get into the code well enough to upgrade. By this time, 2 meter FM was starting to get popular and I remember Carl having what by today’s standards was a very crude and rudimentary 2 meter transceiver. Of course I disdained everything to do with 2 meters as I considered it a curse on ham radio, and I eventually gave it up again.

You see, I blamed 2 meters for my early friend Wayne not getting on HF and upgrading when his code speed would have improved. I blamed it for me spending too much time at Wayne’s (WN4KGB) and Paul’s (WA4BAO) house listening and talking on 6 and 2 instead of pounding brass on HF on my own station (when I finally got it put together). I wanted nothing to do with 2 meters.

When we moved to Chicago, there was a Heathkit store in Downers Grove—about 15 miles from where we lived—and I used to go there every once in a while. In addition to the SB-110 I built, I had also built a stereo receiver (AR-13) and a TV (don’t remember the model), so the underlying interest in electronics was still there. And, when we were in Jacksonville, I had built another stereo receiver (AR-15), which was then our current entertainment device (the others stayed with my parents).

Heathkit SB-104
Heathkit SB-104

Anyway, whenever I went into that store they had an SB-104 (solid state HF transceiver—their latest and greatest at the time) sitting out on display along with the other ham stuff. I’d always go over and tune across 20 meters (which for me was Mecca) and have my zest renewed. All the reading of K6ATX’s books and other adventures in ham radio was centered around 20 meters, and I wanted it, badly.

Finally, one day, while doing that tuning across the band, I thought to myself, “I’m now in a position where I have both the time and money to pursue this.” I went home, found an ad (in a QST magazine I’d bought) for a used Heath SB-303 receiver and ordered it. That would have been September, 1975. As soon as it arrived, I threw some wire in the trees and started copying CW. I mostly copied the W1AW code practice, and eventually got nearly comfortable with the 13 words per minute (WPM) sessions and in December took a trip to Chicago to the FCC office (by the way, I had gone down to the Miami FCC office once in the ’60s to try the 13 WPM test but I wasn’t even close).

I wasn’t much closer in Chicago as it turned out. I was devastated. I started to leave, very disappointed when the examiner said, “why don’t you take the General written?” I asked what good that would do, since I’d failed the code test (and there were no exam element credits in those days). He said, “based on the number of characters you did copy, I can give you credit for 5 WPM and if you pass the General written, you’ll get an unconditional Tech, which means all you have to do to upgrade is pass the code.” (The written element for the Technician and General license were identical—only the code speed was different.)

In those days, both the Novice and Technician licenses were “mail order” tests and called conditional  license grants—in other words, tests given, not by the FCC, but by local General or higher volunteers, and you couldn’t get element credit for them. Even Conditionals (Generals who had taken their tests overseas or in distant places but not at the FCC) had to take the written and 13 WPM CW in front of an FCC examiner before they could get their Advanced. I immediately grasped the advantage to this. So, I took the written, passed it (I’d been studying the theory, too), and after a few weeks got a newly minted, unconditional Technician license in the mail. While not what I ultimately wanted, it was a big step.

In the meantime, I kept cracking on the CW and finally did get comfortable at 15 WPM or so and went back down in January to take the 13 WPM test again. I passed it! After twelve years, I’d finally made General!! No rest for the wicked, however—since I’d also been studying the Advanced written material, so while there I took and passed the Advanced. Woohoo!! All those years of wanting a General ticket and I’d been one for only about twenty minutes. The train ride home was unbelievable. I couldn’t imagine I’d finally done it.

The Wheaton Hamfest (one of the biggest and the first one of the season in Chicagoland) was a week or so away, and I went there with cash in hand and found an SB-401 transmitter (the matching unit to the SB-303). I brought it home, lashed it up with the ’303, and got it on the air. I am now a little fuzzy as to when I did my callsign changes. I had kept WA4NJI when I did the upgrades, and I had gotten on 2 meters locally with it, as well. Oh, yeah—more guys at work (Chicago, now) were hams and 2 meter FM was really hot by then.

At the time you could get a secondary call for alternate locations, so I got WB9UQX for Illinois and WA2FLD for when we went over to Western New York (my original home) to visit family. Keep those in mind for later developments.

In 1976 the ARRL sponsored a Bicentennial Worked All States (WAS) program, and we were all authorized by the FCC to use bicentennial callsigns (one replaced their assigned prefix with the authorized equivalent from a list published by the FCC—I was AB9UQX). I remember being really active on 80 meters, including getting in the Bicentennial Worked All States Net, and got my WAS before the end of the year.

I made a couple of friends on 2 meters who were pretty hot DXers, but I hadn’t gotten the bug for that yet, and in fact made fun of them in jest about it. But around 1978 I got hooked on DX myself. However, I couldn’t let them know it, so I never got my DXCC certificate (until years later when I had over 300 countries), knowing that they were checking QST every month waiting to catch the closet DXer  being outed.

