Al Cammarata, W3AWU
(formerly WN3AWU, 1955)
I was introduced to and caught the amateur radio "bug" in 1954 when I spent the weekend at the home of a high school friend, Keith Cooper, W3TQI, who lived about 25 miles north of Pittsburgh, PA. Keith urged me to join our HS radio club sponsored by our science teacher, Mr. Cattley, W3WSY. There were 8-10 other boys in the club studying for their Novices. Art Prewitt, W3ZDK, held a General class. Art's dad, Clint, W3LJZ (W8LJZ when WPA, Western Pennsylvania was in 8th call district), was an Extra and station engineer at a local TV station.
We ordered ARRL books on how to become a radio amateur and learned the Morse code. Our club met once a week and we used practice tapes at school to copy the code. I learned the code by memorizing blocks of five or more characters at a time. In the evening at home I turned on our floor model Philco AM/Short Wave radio and tuned to the strongest signals I could find which I learned were ship to shore stations sending faster than I could copy. With no BFO I listened to the fast "thumpa, thump thump" of the speaker writing down the characters I recognized. If the station is strong enough and you turn the volume up enough, its pretty easy to distinguish the dits and dahs from speaker vibrations. Slowly building up until I had memorized the alphabet, numbers and punctuation. Within a few months I was able to copy about 30% of the ship to shore messages and more than a solid 5 WPM.
Well, when you are young you can do things the hard way if you put your mind to it. Our practice records were plain language text with numbers and punctuation. Slowest speed was 5wpm. The records were the big ones; I think 33 1/3. The phonograph had 2-3 speeds for different size records. And we could increase the code from 5 to around 10wpm by going to the next record size! IF we went to the smallest size record speed it increased to somewhere around 20wpm. We didn't have records geared to learning the code suggested in the ARRL learning the code book.
I think they used to a method where you learned/memorized all the characters with dits and then dahs. So I simply started memorizing the alphabet in blocks of 5 or more and I kept on repeating it in my mind and sending on my code practice oscillator. Then I would listen on my short wave radio to commercial stations and copy the characters I knew. I didn't find it hard to memorize the alphabet in Morse because our history teacher used to pull what I called "midnight" memorization assignments. For instance, one weekend our assignment was memorize the Gettysburg address! I burnt midnight oil on that one. Most of us thought she was going to ask each student to repeat the whole address. But what she did was have the first student stop about half way through and then picked students at random to pick up where the last one stopped. This was her way of finding out who had actually memorized it and knew it well. Our biology teacher used to make us memorize paragraphs on bugs, ameobas etc out of our book overnight!
Morse code came easy but I struggled with the theory. I also took electric shop which helped as I slowly progressed to the electronic theory and radio sections while Art
helped me with theory and studying the exam sample questions.
By October 1954 me and another club member, Don Gerstner, were ready
to take our Novice. The Novice was being proctored by General class and
above licensed amateurs. Art agreed to give us the code exam and Art's
dad the theory. I filled out my 610 along with a statement from Art and
his dad certifying they were licensed and agreed to proctor the exams,
got the application notarized and mailed it to the FCC regional office in
Buffalo, NY. In mid November, Mr. Prewitt told us he received the exams
and we arranged to take our Novice test at his home one evening.
We passed the code exam (sending and receiving) then Mr. Prewitt
opened up the envelopes with our written exams and handed them to us and
watched as we sat at opposite ends of a dining room table. The
questions were multiple choice. There may have been one or two we had to
write in the answer like the formula for Ohms law. When we finished we
handed them back to Mr. Prewitt who certified the exams and mailed them
back to Buffalo. Now the wait.
Art told us if we received a large envelope from FCC in a couple weeks
it meant that we had failed. If we passed, it could take up to two
months and to look for a small envelope with your license.
Two days before Christmas, Don received his license WN3AYB. I waited
in suspense wondering why I hadn't heard from FCC. When I returned home
from school on January 15th, my license arrived with the call sign WN3AWU
good for one year effective January 5, 1955.
