Jim Zimmerman, N6KZ
(Formerly WN7OLU, 1970; KG6VI)
Prior to getting my Novice license, I became interested in short wave listening (SWLing) through reading several articles in Boy’s Life and Popular Electronics magazines. I was an 8th grader in 1969, living in Las Vegas, NV, so I mowed lawns and pulled weeds to earn the $35 need to buy my first receiver. That receiver was a much used National NC-66, purchased from my neighbor, John Diggins, (later WA7UHS), a retired musician/electrician who lived up the street. For my SWL antenna, I used an end-fed Zepp, made of wire salvaged from an old electric motor armature. That wire antenna ran about 100 feet from an unused telephone pole at the back corner of my folk’s yard up to my 2nd story window. This combination allowed me to hear many international broadcast short wave stations while tuning around the 25 and 35-meter SW bands after school. I used a timer switch that would turn on my NC-66 about an hour to my returning home from school. That way, the receiver would be nice and warmed up (no drift).
I eventually joined the Popular Electronics SWL club and got my first “call sign”, WPE7CXA, to put on my reception report cards I sent out, looking for QSL cards. Soon, I had lots of QSL cards thumb-tacked above my listening post. My personal favorites SWL stations/programs were Radio Moscow (“Moscow Calling”), the BBC (“The World View”), the Voice of America (they played an upbeat version of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” on a continuous loop to hold their frequencies), and Radio South Africa (they played the tune, “Where in the World, Kinder” a soft, melancholy guitar instrumental to hold their frequencies).
Taking the Novice Examination
I was an Eagle Scout, so I knew the Morse code well enough to copy signals in the ham bands on my NC-66. My school friend and fellow SWLer, Dave Stoll, said that we needed to get our ham licenses so that we could transmit and “work DX” (you know, California and stuff!). So, Dave and I studied the ARRL license books in the junior high school library for a couple weeks till we had the theory down. We then made arrangements with a local Las Vegas ham, Don Brickey, W7OK, to take the FCC Novice tests.
About 6 weeks later, Don called our folks to tell us that our tests had arrived. We scheduled our tests for the Friday following Thanksgiving and drove our bikes all the way across Las Vegas to Don’s home to take our tests. Upon arrival, Don solemnly explained that we would first be given the 5-word per minute Morse code receiving test, then a sending test (which we had to bring our own straight keys to take), and finally the written, multiple-choice theory written test.
The Morse code receiving test that Don used had a combination of numbers (0-9) and a couple punctuations (period, slash bar, comma), and all the alphabet letters. The message test was a story of a covered wagon train that described its condition and began “11 wagons moved westward into the setting sun…” Don tested each of us separately in his ham shack. I don’t have the paper to prove it because it got sent along with the test back to the FCC, but I did a perfect copy.
The sending test message was a collection of 5-group letters and numbers that Don told us to send “…at a comfortable speed”. Don would listen as we sent, marking a copy of the sending message whenever we made any mistakes. I was so nervous that, according to Don, when it was my turn to send I ripped along with my J-37 key at a sending speed of about 15-words per minute. I did make a couple of errors, but when you go that fast, you get the required number of correct letters/numbers (25 in a row or five groups) pretty quickly.
Finally, we both took the written test and Don took the exam sheets/test, signed it as having administered it faithfully (remember that his license was at stake if the tests were given improperly), and sealed it in the envelopes and sent them off to the FCC office to grade. He did not score the tests (like the Volunteer Examiners do today). He wished us well and off we rode home, to sweat out the 6-8 week waiting period. At that point we didn’t know if we had passed the final written test.
Receiving the Novice License
Six weeks later, Dave received his license from the FCC (WN7NOP). He was ready with his station (Dave had a Heathkit DX-100 transmitter and a Hammarlund HQ-180 receiver) so he was living the dream on the air. I was happy for him, but wondered what and when I’d get something from the FCC. Back in those days, if you failed the test, you received a form letter with your address typed on the outside of a normal business envelope from Gettysburg. If you passed, you received a “window envelope” with your address peeking out (it was your license!). The other clue that you got was always a few days prior to getting your FCC license, you got a packet of sample QSL cards from The Little Print Shop in Texas. How the LPS got the “pass list” from the FCC is a mystery to me, but they always included your new call sign in the address so that you could order a fresh set of QSLs from them! Several new Novices went on the air with this information (I heard of one guy who even proudly displayed the LPS address label as his “license” to meet the Part 97 requirement until his real license came).
