In ham radio there is a tradition embodied in a character named Elmer. An Elmer is a ham who mentors prospective or new members of the amateur radio fraternity. I had two Elmers—the first was Bob, W4PVP, the husband of my father's secretary. He loaned me a receiver for a while when I was first getting interested in shortwave listening (SWL), and gave me both my Novice and Technician license examinations. Sadly, Bob died of a heart attack shortly after my Novice license expired—he didn't live nearby, and I never really had a chance of any significant involvement with him.
Before I tell the story of Elmer #2 I have to back up. I had been interested in electronics for a year or so and had a dim awareness of ham radio, having seen the ham station at the Boy Scout camp where my father worked as a counselor a couple of summers when I was about 8 or 9. I had also read the Walker Tompkins, K6ATX, series of adventure books about ham radio. What I didn't know was how to get a license.
One day my brother told me of a classmate of his (a year behind me) who was a ham and I arranged to meet him. Wayne, WN4KGB, had had his Novice license for six months or so and I was fully prepared for a station much like the one I had seen at Scout camp, with the black crackle finish rack panels, festooned with meters and knobs, seemingly extending from floor to ceiling. I anticipated wood paneled walls covered with cards from around the world and softly glowing tubes casting a warm light through the window onto the snow covered lawn…Alright, it was Florida—I wasn't really expecting the snow.
Instead, what Wayne had was a door on a couple of file cabinets in a utility room shared with a washer, a dryer, and a water heater, and smack on top of the 2½ foot deep and 7 foot long door/desktop was his radio—a Heathkit Twoer. It was affectionately referred to as a Benton Harbor lunchbox—Heathkit was headquartered in Benton Harbor, Michigan—and the transceiver wasn't much bigger than a school child's lunchbox. It was nearly lost on that broad expanse. I was in for an education.
As I said, I didn't know how one got a ham radio license. I was wholly uninformed of the frequencies allocated to the amateur service and I had no idea there were different classes of license. What I found out was that Wayne had a Novice license. In those days (1962) Novices had CW (Morse code) privileges on four bands in the HF spectrum, and also had voice or phone privileges on the middle half of 2 Meters (which is a VHF band—much like the FM radio band). Wayne's station enabled him to talk on 2 Meters. He had an antenna about 20' in the air that was rotated by hand (what I later learned was known as an Armstrong rotator). Normally, he could expect to talk to other hams in about a 30 mile radius, although under certain conditions of enhanced propagation, it was possible to talk to other hams 100 or even 200 miles away.
Wayne's principal activity, in addtion to tinkering with electronics, much like me, was to scan the band while turning his directional antenna looking for other hams to talk to. Sometimes he would call CQ, which is hamspeak for, "hello, anyone out here want to chat?" I visited with Wayne several times over the next few weeks, as I learned what I had to do to get a license and started working towared that end. And it was sometime during this period that Elmer #1, Bob, gave me my Novice test.
In the meantime, during my visits with Wayne I learned that 2 Meters actually had quite an active community of operators located all over Dade and Broward Counties. I enjoyed listening to and even partaking in many conversations with community members while visiting in Wayne's shack (hamspeak for radio room). One very strong signal that I heard often and talked to a couple of times was from Paul, WA4BAO. I quickly discovered that Paul lived only a couple of blocks from me and I made arrangements to meet him. Thus started my real Elmering experience as the Elmeree.
Flash! Before we leave Wayne in this story, I must tell you that recently (middle of February, 2006), Wayne contacted me after having done an internet search on his old call and this page coming up. He came over to the site and read this article and was no doubt flabergasted at seeing his name. We've been having a blast reminiscing—we've had no contact since probably 1966 or thereabouts.
Now, I have to put all of this in perspective—I was perhaps 15 years old. When one is that age, anyone over 20 is a serious adult, almost to the point of ancient, although one has to have hit 30 to be truly ancient. I have since calculated that Paul must have been in his early 30s when we met, so he was practically an old man to me. Even though only 17 years separated us, he was still twice my age. He had lived life, he had a job, he was married, he had kids. That was well settled into middle age to a gawky teenager.