It took a couple months before I got on the air. I had a newspaper route with 120 customers and that Christmas sold gift wrap to customers and relatives. Between newspaper tips and commission from the gift wrap I collected $100.000 and bought my first short wave radio, a Hallicrafters S-85. At the time it was the most money I'd ever had. W3ZDK helped me build a breadboard transmitter from an ARRL publication and I put up a long wire antenna. Later on I'd saved enough money to buy a Johnson Viking Adventurer kit. My first QSO was on 80 meters with George Anestis, WN3ANX, who lived across town in Carnegie, PA.
A couple months later I met George and several other high school age hams living in the area at a local radio club, Amateur Transmitters Association (ATA) which met monthly at the Buhl Planetarium, a local science center. There were about 10-15 high school kids living in different parts of the city that attended. That's how we met each other and made some life long friendships. You know how exuberant most teenagers are - well most of the hams were older like in their 30's and up. We overheard a couple of the real old hams derisively call us "junior bird men". Once they had sized us up and realized we were serious about our hobby, they
befriended and accepted us. Some becoming mentors.
In late 1955 I took and passed my General during a quarterly visit by
the FCC RI (regional inspector). It was an intimidating experience.
I have been continually licensed since as W3AWU. About 10 years ago
driving through Winchester, VA I accessed a local 2M repeater. A voice
replied "is that you Walt?" Astonished I replied "No". The other
station then told me how he knew the original W3AWU years ago and had
lost contact living in the Philadelphia area. I subsequently researched
the first holder of W3AWU and traced it back to being issued in 1939 to
Walter Holt living in Philadelphia, PA.
Where are they now?
Keith, W3TQI, moved to CT in 1956 and was issued W1DXX. He later
moved to MI and had a K8 call but let his license expire. Keith never
returned to the ham ranks and we still keep in touch at Christmas time.
Don, W3AYB, let his license expire and I lost track of him.
spent four years in the USAF as a ground radio operator and one of them
in the Arctic on Fletchers Ice Island station. I located Art several
years ago. I don't think he's active. He lives in AZ. His call is
I still keep in touch with George, W3ANX, occasionally I run into
him on the bands. I maintained contact visiting frequently in my
retirement with my HS teacher and friend, Lou Cattley (now KD3AK), who
passed away four years ago. Lou suffered a couple strokes rendering him
short term memory lapses. he used to joke about it. During my last
visit it was springtime and as he walked me to my car he commented on his
budding flower garden. We shook hands as usual and for some reason I
hugged him. I'm glad I did. I still miss the guy.
As for me. Ham radio led to a career in telecommunications. After
high school I got an AA in industrial electronics from Penn Technical
Institute. With the draft hanging over me and itchy feet, I enlisted in
the USAF in 1959 serving four years and three months as a ground radio
operator and radar technician. My USAF highlights were serving in Turkey
in 1960 where the U2's were based when Gary Powers U2 was shot down over
the Soviet Union and spending many suspenseful hours watching radar
inputs serving at a NORAD command center during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
After the USAF I spent fifteen years overseas with the Foreign Service
in charge of the radio/code room/comm center at several embassies and
consulates. I met my xyl, an American secretary, on a second tour in
Turkey serving at embassy Ankara. With a posting to Washington and now
with school age children I reluctantly left the Foreign Service in 1978
opting for family stability; joining COMSAT as part of their operations
and maintenance management team for the INTELSAT global satellite system.
In 1979 INTELSAT assumed the functions where I retired in 1994 after
sixteen years as shift supervisor in their operations center. I have
been blessed with a fabulous career and unique experiences and still
maintain contacts with several foreign hams I met during my travels. In
retirement I chase DX and IOTA's. It doesn't get any better than this.
And as any Pittsburgh guy will tell you "whoda thunk it!"