Charlie’s Whistle, January, 2011
Charlie’s Whistle, January, 2011 avatar

Regular readers of Charlie’s Whistle have met all the characters in Charlie’s family and circle of friends such as his wife, Mary and his favorite student, Brian who started learning about ham radio at Charlie’s knee and went on to complete his PhD at MIT in Signal Processing. We learned about Charlie’s friend, Mike who is a big flea market fan and Collins collector and many club members who pass through the different monthly stories. But never have we gone very deeply into Charlie’s background; the years before college where he met Mary or the time before he was a ham. No, Charlie wasn’t born a ham although some might think so after all that we’ve been through with him.

Charlie was a young boy during World War II and was fascinated by the campaigns of Generals Patton, Eisenhower, MacArthur and Admiral Nimitz. He couldn’t yet fully understand the emotions and motives that drove both sides but found the technology very interesting. Charlie’s dad was drafted into the Army Air Corps and was stationed in southern England for the duration of the war. Charlie was 8 years old when Pearl Harbor, HI was attacked. Like most boys at the time, Charlie was interested in the aircraft, weapons, vehicles and ships used by all sides. As I said, he hadn’t yet matured to fully understand the significance or comprehend the terrible price that everyone pays in conflicts like a world war. By the time the B-29 bomber named Enola Gay, piloted by Col. Paul Tibbets, dropped the super secret atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Charlie had grown into a fine young man of 12. The event, of course, abruptly ended the conflict with Japan, in 1945. The Japanese surrendered within a week and very likely, despite the devastation caused by the single bomb on Hiroshims, millions more of lives on both sides were saved. If the war had continued on, conventional bombing and invasion of the Japanese mainland was next in line which would certainly have killed many millions more people.

Charlie had become extremely interested in learning about military aircraft and other high tech equipment. He had built some simple circuits during the war years that were presented in hobby magazines. He had built a three tube radio, containing a beat frequency oscillator (BFO), so he could hear Morse code traffic from different ship to shore stations. Earlier, Charlie had become fascinated by the works of Marconi, Morse, Jansky, Armstrong and others. Even though he was a very young boy, he studied everything he could find in the news about the technology used in the war. He was an especially avid reader of Popular Mechanics magazine which carried many articles during the war years about devices and equipment used by the military. With very little doubt, this experience in Charlie’s life strongly influenced young Charlie into the lifetime career path he eventually chose to pursue, an engineering career dedicated to design and manufacture of high technology electronic equipment for our military.

When World War II ended, the blackout that had been imposed on Amateurs following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, was lifted. During the war years, hams were not only forbidden from transmitting. They were ordered to dismantle their stations and violators faced severe penalties. Charlie’s mother used an Atwater Kent radio every evening when signals were stronger to listen to the BBC Overseas Service and Radio Vatican to hear news of what was happening in Europe. The radio’s shortwave capabilities did not go unnoticed by budding ham, Charlie, even during the early years of the war. He soaked in what frequencies produced the stronger signals at dusk and later and what higher frequencies were more productive before dark. He studied the propagation chapters of his old ARRL Handbook to better understand what he observed.

When the war ended, slowly but surely hams returned to the air. Using the Atwater Kent console radio, Charlie faithfully listened to these 75 meter AM signals appearing during the evening hours. Along the way, he taught himself a fair amount of “ham talk” as well as the basics of propagation on that band by his listening and matching where the hams said they were and Charlie compared hearing them with the hour of sunset, in similar fashion to what he had done earlier with shortwave broadcast stations. He observed early indications of sunset propagation conditions. On weekends in the winter, he had permission to come downstairs at midnight and later to listen to the west coast stations and chart them against his map and the time. The Atwater Kent only tuned up to 9 MhZ, so he could never hear 20 meters which he really wanted to hear. Very possibly, his acute knowledge of the 40 meter band may be tied directly back to what he learned during the war, listening to the BBC and other European stations. With the overboard enthusiasm of a 12 year old, he was totally hooked on ham radio. It is safe to say that for his age, he had a remarkable grasp of propagation knowledge. It was self taught and not terribly detailed or supported by documentation but he surely knew what time of day certain frequencies around 40 meters would most likely be productive.

For about a year, Charlie had been doing small jobs around the neighborhood to earn some money and eventually, had saved $80, enough to purchase a real shortwave receiver. He told his mother the news and she said that she was very proud of him.

She asked him to be sure to tell his father when he came home from work. Charlie’s dad had recently been discharged and returned home from the Army Air Corps, later called the Air Force. He had served as a ground and flight mechanic on B-17 and B-24 bombers, flying out of Royal Air Force bases in England. Finding a good job back home was no problem at all. There was work everywhere, especially for veterans who were well trained mechanics. He chose to work at a trucking depot where he serviced large transport vehicles, not exactly B-24s but he enjoyed his work and it paid very well. But most of all, he was just glad to be safely home again with his family.

