R. Dean Straw, N6BV/5
(formerly WH6DKD, 1959; KH6DKD; WA1IRG; WB4YOJ; WB6AIN)
“Sputnik is Launched!”
Many folks remember such headlines from October 4, 1957. The newspapers practically screamed about how the Soviet Union had beat the USA into space by launching the first Earth-orbiting satellite. Sputnik was the first volley in the Space Race between the USSR and the USA. At that time there was a widespread outcry for better education in science (sound familiar, some 50 years later?)
When Sputnik was launched I was an 11-year old kid in Hawaii, and I was most anxious to do my part — hopefully, by becoming a rocket scientist myself. My science teacher in Junior High told me that I need math, lots of math, to become a rocket scientist, so I scanned the course list at a technical school in Honolulu for math classes.
Because I was only a Junior High student at the time, the only class I was eligible for was a summer course in “How to Become an Amateur Radio Operator.” This was basically designed to get the student a Novice class license. My parents signed me up, and I took the first step in a hobby/career that I have enjoyed for almost 50 years.
At the end of four weeks, I graduated and I waited anxiously for the mailman to bring me that precious Novice ticket with my very own call sign. It finally arrived, and I could now proudly identify myself to the world as “WH6DKD,” Novice from Hawaii.
My father took me over to visit a ham friend of his, whose name and call sign I no longer remember, unfortunately. The ham was very nice to me and let me get on the air using his Johnson Ranger (yes, crystal controlled for me) and his National Radio HRO-50 on 40 meters. I thought I was in ham heaven with that wonderful bunch of radios.
My first contact covered the amazing distance of about 2 miles with another nearby ham in Kailua. I was shaking like a leaf, barely able to copy, and even less able to send, Morse code. I’ve come to find out that virtually everybody shakes like a leaf on his/her first contact, no matter how high or mighty they may be in the business, sports or even the broadcasting world.
After making my first QSO from someone else’s station, I longed for a station of my own. On weekends I haunted the workshop at nearby Mackay Radio, and with the Elmering of several people I built a transmitter from surplus parts. It used a pair of 6L6s, fed by a 6AG7. The plate transformer probably weighed 30 pounds all by itself. The transmitter seemed really huge for a skinny 100-pound kid (when soaking-wet) to be lugging around. Boy, was I proud of that transmitter when I fired it up and it actually managed to get a 40 W light bulb to light up!
At some time or another one of my Elmers gave me a small 1-pound spool of #24 enameled magnet wire and I threw a 50-foot piece out my second story window to a papaya tree in the back yard. Thus my “Papaya-Tree Longwire” was born. I fed this contraption with 300-ohm TV twinlead, using a pair of #47 pilot lamps as output tuning indicators.
I can’t remember where I got it, but my first receiver was a really beat-up National Radio NC-88 — this clunky radio was virtually stone deaf above 3 MHz. Later, I found that the family Telefunken receiver was far more sensitive than the NC-88, but it had no BFO to copy CW with. So, I used a piece of hookup wire as a “gimmick” capacitor wound around the tube shield for the NC-88’s BFO. This managed to couple enough BFO energy into the Telefunken’s IF strip so I could copy CW. Of course, selectivity was virtually non-existent on the broad-as-a-barn-door Telefunken, but what do you want? You do what you have to do to get on the air, right?
Anyhow, for some reason my built-like-a-rock transmitter didn’t get out too well (nor did I hear too well). Perhaps it was something to do with the fact that the average height of my skimpy antenna was only about 8 feet off the ground!
Anyhow, I contacted some locals with this rather squirrelly setup on 40 meters, at least when I wasn’t repairing my Papaya-Tree Longwire. You see, for those who don’t know this already from first-hand experience, papaya trees drop their branches/leaves very easily. They are definitely not good antenna supports. (I kept blaming my little brother for breaking my Skywire, but he was actually innocent of all charges, I think.)
Things could only go up from a Papaya-Tree Longwire, as you might imagine, but the later tales of KH6DKD and his antennas are General-class stories I’ll tell sometime later. After I upgraded to General class I got excited about chasing DX on 20 meters, leaving 40 meters for inter-island communications. But writing this has brought me to realize that the lowly Papaya-Tree Longwire started me out on the path leading to a career at ARRL writing about antennas. During and after my Novice days in Hawaii, I constantly dreamed about how to improve my signal through improving my antennas. I still do!
Here’s the earliest photo I could find, with a youthful Dean showing a neighborhood kid (the one with headphones on his head) my station. I had at that time graduated to a Johnson Ranger and a National Radio Company NC-300. I loved that old receiver. It was very sensitive, but overloaded very easily when any neighboring hams came on the band. Things like dynamic range were not big things on the minds of radio engineers in those days when the NC-88 was designed.
A love of receivers and transmitters (and yes, antennas) led to me my first job after college — working for the very same National Radio Company. I designed much of the signal path for the last of the “HRO” (Heckuva Rush Order) receivers before the company went bankrupt in 1971. (No, I don’t think it was my fault!)