Paul welcomed me to his home and immediately took me to his shack. This was more like it (not to disparage Wayne's shack—ham radio comes in all shapes and sizes, and remember, Wayne was only 13 or 14!). Of course I didn't know it at the time, but the nice looking receiver prominently placed on the lower right of the operating position was a Hammerlund HQ170. I'll never forget the feel of those large knobs and I have some to this day that I used on an antenna tuner I built.
On a shelf above and to the right I recall a Globe Scout transmitter which Paul had used as a Novice along with the Hammerlund receiver above. Unlike most similar transmitters of the day, the Globe Scout also covered 6 Meters and was still in use, as will become clear as the story continues.
In the middle at about eye level (maybe even on a window sill) he had a control box for an electric antenna rotator (I once thought I remembered it as a CDR AR-22, but the picture I found says Alliance—there may have been some overlap in the players over the years) that went "clack, clack, clack" loudly as it turned the antenna around the compass from one position to another.
His 2 Meter transmitter was a Clegg 22er. I'm not positive now, but I seem to remember that it was sitting off to the left of the table. The 2 Meter receiver was actually a home brew (hamspeak for homemade) converter that took a 2 Meter signal from the antenna and electronically converted it to a frequency the HQ170 could receive. Much of the VHF work was done that way then (and a lot of UHF and microwave work still is).
The rest of the electronic equipment was home brew, too, and beautifully done. For example, I recall his 220 MHz transmitter as nothing more than an aluminum chassis with a few tubes sticking out of the top, along with a couple of metal transformer cans, a couple of switches, a couple of tuning coils, and no doubt a tuning capacitor somewhere. I can still picture it on an upper shelf high above the desk surface. There was other equipment that I didn't recognize or understand (not that I recognized any of the foregoing), but Paul told me about them.
I never had an evening pass so quickly. We talked about radio, we talked about the equipment, we talked to a couple of other hams on 2 Meters. It turned out that Paul had a Technician license. At the time, the Technician license was intended to permit hams to experiment in the entire amateur spectrum allocation above 50 MHz (megahertz, but we called it megacycles in those days) without having to pass the 13 WPM (words per minute) code test required for HF or the lower frequencies.
Alas Paul was not a CW guy, so his Novice career was not the apprenticeship for HF that it was for others. Fortunately, the Hammerlund and the Globe Scout were useful as he focused on VHF for his ham radio. He was, if not brilliant, certainly an accomplished electronics tech, and fit perfectly the template for which the Technician license was conceived—a VHF experimenter. Thus the 6M, 2M, and 220 MHz converters were easy projects for him, as was the 220 MHz transmitter. To my knowledge he never did pass the 13 WPM test.
One time when I visited, Paul was working on a new Heathkit HX-30 he had bought. It was a 6 Meter SSB (single sideband) transmitter recently introduced that would enable Paul to get on 6 in the increasingly popular SSB mode. I was in awe of the number of parts that were required to make that transmitter work. And he got it to work with no difficulty.
The HX-30 only put out about 12 watts, as I recall, so Heath had designed a matching amplifier, the HA-20, which boosted the output to about 100 watts. Paul eventually built one of those, too. Kits, particularly by Heath, were duck soup compared to his built-from-scratch equipment described above.
I spent many more evenings there for a year or more. Shortly after I took my Novice test from Bob, Elmer #1 (Paul, as a Technician, couldn't give it to me), I showed up at Paul's house with WN4NJI still dripping ink from the document I had received in the mail. I had graduated from annoying neighborhood teenager to a genuine licensed ham (although still, no doubt, an annoying neighborhood teenager). Paul welcomed me to the fraternity and I continued to spend evenings there.
At that time, the Novice license was only valid for one year and was not renewable. It had taken me the better part of the year just to get a station together, and I probably was left with about three months of time to actually operate and I was unable to get my code speed up to the 13 WPM I needed to get my General license, which is what I needed to stay on HF once my Novice expired, which, as I had come to learn, was where I really wanted to spend my amateur radio life. So, I followed the path that Paul had a few years earlier and took the Technician test to keep my callsign. At the end of my year, I was left with an HF station and no license to operate it and a VHF license with no equipment to operate—dire straits for a teenager with little income (and who had already been to the well of very generous and encouraging parents in acquiring his Novice station).