Charlie returned to reading his very dog-eared copy of the 1938 ARRL Handbook that his neighbor who was a ham had given him before he went off to serve in the Pacific with the Marine Corp. He had been studying the chapters on amplifier design and power supplies. This drew him into wanting to learn even more. He found amplifiers fascinating and magical, how they are so efficient in converting DC to RF power just by feeding a small signal into them and feeding their anodes with some serious high voltage through a tuned tank circuit. Then, you get high power RF! That is so cool!

Remember, Charlie is only 12. He thought this was the coolest thing he had ever learned. He truly had the heart of an engineer. Most kids of his age are out in the woods playing cowboys and Indians or war games, outsmarting the enemy. On this day in the fall of 1945, Charlie prefers to study the differences between Class A, B and C amplifiers and how to design the most efficient amplifier for the least cost. Even at his tender age, he plainly had the pure instincts of an engineer.

Little did he know that in the next few months, literally tons of war surplus equipment would be flooding the market at ridiculously low prices. No one realized that converting military surplus gear would be an economical way to build up a ham station on a nickel and dime budget.

Charlie’s dad arrived home shortly after 6, just about on schedule. He kissed his wife hello and scratched Charlie on his head which had lots more hair than it had later in life.

Charlie had a younger sister, Elizabeth, who was born just before he was deployed to England. She was four and running all around the house. “Hi papa, papa”, she yelled as she came running toward her dad. He picked her up and held her high above his head. She giggled hysterically as he swung her around his head. He was so strong that he did it easily. Then, he gave her several kisses and put her down saying, “Hello princess. How’s my big girl?” The answer was always the same, “I fine papa. I love you.” Then she would run to the kitchen to help mommy.

Charlie waited for the right time and finally said, “Dad, I have something to tell you.” He sat in his old broken in chair as he asked, “What is it Charlie?” Charlie explained that he had been working around the neighborhood, doing chores and earning some money and he finally had enough saved to buy a radio. He started right in telling his dad all the things that the radio would do and how it was worth every cent and how he wanted see if his dad approved. Dad just looked at Charlie without saying anything. It seemed like a very long time before he cleared his throat and wiped his eyes. Then he asked Charlie, “Son, do you remember Mr. Erickson down the street?” Charlie nodded and said, “Oh sure, I sure do. He’s a ham and he gave me a copy of the ARRL Handbook that I read all the time. He told me that he’d help me get my license and get a station set up after the war when the Marines let him come home.”

Charlie’s dad said, “Well, Mr. Erickson isn’t coming home. Do you remember that he landed on Iwo Jima last February?” Charlie nodded that he knew that. “Well, his Marine unit was ordered to remain on the island after the invasion to comb through all those caves and tunnels that the Japanese had dug into the mountain. Not all of the Japanese soldiers had surrendered. Some of them didn’t even know that the war was over and their leaders had surrendered. Some had hiding places that were far out of the regular passages and Mr. Erickson’s squad of five men came upon one of these Japanese holdouts. Everyone fired their weapons. Everyone was hit. They rushed Sgt. Erickson to the medical facility but the doctors couldn’t save him, son. It just happened a few days ago. The Marine Corp is working with Mrs. Erickson now to arrange his funeral.” This sort of thing is mighty tough for a 12 year old to deal with. Somehow, it doesn’t seem fair to force a kid to grow up so quickly. But war does that to thousands of kids in thousands of families. It’s been that way since the beginning. I imagine that caveman children were shocked into growing up before their time also. Some things never change, it seems.

Charlie cried at hearing the news about Mr. Erickson. Dad held him until he asked about Mrs. Erickson and if there’s anything he could do for her. Dad smiled and said softly, “What a son! I’m very proud of you for asking that, Charlie. But, she‘s really OK. Her brother lives nearby as well as her father. He’s a veteran and he prepared her very well for what could happen. She‘s in very good hands.” That seemed to satisfy Charlie, at least for the moment.

Charlie, this radio that you want to buy. What will it do that the Atwater Kent won’t do?”

Charlie explained, “It’ll receive 20 meters and most of all, it has a BFO so I can receive code. I really want to do that.” Dad asked, what sort of radio does Mr. Erickson have?” Charlie’s eyes lit up. “Oh Golly. His station is a Hallicrafters SX-28 receiver and a home made transmitter. That’s a great receiver. The military uses lots of them.”

Dad cleared his throat again. “Well, Mrs. Erickson told your mother to ask you to phone her when you told us that you had saved enough to get the radio that you want.”

Charlie was surprised, “Are you sure it’s OK to call her? After all….” Dad said, “Yes, I’m pretty sure it’s OK. Charlie stood up straight and nodded his readiness.