Also, we had moved from one suburb to another and I got to know some of the new locals, including the guy who owned and maintained the local 2 meter repeater, Ellis, K9VWJ. What a character he was. When the FCC opened up the 1×2 callsigns in 1976 to holders of Extra licenses, Ellis applied for and got W9YD, Yeller Dawg. Anyway, one day we were bantering on 2 and he had mentioned being on 75 meters the night before, and I asked him, “why don’t we get on 75 together and chat?” He said, “what frequency?”

I’d once heard someone give this response and thought it sounded pretty snappy, so I said, “pick one—I can go anywhere you can go.”

And he snapped right back and said, “oh, did you get your Extra? I didn’t know that.” (all of the HF bands except 160 meters had been divided into subbands based on license class since about 1967—only a couple of bands had an Extra phone band, and 75 was one of them.)

All this on the repeater with who knows how many people listening. I was crushed. I vowed then and there never to be embarrassed like that again. So back to the code tapes and back to the books. Now, you have to understand what a quantum leap in thinking this was. Back in the ’60s when I was first going through the License Manual in preparation for taking my Tech (or General) written, I would periodically glance at the Extra section, and the very first requirement listed was a 20 WPM code test. I couldn’t even pass 13. To me 20 was inhuman. And the written material was no pushover, either. When I upgraded to Advanced in ’76 it was with full confidence that I would go no further—that’s how rarified the air was to me at 20 WPM.

But having been hoist on my own petard, I soldiered ahead and hooked up with a neighbor, Ziggy, whom I had recently met and one of the aforementioned DXers, Tom (who had already failed something like eight tries at the Extra) and we formed a study group. Tom was a pretty good CW op and had passed the 20 WPM every time he went down to Chicago (he worked in the city, so it wasn’t the logistical effort it was for Ziggy and me), but he was no technician. He had a lot of trouble with the theory.

We agreed to do the CW on our own and concentrate our efforts on the theory, which was tough enough in those days. This was before Dick Bash (a controversial entrepeneur who eventually broke the secret lock on the FCC’s exam contents), and long before the question pools of the Volunteer Examiner program. The best you had was the ARRL License Manual which basically covered everthing in textbook form and left you to apply the theory they laid out to the questions the FCC asked. You basically had to fend for yourself. It’s no surprise that hams who got their Extra before about 1980 (when Bash’s books first appeared—and the VE program started around 1984) puff their chests out just a little bit more than those who got theirs later. It really was just that much harder. Also worth mentioning is the “steely eyed FCC examiner” (as one ad for study aids used to proclaim at the time), the effect of whose presence, while perhaps not measurable, was, nevertheless, palpable.

We got together two or three nights a week for a few weeks, going back and forth with our strengths and our reading of the manual. Finally, in January, 1978, Ziggy and I hopped the train into Chicago and we met Tom at the FCC office to try our luck. We sat for the code test, and I struggled a bit, but as the FCC had, by then, started doing the comprehensive test (answer correctly seven out of ten questions on the text), I was able to pass (and in accordance with the sentiment of the previous paragraph, my 20WPM certification was slightly less prestigious than that of one who had passed with one minute solid copy—the previous standard). Ziggy passed, too, and Tom, of course, breezed through it for the ninth time.

Then we sat down for the written. I felt pretty good about it, but in the end I missed it by one (I think they told that to everyone to avoid bruising their egos, but keep reading…). Tom also missed it by one  and they encouraged us both to keep at it and come back in a month (another old rule—you had to wait 30 days after failing a test element to take it again…there was a lot riding on those train trips into the city in those days).

Ziggy, on the other hand, was told he hadn’t even been close. He protested. In fact, I was embarrassed to hear him, because he was pleading that he had really studied hard and that there was no way he could have failed so badly. In the end, they agreed to rescore it and discovered they had used the wrong key. When they applied the correct key, he had passed. Ziggy, the latecomer in this enterprise, walked out of there with an Extra license on his first try!

Tom and I didn’t give up though. He and I kept working on the theory. In fact, on the train ride home, I went through the manual trying to identify the test questions, and discovered that basically, they were word for word right there in the book. I went through again, and eventually was able to highlight all 40 of the questions I had gotten in my test and compared notes with Ziggy and later, Tom.

In February, Tom and I met again at the FCC (where he passed the CW for the tenth time) and as the first bit hit my headphones I realized I hadn’t worked on CW one iota since the last test. Oops. Then, as I listened (struggled) I realized it was exactly the same CW test I’d had the previous month. I breezed through the questions and passed the CW. Whew!. Then came the written. The long and the short of it was that we both passed and I rode the train home an Extra, the equal of Ellis and his smart mouth. Well, equal in license, anyway—Ellis was a first rate two way technician—something I have no illusions of ever being.