Shortly before my Novice term expired, however, and unbeknownst to me, Paul managed to convince his lovely wife Ann to get a ham license, too (by the way, as a healthy teenaged male, I considered Ann hot, despite the fact that she was practically old enough to be my mother, and that she was my friend's wife—hormones sometimes cloud the morality issue, as many a teenager or even twenty-ager can testify—it's probably also the last thing she would have wanted to know). One day I was tuning around the bands and heard a really strong signal sending a very slow CQ—one that even I could copy. I answered WN4TSF (I've forgotten the actual call, but it was close to that) and it turned out to be Ann! We had a short exchange and then I rushed right over to their house to get the whole story.
As my Novice privileges expired, I continued to visit Paul and Ann, and although I wasn't the same outsider I had been before I got my license, I was sort of in ham radio limbo. Ann, it turned out, picked up the code fairly quickly and in no time she had made the trip to the FCC office in Miami and passed her 13 WPM test (and written exam) and was a General. Paul and I could only dream of the stations she would be able to work around the world.
One day, Paul brought me into the house (which I rarely visited, spending almost all my time in the shack in the garage) and showed me two gorgeous new Heathkits—an SB300 receiver and an SB400 transmitter. Heathkit had just introduced them as low cost alternatives to the Cadillac of ham radios, Collins' S-Line. I doubt they ever were able to clean the drool off the carpet that I surely left there seeing those beautiful toys. I was so impressed that some dozen years later when I finally did upgrade, I bought the later versions of those radios—SB303 and SB401.
After finishing high school, and completing my AS degree in junior college, I got a job and bought my own Heathkit, an SB110 6 Meter transceiver. If it hadn't been for Paul I probably wouldn't have had the courage to do that. A couple of years earlier I had homebrewed a 6 Meter converter and he pronounced it quite well done. That was probably just what I needed to tackle the far more complex SB110.
I put it on the air and had fun for a short while before I got the call from the FAA to start my career and moved away. I didn't work Paul much on 6—after all, he only lived a couple of blocks away and I was still a frequent visitor. But after I moved away, I never worked him again. I never put the SB110 back on the air and eventually sold it. As I have related elsewhere, my ham career stagnated until the middle '70s when I took it up again with a passion. That wouldn't have happened but for Paul's early influence.
I probably only saw Paul three or four times after I moved away—especially since I went inactive as a ham for several years. Later, after another move, this time to Illinois, and having finally upgraded, first to Advanced, and then to Extra, I visited Paul once or twice more when I was down to visit my parents—partly to let him know that I had finally broken away from being a terminal Tech, but also just to say hello, and I hope, thanks. The last time probably would have been around 1980.
Later I learned that he and Ann split up, they sold the house, and then I lost track of him altogether. I recently learned (late 2005) that he passed away in late 2001. I was 55 and he was 72. That difference doesn't seem the gulf now that it did when a geeky teenager, full of wonder, sat in his shack. It may be hard to imagine—it sounds like I was there every night for several years—but I wasn't. I don't know how many times it was, but it numbered in the dozens, not hundreds as some might think. I was never made to feel unwelcome. Maybe if I ever regain contact with Ann I'll get her impression. Maybe she'll say hundreds…
Unfortunately, I can't articulate anything specific that Paul taught me. And maybe that's a testament to what he did teach me. I know I learned things. And although my later operating accomplishments exceeded what he had done, I never approached his technical expertise—he still had forgotten more about electronics than I'll ever learn, although some of that rubbed off. He certainly encouraged me. Most importantly, as I look back now, he tolerated an annoying neighborhood teenager and treated him like an equal, exhibiting far more forebearance with youthful ignorance than I ever did as an adult. Although I never could have expressed that to him, I wish I would have.
For more details on my licensing and callsign history after I left Hollywood, click
Last updated: 16 September 2013