He made the call and Mrs. Erickson answered. He explained, “I had just told Charlie about Mr. Erickson and today, he informed us that he had saved enough money to buy the radio he wanted.” After a few more words, dad handed Charlie the phone. “Mrs. Erickson, I’m so sorry about Mr. Erickson. He was a wonderful man.” Mrs. Erickson replied in a strong voice, “He surely was, dear. He was a hero. They’re going to award him a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for what he did.” Charlie knew what those medals signified and he started to cry. Mrs. Erickson said, “Now, now Charlie. Hams don’t cry. We must be strong. You know, I spoke with your parents after the Marines told me about John and they said it would be OK with them for me to do this. Since John won’t be needing his ham station any longer, I want you to have it. I know that he would want that too.”

Charlie didn’t say anything. Mrs. Erickson, holding back her own tears, asked, “Are you all right, Charlie?” Charlie was stunned but quickly regained himself. “Oh yes, Mrs. Erickson. But, I don’t know what to say. Thank you very much. I surely will put it on the air after I get my license.” Mrs. Erickson added, “I have just one request. Take that money that you saved up for a radio and put it into your savings account for college.

No spending it on ham radio stuff. Do you promise?” Charlie couldn’t help himself and chuckled, “Oh yes, I will. I promise.” “Thank you so very much but I wish that Mr. Erickson were here to get me started.” She replied in a soft whisper, about all she could manage, “So do I, dear. So do I and you are very welcome. May I please speak to your dad again?” He gave the phone to dad and fell into a chair, trying to absorb what she had done for him.

After saying good-bye and adding his thanks, dad asked Charlie how he felt. Charlie couldn’t put it into words but for a 12 year old, did pretty well. “uhh, I really don’t know what to say. That’s so kind of Mrs. Erickson. I’ll cut her lawn from now on and take out her trash and wash her windows and……” Dad stopped him, “Charlie, that’s very generous but I’m sure that Mrs. Erickson wouldn’t want or expect you to do all that, nor was it why she gave you her husband‘s equipment. She just would want you to be a normal good kid. OK?” Charlie nodded and thought about Mr. Erickson again. It’s so sad. A 12 year old hasn’t matured enough to fully appreciate the depth of the feelings that Mrs. Erickson must be feeling at this time. Maybe after losing her husband, she wants to see his love for ham radio continuing in the hands of a new and promising young neighbor. Possibly by having another ham in the neighborhood use his equipment, she can keep the memory of her husband a little longer. Possibly she simply wants to remove anything in the house as soon as possible that brings back memories that she may be trying to suppress. Maybe she is just realizing the new life that she must adjust to. We’ll never know. Regardless of the reasons, doing it will likely give her some positive relief as well as greatly encourage Charlie who is just starting out as a ham.

At that time, the FCC offered Class A, B and C licenses. Charlie felt confident that he could pass the Class B test after of course, he passed the Class C. But, being only 12 and obviously without a driver’s license or car, he had to find a way to get a ride to an FCC office. That was his greatest obstacle. This was decades before the FCC established the Volunteer Examiner program. The closest FCC office was 50 miles away and getting there became the objective for the following few months, because he had to get his license to get on the air.

Charlie had been studying regularly to take his Amateur test, 30 minutes at a time, and several times per day. He was sure he was ready to pass his test. He had been studying the code as well and practicing by sending on a home made key and buzzer. Getting a real receiver with a BFO in it was frankly, the primary reason that he wanted the new radio he had been saving to buy, so he could receive CW on the air. The code was not easy for him, which is most ironical in view of what he became as an adult ham. The problem was that he had no one to work with him, one to send to the other. Learning code when you’re alone was difficult but he managed to get his fairly solid and error free sending speed up to about 15 words per minute. But, how could he sure that he could receive that speed without someone else sending to him?

The following day was Saturday and Charlie’s Dad didn’t have to work on that particular day. It was morning and Charlie came down to the kitchen quite early, before 7AM. As he poured himself a bowl of corn flakes, his Dad joined him looking for a cup for his coffee. Among other things, Charlie asked his Dad if he could go to the funeral service for Mr. Erickson when they have it scheduled. That choked his Dad up but he eventually nodded and said, “we’ll all go, son even your little sister“. Charlie quietly finished his cereal and then Dad asked Charlie, “What do you think of going into the basement this morning and making some space behind the laundry room? Then, maybe we can start moving some of Mr. Erickson’s gear into it.”

That made Charlie quite happy and he headed for the basement door. He said, “I’ll meet you downstairs, Dad.” Charlie’s Dad just said, “OK, I’ll be there in a minute.” He sat and finished his coffee, spending a moment thinking what kind of person Charlie was all too quickly becoming. He was confident that the signs were good for him.

To borrow a description from the famous writer, Tom Wolfe, Charlie is definitely made of “The Right Stuff”.