Gary Pearce KN4AQ
(formerly WN9NSO, 1965; WA9NSO; KD9JH)
My interest in radio sparked when I was about 12 years old. My brother, Andy, and I saw some Knight Kit C-100 CB walkie talkies in a Radio Shack catalog, and our dad got them for us for Christmas. The idea, then just a dream, of being able to talk even a few feet by radio captured my imagination.
We soldered the kits using dad's Weller 120 watt soldering gun -- neither of us had any soldering or kit-building experience. Dad was an insurance executive, and I don't know why he even HAD a soldering gun. We probably bridged every circuit on the board, so of course they didn't work. We were distraught. Dad took us to the Radio Shack store, where the salesman took the ruined guts out of the cases, replaced them with pre-wired boards, and charged my dad about what the original kits cost.
Andy and I progressed to better CB walkie talkies, and through them met Bob Slater, then K9ZGT. Bob was about two years older than me, and lived on the other side of town in our small Chicago suburb. He'd already been a ham for a couple of years, and was just entering High School. He became our mentor, but while Andy took an immediate interest in ham radio, I was more fascinated by CB. Perhaps it was lack of ambition or motivation. With CB I could talk to people immediately. The ham license seemed daunting. Andy became WN9MAB, and inherited Bob's old novice station, a Heathkit DX-40 transmitter and a Hammerlund HQ-110 receiver. I set up a CB station and progressed through a series of "real" CB radios (real compared to the 100 mW walkie-talkies).
Of course you sneer at this. Hams are taught to look down on CBers as a birthright of becoming licensed. But this was more than a decade before the good-buddy, channel 19 trucker era on CB. We had callsigns, and used our real names. Conversations were civil and pretty routine. I had a great time.
I wasn't averse to ham radio, though. I'd just taken an easier route. Bob was both disparaging and encouraging. I learned Morse code, and practiced by spelling out street signs, though I don't think I actually listened to it much. Code was never my hurdle. Electronics came hard.
At age 15, my freshman year in High School, I took a full-credit science class titled "Amateur Radio." New Trier High School had a ham club (W9EDC) with maybe a dozen Extra-class students, may of whom also had their First Class FCC commercial licenses, and worked at the 10-watt FM station, WNTH. The class, club and all the "Frist Phones" were thanks to science instructor Charles Rockey, W9SCH. What a resource for technically-minded young students!
He was "Mr. Rockey" to all the students, but of course hams are not that formal. On the air, he used his last name, Rockey, and that's what his ham radio students were permitted to call him... after school. The club meet once a week, and had a fully-equipped multi-station shack with mostly older, 50's vintage equipment. But the "prime" HF station had a new Drake TR-3 SSB transceiver. Licensed students had a tremendous privilege: we could skip "study halls" and spend our free periods in the ham station.
To get an "A" in the first semester of the Amateur Radio class, you had to pass your Novice test. I passed the test along with my 15 or so classmates, and received WN9NSO. But I flunked the course -- a big, fat "F." Rockey was a tough teacher, and while I did well on most of the quizzes and tests, his policy was that if you failed to complete all the homework, you failed the course. I had neglected to turn in a report on characteristic curves (that's the relationship between the input and output signals of a vacuum tube amplifier). I didn't understand them, and rather than seeking help, I just didn't do the homework.
That did not discourage me from ham radio. As my interest grew, my brother's was fading. I operated his Novice station on 40 and 15 meter CW. The CB antenna came down, and was replaced by a homebrew 5-element two-meter beam, connected to a Heathkit Twoer - a two meter AM transceiver kit that I built (more successfully than the C-100). In this time of the one-year, non-renewable Novice license, Novices were warned about the evils of voice on two meters. "You'll spend your year talking, neglect your code, and lose your license," we were told by every higher class ham we met. That happened to many Novices, some of whom left the hobby, while others were "condemned" to the purgatory of the Technician Class license: full ham radio privileges above 30 MHz, which most "real" hams considered a wasteland.
As I said, CW was never my problem, but it was never my love, either. I operated enough CW to boost my speed, but I enjoyed phone on two meters more. There was a fair amount of AM activity around Chicago, mostly in the evenings and weekends, and it was similar to the CB operation that I first loved. Quit laughing! The hams weren't acting like CBers - the CBers were acting like hams.
After failing the ham course, I was determined to get my General Class license before any of the other students. In 1965, you had to take the test at an FCC office unless you lived too far from a testing site. In Chicago, the test was given every Friday in the Federal Building, so I rode the commuter train downtown on a Friday in March, and passed the 13 wpm receiving, and sending, code test. But I failed the written test. If I had passed, I would have achieved my goal of being the first of that class to upgrade. Now I had to wait 30 days before trying again, and in that time, at least one other student passed the test. I did pass on my second try. My Novice career lasted four months.
I think everyone else in the class upgraded. Several of us talked on 15 meter AM daily after school. But alone among them, my interests focused on VHF. I was never a "big gun" with a kW SSB station (my friend Bob did accomplish that, but his interests then turned to aviation. He's now K8IE, but his ham radio activity is near zero). I was attracted to the about-to-boom revolution of VHF FM and repeaters.
Some of you might already be making the connection: local, channelized operation. FM and CB were similar enough that "real" hams derided the FM operators as FM/CBers. Some still do. Let the chips fall where they may, that's what I enjoyed. I joined the Chicago FM club, filled my trunk with huge, heavy surplus tube gear, and spent many a night atop the 700' First National Bank building, first watching others, then tweaking the equipment myself. I upgraded to Advanced in 1968 (and to Extra in 2000, when the code requirement was reduced - and I can still copy code about 15 wpm, but never got up to 20). I'm active on HF some, but maybe 85% of my ham operation has always been in that Technician purgatory of VHF/UHF.
I never became an engineer. My second obsession after ham radio was broadcasting. I wanted to be a DJ, and I've done that some. But most of my career has been as a video editor (used to be called videotape editor, but the tape part has pretty much disappeared). The past few years I've been doing mostly audio engineering. I have one foot on the engineering side of the line, and one foot on the creative side. I may lean more in the creative direction (writing, producing, editing and voice talent), but the engineering I've learned, and continue to learn, through ham radio has served me well.
In 1989, I moved to "Four-Land" (Tennessee, then North Carolina) and applied for a callsign change. The FCC assigned me KN4AQ. I was delighted. In the old days, a KN prefix was a Novice call. Getting that callsign revived my Novice memories. It's a terrible callsign for contests. I'm not a contester, but my casual contest operation has shown that I spend twice as long on every contact correcting the other station who received either "K4AQ" or "N4AQ. Seems contesters have a bias toward 1x2 callsigns, and no loving memory of the Novice days. But I'll never forget mine.
ARVN: Amateur Radio//Video News
Gary Pearce KN4AQ
508 Spencer Crest Ct.
Cary, NC 27513