I’ll never know why, but it was a full nine weeks later that I finally received my LPS packet arrived with the call sign WN7OLU. I quickly sent off an order for QSLs and began eagerly watching for my FCC window envelope. A couple days later, my Dad said that he wanted to talk to me about something he’d received in the mail. My Dad, a Special Agent in the FBI, had always been a bit uneasy about the QSLing part of my hobby where I had sent and received cards from all over the world (especially from behind the “Iron Curtin”). When he found the envelope from the Federal Communications Commission, he assumed that it was something bad. I explained that it was my “ticket from the FCC”, which only made my Dad more concerned, until I opened it and showed him my long awaited Novice license.
My First Novice On-the-Air Experiences
After assuring Dad that all was legal and proper, I raced upstairs to fire up my own station. Since passing the Novice test, I had upgraded my listening post into a fully capable station. I had purchased my $30 Novice transmitter, a used Knight-Kit T-60 transmitter, capable of a whopping 30 watts output on either CW or AM. The T-60 was capable of either frequency control with either a crystal or Variable Frequency Oscillator (VFO) unit. Don had provided me with an old FT-243 military crystal on 7.173 megahertz (mhz), so I could operate in the middle of the 40 meter Novice band (which was 7.150-7.200 mhz in those days). My antenna was a busted HyGain 14AVQ trap vertical, which covered 10-40 meters. I got the 14AVQ, from a local ham (he claimed that he couldn’t get it to work and broke it over his knee in frustration) and replaced the broken section of aluminum tubing to fix it. This action began a long association with buying and repairing HyGain ham radio antennas and I have several in use in my station today. The antenna was roof-mounted using a bathroom plumbing vent as the base anchor for the 14AVQ. Upon the advice of several local hams, I used some old telephone wire to construct a radial counterpoise, which worked well. The ham that gave me the 14AVQ later admitted that he’d omitted to use the radials because “it was too much work to string them up”.
I called up Don, W7OK, and asked him to be my first QSO (this was a common practice to reward the Novice testing official with one’s first QSO back then). I tuned up and called made a long CQ. Don immediately came back and we had a nice 30-minute contact. During that contact I sent Don my entire station description, my address, and the local weather (even though Don only lived about 5 miles across town), all at the blazing key speed of between 5 and 7 words per minute.
I operated WN7OLU a lot over that next year (Novice licenses were only good for one year back then, but were later extended to two years), working mostly on 15 meters during the afternoons and then later on 40 meters after supper and homework. My old Novice logbook shows over 400 contacts were made in that year, with about half of them with WN6s (California Novices, dude!). My folks soon learned the leverage they had to get me to do any chore if they threatened to take me off the air! They also saw that I had an ongoing need for cash to buy accessories for my ever-expanding station, so I was allowed to take on a series of part-time jobs. Both of these experiences served as constructive learning experiences and I credit ham radio as a positive factor in my young life.
For the next year, Dave and I tried to out-ham each other with contests to see who could work and confirm all 50 states (he did with his homebrew inverted vee dipole antenna), score the highest in the 1971 ARRL Novice Roundup (I did), and the first DX (I did, working a VE5, cross mode on 15 meters). Within the next year, Dave upgraded to General class and I moved up to the Technician class. Dave found his interest in traffic nets and I tried FM repeaters and weak signal VHF stuff. Eventually, I upgraded to General class, then Advanced class, and finally to Extra class, where I became a real DXer.
Today, 36 years later, I am a senior development mechanical engineer in the Federal government with over 30 years experience. I still enjoy ham radio and actively operate HF, seeking to work as many countries as I can for the ARRL DX Century Club (DXCC), the Islands ON The Air (IOTA), and CQ magazine Worked All Zones (WAZ) awards programs (I only need 4 more countries to have worked them all!). I wouldn’t say that my Novice days were my happiest ones, but I can say that the Novice license helped me choose my technical profession and a great, lifelong hobby that combines fraternity and personal growth.
Editor's Note: Many of us found out our novice callsigns first from Little Print Shop's solicitations. In almost all cases, Little Print Shop's packet of sample QSLs beat the delivery of the actual FCC license - sometimes as much as a week. They seemed to be the fastest to get the mailer out. As a result, they probably were the biggest QSL printer in their day.
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Brown Brothers made, arguably, made the highest quality (hand made and American) paddle keys in the history of telegraphy.