When the licenses showed up, there was still one month of eligibility to acquire a 1×2 call (from the 1976 program) and Tom took advantage, winding up with N9CD (Chili Dog—Ziggy got K9FT—he had a Yaesu rig). I had been listening to a couple of yokels from work talking about vanity callsigns  being snob calls and decided I was too good to stoop to that ego nonsense, although I did wind up turning in WA4NJI when I did the paperwork at the FCC (they had stopped issuing and renewing the secondary calls by that time, so I was going to lose two of my calls in any event). I was issued the call WD9IYZ, which has never been sent over the air—I was using WB9UQX and had become known for that locally, so why confuse the issue? Moreover, there was a WA9IYZ in the area, who I’d just as soon not be confused with, so I figured I didn’t need that.

Eventually, I kicked myself for not getting a 1×2 call when I had the chance, but my goal had always been a 1×3 call (W4GDS, W4ERM, etc.) and I had been irritated by the 2×3 calls I had gotten—I’d hated them from the very beginning. I had friends who hadn’t been licensed as long as I had, but who had come from areas not populated nearly as quickly as 4-land who had gotten 1×3s when they upgraded from Novice, and then when they moved to 9-land, got 1×3s because they originally had a 1×3. It just didn’t seem fair. I have since learned the FCC didn’t apply that standard consistently—a local friend who started as a KN9xxx got K9xxx when he passed his General back in the ’60s, and when he moved to Florida was issued WA4xxx (which he still holds).

All I wanted was a 1×3. So, sometime in 1978 the FCC started a program (probably when they closed the 1×2 program) that an Extra could request a randomly assigned call in any group—not just the Group A, which were Extra calls. I requested a call form Group C (1×3s) turning in WD9IYZ and got N9AKE (I let ’UQX and ’FLD expire at their term since I could no longer keep them). I used N9AKE from 1978 until 1996 when the FCC finally got the Vanity Call program going. Since I had dozens of friends by then with 1×2 calls, all younger than me, all licensed for a shorter time, I jumped on it.

Beginning with the premise that I was retiring in a year or two to the southeast, I knew it would be a 4 call, plus I was absolutely tired of sending dah-dah-dah-dah-dit (9) on CW, which I used quite a bit. I also knew I wanted a short suffix so I concentrated on combinations of e’s, i’s, a’s, n’s, and s’s, plus some desirable combinations like N4CW (my number one choice, and which I obviously didn’t get). I worked out a table of 25 choices (the max you could send in) and wound up with my #9 choice, N4SI.

It sure was short. A good friend of mine is Dave Patton, NN1N (and previously about ten other calls—we call him Dave-of-many-calls), a world class contester. He came over to my house that December (’96) and we multi-op’ed ARRL 160 (which is a CW contest). He remarked it was the shortest call he ever used. I also noticed he soon began sending the call twice during his CQs. Hmmm.

Before that, I ran across a problem in the ’96 Sweepstakes Phone or CQWW when I couldn’t even work him (from his home station about 20 miles away) on 40—partly because the band was long, but also because I had an intermittent in my rotatable dipole. I tried every combination of phonetics I could and never worked him. None of the combinations sounded very good anyway, and there were no good cutesy phonetics that I could come up with, either. ’NJI was always just as bad, as was ’UQX.

So, after a year or so, I decided to try again, although the list of 1×2  4-land calls had really dried up by this time. I came across K4QG, which although not quite as good as what I had hoped for, was still a huge improvement. Still not a good cutesy call—although quick grits  works if they already know me (or Queen Guinevere, never)—but it has a nice rhythm on CW. For all that, I don’t think I’ve used it more than two or three times on HF, and not more than a few dozen times on 2.

Here’s the callsign evolution in chronological graphic form:

Calls held concurrentlyCall issued in 1978Call used for 18 yearsGreat vanity
upgrade of 1996
Current call
Secondary call, 1976—used on-the-air 1976-1978—Expired, 1981
FCC permitted substitute during the Bicentenniel year, 1976
Original call, 1963
Changed when upgraded, 1964
used on-the-air until 1976
and on trips to FL until ’78
Replaced ’NJI
when upgraded, 1978
never used on-the-air
Replaced ’IYZ, 1978
used on-the-air 1978-1996
Vanity call choice, 1996
Vanity call choice, 1998
Secondary call, 1976—used rarely on trips to NY—Expired, 1981

Oh, the side story on my DXing buddies? I wound up surpassing all of them (although a couple of them passed away before they got a chance to achieve their goal). In fact, I had probably a dozen friends with whom I was in friendly competition in country count over the years. I’m still the only one that made Honor Roll (just discovered that one of them did, in fact, make Honor Roll recently).

So, that’s my story. I hope I didn’t put you to sleep.

Last updated: 02 February 2017

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